The purpose of the canon

Inspired through a blog post by Lisa Shapiro and a remark by Sandra Lapointe, I began to think about the point of (philosophical) canons again: in view of various attempts to diversify the canon in philosophy, Sandra Lapointe pointed out that we shouldn’t do anything to the canon before we understand its purpose. That demand strikes me as very timely. In what follows I’d like to look at some loose ends and argue that we might not be able to diversify the canon in any straightforward manner.

Do canons have a purpose? I think they do. In a broad sense, I assume that canons have the function of coordinating educational needs. In philosophy, we think of canons as something that should be known. The same goes for literature, visual arts or music. Someone who claims to have studied music is taken to have heard of, say, Bach. Someone who claims to have studied philosophy is taken to have heard of, say, Margaret Cavendish. Wait! What? – Off the top of my head, I could name a quite few people who won’t have heard of Cavendish, but they will have heard of Plato or Descartes and recognise them as philosophers. But why is someone like Cavendish not canonical? Why hasn’t the attempt to diversify the canon already taken some hold?

If you accept my attempt at pinning down a general purpose, the interesting question with regard to specific canons is: why should certain things be known? A straightforward answer would be: because someone, say, your teacher, wanted you to know. But I don’t think that we can rely on the intentions of individuals or even groups to pin down a canon. Aquinas is not canonical because your professor likes him. – How, then, do canons evolve? I tend to think of canons as part of larger systems like (political) ideologies. Adapting David L. Smith’s account of ideology, I would endorse a teleofunctional account of canons. (Yes, I think what Ruth Millikan said about language as a biological category can be applied to canons.) Canons survive or have stability at least so long as they promote specific educational purposes linked to a system or ideology. Just think of the notorious Marx-Engels editions in Western antiquaries.

One of the crucial features of a teleofunctional understanding of canons is that they are not decided on by a person or a group of people, not even by the proverbial “old white men”. Rather they grow, get stabilised and perhaps decline again through historical periods that transcend the lives of individuals or groups. If canons get stabilised by promoting certain educational purposes, then the evolution of a canon will depend on the persistence of the educational purposes that they promote. I don’t know what would tip the balance in favour of a certain diversification, but at the moment I rather fear that philosophy itself might lose the status of serving an educational purpose. At least, if the dominant political climate is anything to go on.

If any of this is remotely correct, what are we to think of attempts to diversify the canon? I am not sure. I am myself in favour of challenging the canon. I’m not sure that this will alter the canon. It might or might not, depending perhaps on how much potential for challenge is built into the canon already. We currently witness a number of very laudable attempts to make new material and interpretations available. And as Lisa Shapiro argues, the sheer availability might alter what gets in. At the end of the day, we can make a difference in our courses and in what we write. How that relates to the evolution of the canon is an intriguing question – and one that I’d like to think about more in the near future. But what we should watch out for, too, is how the (political) climate will affect the very status of philosophy as a canonical subject in universities and societies.

4 thoughts on “The purpose of the canon

  1. That’s very interesting, Martin. Reading this I was thinking that something the abundance of material is also what justifies the Canon. You can’t read all the novels written in the 20th century, so you make a selection and take some of them as ‘representative’. Representativeness is very tricky, obviously. And yet, it answers a genuine need. This suggests that making indeed more materials available may just be a way of walking backward the path that led to the formation of the Canon without significantly altering it. Perhaps, after we read all the minor 17th century figures we’ll end up again thinking that, in the end, Descartes was quite ‘representative’. Interesting, I think that scholars in literature on other fields are much more advanced than philosophers in dealing with this kind of debates. And I’m thinking at the way in which DH approaches are reshaping the discussion. Perhaps we (philosophers) need the same – but this presupposes taking seriously methodological issues (which for some people are still just ‘boring stuff’).

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