You don’t ever write about things; you write about what people say

Seeing that I don’t write about things or topics but about what people say about things was one of the most important lessons I learned. I’ve said this a number of times, here and here, but a recent chat with a friend made me realise that it is perhaps worth highlighting again.

So, when you’re writing about stuff like justice, language, the supreme good or whatever, you don’t write about these things or phenomena, as it were. Rather you write about what people say about these phenomena. Or about what you yourself say (or think) about these phenomena. The point I’m trying to make is that what you’re targeting when you write is a piece of language: you’ll be writing about a claim or a passage, a specific argument, an example or a specific question.

Why is this worth noting? – Let’s begin with a pragmatic reason: As long as you think that you write about, say, freedom and necessity, you will be paralysed by the vast amount of things you could look at. Things provide no focus. A string of sentences by contrast gives you focus. Sentences pick out something; they leave open something else; and they deny something at least implicitly. In this way, they give you a dialectical field of positions and neglect. You can start immediately by picking on a word or phrase and ask what precisely it means. So instead of fretting where to begin you can start immediately by thinking about the phrases and what they evoke, by what they miss and by how you feel about them.

What you enter. – Once you realise that you’re not embarking on a boat tossed across the vast ocean of being, you will see that the idea of philosophy as a conversation is quite literally true. You are always dealing with someone’s (or you own) formulation. You will want to understand and thus ask for clarification, offering alternatives or counterexamples. The point is that the kind of skill you first and formost need is the skill of zooming in on the language.

Play with words. – Now of course this doesn’t mean that you can skip informing yourself about things. It just means that, in beginning to write (or talk) about these things, you will always target a formulation. You can begin with your own way of phrasing something and take it apart, one by one, or with someone elses and ask them about it. The skills that you can train for this are reading, reformulating (in other words, other terminologies, in other genres or examples or in formal language), translating, and, generally, playing with words. When you sit at your desk or in a talk wondering what is going on, don’t focus on the things, issues or phenomena. Rather focus on the words. That’s where you’ll enter.

So it begins. – So when you begin to plan and write your text or talk, I’d advise you to begin by quoting the paragraph or claim you want to focus on. And if it’s not someone elses point you want to focus on, then offer your best formulation. Write it down and begin to wander around it.

You think that this whole idea is odd? Perhaps I am just an old Kantian who thinks that the Ding an sich is not available to us.  

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By the way, this month this blog is three years old. Thanks for bearing with me.

Are we really polarised? A conversation with Emma Young (podcast)

This is the sixth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Emma Young who is a research master student in philosophy at Groningen University. We focus on the issue of (political) polarisation. While it seems common to portray public discourse as being polarised, we rarely find the assumption itself questioned or investigated as such. Here is a rough outline of topics:

  • Introduction 0:00
  • Is polarisation empirically discovered or an assumption structuring our perception? 5:58
  • Does the assumption of polarisation create a self-fulfilling prophecy? 9:30
  • First summary. And does polarisation obscure problems? 12:10
  • Division over corona policies as an example 15:50
  • How polarisation promotes the illusion of a (neutral) centre 23:00
  • How this illusion figures in history (of philosophy) 33:03
  • Interests in or beneficiaries of polarisation 45:02
  • Is polarisation irrational? 48:26
  • Does philosophy fail in overcoming polarisation? 52:28
  • How do we build solidarity? 1:07:04

Repressed ideas? For an embedded history of philosophy

Over the weekend I posted a piece of news according to which one of the last representations of academic psychoanalysis in Germany is under threat. What I found particularly interesting were the somewhat heated discussions that ensued on various social media. While some regretted the prospect of seeing psychoanalysis pushed out out of academia, others saw it as an instance of scientific advancement. More than once was it claimed that, after all, we wouldn’t have chairs in astrology either.* Lacking expertise in psychology, I am not the right person to make a case for the current role of psychoanalytic research, but I was struck by the frequent and ready dismissal in favour of a current status quo. Yet, what this insistence on the status quo obscures is the likelihood that future historians will see many of our current ideas as similarly outdated. Our most recent neuroscience will become tomorrow’s astrology. In this post, then, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to imagine that our current theories and even our own beliefs will be deemed outdated. The idea behind such an embedded history** is to historicise the present and pave the way for seeing our very own ideas like a historian of thought, that is: seeing our beliefs in their contingent relations to our (social) world rather than as items in the space of reasons.

