“Is it ok if I still work on Descartes?” The canon does not have to be canonical

Browsing through the web today, I found the following passage on the webpage of one of the few leading journals in the history of philosophy:

“Ever since the founding of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, its articles (and its submissions) have been dominated by papers on a small, select coterie of philosophers. Not surprisingly, these are Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant.”

“Not surprisingly” can be said in many ways, but the place and phrasing of the passage suggest some sort of pride on part of the author. But the “coterie” is so small that it still makes me chuckle. Given that this is one of the general top journals for the whole of the history of philosophy, this narrowness should be worrying. Posting this on facebook lead to some obvious entertainment. However, I also recognised some mild expression of shame from those who work on canonical figures. And I sometimes caught myself wondering whether I should continue to work on figures such as Ockham, Locke, Spinoza and Hume. Should we feel ashamed of working on the canon? In the light of such questions, I would like to briefly talk about a different worry: that of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. More precisely, I worry that attempts at diversifying the canon can harm good work on and alongside the canon. Let me explain.

Currently, we are witnessing an enormous amount of initiatives to diversify the canon, both with regard to the inclusion of women as well as of non-western traditions. The initiatives and projects I know are truly awe-inspiring. Not only do they open up new areas of research, they also affect the range of what is taught, even in survey courses. This is a great success for teaching and research in philosophy and its history. On the one hand, we learn more and more about crucial developments in the history of philosophy on a global level. On the other hand, this increase of knowledge also seems to set a moral record straight. In view of attempts to make our profession more inclusive in hiring, it’s obvious that we should also look beyond the narrow “coterie” when it comes to the content of research and teaching.

Now the moral dimension of diversification might embarrass those who continue to do teaching and research on canonical figures. “Is it ok”, one might wonder, “to teach Descartes rather than Elisabeth of Bohemia?” Of course, we might reply that it depends on one’s agenda. Yet, as much as diversification is a good thing, it will put pressure on those who choose otherwise. Given constraints of time and space, diversification might be perceived as adding to the competition. Will publishers and editors begin to favour the cool new work on non-canonical figures? Will I have to justify my canonical syllabus? While I wouldn’t worry too much about such issues, we know that our profession is rather competitive and it wouldn’t be the first time that good ideas are abused for nasty ends. – This is why it’s vital to see the whole idea of diversification as one to enrich and complement our knowledge. Rather than seeing canonical figures being pushed to the side, we should embrace the new lines of research and teaching as a way of learning new things also about canonical figures. In keeping with this spirit, I’d like to highlight two points that I find crucial in thinking about the canon and its diversification:

  • Firstly, there are non-canonical interpretations of the canon. The very idea of a canon suggests that we already know most things about certain figures and traditions. But we need to remind ourselves that the common doxography does by no means exhaust what there is to be known about authors such as Plato or Kant. Rather we need to see that most authors and debates are still unknown. On the one hand, we gather new historical knowledge about these figures. On the other hand, each generation of scholars has to make up their minds anew. Thus, even if we work on on the most canonical figures ever, we can challenge the common doxography and develop new knowledge.
  • Secondly, the diversification should also concern neglected figures alongside the canon. Have you noticed that the Middle Ages are represented by three authors? Yes, Aquinas, Aquinas, and Aquinas! Almost every study dipping into medieval discussions mentions Aquinas, while his teacher Albert the Great is hardly known outside specialist circles. But when we talk of diversification, we usually don’t think of Albert the Great, Adam of Wodeham, Kenelm Digby or Bernard Bolzano. These authors are neglected, unduly so, but they normally aren’t captured by attempts at diversification either. They run alongside the canonical figures and weigh on our conscience, but they have not much of a moral lobby. Yet, as I see it, it’s equally important that the work on them be continued and that they are studied in relation to other canonical and non-canonical figures.

In other words, the canon does not have to be canonical. The upshot is that we need as much work on canonical as on non-canonical figures in all senses of the word. We hardly know anything about either set of figures. And we constantly need to renew our understanding. Competition between these two areas of research and teaching strikes me as nonsensical. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with working on canonical figures.

3 thoughts on ““Is it ok if I still work on Descartes?” The canon does not have to be canonical

  1. Martin,
    This is enormously refreshing! Thank you for writing/posting it. I heartily agree that : “most authors and debates are still unknown”; We need as much work on canonical as non-canonical; we hardly know anything abut ether set of figures; we constantly need to renew our understanding”; and personally “Diversity should also concern neglected figures alongside the canon. The very idea of “alongsideness” conceptualizing the status of figures like, e.g. , Digby, directs attention where to find colleagues of the canon. I applaud the identification of the mindless moralist call to “diversify” as a “lobby.” Bravo! I’m sure I’m not the only reader who feels this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hm. The moral glorification you’re describing here certainly happens, and I agree that it does not do any good – but is it really that common? It’s not what I’ve observed.

    Also, the way you put it is overly dramatic: “I worry that attempts at diversifying the canon can harm good work on and alongside the canon”; “the moral dimension of diversification might embarrass those who continue to do teaching and research on canonical figures”. Really? “Might embarrass”? Even if the embarrassment is unjustified (and I agree that it would be, in the context you describe) – is it that harmful to be embarrassed once in a while?

    For what it’s worth, I have done some work on canonical figures as well as on minor ones. I spent a LOT of time justifying the latter – often in unpleasant interactions. If embarrassment is what you’re worried about, what about taking that one into account?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re certainly right that, so far, the burden has been on those working on non-canonical figures. I share your experience of having to offer a lot of justification, both in teaching and research contexts. – So why this post? I’m not aiming at describing something already common. My worry is that the balance *could* be tipped once historians start *competing* over this issue in some not too distant future. Limited resources (grant money, journal space) might produce competition where cooperation is needed.


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