Gary Hartenburg: Don’t Ask Me How I Know Which Books Are Great

The dispute about why great books are great cannot be settled unless we have a way to decide which books are great. But we will not have a way to decide which specific books are great until we are able to explain why the great books are great. You see the unfortunate situation we seem to be in.

One response to this situation is skepticism: there is no such thing as a great book or, if there is, we cannot know which books are great. Another response is fanaticism: I have my favorite book (Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws) and you have yours (Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), just like I cheer for the glorious Detroit Tigers and you for the loathsome Chicago White Sox. As appealing as these two responses might seem, both are unjustified and tend to make us lazy, though there isn’t space here to explore why.

Fortunately, fanaticism and skepticism are not our last hopes—there is another, more promising, pair of responses. One has come to be known in the history of philosophy as particularism, and the other as methodism or generalism. (This methodism has nothing to do with the Christian denomination associated with John Wesley.) The particularist holds that the first sentence of this essay is false: It is not true that we cannot decide which books are great without a way or method or criterion for making that decision. In fact, the best way to decide which books are great is to examine each book to discern whether it is great. The methodist holds the opposite view— namely, that the second sentence in this essay is false: We do not have to know which particular books are great in order to explain what makes the great books great. What we need above all is a method or set of criteria to judge the individual books by—for example, whether they are beautiful, good, and influential, or written by a certain sort of author. With criteria in hand, we can examine the candidates for great books and determine whether they meet the standards.

Consider Homer’s Iliad (and put aside questions of whether the Iliad counts as a book). In assessing whether the Iliad is a great book, the particularist starts by examining the poem itself, reading it in Greek, of course, and discerning thereby whether it is a great book. This is not to say that the particularist ignores what others have said about the Iliad. Careful study of the poem will of necessity require that the scholar understand what others, living and dead, have written about Homer’s work. Nor does it mean that the particularist pays no attention to other works, either by Homer or other authors, for comparing one thing to another often reveals things about the works being studied.

Suppose that after careful study of the Iliad, our particularist renders a judgment: “It is a great book.” The methodist—and perhaps you, dear reader, with your methodist sensibilities, too— objects to this judgment. After all, how does Professor Particularist know that the Iliad is a great book? By what standard is this judgment being made? What method has been followed to arrive at this conclusion?

The particularist is unmoved by this objection and points out a prejudice for methodism in these questions: How do I know the Iliad is a great book? How? Asking how I know something assumes that if I know something I must be able to give an account of how I know it, but that assumption is itself questionable, as the philosopher Spinoza noted in one of his (possibly) great books: “in order to know, there is no need to know that we know, much less to know that we know that we know.” (The particularist might also mention that asking how I know implicitly acknowledges that I know that the Iliad is a great book!)

Having pointed out the prejudice for methodism contained in “How do you know?,” the particularist presses the point by asking by what method the methodist decided that methodism itself is the best way to categorize books as great or not great. But if the methodist did not have a method for adopting methodism, then his methodism is self-defeating because it did not adhere to its own standard.

Thus, the particularist response to the situation described at the outset is that we merely seem to be in an unfortunate situation. The truth is that we can know which books are great, and we need not have an explanation of why they are great in order to know that any particular book is great. This is not to say that the great books do not share a number of qualities in common, but what they share in common will not be the basis for knowing that a book is great. The commonalities will be instead what we discover after a number of great books have been discerned by those well-suited to do so. While it may be true that all great books thus far have been found to be, say, beautiful and good and influential, our knowledge that a book is great is not based on its meeting those criteria.

Because the particularist position depends on careful reading and study of individual books in order to discern their qualities, it is humanly impossible that one person will be able to say that she knows on the basis of her own study all the books that are great. If we are to compile a list of great books, it must be a collective endeavor with some readers informing us about certain books and others about others. Such a compilation will be not only a collective enterprise but also an ongoing, open-ended one because there are so many candidate books to consider but not, for what it’s worth, because we cannot agree on the criteria for what makes a great book great.

Gary Hartenburg, PhD
is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Honors College at Houston Christian University, and the author of Aristotle: Education for Virtue and Leisure, available from Classical Academic Press.

Dr. Gary Hartenburg
Director, The Honors College
Houston Christian University

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