Condemning ideas. –  What makes people condemn ideas or approaches? Our study of the mind has a long and complicated history. Many ideas are now outdated. Although Aristotle is held in high esteem, no one will want to maintain his views on the heart-brain system. However, controversial ideas present a different case. Disciplines like psychoanalysis are still evolving and are held in high esteem by many, but their precise status in the academic landscape has become dubious. The reasons for advacing doubts are varied: they might be internal to the discipline but also of a political or moral nature. Despite substantial criticisms, however, certain ideas not least from psychoanalysis pervade much of our current culture and are known, not only by experts, but the public at large. What’s interesting about ideas that are both common and controversial is that they present us with normative questions: They are held, yes, but should they be held (in the future)? Now the normative attitude according to which, for instance, psychoanalysis should be condemned to the past can itself be historicised. This is what a embedded historian would do. Rather than taking a side for or against a particular view, the embedded historian would try and historicise the controversy. For the embedded historian, discussions invoking perceived progress, then, would shed some light on our current normative historical attitudes, that is, attitudes about things that we begin to see as belonging to the past and that we (or some of us) think should no longer be present.

But how can we turn into embedded historians? – Peter Adamson once suggested seeing our current philosophy just as the latest stage of the history of philosophy. Naturally, I agree. As I see it, this approach not only helps us achieving a better understanding of the current philosophical landscape, it also shifts our attitudes in intriguing ways: Being convinced by an argument is quite different from explaining how someone like you (in your day and age) would encounter and be compelled by a certain argument in a certain context and style. This is what Bernard Williams called “making the familiar strange”. But how is it done? Having ideas is one thing. Rejecting ideas as belonging to the past is quite another thing; it carries the force of condemnation. But what if you find yourself on the other side? What I’d like you to imagine is that you hold ideas that future historians will think of as outdated. This, I submit, is how you can become an embedded historian about your own ideas. You can do this in two steps: first, you study a theory that is considered outdated, try to embrace it by looking at the best arguments for it, and then you look at the refutations. Second, you take the most forceful refutations and try to have them carry over such that they attack your own convictions. (The second move is of course much harder, but if you want to see it in action it might help to consider how Wittgenstein attacks some of his own ideas in the Philosophical Investigations.)

How can you attack your own convictions? – Somehow attacking your own convictions seems paradoxical, because they are your convictions. But are they (still) your convictions, if you can attack them? Here is a start: Think of the latest good idea that convinced you and try to give a reason for holding it. But now try to do this, not when you’re clear-headed, but rather when you get up at six in the morning, straight away. What I’m after is the difference between what we say on the fly as opposed to what we think we should be saying (i.e. our best version of our argument). This is the way many historians approach, not their own convictions, but the material they study: they take the explicit (badly formed) reasons, and then say what their author should have said but didn’t. (Historians shunning anachronism will then often go with the explicit badly formed reasons, while others opt for the best reasons because they apply the principle of charity.) Now just allow yourself the (bad) reasons you invoked on the fly. You can then imagine how a future historian will dissect your account easily.

Why should we do it? – Now that you have a beginning, you might still ask why such a thing is worth your time. Well, attacking your own convictions is the only way to create headspace for ideas that seem to be in opposition to your own. There are so many ideas that are out of touch with the current status quo that it would seem ridiculous to believe that we – we of all people – would have the best ideas and the best methods of approaching them or putting them to use. Rather than dismissing ideas quickly in the name of progress (= status quo), we should be triangulating for objectivity.*** And this we can do only with attempting to understand those who we consider controversial, outdated or opposed to what we believe. That said, there is yet another reason: Studying the ideas that we reject might uncover the reasons for rejections which, in turn, might uncover ideas that tacitly underpin our beliefs. After all, condemned ideas might become repressed ideas. But that’s for another day.

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* While David Livingstone Smith, for instance, presents substantial criticism against most psychoanalytic traditions, at least a quick browse through the research done at Frankfurt leaves me with the impression that abolishing this kind of work would mean a severe impoverishment of academic psychology.

** The term “embedded history” is reclaimed from the term “embedded journalism” which, though a problematic practice in itself, captures intriguing aspects of the way we are involved when doing history and thinking about ourselves and others.

*** I use “triangulating” as a term of art from Davidson. Here is a lucid passage from his “Rational Animals” (also quoted in Jeff Malpas’ great introduction to the term): “If I were bolted to the earth, I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know that they were on some line drawn from me towards them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures. Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.”

