What kind of thing is the canon?

“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Given the ever-increasing amount of initiatives on diversifying the canon, it is striking that one crucial question does not seem to be tackled much: What kind of thing is the canon?* While I have sketched my view on the function of the canon in an earlier post, I don’t really have found an answer either. I find this question crucial because it will tell us something about the fate and success indicators of the initiatives. What if it turns out that the canon is a kind of thing that cannot be altered? Or at least not in the way envisaged in the current projects? In what follows, I’d like to suggest that it’s crucial to see that, like a standard language, a canon has both a descriptive and prescriptive dimension.

Description and prescription. – Like in music or literature, the canon in the history of philosophy is a historical and normative entity. It has grown over a long time and is related to a larger set of norms and conventions interwoven with our habits and actions. Here, the canon is not just something adhered to; it’s a point of reference equally for those who wish to maintain it and those challenging it. If I write atonal rock music, I know that I do that against a canon of tonal music. My writing atonal music might be a challenge to the canon or might slowly be integrated. Both is possible. What’s crucial is that it’s not under my control whether my pieces alter the canon. The same might be said of the way we speak and write or even the way we build our cities. For me, the upshot is that the canon has at once a descriptive and prescriptive dimension. It tells us how things were and became. But it also tells us how things should be done. And whether your or my contributions figure in that is not for us to say.

The canon as a standard language. – Given the co-presence of descriptive and prescriptive aspects, the canon might be compared to a standard in a language, like Standard English as opposed to certain dialects. It is a historically grown entity as well as a set of rules determining what counts as “proper”. In this sense, we can compare canon diversification projects such as Extending New Narratives to attempts at ameliorating linguistic practices by suggesting different words or grammatical features so as to make underrepresented groups linguistically visible. The emphasis on more diverse and chosen pronouns, for instance, resembles the attempt to make minorities visible in the history of philosophy. Likewise, the political backlashes and difficulties are on a par with those in historiography. But just as language is only partially under our conscious control, the (philosophical) canon cannot be altered simply by adding so called “minor figures” to it. Adding expressions to the standard language does not mean that they will be used in conversation or seen as a (new) standard. But they may be. Who knows?

Can we change the past? – If canons are both descriptive and prescriptive, attempts at altering the canon are not only prescriptive and designed to nudge us into a different future practice of (history of) philosophy. They are also descriptive, and that means they describe the past in an altered way, for instance, by including hitherto underrepresented figures. For this reason, they are often met with the silly objection that they would distort or even erase history. The objection is silly because it identifies the challenged canon with the past or with history. But the canon is not the past. The canon is a way of approaching the past. And such a way is always guided by values and thus selective.

If this is correct, however, it means that attempts at diversifying the canon are not an attempt to give a more complete or accurate picture of the past. It rather means that we (want to) change how we approach the past and who or what we think counts as relevant. The goal of doing history of philosophy is not to present an accurate picture of the past, but to present an accurate picture of what we think matters for our present and future. If diversity matters for us, it also matters in our approach to the past. In this regard, it’s helpful to consider Wittgenstein’s likening of language to an ancient city. Like the philosophical past, the ever changing city has been there and yet is present in our life. But which precise places and streets we go to and build on is something that is up to us. It took a long time until, for instance, mosques in Berlin were not only found in backyards anymore but also in clearly visible places of town.


* That said, a number of questions have been tackled, especially in Lonneke Oostland’s recent MA thesis “Canon ‘Enrichment’ and the History of Philosophy”. Besides Lonneke, I’d like to thank Han Thomas Adriaenssen, Daria Drozdova, Martin Krohs, Laura Georgescu and Felipe Romero for intriguing conversations about the status of the canon.

3 thoughts on “What kind of thing is the canon?

