My Top 12 Favorite Philosophical Works of the 20th Century
By John David Ebert
1. The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler (1918-1924): A little known and rarely discussed fact is that Heidegger, in his early lectures, read Spengler and was clearly both concerned and worried about the implications of his ideas. Spengler also seems to have been instrumental in the creation of Heidegger’s idea of Dasein, since he, too, uses the word, but in a different, more vitalistic-Romantic way. In Spengler, Dasein, or Being, is opposed to Wachsein, or Waking Being, as instinct is opposed to intellect. World civilizations are unfoldings of Dasein, or Being, by supra-rational entelechies that function like cultural monads which unfold their life cycles deterministically from within. Though history appears to be a mess, Spengler saw that it was ordered by these 8 great civilizations, each of which irrefutably underwent a process of form-evolution that involved the birth of a particular Dasein, its growth and attainment of cultural maturity through a mastery of the arts, followed by a subsequent loss of such ability and decline into historical senescence and cultural irrelevance. The most sobering part of Spengler’s theory, every part of which seems to be daily confirmed by one or another new headline, is that we in the West have passed the moment of our Greek-like mastery of art and culture and have entered a Roman-like period of militarism and empire with its attendant lack of competence in the arts. The shifting from metaphysical concerns in philosophy to economic-pragmatic concerns is symptomatic.
2. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1927): It’s become a bit of a cliche to cite this book, but there’s no getting around it: Heidegger almost single-handedly altered the entire thoughtscape of the subsequent unfolding of 20th century thought and this is his best, or at least, his most famous work. It is impossibly difficult to read for a first-timer, who is better advised to begin, as I did, by reading Heidegger’s early lectures, especially The History of the Concept of Time which is basically a dress rehearsal for the book. Heidegger in this book takes the subject-object dichotomy that has marred the history of philosophy since Descartes by pointing out that the cogito is tantamount to a dehistoricizing of the “I,” that is, a removal of the subject to some “objective” and non-existent thought sphere in which he floats like a discarnate entity, deworlded and shorn of cultural context. Those cultural contexts were originally termed by Heidegger in his early lectures Daseins, but he later somewhat changed the concept to cover the idea of human-existence-in-the-world-as such as opposed to other types of mentalities. He eliminated the subject-object dicothomy by embedding the “I” in a specific life world in which he is always already doing things and is engaged in goal-oriented tasks. He is “thrown” into a certain historical circumstance, and anxiety about death characterizes him all the way.
3. Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford (1934) For the pre-WWII American contribution to the noosphere, I think we have to single out Lewis Mumford, a nowadays little read American cultural genius who was one of the first to fathom the implications of the technological hi-jacking of the planet by industrial civilization. His book on technology comes just after Spengler’s short but dense Man and Technics, which was one of the first great works of theory to fathom the coming failure of industrial civilization to interface with the biosphere, a failure that is becoming more and more apparent to us today. Mumford’s book is larger, however, and more carefully thought out. He divides the technological history of the West into three epochs: the Eotechnic, which is the age beginning with the advent of the mechanical clock by Gothic monks in the thirteenth century and extending down to about the eighteenth, whereupon, with the Paleotechnic, the motive forces of wind, water and wood which had guided the Eotechnic gave way to coal and steam as the motive powers and also the industrial poisoning of the biosphere with carbon outgassing. With the Neotechnic that begins with the advent in the late nineteenth century of technologies based upon the manipulation of electricity, mechanics gives way to electrodynamics and the birth of a new technical horizon. Mumford was very pessimistic about contemporary civilization: indeed, he had read Spengler and had a sober assessment of its inevitable destiny of collapse and disintegration. Also, like Spengler, Mumford detested Modern Art and modernity in general, but no one was ever as eloquent about the problems and cultural issues raised by technology as he. He is, indeed, one of the few American philosophers which European thinkers have bothered to read and cite, for his influence on Deleuze and Guattari, and to some extent, Baudrillard, was definite.
4. The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin (1935ish): Though this book was technically not published until 1982 in German, Benjamin worked on it through the entire decade of the 1930s up until his death in 1940. It is a bizarre book, one of the strangest ever written: it is a mammoth tome composed of scattered thoughts and reflections about the emergence of the lineaments of popular culture in nineteenth century Paris. It is, in many ways, the first media studies book; Benjamin was one of the first to take popular culture seriously as a subject for intellectual discourse. The book is itself arranged like an arcade: hallway after hallway of aphorisms, quotes and reflections of the dreamlike nature of capitalism and its strange new world of bread and circuses. Few people nowadays have the attention span to read through it, but it is a sort of ramshackle masterpiece with aphorisms on pop culture that already look ahead to those of McLuhan.
