A short list of philosophers to read

A student who is graduating soon was talking with me today about what to read on his own once he is out of school. It got us to talking about what philosophers are “must read” philosophers. I thought it might be a fun little posting, at least for those that are into “lists”. It is March Madness, so it is the time of year for deciding best teams and arguing about snubs. So, let’s cap it at 8 (arbitrary, but long enough to cause some debate between lists but not so long that you can easily compose your list). Who are the 8 most important philosophers (I am thinking Western)? Post your list. You might even include justifications, and perhaps a second list of “bubble philosophers” (ones who were close to being on the list but did not quite make the cut).

UPDATE: Here’s another list of the top ten.

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38 Responses to A short list of philosophers to read

  1. Mike says:

    I’ll give it a shot but I’m reserving the right to change the list (not ordered by importance).

    Plato
    Hume
    Kant
    Schopenhauer
    Montaigne
    Nietzsche
    Dostoevsky
    Wittgenstein


    William James, JS Mill, CS Pierce –> I’d like to put what I learned collectively (pragmatism?) from these three guys on the list above and I think they spoke more directly to me before I was more enamored with philosophy.

    Kierkegaard
    Locke
    Descartes
    Aristotle [appended: via Scholasticism -- primarily referenced for (insane) methodological insights]

    [appended]
    Augustine
    Marcus Aurelius (as a representative thinker)

    Some others are also important but I can’t justify the time-cost per value ratio, still perhaps one of ‘that sort’ should be taken up — Hegel, Spinoza, Leibniz?, any scholastic

    I also consider the Bible and Homer’s works really important and value great literature more generally even when it might not be considered great philosophy.

    I also think utopian/dystopian literature is really valuable.

    Great question.

  2. Kleiner says:

    I agree about literature/Bible, but to keep the lists tight we should stick to philosophers.

    I feel pretty sure about these, both because of their own work and their incredible influence:

    Plato (Socrates)
    Aristotle
    Aquinas
    Descartes
    Hume
    Kant
    Nietzsche
    Heidegger

    If I were to include an “analytic” philosopher, it would be Wittgenstein. It does seem silly to not include someone from the analytic tradition.
    I am also very tempted to include Ockham. Seems an odd choice, I suppose. But he is the real pioneer of nominalism.
    Another major temptation is to include Darwin (insofar as he can be considered a “philosopher”)

    Other bubble thinkers:
    Parmenides
    Augustine
    Hegel
    Marx
    Kierkegaard

    I want to pick a few bones with Mike’s list:
    a) I find it shocking that Aristotle is not on your first list! I love Dostoevsky, but is he really more important than Aristotle? And my bet is you are the only one that lists Montaigne anywhere! Anyway, I don’t think anyone can be considered a read philosopher if they are not exposed to Aristotle or at least the Aristotelian tradition. Surely someone from that tradition deserves a place on your “A list”, no?
    b) I know some students are not aware of this, but people were actually doing important philosophy in the 2100 year gap you have between Plato and Hume! Not one medieval thinker? Just in terms of influence, Aquinas is the de facto philosopher of 1.2 billion Catholics, being the “doctor of the church”. His Summa Theologica is so important that at the Council of Trent it was placed on the altar in second position next to only the Bible!

  3. Mike says:

    Some of Kleiner’s criticisms are fair enough. I have read some from ‘the gap’ (medieval thinkers) but in the end I didn’t find them ‘top 8′ important. They all failed to speak to me as much as Dostoevsky and Montaigne. I still haven’t read enough Aristotle like I’ve said before so I probably can’t judge him adequately. I’ve read some Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ockham (some other scholastics i can’t remember) as well as (on the other side of the gap) Marcus Aurelius (who I do find important, just not so much as some others). I don’t think it was dead during the gap but I couldn’t identify a thinker during that time period that was ‘top 8′ important to me. There are certainly important thinkers from the gap, maybe I’ll create a ‘full list’. I think Epicureanism and Stoicism are important for example. If I did create a full list I think it would still have a gap just not nearly as big as the one Kleiner noted. It’s sad that my list doesn’t represent the importance I ascribe to the other side of the gap.

    Anyhow, influence (quantity) isn’t related to importance for me. What’s important to me is a thinker’s ability to change my life.