  1. Hey,

    It’s true that the canon has features pertaining to ideology and (for lack of a better term) power/knowledge relations. In that sense it is, up to a point, normative/prescriptive and genealogically constructed. At the same time it is, as you point out, descriptive, or rather interpretative and constitutive; it constructs a past qua narrative. So when you note that “The goal of doing history of philosophy is not to present an accurate picture of the past, but to present an accurate picture of what we think matters for our present and future” one could point out that the past, in the last instance, *is* in fact this constructive interpretation of what matters about it. There is no pure concept of the past that makes sense, so why not get right on with this conceptualization that includes both the descr. and the prescr. aspects.

    I think that the main problem with the type of virulent, politically grounded attacks on the canon that are becoming more and more frequent is that they ignore the “descriptive” aspect, or consider it completely arbitrary. In a way, they have little to do with the reality of their object and more to do with its accordance to a set of ideas and postulates (in that case, political-ethical). The object’s reality has ugly sides (e.g. male-dominated) from our present evauative point of view, which are to “blame” for the canon’s non-accordance with some of our intuitions. But it also contains a lot of truth. Unfortunately, the truth tends to be discarded by proxy as oppressive in itself, etc. Disagreeing with Aristotle on slavery shouldn’t lead to dismissing the Organon. And, for better or worse, slavery and Organon are both linked to Aristotle.

    This is why the objection of erasing history might not be as silly as you present it. If we take the more nuanced notions of past and history as starting points, there is violence done to history that is not counterpoised by the creation of some alternative canon that could act as an anchoring point in the same way this one does, partly for reasons that you mention (“cannot be altered simply by adding so called ‘minor figures’ to it”). Erasing history, in this context, would mean depriving it of a continuity and depth that, by constructing a narrative, help us navigate in the present and provide us with examples, archetypes, models, etc.

    Two elements strike me as crucial about all this. One has to do with time, and by extension with history: if we accept that there is a profound metaphysical mutation in the way time is experienced (obviously a complex matter), then this will have repercussions on the sense of past, canon included. The other has to do with the concept of identity that is at work in simplistic attacks on the canon. It’s as if canonical figures, texts and relations are to be exhanged at will with others that suit us better. But narratives don’t work like that, and identities are not finite sets of attributes, but multiplicities. Changing the canon would need to be done on the canon’s terms.


    1. Dear bV, Thanks for your comment! – While I agree with a number of things, I’m not sure I understand all your claims without further elaboration. So please bear with me.

      I agree that there is no “pure past” available and I also agree that attempts at modifying the canon might underestimate the robustness of the descriptive part, which you identify as the “main problem”.

      But then you start going back and forth between the assumption that there is no pure past, on the one hand, and that “they” miss the “reality of their object”. Are both social constructs or is one more robust than the other?

      You then go on to say that there is “violence done to history”. But without examples I can’t for the life of me think of what you’re referring to: To the New Narratives project that mainly adds to the existing canon? Probably not. To those renaming the Hume Tower? Well, monuments are not the same as canonical authors. Since the more obvious guesses don’t get me anywhere, I’d be grateful if you could name initiatives you have in mind.

      So on the whole, I see to problems: (1) What is the status of the past, according to you? Are you a realist or more of a constructivist? (2) Who is doing violence to history?


  2. Hey dear Martin,

    thanks for your points. Obviously a clear and distinct (:-P) articulation of the details of the problem involves many difficulties and would take some time, and I’m not sure about the appropriateness of our medium; I’ll try to address what you put on the table, though. Excuse me if I get a bit delirious along the way.

    Regarding the past and history qua “construction” / “reality”. I’ve already alluded to a “conceptualization that includes both the descriptive and prescriptive aspects”. So, the short and trivial answer to your direct question would be that both the canon and its critiques are “social constructs”, but to stop there would be misleading. Social constructs contain, equally obviously, an attempt at some degree of objectivity about their subjects. Any canon is partially formulated through extended such attempts at objectivity, and gets continuously challenged throughout its history – canons are, as you pointed out, evolving historical entities. There are always good reasons for why a thing or an idea (in the wide sense of the term) is prevailing, and I think these reasons go beyond plain top-down enforcement. Without insight as to this fact, critiques tend to be abstract (in the technical sense) and self-referential.

