Archive for May, 2016


Modern authors regularly published anonymously. Why did they do so, and to what effect? How to handle anonymous texts in scholarship? We discussed these topics in a recent panel on Anonymous Modern Philosophy with Julia Joráti, Alex Douglas, and Sandra Lapointe at the APA Pacific. Here you can listen to recordings of the talks:


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Ptolemy map

Sebastian Munster, Typus Orbis A Ptol. Descriptus (Basel, 1540)

A column by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden about the persistently eurocentric, homogeneous curricula in philosophy departments has been making the rounds recently. The authors diagnose that:

The vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States offer courses only on philosophy derived from Europe and the English-speaking world. (…)

Given the importance of non-European traditions in both the history of world philosophy and in the contemporary world, and given the increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds, this is astonishing. No other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain. The present situation is hard to justify morally, politically, epistemically or as good educational and research training practice.

Garfield and Van Norden go on to suggest that, to be transparent about the situation, Departments would do well to rebrand themselves as ‘Department of European and American Philosophy’ or suchlike.

Here I won’t go into the branding question. It’s a provocative tool to get a conversation going. I also take Garfield and Van Norden’s underlying point to be valid: Yes, there has been a systematic neglect or exclusion of authors working in non-European traditions. My focus is on what their point means for some of the discussions about canon formation we’ve been having at The Mod Squad over the past years.

Efforts have been ongoing about what to do with the set of texts and authors that is perceived as ‘canonical’ for the history of early modern philosophy. That list has indeed for a long time included simply a list of works by white, male authors from Europe. Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume and Kant are standard candidates.

Last year we had a panel on the status of the modern canon (posted on this blog here). More recently we discussed how to teach Early Modern texts and which ones (here and here), and last month we ran a session on how to think about anonymous texts in philosophical scholarship. In a wider domain, projects such as the New Narratives in the History of Philosophy (lead by Lisa Shapiro, Marguerite Deslauriers, and Karen Detlefsen) and Project Vox at Duke are doing heavy duty work to incorporate new names and texts into the discussion.

These efforts are urgent, they are important, and must be pursued. I strongly support them and nothing said in what follows should be taken to detract from this work. But at the same time it becomes clear that in a certain respect, even these efforts have been systematically restricted. What we have sought to include, knowingly or unknowingly, are still predominantly works by well-off, white, European female authors. (Not exclusively, of course, and not under that description. But predominantly, and that’s already significant.)

Why have there not been like efforts to include authors from roughly the period between the 16th and 19th century working in, say, geographies of China, India, Ethiopia or Mexico? Why not teach works by, for example, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695), Zera Yacob (1599–1692), or Yamaga Sokō (1622–1685)? There have been crucial efforts to be inclusive in our selection of texts, to diversify the curriculum. How come this work has still ended up being so systematically restricted?

For me, these are currently open questions. But I do want to flag two considerations that may come up specifically for the modern period.

First of all the naming—’Modern Philosophy’. Europe cherishes its scientific revolution. It’s one of the tools used to demarcate the ‘modern’ from the ‘not modern’. Did such revolutions occur simultaneously elsewhere in the world? Did they spur people to rethink the basic categories of nature? And if not, how could authors not so influenced fit in a survey of ‘modern’ philosophy?

However, I don’t see this as a big worry. The concern is artificial. Scholarship regularly uncovers is how seemingly modern ideas turn out to have non-modern roots and precursors. But learning that Descartes absorbed quite some Stoicism, making him perhaps less modern than we may have thought initially, does not require dropping him from the canon. If anything, what this concern about privileging modernity here brings out is how many course titles have a mild, evaluative resonance to them, where a more descriptive label such as ‘European Philosophy 1600-1900’ would do just as well.

Another concern may arise about coherence and scope. Texts produced outside the European or Euro-American cluster may not be produced within a single, unified tradition or sphere of influence. This can make it difficult to integrate such work into a coherent narrative when teaching students.