    Also, much to my shame, I have yet to read Marx.

  4. Kleiner says:

    I suppose I was thinking of the list differently than you. The student and I that had the discussion were not listing the philosophers that “spoke to us” the most. Instead, we were trying to list the most important philosophers, in the sense of the history of philosophy. In other words, if someone came to me and said: “I want to read some philosophy so I can know what philosophers talk about and which philosophers have been most influential, who should I read?”, this would be my list.
    I am sure our lists of who “”speaks the most to us” would vary very widely. My list would look very different than the one I presented. (Descartes does not “speak to me” at all, nor does Kant).

    I don’t expect these lists to vary as much. I would think everyone would put Plato, Aristotle, and Kant on their list. I am sure everyone will have some kind of modern rationalist and empiricist too. I would think it will be the last 2 or 3 philosophers were we see some difference. I am just guessing, but I bet Drs Robson and Steinhoff would not include Nz and Heidegger. If I were to make a prediction, Huenemann’s list will be very close to mine, though I bet he substitutes another modern for Aquinas. Just a guess.

  5. Mike says:

    If this is based on some sort of factual claim about what humanity has found important then I don’t find the question nearly as interesting (or valuable). I’d also find it shameful, then, to not include the East.

  6. Kleiner says:

    The question – raised by the student, not me – was about the Western tradition. I make no claim that the western tradition has some sort of priority over other traditions. Besides, for my part, I will confess (it amounts to a “confession” these days, doesn’t it?) that I am trained only in the western tradition and that I am a thoroughly western thinker. So I am not really in a position to make judgments about the canon in other traditions, aside from the really obvious ones that we would all say.

    Sorry you don’t find it as interesting, though I think you should. It is a valuable (if just for fun here) question even if it is not a question per se of what “speaks to me”, for the same reason that questions about canon are important generally. It is a question of what one should read to be well read, and culturally conversant, within a particular tradition. One is not educated until they are educated in this liberal arts sense. In fact, you cannot possibly understand some of those thinkers that “speak to you” unless you understand the tradition from which they arose. What is, I think, most shameful is how few of my students – including philosophy majors – have not seriously read from their own tradition (like Aristotle). I am teaching an upper division class this term and only a few hands went up when I asked who had read Plato’s Republic. That is shameful! I will confess to being somewhat suspicious of students eager to flee to other traditions when they are so painfully ignorant of their own.

  7. I like Mike’s willingness to make this personal, but also Harrison’s more broad list. When I read the previous lists before I got to the bottom of Harrison’s comment, I thought: Where’s Parmenides? So while I wouldn’t include him on the major list, I think he belongs in the bubbly bubble. Here’s my stab without reviewing the lists in depth:

    Plato
    Aristotle
    Descartes
    Hume
    Kant
    Nietzsche
    —-This is where I spend the most time deciding. For example, I think it is important to maintain a dialectic of sorts between thinkers. So, as strange as this may seem, IF I were to include Aquinas which in so many ways (and Harrison may toilet paper my house for this) which is like reading a baptized Aristotle who is trying to adjust to his new beliefs while maintaining his intellectual heritage. Obviously that’s quite a general statement, but still, I think it has some merit. I mean, Aquinas quotes Aristotle all through his Summa Theologica. Okay, anyhow, if I were to include Aquinas, I would include Charles Hartshorne because I think he provides a very good critique of the Christian mode of an Aristotelian metaphysics which Aquinas so perfectly lays out. BUT…if I were to exclude both of these writers, then I go with the following two:

    – Marx (inserted before Nietzsche for the dialectical materialism)
    – Heidegger

    Also:

    – Parmenides
    – Kierkegaard
    – Sartre
    – Derrida

  8. Mike says:

    There’s more shame in lacking depth of knowledge than in lacking breadth of knowledge (from a self proclaimed jack-of-all-trades) but to the extent there is shame in lacking breadth of knowledge that shame extends eastward, especially for the “western thinker”.

    I just can’t make an “objective” important (to the west) list without the East. So you’ll have to make due with my ‘important to me’ list. Anyhow, I think I have some right to answer the question as posed here (in all its beautiful hermeneutic ambiguity). At least I narrowed my list to 8! :)

    I think the western ‘canon’ is a funny joke but I still do believe in shared standards of value, in case it was starting to seem uncertain.

