“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.

Against allusions

What is the worst feature of my writing? I can’t say what it is these days; you tell me please! But looking back at what I worked hardest to overcome in writing I’d say it’s using allusions. I would write things such as “in the wake of the debate on semantic externalism” or “given the disputes over divine omnipotence bla bla” without explaining what precise debate I actually meant or what kind of semantic externalism or notions of the divine I had in mind. This way, I would refer to a context without explicating it. I guess such allusions were supposed to do two things: on the one hand, I used them to abbreviate the reference to a certain context or theory etc., on the other hand, I was hoping to display my knowledge of that context. To peers, it was meant to signal awareness of the appropriate references without actually getting too involved and, most importantly, without messing up. If you don’t explicate or explain, you can’t mess things up all that much. In short, I used allusions to make the right moves. So what’s wrong with making the right moves?

Let me begin by saying something general about allusions. Allusions, also known as “hand waving”, are meant to refer to something without explicitly stating it. Thus, they are good for remaining vague or ambiguous and can serve various ends in common conversation or literature. Most importantly, their successful use presupposes sufficient knowledge on part of the listener or reader who has to have the means to disambiguate a word or phrase. Funnily enough, such presuppositions are often accompanied by phrases insinuating the contrary. Typical phrases are: “as we all know”, “as is well known”, “famously”, “obviously”, “clearly”, “it goes without saying” etc.

Such presuppositions flourish and work greatly among friends. Here, they form a code that often doesn’t require any of the listed phrases or other markers. They rather work like friendly nods or winks. But while they might be entertaining among friends, they often exclude other listeners in scholarly contexts. Now you might hasten to think that those excluded simply don’t ‘get it’, because they lack the required knowledge. But that’s not true. Disambiguation requires knowledge, yes, but it also and crucially requires confidence (since you always might make a fool of yourself after all) and an interest in the matter. If you’re unsure whether you’re really interested, allusions used among scholars often closely resemble the tone of a couple of old blokes dominating a dinner party with old insider jokes. Who wants to sound like that in writing?

Apart from sounding like a bad party guest, there is a deeper problem with allusions in scholarly contexts. They rely on the status quo of canonical knowledge. Since the presuppositions remain unspoken, the listener has go by what he or she takes to be a commonly acceptable disambiguation. Of course, we have to take some things as given and we cannot explicate everything, but when it comes to important steps in our arguments or evidence, reliance on allusions is an appeal to the authority of the status quo rather than the signalling of scholarly virtue.

I began to notice this particularly in essays by students who were writing their essays mainly for their professors. Assuming that professors know (almost) everything, nothing seems to need unpacking. But since almost all concepts in philosophy are essentially contested, such allusions often don’t work. As long as I don’t know which precise version of an idea I’m supposed to assume, I might be just as lost as if I didn’t know the next thing about it. Thus the common advice to write for beginners or fellow students. Explain and unpack at least all the things you’re committed to argue for or use as evidence for a claim. Otherwise at least I often won’t get what’s going on.

The problem with that advice is that it remains unclear how much explanation is actually appropriate. Of course, we can’t do without presuppositions. And we cannot and should not write only for beginners. If allusions are a vice, endless explanations might fare no better. Aiming at avoiding every possible misunderstanding can result in an equally dull or unintelligible prose. So I guess we have to unpack some things and merely allude to others. But which ones do we explain in detail? It’s important to see that every paper or book has (or should have) a focus: this is the claim you ultimately want to argue for. At the same time, there will be many assumptions that you shouldn’t commit yourself to showing. I attempt to explain only those things that are part of the focus. That said, it sometimes really is tricky to figure out what that focus actually is. Unpacking allusions might help with finding it, though.

Why would we want to call people “great thinkers” and cite harassers? A response to Julian Baggini

If you have ever been at a rock or pop concert, you might recognise the following phenomenon: The band on the stage begins playing an intro. Pulsing synths and roaring drums build up to a yet unrecognisable tune. Then the band breaks into the well-known chorus of their greatest hit and the audience applauds frenetically. People become enthusiastic if they recognise something. Thus, part of the “greatness” is owing to the act of recognising it. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that people celebrate their own recognition at least as much as the tune performed. I think much the same is true of our talk of “great thinkers”. We applaud recognised patterns. But only applauding the right kinds of patterns and thinkers secures our belonging to the ingroup. Since academic applause signals and regulates who belongs to a group, such applause has a moral dimension, especially in educational institutions. Yes, you guess right, I want to argue that we need to rethink whom and what we call great.

