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.