  9. Kleiner says:

    And you do have the right to answer the question however you want. Of course, I took advantage of my right to critique you. :) Seriously, point well taken on the depth and breadth issue. I have done some reading in Buddhism (though I admit it is mostly Nishitani and others who are tied to Heidegger), but reading more is something I need to do at some point. Still, I think we can make western canon lists (feel free to make a list of proposed eastern canon if you like).

    Anyway, I probably came down a little too hard on my point. That said, I am as frustrated as one could be by the near total ignorance about the classical tradition I see in my students and even in many philosophy professors. An example of how epidemic this is in the academy: Huenemann used a book called “Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Mind” in a recent class. The oldest piece was Descartes. How ridiculously absurd (Huenemann agreed). If I was king, students would not be allowed to read Nz, existentialists, etc until they had first read Plato and Aristotle in a serious – and yes – charitable way. Frankly, those that read Nz without an intimate understanding of Plato are going to miss 1/2 of what he is talking about anyway.

    Enough of that rant. I think I have surely already outed myself as a very canonical thinker, and one who is profoundly suspicious of people who think the canon is a “joke”. See the recent post on Huenemanniac about the silliness of cultural studies.

  10. Mike says:

    I took advantage of my right to critique you.

    That is as it should be. :)

    Also, although I think the western canon is a joke it’s still a joke that I’m glad exists. I might ultimately prefer some different criteria and think microhistorical research is necessary, but I do want people fighting things out (hopefully without guns) for what should be counted as “great”.

    In that spirit, I hope we get more lists!

    At USU I think I was only required to read Nietzsche only once (a short section) as an assignment. I really supplemented my own philosophical education (with the help of a few friends, including Charlie), but still not nearly enough, especially with regard to the early gap. I’m still making progress though, working out a route via Pierre Hadot. Nietzsche actually helps a bit too, to the extent he references people I’m not familiar with and I follow up on them.

    It would also be interesting (to me) to make a similar list of people who have come closest to ‘sage’ status.

  11. tom says:

    AA Milne (I have to think hard, very hard)

    E Husserl (Mostly because of the next entry)

    M Merleau-Ponty (My personal favourite: The Phenomenology of Perception)

    R Rorty (I like best the part where he imagines the world being destroyed and extraterrestrials saving him and him being asked which book he’d like to take with him … it’s not Heidegger but Dickens)

    Z Zizek or J Baudrillard (for fun and amusement and to find out what philosophy is still worth today)

    The other four depend on where you’re from:
    Continental Europe:
    Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein

    USA, GB:
    (I’d had to get up and walk over to my books)
    Wittgenstein, CS Peirce maybe, somebody from the Analytic Philosophy crowd.

    I’d suggest to skip Platon etc. since you cannot read Platon et.al. without the centuries long history of reception in western philosophy and because most of the people somehow refer to them anyway.

    Philosophy (in the sense of the one ring to bind them all) is dead though. If you have time to spend, learn some maths, statistics, computer science, biochem, economy, sociology, ethics (okay, philosophy isn’t all irrelevant and you could probably add Rawls to the list).

  12. James says:

    I recommend reading every and all writings by Khalil Gibran. You can start here:

    http://leb.net/gibran

    He didn’t self identify as a philosopher, but a poet and writer. Still, damn good wisdom.

  13. Paul says:

    Mel Brooks – A Stand up philosopher? Oh, a bullshit artist!

    Rev. Fred Rogers – Sweaters are a philosophy right?

    George Carlin

    John Lennon/Paul McCartney – but mostly John Lennon

    John Cleese/Eric Idle/et al.

    Frank Oz/Yoda/George Lucas

    What can I say? I’m a modern guy.

  14. Visarga says:

    1. Abhinavagupta
    2. Hegel
    3. Patanjali
    4. Spinoza
    5. Thomas Nagel
    6. George Berkeley
    7. Bernadette Roberts
    8. David Chalmers

    Abhinavagupta is the most ignored philosophical genius of year 1000A.D. He was a sort of Leonardo da Vinci of his time and his work (what has been preserved of it until today) is of amazing depth. It would talk 50 or 100 years of concerted efforts of translators and philosophers to map it and understand it in depth.