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia (video)

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia

This is the fifth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Anna Tropia who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. Following up on some earlier musings, we focus on issues of writing (philosophy) as they figure in my blogging. Here is a rough table of contents:

  • Introduction and the focus of “Handling Ideas” 0:00
  • How can and why should we avoid the delete button? 2:17
  • Dare to say something wrong! A general tip on writing 6:53

On shame and love in (academic) reading and writing

“What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Like many fellow students around me, I learned writing by imitating others. How do I know about the others? Well, because there were no courses on learning how to write. So everyone was left to their own devices. Don’t get me wrong: there were and are many good guides on what desirable academic prose should look like. But these guides do not focus on the process of writing: on the despair, boredom, shame, and love that go into it. Actually, it was the lack of reflections on the process and the more doubtful stages that initially motivated me to start this blog. Speaking about these emotions is not meant as a form of venting or ranting about hardships (although they should have their place, too), but rather on the way these emotions can guide and inform our writing. In what follows, I want to say a bit more about this. I’ll start by looking at the way (emotional) experience figures in academic interaction and writing, and then zoom in on different forms of expressing thoughts.

Let’s begin with shame, though. – If you want to see how shame figures in guiding academic interactions, just start a course by asking what people did not understand in a set text. Most people will remain silent; the more experienced ones will point out passages that fail to be clear enough to be understood, passing the blame onto the text. – If you’re the odd one out who is willing to go for it, you’ll know that it takes courage to begin by admitting that you yourself do not understand. Shame is the fear of being seen or exposed in doing something undesirable (like making a mistake). When we speak or write, shame will drive us to avoid making mistakes. One way of doing that is remaining silent; another way is to pass the blame and criticise others rather than taking the blame. In writing or conversation, we can counter shame by developing technical skills, that is, by learning chops that make it look flawless, elegant, and professional. So we introduce technical jargon, demonstrating our analytical skills and what have you. While technical versatility is often equated with a sober or even neutral style, this asset might owe less to sobriety than to shame.

What’s love got do with it? – Iris Murdoch wrote somewhere that love is, amongst other things, the ability to see someone else as real. (See Fleur Jongepier’s great piece on Murdoch and love.) One way of taking this is that love is an ability, the ability to understand, not yourself and your desires, but the other. How do you do that? My hunch is that understanding others begins with trying to understand their experience. If you are able to express someone’s experience, the other might feel seen. In writing, this can be done in at least two ways. You can try to say what (you think) someone experiences or you can try to create an experience for the reader. Now you might think that this factor is totally absent from academic writing, but that isn’t true. Philosophers typically try to tap into experience by using examples or crafting thought experiments. What is rarely acknowledged is that these items do much more work than meets the eye. Strong examples and thought experiments often live on much longer than the arguments they’re supposed to back up. They are far more than mere illustrations of a point. Ideally, they allow the reader to experience a conceptual constraint on an almost physical level. Knowing a norm, for example, is one thing; being exposed (or imagining yourself) as having transgressed it is quite another.

How does this take on love as understanding the other play out in reading and writing? Returning to the example of asking people what they didn’t understand in a given text, it would be an act of love, in the sense explained, to acknowledge what you do not understand about the text. For if love is seeing the other as real, acknowledging the other’s reality would begin by acknowledging that there is something different, something you do not understand etc. In this sense, acknowledging the other (in the text) begins by admitting a weakness in yourself, the weakness of not understanding wholly. However, ultimately the point is not just to point out limitations but also to explore what constitutes these limits. This means that you also need to see what precisely blocks your understanding of the other (or the text). Seeing how factors in your personality, style, context and history enable or disable your understanding requires you to understand yourself. To use a radical example, if you have never been confronted with an optical illusion, examples of this sort of illustration wouldn’t work for you. Generally, if you never had access to certain kinds of experiences, these will constitute limits of understanding. Likewise, factors such as gender, race and class will inform the way a text speaks (or doesn’t speak) to us and limit the experiential resources available to draw on experience in writing. – It’s important to see that, in this sense, shame and love are in conflict. While love aims at seeing the other and involves the other (and thus ourselves, too) as being seen, shame drives us to disguise ourselves (at least in what we find undesirable) and perhaps even to blame the other for failing to be intelligible to us. In philosophical conversation, then, shame would make us avoid being seen (at least in undesirable aspects), while love would require us to lay bare our weakness of not understanding the other. As a result of this, shame and love play out in how we relate to (personal) experience. Arguably, shame blocks resorting to (personal) experience, while love as an approach to what constitutes borders between ourselves and others requires resorting to experience.