When we admire someone’s smartness or argument, an enormous part of our admiration is owing to our recognition of preferred patterns. This is why calling someone a “great thinker” is to a large extent self-congratulatory. It signals and reinforces canonical status. What’s important is that this works in three directions: it affirms that status of the figure, it affirms it for me, and it signals this affirmation to others. Thus, it signals where I (want to) belong and demonstrates which nuances of style and content are of the right sort. The more power I have, the more I might be able to reinforce such status. People speaking with the backing of an educational institution can help building canonical continuity. Now the word “great” is conveniently vague. But should we applaud bigots?

“Admiring the great thinkers of the past has become morally hazardous.” Thus opens Julian Baggini’s piece on “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable”. Baggini’s essay is quite thoughtful and I advise you to read it. That said, I fear it contains a rather problematic inconsistency. Arguing in favour of excusing Hume for his racism, Baggini makes an important point: “Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of. Those who refuse to accept that they are as much limited by these forces as anyone else have delusions of intellectual grandeur.” – I agree that our thinking is indeed very much shaped by our (social) surroundings. But while Baggini makes this point to exculpate Hume,* he clearly forgets all about it when he returns to calling Hume one of the “greatest minds”. If Hume’s racism can be excused by his embeddedness in a racist social environment, then surely much of his philosophical “genius” cannot be exempt from being explained through this embeddedness either. In other words, if Hume is not (wholly) responsible for his racism, then he cannot be (wholly) responsible for his philosophy either. So why call only him the “great mind”?

Now Baggini has a second argument for leaving Hume’s grandeur untouched. Moral outrage is wasted on the dead because, unlike the living, they can neither “face justice” nor “show remorse”. While it’s true that the dead cannot face justice, it doesn’t automatically follow that we should not “blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today”. I guess we do the latter all the time. Even some court systems punish past crimes. Past Nazi crimes are still put on trial, even if the system under which they were committed had different standards and is a thing of a past (or so we hope). Moreover, even if the dead cannot face justice themselves, it does make a difference how we remember and relate to the dead. Let me make two observations that I find crucial in this respect:

(1) Sometimes we uncover “unduly neglected” figures. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, has been pushed to the side as an atheist for a long time. Margaret Cavendish is another case of a thinker whose work has been unduly neglected. When we start reading such figures again and begin to affirm their status, we declare that we see them as part of our ingroup and ancestry. Accordingly, we try and amend an intellectual injustice. Someone has been wronged by not having been recognised. And although we cannot literally change the past, in reclaiming such figures we change our intellectual past, insofar as we change the patterns that our ingroup is willing to recognise. Now if we can decide to help changing our past in that way, moral concerns apply. It seems we have a duty to recognise figures that have been shunned, unduly by our standards.**

(2) Conversely, if we do not acknowledge what we find wrong in past thinkers, we are in danger of becoming complicit in endorsing and amplifying the impact of certain wrongs or ideologies. But we have the choice of changing our past in these cases, too. This becomes even more pressing in cases where there is an institutional continuity between us and the bigots of the past. As Markus Wild points out in his post, Heidegger’s influence continues to haunt us, if those exposing his Nazism are attacked. Leaving this unacknowledged in the context of university teaching might mean becoming complicit in amplifying the pertinent ideology. That said, the fact that we do research on such figures or discuss their doctrines does not automatically mean that we endorse their views. As Charlotte Knowles makes clear, it is important how we relate or appropriate the doctrines of others. It’s one thing to appropriate someone’s ideas; it’s another thing to call that person “great” or a “genius”.

Now, how do these considerations fare with regard to current authors? Should we adjust, for instance, our citation practices in the light of cases of harassment or crimes? – I find this question rather difficult and think we should be open to all sorts of considerations.*** However, I want to make two points:

Firstly, if someone’s work has shaped a certain field, it would be both scholarly and morally wrong to lie about this fact. But the crucial question, in this case, is not whether we should shun someone’s work. The question we have to ask is rather why our community recurrently endorses people who abuse their power. If Baggini has a point, then the moral wrongs that are committed in our academic culture are most likely not just the wrongs of individual scapegoats who happen to be found out. So if we want to change that, it’s not sufficient to change our citation practice. I guess the place to start is to stop endowing individuals with the status of “great thinkers” and begin to acknowledge that thinking is embedded in social practices and requires many kinds of recognition.

