The purpose of the canon

Inspired through a blog post by Lisa Shapiro and a remark by Sandra Lapointe, I began to think about the point of (philosophical) canons again: in view of various attempts to diversify the canon in philosophy, Sandra Lapointe pointed out that we shouldn’t do anything to the canon before we understand its purpose. That demand strikes me as very timely. In what follows I’d like to look at some loose ends and argue that we might not be able to diversify the canon in any straightforward manner.

Do canons have a purpose? I think they do. In a broad sense, I assume that canons have the function of coordinating educational needs. In philosophy, we think of canons as something that should be known. The same goes for literature, visual arts or music. Someone who claims to have studied music is taken to have heard of, say, Bach. Someone who claims to have studied philosophy is taken to have heard of, say, Margaret Cavendish. Wait! What? – Off the top of my head, I could name a quite few people who won’t have heard of Cavendish, but they will have heard of Plato or Descartes and recognise them as philosophers. But why is someone like Cavendish not canonical? Why hasn’t the attempt to diversify the canon already taken some hold?

If you accept my attempt at pinning down a general purpose, the interesting question with regard to specific canons is: why should certain things be known? A straightforward answer would be: because someone, say, your teacher, wanted you to know. But I don’t think that we can rely on the intentions of individuals or even groups to pin down a canon. Aquinas is not canonical because your professor likes him. – How, then, do canons evolve? I tend to think of canons as part of larger systems like (political) ideologies. Adapting David L. Smith’s account of ideology, I would endorse a teleofunctional account of canons. (Yes, I think what Ruth Millikan said about language as a biological category can be applied to canons.) Canons survive or have stability at least so long as they promote specific educational purposes linked to a system or ideology. Just think of the notorious Marx-Engels editions in Western antiquaries.

One of the crucial features of a teleofunctional understanding of canons is that they are not decided on by a person or a group of people, not even by the proverbial “old white men”. Rather they grow, get stabilised and perhaps decline again through historical periods that transcend the lives of individuals or groups. If canons get stabilised by promoting certain educational purposes, then the evolution of a canon will depend on the persistence of the educational purposes that they promote. I don’t know what would tip the balance in favour of a certain diversification, but at the moment I rather fear that philosophy itself might lose the status of serving an educational purpose. At least, if the dominant political climate is anything to go on.

If any of this is remotely correct, what are we to think of attempts to diversify the canon? I am not sure. I am myself in favour of challenging the canon. I’m not sure that this will alter the canon. It might or might not, depending perhaps on how much potential for challenge is built into the canon already. We currently witness a number of very laudable attempts to make new material and interpretations available. And as Lisa Shapiro argues, the sheer availability might alter what gets in. At the end of the day, we can make a difference in our courses and in what we write. How that relates to the evolution of the canon is an intriguing question – and one that I’d like to think about more in the near future. But what we should watch out for, too, is how the (political) climate will affect the very status of philosophy as a canonical subject in universities and societies.

What are you good at?

Many philosophy papers have a similar structure. That is quite helpful, since you know your way around quickly. It’s like walking through a pedestrian zone: even if you are in a completely strange town, you immediately know where you find the kinds of shops you’re looking for. But apart from the macro-structure, this often also is true of the micro-structure: the way the sentences are phrased, the vocabulary is employed, the rhythm of the paragraphs. “I shall argue” in every introduction.

I don’t mean this as a criticism. I attempt to write like that myself, and I also try to teach it. Our writing is formulaic, and that’s fine. But what I would like to suggest is that we try to teach and use more ingredients in that framework. I vividly remember these moments when a fellow student or colleague got up and, instead of stringing yet another eloquent sentence together, drew something on the blackboard or attempted to impose order by presenting some crucial concepts in a table. For some strange reason, these ways of presenting a thought or some material rarely find their ways into our papers. Why not?

I think of these and other means as styles of thinking. Visualising thoughts, for instance, is something that I’m not very good at myself. But that’s precisely why I learn so much from them. And even if I can’t draw, I can attempt to describe the visualisations. Describing a visualisation (or a sound or taste) is quite different from stringing arguments together. You might extend this point to all the other arts: literature, music, what have you!

Trying to think of language as one sense-modality amongst others might help to think differently about certain questions. Visit your phenomenologist! On the one hand, you can use such styles as aids in a toolkit that will not replace but enrich your ways of producing evidence or conveying an idea. On the other hand, they might actually enrich the understanding of an issue itself. In any case, such styles should be encouraged and find their way into our papers and books more prominently.

As I said, I’m not good at visualising, but it helps me enormously if someone else does it. Assuming that we all have somewhat different talents, I often ask students: “What are you good at?” Whatever the answer is, there is always something that will lend itself to promoting a certain style of thinking, ready to be exploited in the next paper to be written.