U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Great Books Sensibility, Part I: Theory

In my prior work, the focus on Mortimer J. Adler and his community of discourse often elbowed out thoughts on how the great books idea “worked” in readers. The former group of intellectuals wrote so many books and articles, and their paper collections were so large, that I rarely had the time for ‘outside’ explorations. I never felt confident leaving them behind to explore the varieties of great books readers. I knew that a thorough discussion of those readers would require more time and evidence, as well as better theoretical tools, than I possessed. So I let them lie.

I worked instead on obtaining a full historical understanding of the great books idea from the perspective of its teachers and promoters. And of course this sets one up. My critics, and critics of intellectual history, could (and probably will) accuse me of a top-down approach. Frankly, I agree. Or at least I don’t disagree. Despite my strong internal compass for democratic thought and culture, I felt that the intentions and ideas of the great books idea’s promoter intellectuals had not been fully and sympathetically treated in the historiography. It seemed important to me to know, as thoroughly as possible, the top-down intellectual history first.

That work was rewarding. In the course of my now completed project (diss and book) I discovered, among some promoters, a more radical and diverse democratic project than I expected. Indeed, prominent great books advocates were not always ready to deal with the consequences of a radicalized great books idea. Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, John Erskine, Clifton Fadiman, Mark Van Doren, Stringfellow Barr, and Scott Buchanan believed that great books could uplift citizens in a deep way. But their limited contact with the non-college population—especially people of color—restricted their dreams of a democratic culture engaged by great books. That said, this top-down, non-organic approach was necessary heavy lifting.

I am now ready, however, to pick up the task of understanding the larger, more inclusive history of thought as it pertains to the great books idea. My leading hypothesis for that project is that great books readers acquire what I call ‘a great books sensibility’. With this phrase I am signaling a Jamesian-Febvrian-Wickbergian theoretical framework that attempts to balance the reflective with the affective.

A great books sensibility (GBS) encompasses “perception and feeling, the terms and forms in [or with] which objects were conceived, experienced, and represented”—in the past and present. It is inclusive of “the emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and moral dispositions of the persons” implicated in a great books sensibility.[1] A GBS is a way of seeing knowledge and its history. It is sometimes imaginative (springing from a certain structure of experience), and at other times concrete; it can be conscious and unconscious. Great books are used by these people to comprehend the surrounding environs, local or global. As Wickberg traced in his wonderful essay on “the history of sensibilities,” a sensibility can be associated “with refined feeling, discrimination, and taste.” That is clearly a part of the tradition of great books-based thinking. Indeed, much of the historiography around the great books idea is about matters of taste and discrimination (i.e. middlebrow culture). But the GBS I am outlining here, and the kind Wickberg outlined and for which he advocated, is much more “capacious.”[2]

The definite article ‘a’ in ‘a great books sensibility’ is important. There is no one, no singular, sensibility. As Wickberg noted of post-Victorian and pre-1960s artistic circles, a sensibility can imply “a kind of cultural pluralism.” This is the case with a GBS. While it is true that pre-1980s great books advocates most often fetishized Western thinkers and authors (as well as ‘whites’ and ‘men’), there is no essential spherical or continental limit on what can define a great books sensibility. And even a T.S. Eliot-inspired collective integration of ideas, emotions, cognition, and feeling can be capaciously constructed (i.e. it can be lower-case catholic). [3] Apart, moreover, from the variables of ‘book’ and ‘great’, there are permutations in the always slippery notion of ‘critical thinking’. Since most prior discussions of great books center on controversies about ‘greatness’ and which books may or may not belong on lists, I will focus here on various strands of thinking and feeling, or conceptions and perceptions, that might arise from a great books sensibility.

Great books-based critical thinking is covered in my prior work, both in The Dream of a Democratic Culture and some related articles. That style of thinking, I argue, is intimately connected with Adler’s How to Read a Book—both the 1940 edition and the 1972 revision with Charles Van Doren. That bestseller encouraged readers to think about long-form writing with specific criteria in mind: (a) thoroughly inspect the work, read from (b) the “whole to the parts” and from (c) the “parts to the whole,” and then (d) judge the work based on four criteria (is the author misinformed, uninformed, is the author’s argument incomplete, and/or is the author illogical?). Indeed, if any hegemonic approach to great books critical thinking ever existed, it probably came into being with HTRB in 1940, and existed through the 1980s. This was the approach invented (or at least first put into words) by Adler, and then evangelized by all of his community of discourse and many other thought circles. How to Read a Book was, then, something of a bible to those who bought into a great books sensibility.

