“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.