Monday, September 01, 2008


A faithful reader of good taste and sense writes to ask "some serious theoretical questions" about the organization of books on the shelf:

How much should the 16th century be grouped with the 17th century or the 15th? E.g. Hooker, Coke, and King James, who span both, could be on the same shelf as Machiavelli, or as Hobbes and Locke. “Modernity” would then start either with Machiavelli or with the Reformation(s).

Does the eighteenth century end in 1804, when Napoleon is crowned Emperor, or in 1814, when he is finally defeated? It affects the shelf where Bentham is placed, and perhaps others. Fichte I’ve decided is on the nineteenth century section.

I’ve decide that the nineteenth century ends on 1914. I have made no distinction (forgivemerawls!) between pre- and post-1971 twentieth century theory.

I am ambivalent between universalizing American Political Thought (shelving by date) and particularizing it (by giving it its own section. Normatively, I prefer the former, but practically it may be better to have it all in one place. Tocqueville, in any case, is a nineteenth century Frenchman, not an American.

This is exactly my kind of thing-- I'm being asked to elevate my aesthetic preferences-- about books, no less!-- to the level of moral and historical truth. No better appeal to an academic's vanity than that!

And yet my answer is: that way lies madness. There is no truth of the matter here. Filing your personal library is a matter of making predictions about the thought patterns of your future self-- or an attempt to leave clues to that future self about what you did in the past. I've heard of people who shelve books by color (and people have defended it to me, using books that they and I easily know the color of-- "you'll never forget to look for Theory of Justice under blue!"). Seems silly to me, but by that I only mean "I'd be utterly failing my future self by doing that, because I know perfectly well that he won't remember stuff that way."

As for chronology, there's just no winning that game. We have too many works with uncertain dates of composition or publication. We have too many "collected political writings of X" that span decades overlapping in part the "collected political writings of Y." You don't want to split up a given author's works, but do you go chronologically by birthdate, by date of the the author's most important work, or what?

Now if the question were: design an ideal update of Dewey Decimal or LC for other book browsers, and put things into order, then maybe I'd go with a kind of chronology of clusters rather than a chronology of authors or (worse) a chronology of works. My clusters might go, in relevant part:

Thinkers of the Renaissance and Humanism (mainly Italian); thinkers of the Reformation; thinkers of the Counter-Reformation; thinkers associated with the English constitutional struggles up through and including the Civil War; [skipping some unasked-about steps] the French Enlightenment; the Scottish Enlightenment; the American Enlightenment, Revolution, and Founding; the French Revolution up to and including the complete Constant; the Revolution Debates in 1790s England; Kant and early Idealism; Romanticism; classical utilitarianism and classical political economy up to and including the younger Mill; Hegel and the Hegelians up to and including Marx...

But even in the course of writing that list, I've noticed a dozen problematic cases and weird outcomes of doing things that way. So after all, even that can claim no more merit than an attempt to out-think my future self: "If I were me-- and I will be-- where would-will I look for that book?" For my part, my opinion about when the French Revolution ended wouldn't affect where-when I think about Bentham; I put him mainly in a different story. I think of American 18th-century political thought as a story by itself-- but not one that stands apart from an otherwise-unified Plato-to-Rawls canon. It's no more distinct than any of the others partial stories.

I don't use that succession of clusters either, though. The demands I make on my future self are limited to these:

"Is the book pure academic history; positive law; or something else?"
"Is the book a secondary commentary on a primary canonical author named in the title?"
"If so, look alphabetically under the canonical author; if not, look alphabetically under the book's author?"

"Something else" includes all manner of social science, social theory, political theory, and the history of political thought-- so Arendt and Aristotle and Aron, Benhabib and Bentham and Berlin, Habermas and Hampshire and Hardin and Hart and Hayek, Machiavelli and Macintyre and Madison.

Unfortunately, playing the "what will I think then?" game doesn't do any good if what you will think then is "what's the truth of the matter about the era to which Bentham belongs?" But, just this once, I urge you to embrace subjectivism and relativism and reject realism-- if you reject realism forcefully enough now, perhaps you can reach across time and knock the unproductive "truth of the matter" thought right out of your future self's head.