Although that community’s beliefs and ideals about great books-based critical thinking are fairly clear, more components can be fleshed out. I will do that immediately below. More evidence is needed to know, in any complete sense, how great books critical thinking ‘works’ on the ground. But I’m going to hazard a few informed impressions based on my broad reading in the sources. In other words, these are the things I’ve seen, and would look for, in both historical and present-day studies of great books thinkers.

It is characteristic of great books-based critical thinking to be hyperaware of deeper ideas. A person with a great books sensibility will always read through, behind, and beneath the surface of a text to see (or imagine) deeper currents. This was promoted, and arose historically, in relation to Hutchins and Adler. They and their community forwarded both ‘the great conversation’ and ‘the great ideas’ (whether 102, more, or less) to evoke the depths of ideas. Both the ‘great ideas’ and ‘great conversation’ were sold, promoted, and believed in by mid-century great books promoters. Implicit in this is critical thinking as comparison and contrast. People with a great books sensibility are regularly (if not constantly) comparing present-day ideas and thinkers with the so-called greats. Implicit also is a strong awareness of the history of ideas. Seeing a ‘great conversation’ required that one have, consciously or not, some philosophy of history, particularly of the history of ideas.

As for approaches to ideas, while rationality is important to a GBS in that endeavor, it is not necessarily dominant. Wickberg reminded readers of William James’ notion of “the sentiment of rationality” (outlined in an 1882 essay), which implies reason without the same rising above emotion and attitudes. A GBS requires rationality and reason without believing that logic and syllogisms must dominate in thought. I am also sympathetic to James’ distinction (again, folded into the sensibility discussion by Wickberg) between “tender” and “tough”-minded thinkers, as outlined in Pragmatism (1907). The world of great ideas can be approached ‘tenderly’, meaning in a rationalistic fashion through principles and ideologies. That world can also be seen through ‘tough’ eyes—factually, empirically, and scientifically.[4] James apparently associates optimism with tender-mindedness, and skepticism and fatalism with tough-mindedness. I think I disagree, but I’ll merely note the Jamesian connection for now.

Great books thinkers also, of course, cite ‘big names’ as authorities and as inspiration. This brings to mind the notion of a ‘canon’. The thinkers in those great books become a lens, or a sieve, for those with a great books sensibility. On the latter, references to great books—of all types—dot their writings and speeches. More importantly, these works recur, multiple times in one piece and across the spectrum of productions. Not only do great books thinkers believe those works to be important to them, but they believe you want to see those major works in their writings. Great books become, then, a life-sustaining circle—sometimes closed and oppressive, other time enlightening and refreshing. This is, of course, how great books become markers of cultural literacy. If a population is large enough that a certain GBS becomes dominant, then outsides must obtain that literacy to also obtain cultural capital. No one will think you’re legit unless you cite Aristotle, Goethe, Cervantes, Woolf, or whoever. You’ll be ignored if you neglect or use those great authors incorrectly. In many ways this mimics disciplinary thinking in the academy.

Possession of a great books sensibility also involves degrees of imitation. Viewed negatively, a great books-based thinker simply mimics or parrots the ideas of others in a slavish fashion. That kind of thinker is uncreative and uninspired. They are conformist. In this sense great books thinkers are in no way part of a larger ‘liberal education’ project, as envisioned by mid-century promoters. Indeed, the conformity angle is how some historians (me included, to some extent) explain the affinity of Britannica’s set in the 1950s. But from another vantage point, thinker with a great books sensibility are properly respectful of high reason, nuance, and rigor. They realize the superiority of thought in the best books; they measure themselves positively against canonic authors. Imitation, in this instance, is flattery rather than a signal of mindless conformity. Readers use great books as platforms for related, if new, thinking. Indeed, they use great books to criticize other so-called great books.

