Should we stop talking about “minor figures”?

Every now and then, I hear someone mentioning that they work on “minor figures” in the history of philosophy. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the very term “minor figures” makes me cringe. Perhaps it is the brutally belittling way of picking out the authors in question. Let’s face it, when we’re speaking of “minor figures” we don’t necessarily mean “unduly underrated” or “neglected”. At the same time, the reasons are not clear to me indeed, since I know perfectly well that especially people who work on them do anything but belittle them. Nevertheless, the use of the term indicates that there is something wrong with our historiographical and linguistic practice. In what follows, I want to have a stab at what’s wrong, first with “minor”, then with “figures”.

Let me begin by saying that I deem most of the work done on “minor figures” very important and instructive. Projects such as Peter Adamson’s “History of Philosophy without any Gaps” or Lisa Shapiro’s and Karen Detlefsen’s “New Narratives” constantly challenge our canon by providing great resources. What’s wrong with the talk of “minor figures” then? I guess the use of the term “minor” confirms the canonical figures in their role as “major figures” or even geniuses. Even if I shift the focus to some hardly known or even entirely anonymous person, the reference to them is mostly justified by being an “interlocutor” of a “major” figure. Who begins to study Walter Chatton not because of William Ockham or Burthogge not because of Locke? The context that these minors are supposed to provide is still built around an “absurdly narrow” set of canonical figures. But even if researchers might eventually study such figures “in their own right”, the gatekeeping practice among book and journal editors doesn’t seem to change anytime soon. In other words, attempts at diversification or challenging of the canon paradoxically stabilize it.

Now you might argue that there is good reason to focus on major figures. Presumably they are singled out because they write indeed the best texts, raise the most intriguing issues, present the best arguments or have the greatest impact on others. Although I don’t want to downplay the fact that most canonical authors are truly worth reading, we simply aren’t in a position to know. And you don’t even need to pick hardly known people such as Adam Wodeham or Giovanni Battista Giattini. Why not prefer Albert the Great over the notorious Aquinas? Why not read Burthogge or Zabarella in the first-year course? Really, there is nothing that would justify the relatively minor status irrespective of existing preferences.

But perhaps the central worry is not the talk of “minor”. What seems worse is the fact that we focus so much on figures rather than debates, questions or topics. Why not work on debates about intentionality or social justice rather than Plato or Sartre? Of course you might indeed have an interest in studying a figure, minor or major. But unless you have a particular biographical interest, you might, even as a dedicated historian of philosophy, be more likely to actually focus on a topic in a figure or on the debate that that person is participating in. I see two main reasons for shifting the focus from figures to debates. Firstly, philosophy does not really happen within people but between them. Secondly, the focus on a person suggests that we try to figure out the intention of an author, but unless you take such a way of speaking as a shorthand for textual analysis, your object of study is not easily available.

By the way, if we shift the focus from people to debates, we don’t need the distinction between minor and major any longer. When I studied Locke, it became natural to study figures such as Burthogge. When I studied Ockham, it became natural to study figures such as Adam Wodeham or various anonymi. But perhaps, you might argue, our reason for focussing on figures is more human: we’re interested in what people think rather than in the arguments in texts alone. When we make assumptions, we think along with people and try to account for their ideas as well as their shortcomings and inconsistencies. But even if that is true, we shouldn’t forget that people are not really ever geniuses. Their thoughts mature in dialogue, not least in dialogue with minor figures such as ourselves.

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