  15. Mongo says:

    Nietzsche
    Deleuze
    Foucault
    Guattari
    Badiou
    Barthes
    Zizek
    Negri

  16. Mongo says:

    PS. Screw all this analytical stuff. “Continental” is much more delicious.

  17. Mike says:

    This is what’s leading the non-regulars to post. In case anyone’s interested.

    Paraphrasing Nietzsche (BGE Part1 Section 5) —

    Philosophers are not honest enough, they make up their mind and then move forward (Schopenhauer?) but pretend it’s detached “objective” pursuit of truth.

    coupled with quote from section 6 “with a philosopher nothing is at all impersonal”.

    Is another sort of rationale for preferring my list. I’m wary of wearing the mask of objective judgment. Perhaps this sort of opening does degrade the list. I like Vince’s idea of a list for a ‘core college program’. I think that’s what’s going on at St. John’s College.

  18. Shaun Miller says:

    I’ll add my list in here. However, I think people are bringing in their top favorite 8 philosophers, whereas the question was what are the essential reads. Of course, favorites can be the same thing as essential reads. However, I don’t think I would understand Kant just by simply reading Kant: I would need a class, secondary sources, or perhaps a small group that would all read Kant so that we can discuss. That being said, I’ll bring in my top 8 reads.

    1. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. This would be my number one choice although this is more of a secondary source on philosophy. I found this really insightful and it’s actually helped me out on what some of the primary philosophers have said.

    2. Plato (Socrates). Discussions are great, it helps with what Plato is talking about when he’s searching for essences, and it gives a nice literary flourish in the life of Socrates. Enough said.

    3. Aristotle. Although I consider is style a bit dry and he’s something that I just couldn’t read “for fun,” I would say that Nicomachean Ethics is something that I turn to again and again.

    4. Descartes. It’s a classic, an excellent read, and a great introduction to doubt, rationalism, and epistemology in general.

    5. Hume. Another great read, but I like his religious works the best.

    6. Schopenhauer. I consider him a very fun read because he makes you have a paradigm shift on the world, your relations with other people, and your role in the world. Pessimistic? Yes, but deliciously so.

    7. Wittgenstein. Although I would benefit more if I take it from a class or from secondary sources, it’s still an excellent read and it has excellent ideas of how language really does have an influence on our philosophical thinking.

    8. Pretty much anything in the existential novel camp (e.g. The Stranger, Notes from the Underground, No Exit, Waiting for Godot). Those are fun reads and they stick with you.

    I guess I interpreted the question differently. I wasn’t thinking of historical significance, major influence, or having them “speaking to us.” Rather, I was thinking of books that can be read and understandable without an academic setting, more like summer reads if you will. If it’s any different, I would have a completely different list.

  19. Mike says:

    Anyone think Gadamer or Hobbes should be making some of these lists?

  20. Kleiner says:

    The “core college program” idea is exactly what I had in mind. (St Johns College is a perfect example, and everyone should go to their website and plan on reading their entire curriculum during their lifetime). Vince and Mike are obviously right, to be a well-rounded thinker you obviously need more than western philosophers on the list. But what my student asked about was, essentially, which western philosophers would be on that list.

    If that is the way everyone has understood the post, then I am shocked by some of the inclusions. There are not just, from my point of view, questionable philosophers on the lists. There are absurd inclusions on the list. I am not saying Deleuze is not interesting, but to have him on a top 8 list of the sort I suggested is ABSURD.
    Thankfully, lest I fall into total despair, I think most posters were thinking of the list in a different way.

    A few other thoughts:
    – I think it is a gross oversimplification to say that Aquinas just Christianized Aristotle. The Platonism of Aquinas (and mysticism, the most frequently referenced thinker in the Summa is Pseudo-Dionysius) is too often understated.
    – Adler’s book Vince mentioned above is a great starting read on Aristotle. Jonathon Lear’s book “Aristotle: The Desire to Understand” is an excellent book that is a bit more substantial of an introduction to Aristotle’s thought.
    – I could be swayed to include Schopenhauer on the list, but if I did I would want to take Nz off.