But this thought is unstable. Previous discussions on this blog have already brought out how, also within mainstream canonical texts, there just isn’t a single narrative or homogeneous philosophical development. Further, when did belonging to a uniform narrative of philosophical development become a requirement for being good research or teaching material? Philosophy’s history is messy. We have always needed to select. Precisely this need for selection offers opportunities. (A point noted by Peter Adamson in this recent post on the APA Blog.) What seems objectionable is to have our prime selection criterion be region of production.

Say that we recognize Garfield and Van Norden’s point as valid, and take it seriously. What would such a truly inclusive field of Modern Philosophy look like? How could it be taught effectively in a single course? It may look quite different from modern philosophy as many of us have been researching and teaching it so far.

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In traditional tellings of the history of early modern philosophy, the school of British empiricists – the Locke-Berkeley-Hume triumvirate – is seen as according foundational status to the Aristotelian principle, “nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses.” This is, of course, given new formulations in terms of the modern ‘Way of Ideas’. Their philosophical systems, so the story goes, are built on this foundation.

However, there is another meaning of ’empiricism’ that is more common in the early modern period. This notion goes back to the ancient ’empirics,’ a school of physicians who eschewed theorizing in favor of reliance on detailed case histories. That is, rather than trying to understand how the body functioned, these physicians were content to know that, in previous cases, when such-and-such treatment was given in such-and-such circumstance the patient recovered, but similar patients given an alternative treatment did not. The successful cases could then be imitated, the unsuccessful ones not. The goal is to draw cautious generalizations about which similarities and differences are relevant to actual outcomes. No grand theories.

This second kind of empiricism was revived in a big way by Francis Bacon. The tradition of Baconian natural history, promoted in the latter half of the 17th century by the Royal Society, attempted to understand the world in the same way, by carefully cataloging ‘instances’, drawing cautious generalizations, and eschewing grand theories.

Call the first kind of empiricism ‘epistemological empiricism’ and the second ‘methodological empiricism.’ Call the slogan “nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses” and its analogues in other philosophical jargons ‘the empiricist principle’. Note that, strictly speaking, as I have defined them,
epistemological empiricism is actually inconsistent with methodological empiricism. The epistemological empiricist makes the empiricist principle the foundation of a grand system. The methodological empiricist is likely to endorse the empiricist principle but she, by definition, eschews grand systems.

Here’s the reason why this matters: the standard narrative has Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as the empiricist triumvirate. It is true that all three of them endorse the empiricist principle. However, it seems to me that Locke is a very different kind of philosopher from Berkeley and Hume, and it seems to me that this contrast explains the difference: Locke is a methodological empiricist, while Berkeley and Hume are epistemological empiricists. Locke is following the “Historical, plain Method” (EHU 1.1.3), i.e., giving a Baconian natural history of ideas. The empiricist principle is, for him, a cautious generalization based on observation of many instances. What’s more, Locke actually treats the principle this way. In particular, he never wields it to deny the existence of an idea apparently discoverable in introspection. Rather, he tries to explain our ideas of substance, cause, etc. (such as they are) in terms of it.

The empiricist principle seems to function quite differently for Berkeley and Hume. Both sometimes pay lip-service to the idea that the principle is a cautious empirical generalization, but in fact Berkeley seems to take it as a sort of background constraint on his theorizing: he has to combat skepticism and defend commonsense within the bounds delineated by the empiricist principle. (It turns out, strangely enough, that the defense works in part by making the principle even more restrictive through the rejection of abstraction.) As Reid memorably (and correctly) noted, Hume wields the empiricist principle as an ‘article of inquisition’ by which ideas (and things!) are “sentenced to pass out of existence” (IHM 6.8). In other words, Hume uses the empiricist principle to reject ideas others have thought accessible to introspection. Both Berkeley and Hume, it seems to me, are builders of the sorts of grand systems methodological empiricists reject.

It turns out, then, that although all three of the traditional British empiricists endorse the empiricist principle in some form, nevertheless they are empiricists of very different sorts. If we’re into triumvirates, we might identify a methodological empiricist triumvirate consisting of Bacon, Boyle, and Locke as against an epistemological empiricist triumvirate of Hobbes, Berkeley, and Hume.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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