Secondly, trying to take the perspective of a victim, I would feel betrayed if representatives of educational institutions would simply continue to endorse such voices and thus enlarge the impact of perpetrators who have harmed others in that institution. And victimhood doesn’t just mean “victim of overt harassment”. As I said earlier, there are intellectual victims of trends or systems that shun voices for various reasons, only to be slowly recovered by later generations who wish to amend the canon and change their past accordingly.

So the question to ask is not only whether we should change our citation practices. Rather we should wonder how many thinkers have not yet been heard because our ingroup keeps applauding one and the same “great mind”.


* Please note, however, that Hume’s racism was already criticised by Adam Smith and James Beattie, as Eric Schliesser notes in his intriguing discussion of Baggini’s historicism (from 26 November 2018).

** Barnaby Hutchins provides a more elaborate discussion of this issue: “The point is that a neutral approach to doing history of philosophy doesn’t seem to be a possibility, at least not if we care about, e.g., historical accuracy or innovation. Our approaches need to be responsive to the structural biases that pervade our practices; they need to be responsive to the constant threat of falling into this chauvinism. So it’s risky, at best, to take an indiscriminately positive approach towards canonical and non-canonical alike. We have an ethical duty (broadly construed) to apply a corrective generosity to the interpretation of non-canonical figures. And we also have an ethical duty to apply a corrective scepticism to the canon. Precisely because the structures of philosophy are always implicitly pulling us in favour of canonical philosophers, we need to be, at least to some extent, deliberately antagonistic towards them.”

In the light of these considerations, I now doubt my earlier conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

*** See Peter Furlong’s post for some recent discussion.

Heidegger: Uses and Abuse(s)

Following his post ‘‘Heidegger was a Nazi’ What now?’, Martin Lenz invited me to join the discussion.

There has been a lot written about whether we can separate out Heidegger’s philosophical work from his politics, in particular whether Being and Time – which is often seen as his most significant contribution – can be ‘saved’. There is a lot of excellent scholarship in this area (see for example the work of Mahon O’Brien), but this is not my particular field of expertise. Nevertheless, while I do not feel I can speak directly to the historical question, I would say that, personally, when I first encountered Being and Time as an undergraduate, I didn’t read it and think ‘this guy is definitely a Nazi’. However, once you have this knowledge it obviously makes you reflect on the writing, and there are certain points in the text (the issue of destiny etc), which can be read as problematic in light of his Nazism. Although I do wonder to what extent these things are read into the text in light of knowledge of his politics. I would also add that these more problematic aspects are, to my mind, not the key contributions of Being and Time and that what I take to be the more important concepts and ideas can be employed in other contexts without being ‘infected’ by his politics. In this vein, one must also note the influence of Heideggerean ideas, not only on the French tradition, but also for example on Arendt’s work. If Heidegger’s oeuvre is infected by his politics, does this mean that any work, or any thinker, that draws on his ideas is similarly infected? I think not.

Knowledge of Heideggerean ideas can help to enhance our understanding of other key thinkers, as I argue in my paper Beauvoir and Women’s Complicity in their own Unfreedom. Reading the notion of complicity in The Second Sex in light of the notions of falling and fleeing in Being and Time helps to bring about new ways of thinking about complicity that are not available if we just understand the notion of complicity with regard to the Sartrean idea of bad faith, or in light of the Republican tradition.

With regard to the broader debate about philosophers with, to put it mildly, ‘dodgy politics’, I think it is very striking that Frege, for example (who Martin does note in his original blog post), is so often not mentioned in this context and that these debates appear to be had almost exclusively in relation to Heidegger and not other thinkers who would also serve to make the same point. I would not in any way want to defend Heidegger’s politics, but I do think appeal to his politics is often used as a way to dismiss his work because people have other reasons for not wanting to engage with it, and this is an easy way to dismiss him. I’ve had people dismiss questions I’ve asked at conferences because (after a couple of follow up questions) it’s become apparent that I might be using Heideggerean ideas as a touch stone. In the formal discussion they’ve said ‘oh I don’t know anything about him’ and then shut down the discussion, even though knowledge of Heidegger wasn’t necessary to engage with the point. I don’t think if the same point was made using, for example, Kantian ideas or something inspired by Descartes anyone would dream of dismissing this in the same way. I’ve also had senior people tell me ‘you shouldn’t work on Heidegger, you’ll never get a job’. I think this attitude is unhelpful. Yes, his political views are abhorrent, but given his influence on other key thinkers and traditions I don’t think we can just dismiss his work.

