The original editors had three criteria for including a book in the series: the book must be relevant to contemporary matters, and not only important in its historical context; it must be rewarding to re-read; and it must be a part of "the great conversation about the great ideas", relevant to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas identified by the editors. The books were not chosen on the basis of ethnic and cultural inclusiveness, historical influence, or the editors' agreement with the views expressed by the authors.
A second edition was published in 1990 in 60 volumes. Some translations were updated, some works were removed, and there were significant additions from the 20th century.
The project for the Great Books of the Western World began at the University of Chicago, where the president, Robert Hutchins, collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course—generally aimed at businesspeople—for the purpose of filling the gaps in their liberal education; to render the reader as an intellectually rounded man or woman familiar with the Great Books of the Western canon, and knowledgeable of the great ideas developed in the course of three millennia. An original student of the project was William Benton (later a U.S. senator, and then chief executive officer of the Encyclopædia Britannica publishing company) who proposed selecting the greatest books of the Western canon, and that Hutchins and Adler produce unabridged editions for publication, by Encyclopædia Britannica. Hutchins was at first wary of the idea, fearing that commodifying the books would devalue them as cultural artefacts; nevertheless, he agreed to the business deal and was paid $60,000 for his work on the project.
After deciding what subjects and authors to include, and how to present the materials, the project was begun, with a budget of $2,000,000. On April 15, 1952, the Great Books of the Western World were presented at a publication party in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York City. In his speech, Hutchins said, "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind." The first two sets of books were given to Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, and to Harry S. Truman, the incumbent U.S. President.
The initial sales of the book sets were poor, with only 1,863 sets sold in 1952, and less than one-tenth of that number of book sets were sold in 1953. A financial debacle loomed until Encyclopædia Britannica altered the sales strategy, and sold the book set through experienced door-to-door encyclopædia-salesmen, as Hutchins had feared; but, through that method, 50,000 sets were sold in 1961. In 1963 the editors published Gateway to the Great Books, a ten-volume set of readings meant to introduce the authors and the subjects of the Great Books. Each year, from 1961 to 1998, the editors published The Great Ideas Today, an annual updating about the applicability of the Great Books to contemporary life. The Internet and the E-book reader have made available some of the Great Books of the Western World in an on-line format.
Originally published in 54 volumes, The Great Books of the Western World covers categories including fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics. Hutchins wrote the first volume, titled The Great Conversation, as an introduction and discourse on liberal education. Adler sponsored the next two volumes, "The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon", as a way of emphasizing the unity of the set and, by extension, of Western thought in general. A team of indexers spent months compiling references to such topics as "Man's freedom in relation to the will of God" and "The denial of void or vacuum in favor of a plenum". They grouped the topics into 102 chapters, for which Adler wrote 102 introductions. Four colors identify each volume by subject area—Imaginative Literature, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences, History and Social Science, and Philosophy and Theology. The volumes contained the following works:
- Syntopicon I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love
- Syntopicon II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World
- Aeschylus (translated into English verse by G.M. Cookson)
- Sophocles (translated into English prose by Sir Richard C. Jebb)
- Euripides (translated into English prose by Edward P. Coleridge)
- Aristophanes (translated into English verse by Benjamin Bickley Rogers)
- The Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements
- Apollonius of Perga
- Nicomachus of Gerasa
- Marcus Aurelius
- P. Cornelius Tacitus (translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb)
- Nicolaus Copernicus
- Johannes Kepler (translated by Charles Glenn Wallis)
- Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (Books IV–V)
- The Harmonies of the World (Book V)
- Thomas Aquinas
- Thomas Aquinas
- William Shakespeare
- The First Part of King Henry the Sixth
- The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth
- The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth
- The Tragedy of Richard the Third
- The Comedy of Errors
- Titus Andronicus
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- Love's Labour's Lost
- Romeo and Juliet
- The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
- The Life and Death of King John
- The Merchant of Venice
- The First Part of King Henry the Fourth
- The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth
- Much Ado About Nothing
- The Life of King Henry the Fifth
- Julius Caesar
- As You Like It
- William Shakespeare
- Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
