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The term canon is generally used in an exclusionary sense: that is, it is meant to differentiate between what is and is not a genuine part of a given canon. The canon can refer to either works that have been definitely written by a given author, as opposed to spuriously attributed to him. It can also refer to a collection of works that are considered central, as opposed to peripheral, to a given cultural tradition

Defining the term

A canon refers to the collected works of an author. It is more or less synonymous with the French word ouevre. 

The word also contains an implication of authenticity. For example, there is sometimes debate about what works do or do not actually belong to a given writer's canon. 


Here are a couple examples that can help you use the term canon in a proper way. 

"Although most of the plays attributed to Shakespeare have widely been recognized as belonging to his authentic canon, others have been disputed by scholars for a variety of reasons." 

"The philosopher Kierkegaard was quite self-consciously trying to develop a canon: in a way, all his works could be put together and read as one gigantic book."

"People no longer believed that the author's most famous work should be counted as a part of a canon anymore, after it came to light that large parts of the work were actually conceptualized and written by his assistant." 

In case you are still a little confused about how to use the term canon, here are a couple simple rules you can follow. 

1. A canon simply refers to the collection of all the works that can be confidently attributed to a given writer or artist. More metaphorically, it can also refer to the collection of works belonging to a broader category: for example, one can speak of the canon of English classics. One way or another, though, a canon always refers to a collected body of works that are recognized by others as genuine and deserving of membership in the larger body. 

2. It is important to distinguish the literary term canon from other similar words and usages. For example, a canon is not the same thing at all as a "cannon" (i.e. the military weapon), even though they sound exactly the same. Also, the term canon itself has a very different secondary meaning within the context of music than its primary meaning within the context of literature

Uses for Canon

The concept of the canon is closely related to the concept of authorship. This is for the simple reason that before writers and artists actually began signing their works, it would have been difficult if not impossible to trace a work of literature or art back to an individual person; it would simply have been treated by people in the future as an expression of the collective community or culture. In order to speak of a writer's canon, it is necessary first of all to have the modern notion of a single artist who produces works in his own name and no one else's.  

Categorizing a body of work as a canon may also have practical value for scholarly and intellectual purposes. For example, if one is a Milton scholar, then one would want to know what the proper canon of Milton is, so that one could explore the canon more deeply and thus become a respected expert on the subject. The canon could thus also be understood as a tool for conceptualizing knowledge and works into relatively discrete and manageable categories. 

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