For the first few years after receiving my PhD, I largely followed what I perceived to be the “canon” when teaching the history of modern philosophy: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant — with the emphases on Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Since then, however, I’ve tried in various ways to challenge that canon in my teaching, but I have found it to be difficult to do well. In this post I’d like to share my current strategy toward this goal. My purpose here is not to condemn those who teach in that (usually epistemology focused) style, but only to provide a picture of what I am doing currently, in the hopes that it might be useful for others — and to get some feedback on how to improve it!When I first sat down to rethink my modern syllabus, I made a list of thinkers I would like to include, if time were not a factor. The list was over 20 thinkers long. Given that I also like to focus in some depth on at least a few texts, I knew that I couldn’t devote class time or assignments to nearly that many. I couldn’t find a principled way to narrow the list in a way that would at the same time present some of the important philosophical developments of the period while also providing debates that hung together thematically in some sense. I also didn’t want to fall back into a narrative that pretends the conversation was all and only about the mind-body problem, or the problem of knowledge, or even just the nature of state sovereignty, to name a few themes around one which could structure such a course.
I realized that what I wanted to do most was to convey all of it — the richness, diversity, and, at times, strangeness of the philosophical discussions that developed in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was that diversity and richness of thought, above all, that I resented having to exclude from my previous courses. So here’s what I’m trying now.
I have a fairly standard series of thinkers and texts assigned that will serve as the basis for essays and discussion, but, in addition, each student is assigned one of those 20 or so “secondary” thinkers. The student then has the responsibility to serve as the advocate for that thinker in our class.
At the beginning of the term, I ask the student to complete a lighthearted survey of their opinions on a variety of relevant issues, from their thoughts on the nature of the mind-body relation to their preferred vacation spot — Paris or London? Or Connecticut? They also indicate their majors and other interests. I take these results and try to match up the students with the thinkers.
Sometimes the matching is easy — a student interested in feminism? How about Wollstonecraft? A chemistry major? Boyle. And so on. Other times the matches are looser, but I allow students to swap or plead for a different thinker, and so on. The point, really, is to get them invested in their thinker.
That way, some of the diversity of the period gets represented, each of the students get to attain some expertise (she’ll be the resident expert on her thinker), and it will also invest the student in the period — she’ll have a horse in the race, so to speak. I find that this helps to enliven the material for the students.
First I have the students write a short assignment simply summarizing some of the main arguments of their thinker. They then take that knowledge into their encounters with the “primary” thinkers for the class — Descartes and the canonical gang. In their later essay assignments, I ask them not only to present and evaluate, say, the Cartesian method of doubt, but also invite them to speculate as to what their thinker might say in response to the method. Next, after having created this dialectic between primary and secondary thinker, I ask them to weigh in on the debate. That way, they not only get an idea of the argument of the primary thinker, but they also have to think about that argument in dialogue with other philosophers of the period. Finally, they engage the arguments from their own perspective, offering critiques, rebuttals, or whatever.
With each major unit, I include lectures and readings on both the M&E and the value theory from the thinkers in question. Students are asked to choose one or the other to address in their essays; that way they usually have little trouble finding some point of agreement or disagreement between their secondary thinkers and the primary thinker in question.
I’ve tried this once so far and the students loved it. It may be that his kind of approach works well here at Wellesley College but may not elsewhere — I don’t know. In any event, I’m excited to try it again this term.
I’ll end with two questions. First, how do those of you who teach modern philosophy deal with the “problem of the canon,” if you take it to be a problem at all? Second, what are your thoughts on my solution?
Finally, for your enjoyment, here is the list of secondary thinkers my students represented last term (the primary thinkers are the canonical seven listed above). Feel free to comment on my selection as well. Who am I missing?
1. Mary Astell
2. Francis Bacon
3. Robert Boyle
4. Joseph Butler
5. Margaret Cavendish
6. Catherine Trotter Cockburn
7. Anne Conway
8. Jonathan Edwards
9. Thomas Hobbes
10. Julien La Mettrie
11. Nicolas Malebranche
12. Damaris Masham
13. Isaac Newton
14. Blaise Pascal
15. Thomas Reid
16. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
17. Adam Smith
18. Henry Thiry, Baron D’Holbach
20. Mary Wollstonecraft
ADDENDUM: To be clear, I do not take the list above to be a comprehensive account of the significant thinkers in the period. Indeed, many of the noticeable omissions from my original list were left off simply because there are no easily accessible and representative e-texts or reliable encyclopedia entries that I knew of. Student accessibility was my aim, not some kind of historical comprehensiveness — I was shooting for a pedagogical tool, not an exclusively scholarly one. For those kinds of things, I’d recommend Nadler’s Companion to Early Modern Philosophy from Blackwell, Atherton’s Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, and similar works.
Finally, in order to allow students to become familiar with their assigned thinker as easily as possible, I provide to them a short introductory document that contains a brief overview of each thinker, excerpted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or if there is no entry there, then from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and in one case I fall back on Wikipedia). In addition to links to the encyclopedia entries, I also include links to some web accessible and somewhat representative e-texts. Usually those links are to Bennett’s earlymoderntexts.com or the electronic edition of Atherton’s text, which is available to my students through the Wellesley library’s website. That way the students do not need to do research or library work on their own to find their texts, nor do they need to purchase anything. Again, I want the students to get engaged with the relevant concepts and arguments as quickly and easily as possible, which is why I do it this way.