I also think there seems to be an underlying assumption that anyone who works on Heidegger just uncritically accepts his ideas and worships him as a god, which is perhaps true of some (bad) Heidegger scholarship. But my own work, which draws on Heideggerean resources to make points in feminist philosophy, does not treat him in this way. One seems to encounter the attitude in a lot of people who are critical of Heidegger scholarship that anyone who works on him has been inducted into a kind of cult and completely lacks agency, that they can’t separate out the potentially fruitful ideas from those that may be politically compromised. Or that if a particular concept or idea does have some problematic elements, the scholar in question just wouldn’t be able to see it or critique it.

Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche all say some pretty problematic things about women, but this hasn’t stopped feminist philosophers from using their ideas and it doesn’t make the feminist scholarship that arises from this work somehow compromised, tainted, or anti-women. I think the point should be about how we engage with these thinkers and what we can do with them, rather than just dismissing them out of hand (often by people without a sufficient understanding of their work).

Charlotte Knowles, University of Groningen.


“Nevermore”. A response to Martin Lenz

Thank you for your thoughts, Martin! As you know, I’ve been teaching Heidegger, I wrote some pieces about Heidegger, 5 years ago I started to follow the advice of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven: nevermore! Here are some reasons. I try to relate them to your argument, in addition I try to push my point in the opposite direction.

I think there is a sort of a priori answer to the question whether someone’s philosophical thought is marked by their political views: If the person expresses in a philosophically relevant and public context an idea expressive of a political idea and if this expression is significantly related to concepts, lines of thoughts or arguments central to the person in question, then his philosophical thought is marked by his political view. If the political view expressed is hideous, then the philosophical thought expressing the hideous idea is also hideous. Heidegger expressed such political ideas in philosophically relevant and public context before, during, and after the Third Reich using concepts etc. central to his thought. I think that Heidegger’s thought is strongly tainted by a hideous political idea (in a way Frege’s or even Nietzsche’s thought isn’t).

My first argument has been about the “logical” notion of thought, not the “psychological” one. However, there is another question beyond that dichotomy: a philosopher is not just a bearer or producer of psychological or logical contents, many philosophers are philosophers by profession, which means that they occupy positions in universities, have certain duties and rights as philosophy professor, deliver certain services to the philosophical community, act as philosophers etc. Heidegger is in this sense very much continuous with us philosophy professors etc. working in universities, in a way Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Spinoza or Kierkegaard aren’t. As professor (and rector) of the University of Freiburg Heidegger acted several times out of a hideous political ideology. The most drastic case is Heidegger’s “Gutachten” about his Munich colleague Richard Hönigswald in 1933. According to Heidegger, Hönigswald’s philosophy has «den Blick abgelenkt vom Menschen in seiner geschichtlichen Verwurzelung und in seiner volkhaften Überlieferung seiner Herkunft aus Boden und Blut. Damit zusammen ging eine bewusste Zurückdrängung jedes metaphysischen Fragens…». While the first part of the quote dismisses Hönigswald’s thought as not being geschichtlich and völkisch, the second part establishes a direct connection to Heidegger’s Antrittsvorlesung “Was ist Metaphyisk?”.

Finally, Heidegger’s thought has been influential for more hideous political ideas. It has been an inspiration for the Ayatollah regime in Iran (mediated by his French translator Henri Corbin), it is an inspiration for the alt right, Donatella di Cesare (author of a book on Heidegger and the Shoa) has been threatened by Italian facists. Honoring Heidegger with seminars at the university gives further force to this kind of reception.

Shall we, thus, not study Heidegger’s thought? Of course. Janek Wasserman’s “Black Vienna. The Radical Right in the Red City 1918-1938” (2014) contains an interesting chapter on Othmar Spann: “For many years, the Spannkreis served as a linchpin of Viennese culture and Central European radical conservative politics. The most influential intellectual group in interwar Vienna was also its most conservative. It was also the most political impactful. Red Vienna was therefore not a Marxist fortress.” (105). We can study Heidegger, his networks, his thought, his influence and reception as part of our history and historically if we study him not as an exceptional philosophical genius (he wasn’t), but as a chapter in the history of ideas, especially the history of hideous political ideas in the 20thCentury.