5. The Ever-Present Origin by Jean Gebser (1949): Gebser, like Heidegger, was influenced by his reading of Spengler, but his response was totally different. Whereas Heidegger proceeded with the End of Metaphysics, Jean Gebser built a new theory of the evolution of human consciousness constructed out of a sequence of structures of thought, mainly inspired by the Hindu analysis of consciousness in the Upanishads as a cycle that moves daily from dreamless sleep, to dreaming sleep to waking consciousness. Thus, in Gebser, the ancient Magical Consciousness Structure of oral and pre-literate tribal societies, with its unitary conception of the world, and its frank belief in the reality of the paranormal, corresponds to dreamless sleep; the Mythical Consciousness Structure that emerges with writing and High Civilization, with dreaming consciousness; and the Mental Consciousness Structure that begins with the Greeks, with Waking Consciousness. Gebser adds to these the Integral Consciousness Structure that he saw coming into being in the late nineteenth century: in fact, precisely where Spengler saw a decline of culture in the nineteenth century, Gebser saw the advent of a new consciousness structure, one that took up and relativized all the earlier structures. From Gebser’s point of view, Spengler’s book is really about the decline and disintegration of the Mental (a.k.a. Perspectival) Consciousness Structure; Spengler missed the significance of the Integral structure that is the organizing force behind the entire Modernist development in the arts and the sciences which transcends, but includes all the others.
6. History of Madness by Michel Foucault (1961): This is my favorite work by Foucault (the unabridged edition, that is), a long rambling excursion into the evolution of the idea of madness in Western civilization. Foucault shows how there is no such thing as “madness” per se; only culturally created ideas of sanity vs. insanity, depending upon the particular cultural episteme of the time. The lepers of the Medieval Age disappear and give way to the drifting Ship of Fools, real ships containing madmen that were sent floating off from European town to town during the time of the Renaissance. In these days, the mad were regarded as possessors of a higher wisdom: the Fool in King Lear contains all the great insights into what is going on, and the title of Erasmus’ book In Praise of Folly says it all. But with the advent of rationalism in the seventeenth century, the Great Confinement took place, and institutions of confinement began springing up all over Europe, institutions in which the insane, the indigent, the crippled and the criminal were all thrown in together as the socially undesirable. Foucault is interested in analyzing how those in power determine who belongs to a social configuration and who is excluded and why. It is essential reading.
7. Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan (1964): For post war American theoreticians, there is no comparison to McLuhan. His insights were so fundamental that they helped change the course of French po-mo philosophy: Baudrillard would not be Baudrillard without his reading of McLuhan, and the same goes for thinkers like Paul Virilio, Deleuze and others. In this book, McLuhan, having read and absorbed Mumford, theorized for the first time in intellectual history not so much about technology as such, but specifically about media of communication, due largely to his reading of the books of Harold Innis, technically the first to theorize that media of communication are shaping forces in the thought-scapes of civilizations. McLuhan, however, though technically an academic like Innis, was in spirit no academic at all, but a visionary thinker, a sort of prose poet: reading him is an experience closer to reading Nietzsche or Schopenhauer than it is to literary criticism, which is what McLuhan started out doing. But under the influence of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, McLuhan’s word wizardy kicked in, and his aphoristic style of presenting incredibly complex insights in just a few words is second only to Nietzsche. People, in fact, still get McLuhan wrong and think that the phrase “the medium is the message” is just window dressing: they’re wrong. The medium is everything, and determines the content of what flows through it. There is no such thing, for instance, as intelligent, reasoned discourse on television, despite the wonderful attempts of people like Dick Cavett and Bill Moyers to make intellect work through light speed technologies. The attention span is too short, however, to keep the viewer watching, and so complex thoughts must be boiled down to sound bites–as McLuhan, in fact, had a genius for doing, which is why he played so well on TV talk shows–in order to make them work at all. The Internet, too, McLuhan would have pointed out, is absolutely antithetical to the intellect and is currently the sole and single force responsible for destroying the entire mediascape of the Gutenberg Galaxy more thoroughly than television ever could have done.
8. A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1980): Slavoj Zizek insists throughout his writing that Deleuze’s collaborations with Guattari are actually his weaker books, but I beg to differ: all of them are fantastic. This book, in particular, is a dazzling work of postmodern genius, filled with a landslide of concepts and great ideas. If philosophy, as Deleuze says, is all about the creation of new concepts, then this book is a work of philosophy par excellence: the Body Without Organs is here, fully worked out; the famous treatise on Nomadology also; the idea of rhizomatic structures of thought and culture as opposed to those of the arborescent, or hierarchical type; the author as a subject of enunciation, or mouthpiece of a collectivity rather than as creator; the intersection of art, music, science and philosophy. The book’s worldview is quite compatible with the self-organizing systems of chaos theory, a great deal of which was worked out in France with Rene Thom and others, and D&G were clearly familiar with their ideas. The elimination of chapters and chronology in favor of “plateaus,” in which tension fields of ideas ramify and explode in all directions, is brilliant. This is a work of genius: my favorite work of postmodern philosophy, in fact, and a testament against the cliche that postmodern thought is bereft of fresh ideas. On the contrary, as Deleuze and Guattari reveal, it is the only source of new ones.
9. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard (1981): This book is as small and concisely written as D&G’s is epic and mammoth in scale and scope. But the prose is dazzling, and it is really the first work to pick up from where McLuhan left off and to point out that our contemporary postmodern culture is, like Seinfeld, a show about nothing. Behind the sensory overload of the viral profusion of images all around us, we are really trying to conceal and cover up the fact that we no longer believe in anything and that behind all these images, there is nothing, nothing at all. Images, in other words, especially electronic ones, have actually replaced the ontological status once occupied by the ideas of metaphysical realities underlying this one. Instead, hyperreality is the New Beyond, and it is a Beyond that is utterly meaningless, beyond the mere repetition and profusion of its own images. We are engaged, according to Baudrillard, in a vast attempt to replace reality with a gigantic simulacrum: a soundstage of phenomenal reality in which, for the first time, noumena have ceased to exist and are no longer postulated behind, beyond or within it. The telos of postmodernity is to produce images virally; and the primary struggle is against a form of Evil which Baudrillard simply defines as that which resists the smooth functioning of any system whatsoever. Cancer and AIDS resists the smooth functioning of the immune system; terrorism attempts to disrupt the flow of globalization; and so forth. Nobody writes with the kind of smooth, espresso-style prose of Baudrillard, with the concision of writing and brilliance of metaphor and image that is his forte.
10. Being and Event by Alain Badiou (1988): This is the central theoretical vision in Badiou’s oeuvre and it makes for forbiddingly technical reading, especially to the mathematical outsider, as I am. However, the core of the idea is astonishingly simple: Events create subjects. In response to Deleuze and Foucault’s annihilation of the human subject, Badiou attempts to restore him to a position of centrality by claiming that a human subject — as opposed to the mere animal human — is created when that subject becomes faithful to a Truth Event. Such events are not just any happenings, but moments of cultural singularities at the inception of a religion, say, or a new art movement or a major development in mathematics. Thus, there is the Christ Event; the Cantor event of set theory; the Haydn event of the invention of the classical style in music; the historical event of the French Revolution, etc. These events enter into banal situations as unmapped novelties, or singularities, which are then taken into account, much as are anomalies in Thomas Kuhn’s ‘revolutionary science,’ as belonging to the ’situation.’ The world, according to Badiou, is a series of situations, mostly banal, that are ruptured and broken by the sudden discontinuities configured by events. It is the maintaining of fidelity to such an event that creates the human being as a subject, especially when such events — and these events can be personal, too, such as a love affair — are tested and questioned and the individual’s fidelity is shaken by such tests. It is up to the individual, however, to maintain the reality of these truth events by remaining unshakeably faithful to them. The reader is advised to start with Badiou’s book Ethics, which gives a non-mathematical version of his event theory, before attempting his magnum opus.
11. Paul Virilio’s Oeuvre: The reason I have not listed any single book by Virilio is that he has not written any masterpieces, for each of his books are short and direct analyses of cultural phenomena. Rather, it is his entire body of work taken as a whole — somewhat like Baudrillard in this sense — that constitutes a magnum opus, especially his books of the 1990s. Virilio is one of the few French po-mo theoreticians to be uninterested in Marxism, for he is of a Christian background, and his writings constitute a sustained and profound meditation, like McLuhan’s and Mumford’s, of the damaging effects on culture of human technological development. Virilio, for instance, sees the engulfing of the world by electronic technologies of real time, in which everything happens now on a global scale, to be anathema to the old-fashioned idea of things happening in deferred time, in which a mental horizon exists in which thinking has time to process events and reflect upon them eloquently in the writing of books. Now, today, there is no longer time to process events: they simply happen with catastrophic speed. Virilio invented the science of what he calls ‘dromology,’ or the study of speed and its effects on civilization. The faster a society moves, the greater the likelihood that catastrophes will occur. Hence, Virilio’s fascination with accidents and catastrophes which led him to the formulation of the theory of the inevitable Integral Accident: one day, he says, as a result of globalization, the world will suffer the first planetary-scale accident which will involve a catastrophe affecting all its systems simultaneously. That hasn’t happened yet, but one can sense that Virilio is probably right here and that it is only a matter of time before this global integral accident takes place. Virilio’s work should be studied by anyone with an interest in the problems raised by contemporary technologies.
12. Spheres by Peter Sloterdijk (1998): This is really a trilogy, of which the first book, Bubbles, came out in 1998. It is a massive and in some respects, old-fashioned attempt to work out a gigantic theory of what Sloterdijk calls “macrospheres,” or cultural containers as extensions of the immune system. Metaphysics, as Sloterdijk says, is rooted in immunology: cultures which suffer a rupture of their spheres, as ours did in the seventeenth century when the crystalline spheres of the ancients were shattered with Copernicus, Kepler, et. al., spiral into anxiety, breakdown and worry. It is no accident, as he says, that Western civilization, one of the first societies to operate without a containing macrosphere, proceeded to create a global industrial technology that created a new gaseous greenhouse as a spherical replacement, a greenhouse that is currently threatening life on the entire planet. In some respects, Sloterdijk’s work is an attempt to bridge the gap between the German pre-WWII macronarrative a la Spengler and Heidegger and French post-modern philosophy, which was based almost entirely on an attempt to deny the validity of such all-encompassing narratives. Sloterdijk is a master of both spheres of discourse, and his work is a sustained attempt to bridge old-fashioned culture morphological concerns with current French theoretical ones.