“I’m an avid reader of Locke.” “I love listening to Bach.” – Utterances like this often expose the canon – be it in philosophy, literature, music or other arts – as a status symbol. The specifics of our cultural capital might differ, but basically we might say that one man’s Mercedes Benz is another’s readership of Goethe. What is often overlooked is that challenging the canon can look equally status-driven: “Oh, that’s another dead white man.” “I’m so excited about Caroline Shaw’s work.” – Spoken in the pertinent in-group, utterances like this are just as much of an indication of status symbolism. Challenging the canon, then, can become as much of a worn trope as defending adherence to the traditional canon. Let me explain.
Functions of history. – For better or worse, the aims of our discipline are often portrayed in epistemic terms. We study history, we say, to understand or explain (the development of) ideas and events. And in doing that, we want to “get it right.” Arguably, the aim of getting it right obscures a whole set of quite different aims of history. I think more often than not, history is done to (politically) justify or even legitimise one’s position. Just as talk about ancestors justifies inheritance, talk about philosophical predecessors is often invoked to legitimise why it’s worth thinking about something along certain lines. Just asking a question on the fly is nothing, but continuing the tradition of inquiring about the criteria of knowledge does not only justify historical research; it also legitimises our current approaches. Seen this way, a historical canon legitimises one’s own interests. Likewise, the attack on a canonical figure can be seen as shaking such legitimacy, be it with regard to representative figures, topics or questions. Conversely, I might aim to adjust the canon to find and highlight the ancestry that legitimises a new field of study. This endeavour is not one of “getting it right” though. Of course, we cannot change the past, but we can attempt to change the canon or what we admit to the canon so as to admit of ancestors in line with new ways of thinking. As I see it, these are well-founded motivations to study and/or alter the study of canonical figures. – However, while such motivations might well drive our choices in doing history, they can also deteriorate into something like mere status symbolism. Let’s look at a concrete example.
Three kinds of debates. – I recently read a piece about Locke on slavery, making the point that Locke’s involvement in the American context is far more problematic than recent research portrayed it to be.* The piece struck me as an interesting contribution to (1) the debate on Locke’s political ideas, but the title was jazzed up with the recommendation to leave “Locke in the dustbin of history”. Since the word “dustbin” doesn’t return in the text, I’m not sure whether the title reflects the author’s choice. Be that as it may, in contrast to the piece itself (which is part of a series of texts on Locke’s political position), the title firmly places it in (2) a larger public debate about the moral status of canonical philosophers such as Hume, Berkeley or Aristotle. I think both the more scholarly and the more public debates are important and intertwined in various ways. We can be interested in both how Locke thought about slavery and how we want to judge his involvement. Given what I said about the justifying function of history, it’s clear that we look at authors not only as ancestors. We also ask whether they do or do not support a line of thought we want to endorse. And if it turns out that Locke’s thought is compatible with advocating slavery, then we want to think again how we relate to Locke, in addition to studying again the pertinent documents. However, in addition to these two debates, there is (3) yet another debate about the question whether we should be having these debates at all. This is the debate about the so-called “cancel culture”. While some say we shouldn’t cancel philosophers like Locke, others challenge the omnipresence of the notorious old or dead white men. As I see it, this latter debate about cancellation is highly problematic insofar as its proponents often question the legitimacy of the former (scholarly) debates.
As I see it, debates (1) and (2) are scholarly debates about Locke’s position on slavery. (1) makes an internal case regarding Locke’s writings. (2) also zooms in on the contrast to current views on slavery. (3) however is a different debate altogether. Here, the question is mainly whether it is legitimate to invoke Locke as an ancestor or as part of a canon we want to identify with. The main problem I see, though, is that the title “Leave John Locke in the historical dustbin” makes the whole piece ambiguous between (2) and (3). Given the piece, I’d think this works on level (2), but given how people responded to it and can use it, it becomes a hit piece on level (3) whose only aim seems to be to write Locke out of the (legitimate) canon. But this ambiguity or continuity between the the two kinds of debate is disastrous for the discipline. While on levels (1) and (2) the question of how Locke relates to slavery is an open question, dependent on interpretations of empirical evidence, Locke’s moral failure is already taken for granted on level (3). Here, the use of the canonical figure Locke stops being historical. It reduces to political partisanship. Why? Because history is then taken to be something already known, rather than something to be studied.
The irony is that each group, the defenders as well as the challengers of the canonical figure, questions the moral legitimacy of what they suppose the other group does by making a similar move, that is by appealing to a status symbol that enjoys recognition in the pertinent in-group. One group shouts “Locke and Enlightenment”; the other group shouts “Locke and Racism”. Neither approach to history strikes me as historical. It deteriorates into a mere use of historical items as status symbols, providing shortcuts for political fights. All of this is perhaps not very suprprising. The problem is that such status symbolism undermines scholarly debates and threatens to reduce historical approaches to political partisanship. My point, then, is not that all political or moral discussion of history reduces to status symbolism. But there is the danger that historical scholarship can appear to be continuous with mere status symbolism.
* I’d like to thank Nick Denyer, Natalia Milopolsky, Naomi Osorio, Tzuchien Tho, Anna Tropia, and Markus Wild for insightful remarks or exchanges on this matter.