Posts Tagged ‘canon’


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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A call for abstracts:

Anonymous Modern Philosophy

Panel of the Society for Modern Philosophy
APA Pacific Division Meeting 2016
March 30-April 3, 2016, San Francisco, CA

Deadline: October 5, 2015

Authorship is central to our grasp of philosophical contributions. People tend to associate an idea with its originator—think of: ‘Platonist’, ‘Humean’—and especially for the modern period, scholarship on seven big names dominates the field. However, not all philosophical moves have been made by identified figures. Sometimes authors made deliberate efforts to remain hidden from view, be it to allow for a more neutral assessment of their work, or to distance themselves from controversial opinions. As yet, only fragmented attention has been paid to the anonymous and pseudonymous face of modern philosophy. The current panel will begin to address this gap. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, specific anonymous texts, authors’ strategies in unnamed publishing, and the conception of anonymity in philosophical debates. Its findings will have implications not only for emerging efforts to reshape the philosophical canon of the modern period, but also for thinking about named authorship in research practices more generally.


We invite abstracts for 20-minute talks/papers on any topic related to anonymity in modern philosophy. Send your anonymized abstract in PDF to Chris Meyns (cm836@cam.ac.uk) by October 5, 2015. Decision by mid-October.

Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

Event hashtag: #AnonModPhil

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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
19. Voltaire
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.

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