  21. Huenemann says:

    Okay, the top three are easy:

    1. Plato
    2. Aristotle
    3. Kant

    There’s a lot more jockeying for the next four, but here goes:

    4. Descartes
    5. Hume
    6. Spinoza (OF COURSE)
    7. Nietzsche

    And the last one is the killer — it’s like taking the last slice of cake, which no one wants to do for fear of being eyed as greedy. but it has to be —

    8. You.

    Because, of course, the central task of philosophy is to forge your own view, and not just read others. (Okay, maybe that was too cute. Sorry. )

    I will no longer speak to Rasmussen for putting Derrida on his list. I’ll await a retraction and apology.

  22. Huenemann says:

    Regarding Hegel: in substance, I am not sure there is more in Hegel than one can get out of combining Spinoza and Kant (the Transcendental Dialectic in particular). There is loads and loads more, but I’m not sure I’d call it ‘substance'; ‘word salad’ might be more appropriate. And I’m not sure Hegel really has had the influence Vince says he has. Scholars of the 19th century generally rule that Hegel was ‘deader than dead’ by the 1860s, and I can’t name any contemporary thinkers who are clearly Hegelian. Nor can I think of big stars between 1860 and now who would count Hegel as a major influence. (Marx, yes; Hegel, no.) But fair warning: a lot of contemporary historians of philosophy are taking a major interest in Hegel, and I have been reading their books, but I still can’t find anything more than historical curiosity motivating their research.

  23. Anonymous says:

    PETER SINGER

  24. Hagen says:

    I’m going to break the norm and offer a few too-little read philosophers. The big thinkers (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, etc.) are given, and most of them are well-known due to their reputation and influence. But if I had to suggest some thinkers to read outside of school, I think I would suggest some who may not get as much class time, but who worth reading. Here’s a few I would recommend alongside the big names.

    1. Leibniz (concerning substance, and his response to Locke)
    2. Joseph Butler (for his insights on ethics)
    3. Thomas Reid or Alvin Plantinga (Epistemology, and common sense philosophy)
    4. G.E. Moore (Both of his ethics books, and his Defense of Common Sense)

  25. Sparksfly says:

    My eight in order of preference

    1. Karl Marx. 2. Lao-Tzu (I’m thinking all) 3. Thomas Hulme 4 Ann Rand 5. Ram Dass (seriously) 6. John Stuart Mill 7. Emmanuel Kant 8. Emma Goldman

  26. Mike says:

    RE: Anonymous

    is that you, Pete? :)

  27. Joshua K. Smith says:

    It is really hard to argue with this top 6 (Ranking):
    Plato (1)
    Aristotle (2)
    Aquinas (6)
    Descartes (4)
    Hume (5)
    Kant (3)

    Adding just 2 more seems harder than adding another 5
    Plato (1)
    Aristotle (2)
    Aquinas (6)
    Descartes (4)
    Hobbes (7)
    Spinoza (8)
    Leibniz (10)
    Locke (9)
    Berkeley (11)
    Hume (5)
    Kant (3)

    I am here deliberately stopping at Kant because I think that many and varied are the paths that lead away from him. We are still evaluating the impact of almost all philosophers since, even though it isn’t too soon to say a post-Kantian has had great influence (Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc…). There are obviously many important contributions by thinkers between these sign-post philosophers, but each here influences the philosophical dialogue of our day to such a degree that they can’t be ignored with impunity. I have a feeling that the philosophers who post-date Kant are chosen more out of affinity than for historical contextual undergirding. Affinity isn’t a bad thing certainly, and it can be much more enjoyable than undergirding (which doesn’t sound fun or comfortable). But my ultimate justification is that regardless of your affinity/tradition, your appreciation for post-Kantian philosophers must be informed by a reading of the foregoing philosophers, if it is to be true appreciation.

  28. Bill A says:

    With many of the lists having the same people on it, I would like to know; in which order should I read the philosophers?
    And better yet, which of the texts should I read and in what order?

  29. Kleiner says:

    Here is a start.