Considered together, those components create a climate of intellectual surety, confidence, and safety. When one puts his or her GBS to use, he/she enter into a zone of legitimacy. You may not be considered an ‘intellectual’ but you’re safe for distribution and consumption. Otherwise your ‘production’ is potentially in error, or worse, just information. Possession of a GBS might not qualify you for the status of ‘public intellectual’, but it might make you a ‘thought leader’.

Future installments in this series will focus on practical historical examples of great books sensibilities, including analyses of the writings of Dorothy Day, Earl Shorris, and other “great books people” I’ve encountered in my research. – TL

[1] Daniel Wickberg, “What Is the History of Sensibilities? On Cultural Histories, Old and New,” American Historical Review 112, no. 3 (June 2007): 662, 669, 675. Wickberg argues that Richard Hofstadter, Jackson Lears, and David Brion Davis are practitioners, broadly speaking, in the sphere of the history of sensibilities.

[2] Ibid., 664-5.

[3] Ibid., 666-8.

[4] Ibid., 671, 676-7.

Post edited/updated: 4:12 pm CST

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, I really like this post. I’m looking forward to the sequels.

    I’m not entirely sure of your reading of Wickberg or James, but I need to let that go for now, because (no offense intended!) I’m in no mood to do a close re-reading of either text at present. But I wanted to at least register my sense(/ibility) of “hmmm, I need to mull that over.”

    A bit of anecdata: Adler’s book is often “assigned” by evangelical and, more specifically, fundamentalist church and parachurch Bible study groups. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary commended/recommended Adler’s book — he devotes some space to it in Living By the Book, which you can probably find at your local Christian bookstore. I have a friend who was in a Bible study group where both Hendricks and Adler’s texts were assigned as companion texts to whatever book(s) of the Bible the group was actually studying. These larger, organized Bible study groups/programs are always teaching “methodology” (in this case, principles of fundamentalist exegesis) while they are teaching “content” (interpreting particular books of the Bible). And of course, the church-based or interdenominational Bible study group together represent an enduring manifestation of the idea of “self culture” in America.

    My surmise — and I’m glad to chat with you more about this, backchannel — is that Adler’s book is regarded as an asset for Bible study primarily for those with more conservative/fundamentalist exegetical approaches, perhaps because of the particular way in which it regards texts (and, by implication, the Text).

    So among the places you might look for that Great Books sensibility, you might consider checking in with your local DTS-influenced or Willow-Creek-wannabe megachurches, with a complete slate of Bible study curricula for various ages/genders.

    And FFS, don’t anybody ask me how I know this crap.

    • LD: Thanks for the comment, and for the tip in the second-to-last paragraph.

      I am keenly aware of Evangelical (and Evangelical Catholic) intersections in relation to Adler’s work. However, in the case of HTRB (or HTRAB), I think the usage is probably, in the end, utilitarian. It’s part of the background for those folks, and not necessarily a carefully chosen methodological opposite of other “postmodern” guides to reading. In other words, they trust it because it’s older, not because it encapsulates a 100 percent safe way of reading texts. I mean, reading in the Adler/Van Doren style is by no means a safe way to obtain one, objective conclusion. In relation to your “anecdata” qualification, I’d like to know concretely how “often” it is assigned. I’m with you in that it’s happening and that it appeals to this group.

      Indeed, one of my larger, more ambitious dreams to is move my sense of this “great books sensibility” into the big data realm. I’d like to conduct a lot of oral histories and distribute many surveys to great books reading group members to both test my hypothesis and figure out all the permutations of this sensibility.

      In the meantime, future posts will offer some “proof” of this sensibility. But they will not be definitive. All I can say in the meantime is that this sensibility corresponds, in many ways, with the dreams of promoters documented in the book. They wanted an enlightened citizenry that would resist (or fight) anti-intellectualism and unreason, that valued education and the liberal arts, and took refuge in substantial debate. What they didn’t know, or see, was what I call “great books pluralism” or “great books multiculturalism.” – TL

  2. Very interesting. I’m looking forward to your account.

    I have a naive question about this. How was the sensibility policed? That is was it possible for a reader to get a reading wrong? Might the reader connect, say, Hume, with the wrong essential idea? Might the reader make the mistake of asserting that some text belonged in the canon (Mad Magazine) when it clearly did not (accruing to Adler)?