Markus Wild (University of Basel) and his dog Titus Hunderich

“Heidegger was a Nazi.” What now?

“B was a bigot” is a phrase that raises various questions. We can say it of various figures, both dead and alive. But this kind of phrase is used for various purposes. In what follows, I’d like consider some implications of this phrase and its cognates. – Let me begin with what might seem a bit of a detour. Growing up in Germany, I learned that we are still carrying responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. Although some prominent figures declared otherwise even in the Eighties, I think this is true. Of course, one might think that one cannot have done things before one was born, but that does not mean that one is cut off from one’s past. Thinking historically means, amongst other things, to think of yourself as determined by continuities that run right through you from the past into the options that make your future horizon. The upshot is: we don’t start from scratch. It is with such thoughts that I look at the debates revolving around Heidegger and other bigots. Is their thought tainted by their views? Should we study and teach them? These are important questions that will continue to be asked and answered. Adding to numerous discussions, I’d like to offer three and a half considerations.*

(1) The question whether someone’s philosophical thought is tainted or even pervaded by their political views should be treated as an open question. There is no a priori consideration in favour of one answer. That said, “someone’s thought” is ambiguous. If we ask whether Heidegger’s or Frege’s (yes, Frege’s!) thought was pervaded by their anti-semitism, the notion is ambiguous between “thought” taken as an item in psychological and logical relations. The psychological aspects that explain why I reason the way I do, often do not show up in the way a thought is presented or received. – Someone’s bigotry might motivate their thinking and yet remain hidden. But even if something remains hidden, it does not mean that it carries no systematic weight. There is an old idea, pervasive in the analytic tradition, that logical and political questions are distinct. But the idea that logic and politics are distinct realms is itself a political idea. All such issues have to be studied philosophically and historically for each individual thinker. How, for instance, can Spinoza say what he says about humans and then say what he says about women? This seems glaringly inconsistent and deserves study rather than brushing off. However, careful study should involve historically crucial ties beyond the question of someone’s thought. There are social, political and institutional continuities (and discontinuities) that stabilise certain views while disqualifying others.

(2) Should we study bigots? If the forgoing is acceptable, then it follows that we shouldn’t discourage the study of bigots. Quite the contrary! This doesn’t mean that I recommend the study of bigots in particular; there are enough understudied figures that you might turn to instead. It just means that their bigotry doesn’t disqualify them as topics of study and that if you’re wondering whether you should, that might in itself be a good reason to get started. This point is of course somewhat delicate, since history of philosophy is not only studied by disinterested antiquarians, but also for reasons of justifying why we endorse certain views or because we hope to find good or true accounts of phenomena. – Do we endorse someone’s political views by showing continuities between their thoughts and ours? Again, that depends and should be treated as an open question. But I don’t think that shunning the past is a helpful strategy. After all, the past provides the premises we work from, whether we like it or not. Rather we should look carefully at possible implications. But the fact that we appropriate certain ideas does not entail that we are committed to such implications. As I said in my last post, we can adopt thoughts, while changing and improving them. That fact that Heidegger was a Nazi does not turn his students or later exegetes into Nazis. However, once we know about the bigotry we should acknowledge as much in research and teaching.

(3) What about ourselves? Part of the reason for making the second remark was that I sometimes hear people say: “A was a bigot; so we shouldn’t teach A. Let’s rather teach B.” While I agree that there are huge numbers of understudied figures that might be taught instead of the same old classics, I don’t think that this line of argument helps. As I see it, it often comes out of the problematic idea that, ideally, we should study and teach only such figures that we consider morally pure. This is a doubtful demand not only because we might end up with very little material. It is also problematic because it suggests that we can change our past at will.** Therefore, attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status; rather we should see that globalisation requires us to eventually acknowledge the impact of various histories and their entanglements. – We don’t teach Heidegger because we chose to ignore his moral status. We teach his and other works because our own thought is related to these works. This has an important consequence for our own moral status. Having the histories we do, our own moral status is tainted. In keeping with my introductory musings, I’d like to say that we are responsible for our past. The historical continuities that we like and wish to embrace are as much our responsibilities as those that we wish to disown. Structurally oppressive features of the past are not disrupted just because we change our teaching schedule.

