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Towards a Definition

There has been an ongoing, intensely political debate over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s. In the USA, in particular, it has been attacked as a compendium of books written mainly by "dead white European males", that thus do not represent the viewpoints of many others in contemporary societies around the world.

Others, notably Allan Bloom in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, have disagreed strongly. Authors such as Yale Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom (no relation to Allan) have also argued strongly in favor of the canon, and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in most institutions, though its implications continue to be debated heavily.

Defenders maintain that those who undermine the canon do so out of primarily political interests, and that the measure of quality represented by the works of the canon is of an aesthetic rather than political nature. Thus, any political objections aimed at the canon are ultimately irrelevant.

One of the main objections to a canon of literature is the question of authority—who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching?

The origins of the word "West" in terms of geopolitical boundaries started in the 1800s. Prior to this, most people would have thoughts about different nations, languages, individuals, and geographical regions, but with no idea of "Western" nations as we know it today.

Many world maps were so crude, inaccurate, and not well known before the 1800s that specific geographical and political differences would be harder to measure. Few would have access to good maps and even fewer had access to accurate descriptions of who lived in far away lands.

Western thought as we think of it today, is shaped by ideas of the 1800s and 1900s, originating mainly in Europe.

What we think of as Western thought today is generally defined as Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and colonialism. As a consequence the term "Western thought" is, at times, unhelpful and vague, since it can define a wide range of separate, though sometimes related, sets of traditions, political groups, religious groups, and individual writers.