    Another way to put this is: what were the social (and intellectual) mechanisms carriers or the sensibility used to distinguish others with the sensibility from those who tried but simply got it wrong?

    • Jamie: This is a good and interesting question. The only possibility of policing would’ve come during what I posited as the HTRB hegemonic period. Direct policing then would’ve come from great books reading group facilitators, Great Books Foundation personnel, and teachers/professors that used HTRB in the classroom. After those groups, any “policing” would’ve indirect—i.e. deference to HTRB methods and the advice of Adler’s community of discourse. My overall sense of things, however, is that the story of “a great books sensibility” was more about voluntary adherence. But I’ll keep thinking about this power formulation. – TL

  3. Tim,

    I really appreciate the direction you’re taking this–both the effort to move to a more bottom-up history and your (in my mind correct) insistence that a Great Books Sensibility is about much more than taste and discrimination. I think it is unfortunate that so much of the literature on endeavors like Great Books rests on at least an implication of status anxiety or social climbing.

    Really looking forward to seeing your future posts on this!

    • Andrew: As I noted in the post, some of that past work on status anxiety, social climbing, and taste discrimination is legit. And I engage it, and in it, in my book. But, as you say, there’s (a lot) more to the story. I get at that those larger points in my book, though I do it through The Old-Time USIH Top-Down Approach (OT2DA, for short—we’ll see if that catches on). – TL

      • Sorry, my shorthand there got in the way of what I was trying to say. What I meant was that I feel that status anxiety and social climbing are treated as natural reflexes of a middlebrow readership, as intrinsic vulnerabilities and desires that savvy (though sometimes benign) cultural entrepreneurs learn to exploit. I’m just not sure that there is any more exploitation occurring in the middlebrow market than in any other market for cultural goods… anyway, that was what I meant by my comment, and I appreciate your pushing back on the lax way I made it initially.

      • No worries Andrew. No tweak was intended. I’m sure I just misread your comment.

        I agree with you that those who want to exploit markets in cultural goods are as likely to exploit high and low, not just the middle. Social climbing occurs in all classes, and can therefore be exploited by all kinds of savvy marketers. – TL

  4. Tim – I like the space you’re opening up here with some creative conceptualizing.

    You know, you might flesh this out further by drawing on “reception theory,” which of course Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen uses in American Nietzsche; and discussions of surface and symptomatic reading.

    I like the suggestion of an at least partial departure from status envy and imitative thinking, even if it falls short of the full Lemischean “bottom-up.”

    • Bill: Thanks. You’re right to remind me of Jennifer’s excellent appropriation of reception theory. As for meeting Lemischean bottom-up USIH standards, I’ll have to leave judgment to our Chief Objector. [I’m smiling as I type that, Jesse!] – TL

  5. Tim–
    Glad my article could be of help to you. Thanks! This sounds like a great project.

    • Dan: I expected some pushback—i.e. that I using your piece wrongly, misinterpreting, misreading, etc.! Don’t let me off too easy. – TL

  6. Thanks for this post Tim. The presentation of the Great Books might telegraph a certain elite, arty, status sensibility. It’s true of my house and true and many people I’ve known that along side the Great Books you had dog eared copies of Plato or Aristotle et. al. duplicates of what was in the series. The presentation made these books appear to be art displayed in the front room bookcase and certainly not to be handled while eating a bowl of cereal. Was there ever a paperback edition of the set? More affordable and approachable?

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul. Britannica never did offer a paperback version of its set. It did, however, in the 1970s reprint and repackage the “great ideas” (of the Syntopicon) in *The Great Treasury of Western Thought. Otherwise they figured the consumer would go with established publishers on various GBs authors/selections.

  7. Upon reflection, I don’t want to imply that hardback books are by definition unapproachable, that would be silly. But I’m asking, if reaching a greater audience was the main motivation why not a paperback edition?

    • I think the Britannica folks liked selling the permanence of hardback. Yes, the bindings were attractive, and the Franklin Library series (sold in the late 1970s and 1980s) were basically art. But the original intent was that the books should be lasting and durable. Plus, the paperback revolution was just coming into its own when the original set was sold in the 1950s. – TL

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