- The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- Troilus and Cressida
- All's Well That Ends Well
- Measure for Measure
- Othello, the Moor of Venice
- King Lear
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Timon of Athens
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- The Winter's Tale
- The Tempest
- The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth
- William Gilbert
- Galileo Galilei
- William Harvey
- On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals
- On the Circulation of Blood
- On the Generation of Animals
- René Descartes
- Benedict de Spinoza
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Christian Huygens
- John Locke
- George Berkeley
- David Hume
- Jonathan Swift
- Laurence Sterne
- Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
- Jean Jacques Rousseau
- Immanuel Kant
- Critique of Pure Reason
- Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
- Critique of Practical Reason
- Excerpts from The Metaphysics of Morals
- Preface and Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics with a note on Conscience
- General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals
- The Science of Right
- The Critique of Judgement
- American State Papers
- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
- John Stuart Mill
- Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
- Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier
- Analytical Theory of Heat
- Michael Faraday
- Experimental Researches in Electricity
- Charles Darwin
- Sigmund Freud
- The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis
- Selected Papers on Hysteria
- The Sexual Enlightenment of Children
- The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy
- Observations on "Wild" Psycho-Analysis
- The Interpretation of Dreams
- On Narcissism
- Instincts and Their Vicissitudes
- The Unconscious
- A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis
- Beyond the Pleasure Principle
- Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
- The Ego and the Id
- Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety
- Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
- Civilization and Its Discontents
- New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
The second edition of Great Books of the Western World, 1990, saw an increase from 54 to 60 volumes, with updated translations. The six new volumes concerned the 20th century, an era of which the first edition's sole representative was Freud. Some of the other volumes were re-arranged, with even more pre-20th century material added but with four texts deleted: Apollonius' On Conic Sections, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Joseph Fourier's Analytical Theory of Heat. Adler later expressed regret about dropping On Conic Sections and Tom Jones. Adler also voiced disagreement with the addition of Voltaire's Candide, and said that the Syntopicon should have included references to the Koran. He addressed criticisms that the set was too heavily Western European and did not adequately represent women and minority authors. Four women authors were included, where previously there were none.
The added pre-20th century texts appear in these volumes (some of the accompanying content of these volumes differs from the first edition volume of that number):
- Jean Racine
The contents of the six volumes of added 20th-century material:
- William James
- Henri Bergson
- John Dewey
- Alfred North Whitehead
- Science and the Modern World
- Bertrand Russell
- Martin Heidegger
- What Is Metaphysics?
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Karl Barth
- The Word of God and the Word of Man
- Henri Poincaré
- Science and Hypothesis
- Max Planck
- Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
- Alfred North Whitehead
- An Introduction to Mathematics
- Albert Einstein
- Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
- Arthur Eddington
- The Expanding Universe
- Niels Bohr
- Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (selections)
- Discussion with Einstein on Epistemology
- G. H. Hardy
- Werner Heisenberg
- Physics and Philosophy
- Erwin Schrödinger
- Theodosius Dobzhansky
- C. H. Waddington
- The Nature of Life
- Thorstein Veblen
- R. H. Tawney
- The Acquisitive Society
- John Maynard Keynes
- Sir James George Frazer
- The Golden Bough (selections)
- Max Weber
- Essays in Sociology (selections)
- Johan Huizinga
- Claude Lévi-Strauss
- Structural Anthropology (selections)
- Henry James
- George Bernard Shaw
- Joseph Conrad
- Anton Chekhov
- Luigi Pirandello
- Marcel Proust
- Willa Cather
- Thomas Mann
- James Joyce
- Virginia Woolf
- Franz Kafka
- D. H. Lawrence
- T. S. Eliot
- Eugene O'Neill
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- William Faulkner
- Bertolt Brecht
- Ernest Hemingway
- George Orwell
- Samuel Beckett
Criticisms and responses
The choice of authors has come under attack, with some dismissing the project as a celebration of European males, ignoring contributions of women and non-European authors. The criticism swelled in tandem with the feminist and civil rights movements. Similarly, in his Europe: A History, Norman Davies criticizes the compilation for overrepresenting selected parts of the western world, especially Britain and the U.S., while ignoring the other, particularly Central and Eastern Europe. According to his calculation, in 151 authors included in both editions, there are 49 English or American authors, 27 Frenchmen, 20 Germans, 15 ancient Greeks, 9 ancient Romans, 4 Russians, 4 Scandinavians, 3 Spaniards, 3 Italians, 3 Irishmen, 3 Scots, and 3 Eastern Europeans. Prejudices and preferences, he concludes, are self-evident.