I guess the general idea behind these considerations is this: The assumption that one can cut off oneself from one’s (philosophical) past is an illusion. As philosophers in institutional contexts we cannot deny that we might be both beneficiaries of dubious heritage as well as suffering from burdens passed down. In other words, some of the bigotry will carry over. Again, this doesn’t mean that we are helpless continuants of past determinants, but it means that it is better to study our past and our involvements with it carefully rather than deny them and pretend to be starting from scratch.


* See especially the pieces by Peter Adamson and Eric Schliesser.

** Additional comment (25 Nov 2018): However, there is a sense in which we can change our intellectual past, namely reassessing the canon and including neglected figures, on the one hand, while relativising the impact of others. – I have to admit that now doubt the conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

Should we stop talking about “minor figures”?

Every now and then, I hear someone mentioning that they work on “minor figures” in the history of philosophy. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the very term “minor figures” makes me cringe. Perhaps it is the brutally belittling way of picking out the authors in question. Let’s face it, when we’re speaking of “minor figures” we don’t necessarily mean “unduly underrated” or “neglected”. At the same time, the reasons are not clear to me indeed, since I know perfectly well that especially people who work on them do anything but belittle them. Nevertheless, the use of the term indicates that there is something wrong with our historiographical and linguistic practice. In what follows, I want to have a stab at what’s wrong, first with “minor”, then with “figures”.

Let me begin by saying that I deem most of the work done on “minor figures” very important and instructive. Projects such as Peter Adamson’s “History of Philosophy without any Gaps” or Lisa Shapiro’s and Karen Detlefsen’s “New Narratives” constantly challenge our canon by providing great resources. What’s wrong with the talk of “minor figures” then? I guess the use of the term “minor” confirms the canonical figures in their role as “major figures” or even geniuses. Even if I shift the focus to some hardly known or even entirely anonymous person, the reference to them is mostly justified by being an “interlocutor” of a “major” figure. Who begins to study Walter Chatton not because of William Ockham or Burthogge not because of Locke? The context that these minors are supposed to provide is still built around an “absurdly narrow” set of canonical figures. But even if researchers might eventually study such figures “in their own right”, the gatekeeping practice among book and journal editors doesn’t seem to change anytime soon. In other words, attempts at diversification or challenging of the canon paradoxically stabilize it.

Now you might argue that there is good reason to focus on major figures. Presumably they are singled out because they write indeed the best texts, raise the most intriguing issues, present the best arguments or have the greatest impact on others. Although I don’t want to downplay the fact that most canonical authors are truly worth reading, we simply aren’t in a position to know. And you don’t even need to pick hardly known people such as Adam Wodeham or Giovanni Battista Giattini. Why not prefer Albert the Great over the notorious Aquinas? Why not read Burthogge or Zabarella in the first-year course? Really, there is nothing that would justify the relatively minor status irrespective of existing preferences.

But perhaps the central worry is not the talk of “minor”. What seems worse is the fact that we focus so much on figures rather than debates, questions or topics. Why not work on debates about intentionality or social justice rather than Plato or Sartre? Of course you might indeed have an interest in studying a figure, minor or major. But unless you have a particular biographical interest, you might, even as a dedicated historian of philosophy, be more likely to actually focus on a topic in a figure or on the debate that that person is participating in. I see two main reasons for shifting the focus from figures to debates. Firstly, philosophy does not really happen within people but between them. Secondly, the focus on a person suggests that we try to figure out the intention of an author, but unless you take such a way of speaking as a shorthand for textual analysis, your object of study is not easily available.

By the way, if we shift the focus from people to debates, we don’t need the distinction between minor and major any longer. When I studied Locke, it became natural to study figures such as Burthogge. When I studied Ockham, it became natural to study figures such as Adam Wodeham or various anonymi. But perhaps, you might argue, our reason for focussing on figures is more human: we’re interested in what people think rather than in the arguments in texts alone. When we make assumptions, we think along with people and try to account for their ideas as well as their shortcomings and inconsistencies. But even if that is true, we shouldn’t forget that people are not really ever geniuses. Their thoughts mature in dialogue, not least in dialogue with minor figures such as ourselves.