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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JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

I think it’s important to separate two questions:

1) At the time, was the work of Anselm, Abelard, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham better or more important or more influential than the work of Eriugena, Hildegard of Bingen, John Buridan, Meister Eckhart, and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi?

2) Is it more important for people now to know about the work of Anselm, Abelard, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham than to know about the work of Eriugena, Hildegard of Bingen, John Buridan, Meister Eckhart, and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi?

I’ll leave answering (1) to the experts (although I’d like to see an argument that anyone in group B is more important than Aquinas), but I would think that the answer to (2) is clearly ‘yes’. Group A has been tremendously influential–their work is relevant to and cited in contemporary debates, there are journals and societies devoted to them, there are jobs for people working on them, etc. More to the point, I guess, but not unrelatedly: properly taught undergraduates should know at least something about Aquinas. Maybe that’s a socially constructed fact, but it’s still a fact. (Compare: properly taught drivers should drive on the right (in the US). There’s no inherent reason why this has to be so, but it is so.)Report

Richard Zach
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

It is not at all clear to me that the answer to (2) is “clearly yes.” I suppose it depends on what you think “properly teaching undergraduates” amounts to. I don’t think that properly teaching undergraduates requires that they know at least something about all (only? most?) of the philosophers currently in the canon.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Richard Zach
5 years ago

I second what Richard says, and also add that we need to ask WHY group A was tremendously influential: Perhaps it is because they have continued to be taught? Maybe Buridan would have been equally influential, had he been taught alongside Aquinas and Anselm; maybe he will be equally influential, if he begins to be taught alongside them.

(Though coming from specialising in medieval logic as I do, I had to laugh at the idea that Buridan is a “group B” person. If you want an A-list from the 14th C, it’s going to contain Buridan, Burley, and Ockham, no question.)Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Richard Zach
5 years ago

Two quick points.

First, I would say that well-taught undergraduates should know *at least something* about *many* of the philosophers currently in the canon. Maybe most, depending on how we define “the canon”. But it would just be embarrassing if some of our undergrad majors didn’t know anything about, say, Hume. Regardless of Hume place on the *true* ranking of important (or best or whatever) philosophers. Same goes for Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, I would say. Can we agree about that?

Second, it would help me if Sara would say why we need to ask why group A was so influential. I was trying to argue, in part, that even if there is no intrinsic reason, or no good intrinsic reason, the fact that they were, in fact, more influential than group B is a fairly significant reason to study/teach them as opposed to group B. Not decisive, but pretty significant.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

I think it’s important to ask why they were influential to because we are not only teaching our undergrads history of philosophy but philosophy. If we were teaching them history of philosophy, then what would matter is who was influential and what their views were; but if we are teaching them philosophy, then what should matter is what are the most interesting views, regardless of where they come from or how influential they were when they were deployed.Report

Leah
Leah
5 years ago

This book has already been featured on the DN, but its content provides some historical detail relevant to Adamson’s blog post: Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, by Peter K. J. Park, http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5655-africa-asia-and-the-history-of-.aspxReport

Urstoff
Urstoff
5 years ago

That fact that you can’t cover all of the canon doesn’t entail that you should cover none of it. There is always the middle option: cover some of it. Ideally, cover some of the canon in depth rather than trying to give brief analyses of lots canonical works.Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
5 years ago

I find the “great man” model of philosophy exhausting and kind of dull. I vastly prefer a thematic approach, because it lets me introduce new voices into the conversation. When I teach aesthetics, for example, I skip most of the canonical historical figures, except for the tiny bit that’s useful as a background for more contemporary theories of art (e.g. a little Plato for the mimetic theory promoted by Gombrich, and a tiny bit of Kant to set the stage for aesthetic attitude theories). I don’t do that because they’re unimportant, but because I judge that it’s more important for my students that they have me guide them through the contemporary literature. The field has developed at a phenomenal rate in the last sixty years, and the fact of the matter is that if I don’t teach my students about that, nobody else will. They can get their Republic, Critique of Judgement, or Lectures on Fine Art elsewhere, from other professors, but the odds are good that if I don’t do it, they’ll never be introduced to Brand, Danto, Davies, Dickie, Dissanayake, Goehr, Lopes, Nochlin, Shiner, Weitz, etc. And that’s how they’ll get a totally unrepresentative idea of what aesthetics looks like and is about. Besides which, the students (who often aren’t even philosophy majors) seem to enjoy that material a lot more than they do the stereotypical Plato-Aristotle-Kant-Hegel-Nietzsche-Schopenhauer-Heidegger sequence. I feel the same way about the other non-historical fields (e.g. ethics, language, epistemology, mind).

Although I’m not a historian of philosophy, I think some similar considerations might be applicable there, too. Namely, there are some thinkers who may not be as central to the canonical narrative, but who are nonetheless important and interesting in their own right, and if you don’t teach them your students will probably never encounter them. So it’s worth adding them in, even at the expense of an important figure or two, to keep things fresh and interesting.Report

Jay
Jay
Reply to  Michel X.
2 years ago

If you can’t get students to enjoy Schopenhauer, you must be a terrible teacher.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

I’d vote for Michel X’s thematic approach, and would very much agree with the article. .Report