In response, such criticisms have been derided as ad hominem and biased in themselves. The counter-argument maintains that such criticisms discount the importance of books solely because of generic, imprecise and possibly irrelevant characteristics of the books' authors, rather than because of the content of the books themselves.
Others thought that while the selected authors were worthy, too much emphasis was placed on the complete works of a single author rather than a wider selection of authors and representative works (for instance, all of Shakespeare's plays are included). The second edition of the set already contained 130 authors and 517 individual works. The editors point out that the guides to additional reading for each topic in the Syntopicon refer the interested reader to many more authors.
The scientific and mathematical selections came under criticism for being incomprehensible to the average reader, especially with the absence of any sort of critical apparatus. The second edition did drop two scientific works, by Apollonius and Fourier, in part because of their perceived difficulty for the average reader. Nevertheless, the editors steadfastly maintain that average readers are capable of understanding far more than the critics deem possible. Robert Hutchins stated this view in the introduction to the first edition:
- Because the great bulk of mankind have never had the chance to get a liberal education, it cannot be "proved" that they can get it. Neither can it be "proved" that they cannot. The statement of the ideal, however, is of value in indicating the direction that education should take.
Since the great majority of the works were still in print, one critic noted that the company could have saved two million dollars and simply written a list. Encyclopædia Britannica's aggressive promotion produced solid sales. Dense formatting also did not help readability.
The second edition selected translations that were generally considered an improvement, though the cramped typography remained. Through reading plans and the Syntopicon, the editors have attempted to guide readers through the set.
Response to criticisms
The editors responded that the set contains wide-ranging debates representing many viewpoints on significant issues, not a monolithic school of thought. Mortimer Adler argued in the introduction to the second edition:
- Presenting a wide variety and divergence of views or opinions, among which there is likely to be some truth but also much more error, the Syntopicon [and by extension the larger set itself] invites readers to think for themselves and make up their own minds on every topic under consideration.
- "Selecting Works for the 1990 Edition of the Great Books of the Western World", Dr. Mortimer Adler
- Milton Meyer (1993). "Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir". University of California Press. Retrieved 2007-05-30. This biography of Robert M. Hutchins contains an extensive discussion of the Great Books project.
- Carrie Golus (2002-07-11). "Special Collections tells the story of a cornerstone of American education". The University of Chicago Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
- "Great Books of the Western World (eBooks @ University of Adelaide)". University of Adelaide. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
- Venant, Elizabeth (3 December 1990). "A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground". The Los Angeles Times.
- McDowell, Edwin (October 25, 1990). "'Great Books' Takes In Moderns and Women". The New York Times. Retrieved October 3, 2019.
- Sabrina Walters (2001-07-01). "Great Books won Adler fame, scorn". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2007-07-01.
- Peter Temes (2001-07-03). "Death of a Great Reader and Philosopher". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2007-11-04. Retrieved 2007-07-11.
- Berlau, John (August 2001). "What Happened to the Great Ideas? – Mortimer J. Adler's Great Books programs". Insight Magazine Insight on the News. 17 (32): 16. Archived from the original on 2014-03-13. Retrieved March 2014.
Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates blasted the Great Books for showing 'profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color—red, brown or yellow.'Check date values in:
- Mortimer Adler (September 1997). "Selecting works for the 1990 edition of Great Books of the Western World". Great Books Index. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process.
- Mortimer J. Adler (1990). "Bibliography of Additional Readings". The Syntopicon: II. Great Books of the Western World, vol. 1–2 (2nd ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. pp. 909–996. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.
- Robert M. Hutchins (1952). "Chapter VI: Education for All". The Great Conversation. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. p. 44.
- Macdonald, Dwight. "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club". 29 November 1952 with later appendix. The New Yorker. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
I also wonder how many of the over 100,000 customers who have by now caved in under the pressure of Mr. Harden and his banner-bearing colleagues are doing much browsing in these upland pastures?
- Mortimer J. Adler (1990). The Great Conversation (2nd ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. pp. 33–34 for discussion of new translations, pp. 74–98 for reading plans and guides. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.
- Mortimer J. Adler (1990). "Section 1: The Great Books and the Great Ideas". The Great Conversation (2nd ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. p. 27. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.