Teaching and the Philosophical Canon


“Perhaps all professional philosophers have wrestled with the problem of how to cover all the important things in the limited time of a single course.” But what are the important things? And who are the important figures?

In a post at the Blog of the APA, Peter Adamson (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität), who produces the podcast History of Philosophy without any Gaps, reminds us of the arbitrary factors that have influenced the conventional answers to these questions, and asks what that means for our decisions about teaching.

You might tell yourself you have covered the important medieval philosophers if you’ve done Anselm, Abelard, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. That’s an impressive line-up, no doubt. It’s a lot more medieval philosophy than most undergraduate students will ever read, and even gets in a thinker from the Islamic world. But do these big names really have a greater claim on our attention than Eriugena, Hildegard of Bingen, John Buridan, Meister Eckhart, and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi?

My answer would be no. The fact that such authors are not, or not yet, “canonical” has little to do with historical and philosophical merit and much to do with the historiographical priorities and limited perspectives of previous generations. These generations wrote our textbooks, designed the syllabi for courses we took as students, and decided what to edit, study, and translate—and in so doing, shaped out sense of what is too “important” to leave out. In reality, there are simply too many important thinkers in every period to be fit into any undergraduate historical course, in both the historical and philosophical sense of “important.” And that’s without even getting into “minor” figures…

What does this mean for your teaching?

When we’re exposing students to any period in the history of philosophy, we should not tell ourselves that we only have time to visit the highlights. In fact we should admit that we don’t even have time to do that.

This realization might be liberating. If we give up on the idea that teaching history of philosophy is about paying a brief visit to the most famous thinkers, that will free us up to prioritize other concerns.

The whole post is here.

Kandinsky - Circles in a Circle

(Wassily Kandinsky, “Circles in a Circle”)

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