    For example, up to a point historiography would be construed as a bottom up description of “great people” and events, etc. But marxist history, the annales school, or microhistory, to name some examples, have tried to shift the focus to other dimensions of historical social reality. Who would have thought 100 years ago that the story of a 16th century miller would be of historical interest? Same goes, e.g., about Rancière’s project on the relationship of some members of the 19th century french proletariat to culture. These people didn’t condemn the then current status quo of historiography, but tried to prove, within the truth regimes of their subjects (also subject to elaborations), the importance of these alternatives. I hope you get my point.

    So, presenting “an accurate picture of what we think matters for our present and future” cannot really be separated from a claim to objectivity, otherwise there is nothing in (philosophy of) history but a clash of forces (=vis) that struggle to exterminate one another. I don’t think this is the case, and when things are conceived like that, stuff tend to get ominous. Different interpretations are constituted as powers (=potentiae) that include force, but are not reduced to it. I think that some of the currents attacks that target the canon operate through such a warlike understanding of history, often functioning as attempts at a sort of liberal Cultural Revolution. But we would need to go beyond the specific problem of the canon to look into the social conditions that produce, and generalize, such an understanding.

    As for concrete examples, I don’t have a particular problem with the New Narratives project, since it is trying to go about its way more or less in the manner sketched out above. On the other hand, I don’t think its goal and the method of pursuing it qua general reform are purposeful, seeing as it puts the cart before the horse: 1. We are pro-inclusivity, 2. History does not look inclusive, therefore 3. We change history to make it more inclusive – as if the non-inclusivity of history is (just) a matter of discourse and its historical results were illusory. (Of course, same applies e.g. to the example of microhistory of the past above: the sources are limited, we will never have as good a picture of everyday life, habits and ideas of the laypeople of certain eras as we have of the dominant fractions.) But the lack of women and marginalized groups from the canon is due to their sociopolitical circumstances, that have been historically obstructive to their preoccupation with the kind of high culture that ends up in the canon. (Add to that the problem of the slow death of actual popular culture.) And the notion of identity that underpins such attempts is analytic, i.e. pertaining to well-definable attributes (to be included), rather than “multiplistic”, i.e. sets of relations within wholes.

    Maybe I’m naive, but I believe that stuff that need to be of reference will, more or less, end up acquiring this status (when there are more women writers, inevitably more women will get included in the canon); and also that setting up an agenda in service of some cause does not necessarily lead to the desired results (think Weber). So my take on the issue has not that much to do with its institutional aspects in the narrow sense, and I’m not that well versed in what is happening in the history of philosophy establishment-wise. Rather, I am interested –and somewhat worried– by the large picture some of the stuff that has been going on imply. You might remember that Yale student petition some time ago against “white male authors” that ended with “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention”; or think of stuff like this (https://theriveter.co/voice/its-time-to-banish-the-western-canon/). These are quasi-institutional examples, but I don’t think politics are limited to institutions. And while one can consider them as isolated examples with limited significance, I think that this kind of attacks are expressing something more profound.

    We (at least I) don’t do philosophy, or read past literature, or enjoy art to confirm the ideas and opinions I have already formed. We don’t need to endorse Pound’s politics, or Locke’s slave company practice etc., to recognize their cultural and spiritual value. We can engage them critically, but on their own terms, trying not to commit what we could dub normative fallacies. It seems pitiful to not being able to recognize the value of the so-called canonical oeuvres because of clearly external criteria, however prized these criteria are to us; and it certainly doesn’t serve the criteria themselves either, since they make sense only in relation to history, and also because things that are habitually linked to poor practice will end up getting associated with it (II 18 s :-)).

    So, as I said above: I think this canon problem is indicative of a larger picture. For example, the managerialization and marketization of the university; the sense of self in the neoliberal era; the relationship to time and history; the effect of mass digital mediation; the (ontological) notion of identity that I mentioned in the other comment; identity politics and the status quo; the hegemony of mass culture and its sometimes philistinic character; issues like these –and then some– need to get in the picture to think about the canon problem.


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