    My Intro class gives, I think, students a solid introduction to western philosophy. We read:
    1) Plato. The Hackett edition ‘5 dialogues’ is a good start. We read the Apology, Euthyphro, Meno, and Phaedo. The first two give you an excellent introduction to philosophy as a practice. The Meno transitions you to epistemological and metaphysical questions. The Phaedo takes up epistemological and metaphysical questions in earnest (I think it is the best short dialogue for the theory of Forms) and also gives you a good understanding of his philosophical anthropology and psychology. We also read selections from Plato’s Republic. Book VII would be a good, but we also read chunks of Book V. We finish with Plato’s ‘Seventh Letter’, in large part because it presents a very tidy foil to use when we turn to Aristotle and Aquinas.

    2) We read some Aristotle. I used to read Books I and II of the Physics. This is where you get Aristotle’s 4 causes. But a few years ago a small mutiny in my class led me to make it a bit easier. Now we read selections from Jonathan Lear’s excellent introduction to Aristotle called ‘Aristotle, the Desire to Understand’. If you wanted an easier introduction, Ayer’s ‘Aristotle for Everybody’ is a fine short and basic overview. The Lear book is the best substantive introduction to Aristotle I have read, it is very good and I recommend it to newbies and seasoned philosophers alike.

    3) In my Intro class we then read Aquinas. If you read all of the Lear or Ayer book, you could probably skip this. But since I read Aristotle only for the 4 causes, I go to Aquinas for more metaphysics and epistemology. From Aquinas we read selections from the Summa Theologica (available free online). We read Question 2 (on existence of God). Then we read Questions 75-87. There you get his view of the soul, the soul-body relation, the powers of the soul, and his epistemological view (abstraction) along with a corresponding critique of Plato’s metaphysical and epistemological views.

    After we do all that, we return to Aristotle and read selections from the Nicomachean Ethics. Books I and II are a good start. Again, if you had read the Lear or Ayer books, you would have been exposed to Aristotle’s ethics already.

    4) We read Descartes ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’. This is the classic first reading in modern philosophy. Its tone is quite modern, and it is a nice transition read – he is explicitly attacking the Aristotelian worldview of final cause. All of the uniquely modern pre-occupations in philosophy (concerns about certainty, mind-body problem, etc) can be found here.

    5) We read Hume’s ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. Though Hume and Descartes are not usually camped together (one being a ‘rationalist’ and the other an ‘empiricist’), these two readings fit well together. I think Hume is just the ‘logical extension’ of Descartes. They both start at the same place – our own subjective mental geography. Hume just admits what Descartes won’t – we don’t find anything substantive in there! With Hume we see the skeptical project that started with Descartes (though I would actually date it to late medieval nominalism) worked up into a full lather. One could also read Locke here.

    In my opinion, this is a good order and a good first list of books to read (obviously I think that, since I design my Intro class in this way). After you have read all of this, I think you are in a position to try to tackle Kant. I have, in the past, read Kant’s ‘Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics’ in my Intro course. Otherwise you could try to tackle the Critique of Pure Reason (and there are lots of good secondary sources on that book).

    Having then read Kant, I think you have an extremely solid philosophical base from which to read whatever happens to interest you. You will note that I don’t recommend reading Nietzsche until after you have read a substantial amount of the history of philosophy. I do this for two reasons: (a) So much of what Nz is doing is a response to (and assumes an understanding of) the history of philosophy, that students that start with Nz are, in a sense, reading blind. (b) I think it is best to start with the Greeks and cultivate in oneself a sincere appreciation for their view of wonder and truth. Let Nz try to destroy that later on, if you want, but don’t start with something so destructive.

    One more note: there are now lots of good open courseware options online, so you don’t have to go at this alone. Many offer podcasted lectures or power points and other useful tools for people that are reading on their own. Here are a few links:

    http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Linguistics-and-Philosophy/index.htm

  30. Arifur Rahman says:

    No one is great philosopher than Karl Marx.

  31. Bug says:

    Your link is broken in your post.

    Here’s the link:

    http://old-wizard.com/top-10-philosophers-of-all-time

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  34. Huenemann says:

    Very perceptive, Viola. These are very important issues to consider.

  35. Mark says:

    Funny no one has mentioned Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, which is short, accessible and relevant IMHO.
    Not a core reading like Descartes but right up there on the “secondary” list.

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