Thursday, 27 January 2011

My Top 10 Greatest Short Philosophical Works

There has a lot been said, and many charts have been compiled about the top 10 and top 20 greatest philosophical works. But I thought it would be interesting to collate a top ten of short philosophical works. Graham Harman (see his blog on the side links 'object-oriented philosophy') has recently spoken extensively on the idea of the TOP 20 books, so I thought it would be interesting to give a brief justification of what makes a short work great and include my top ten. I think this would be good for you students as well since it offers you a great entry into philosophy, in a concise but by no means uncomplicated introduction to philosophy. I know that 'long' and 'short' can be fairly subjective, but we can think of a short work as in some way self-contained, for example, one of Montaigne’s essays, which could easily be placed in a larger collection. Also as a rule of thumb, we can say a short work, at the top end, could take you a day to read if you put your mind to it. But what makes a short work interesting? The first thing that springs to mind is precision, and I don’t necessarily mean in the analytical sense. These texts are precise in the sense that there is a lot going on in them which is expressed in the minimal amount of prose, dialogue or even poetry. These texts stylistically embody the universal in the particular. To my mind Plato''s Symposium despite its length is exceptionally rich, having infinitly more depth, truth and rigour than AJ Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic. Secondly, I think that short philosophical works can provide us with an interesting historical insight. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (around 10000 words which is less than a level three dissertation!) has a unique ability to make present its time, namely the urgencies, political malaise and anxieties of industrial Europe, much more I think say than ploughing through Das Kapital. Thirdly, I think that we do not have to think of a short work as necessarily a book. We could easily think of some of Leibniz’s letters to Arnauld has having a huge philosophical impact, or a collection of Marcus Aurelius' maxims. if we look at the letters, this is interesting because it gives an insight into the biography of the philosopher. If we think of philosophy in letters we can see the human behind the interlocutor, and can gain a sense of their lived debate. Fourthly, for philosophical reasons, short works are great because we can get a sense of what the philosopher thinks is most essential rather than just engaging in the finesse of arguments. This brings a dynamism to philosophy, which might be lost where one has the luxury of working out ones arguments over 800 pages!

All of these choices are of course arbitrary, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this, or a reminder of any omissions

So off the top of my head, and in no particular order:

Aristotle-De Anima
Plato – Phaedo (All of his short dialogues could be here but these are my favourites)
Plato – Symposium
Leibniz – Monadology
Hume – Autobiography
Kant – The Metaphysics of Morals
Nietzsche – On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life
Marx – The Communist Manifesto
Bergson – An Introduction to Metaphysics
Wittgenstein – Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus


  1. ruxandra eliza todosi28 January 2011 at 09:40

    just before reaching your 'human behind interlocutor' line, i thought of bringing nietzsche's 'on the uses and abuses of history for life' to the table. you beat me to it.
    very good text, honest, transparent, with no prolix embroideries.

    (thank you for not including hegel in your top ten, that was a relief.)

    how about schopenhauer's 'studies in pessimism' (and i'm particularly referring to the first two & seventh chapters)?
    not as a standpoint to adhere to, but rather as one worth deconstructing.

  2. I was tempted to do Hegel's introductary lectures on aesthetics, but Hegel isn't really good on short! Schopenhaeur was also a candidate. Some of his shorter stuff is terrific. Montaigne I think is notable absence as well.