Expressing thoughts and experience. – If the forgoing makes some sense, we might say that shame and love inspire different attitudes in philosophical conversation: shame makes us shun (expressing thoughts by) personal experience, while love requires us to explore experience. Going from shame and love as two guiding emotions, then, we can easily discern two styles of reading and writing. Driven by shame, we find ourselves in a culture that often shuns resorting to experience and relies on techniques that correct for supposedly subjective factors. It is no surprise, then, that philosophers often highlight skills of so-called “critical thinking” as an asset of the discipline. More often than not these skills boil down to learning labels of fallacies that we can tag on texts. Looking at my student days, I often found myself indulging in technicalities to shun the fear of being seen for what I was: someone understanding very little. That said, such skills can be developed into a real art of analysis. Paired with patience, the careful study of arguments can yield great results. Then, it is no longer merely a way of avoiding shame but itself a set of tools for understanding. – Conversely, inspired by what I introduced as love, experience is crucial for understanding what sets us apart from others and the rest of the world. As I said earlier, this approach requires taking into account facors such as personalities, context and history. Crucially, such an approach cannot rely on the skillset of the writer or reader alone. It requires a dialogical readiness that might always undermine one’s own steps of understanding by what remains different. Perhaps it is not surprising that this approach is found mostly in areas that have traditionally enjoyed less acclaim, such as certain approaches in history, standpoint theory or experimental philosophy. – However, while it is important to tell such driving forces and styles apart, they are hardly ever distinct. As I said in an earlier post, if you open any of the so-called classics, you’ll find representations of both forms. Descartes’ Meditations offer you meditative exercises that you can try at home alongside a battery of arguments engaging with rival theories. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus closes with the mystical and the advice to shut up about the things that matter most after opening with a rather technical account of how language relates to the world. Yet, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, it’s mostly the second kind that gets recognition in professional academic philosophy If this is correct, this means that experience doesn’t figure much in our considerations of reading and writing.

Can we teach failure? – Trying to pin down what characterises this sort of love as an approach in reading and writing, it ultimately seems to be a process of failure. Trying to understand others fails in that success is simply unthinkable. There is no exhaustive understanding of the other, a text, a person, a thing, whatever. Love, in this or perhaps in any sense, has nothing to do with success, but everything with dialogical trying and undermining. Of course, this can be taught. But it has no place in learning outcomes. As teachers of reading and writing, though, it might be helpful to point out that “analysing”, “reconstructing”, “discussing”, “contextualising”, “arguing” and such like are not success verbs. Showing how we fail in these attempts might go a long way in understanding and overcoming shame.

“Songs make you feel thoughts.” Music as a path to feeling philosophy

Being an amateur musician, I often indulge in watching music education videos on youtube, especially by Adam Neely, Rick Beato and Aimee Nolte. I’m struck not only by their great didactical resourcefulness, but also by how much many of their attempts carry over to philosophy. In other words, if you want to teach or learn something about philosophy, you might straightforwardly benefit from watching these and other videos. Why is this the case? On the one hand, I think there is the simple fact that these instructors do a great job of contextualisng their ideas from a number of perspectives. A recent video essay by Adam Neely on “the most elegant key change in all of pop music” is a case in point and worth watching till the very end. (This will also reveal where the quotation in the title is from.) On the other hand, I think there might be a deeper reason: As I see it, there is a kinship between philosophy and music (and perhaps other arts) that is often neglected for the simple reason that philosophy is more often taught in tandem with logic rather than with rhetoric. In what follows, I’d just briefly like to suggest how to begin thinking about this tenuous relation.

I don’t know about you, but I was drawn to philosophy and related literature way before I understood a thing. Part of me still thinks that I even was (and am) drawn to it because there is much I don’t understand. There is the promise of something meaningful, and you cannot get it or at least not all of it. So much thinking basically leaves me confused. (At the same time there can be an emotional precision that my thinking can’t catch up with.) Even if my ways and approaches to philosophy have become more refined over the years, I still think that is how philosophical thoughts feel to me: often confused, infinitely richer than my understanding will reach.

Music strikes me as a very similar kind of art. There is so much meaning but I understand so little of it. But unlike in philosophy, in music it’s totally fine if you don’t understand the more technical aspects. You can listen to a song and enjoy it – and that’s just fine. In philosophy, that seems different: if you don’t understand what’s going on that’s taken as a shortcoming. Doing philosophy, it seems, is often construed as successful understanding or thinking. Otherwise it seems to be some kind of mysticism. Right now, I don’t want to argue for a particular view on this matter. But I want to stress that not understanding or unsuccessful thinking is what attracts me in philosophy. Just like I can enjoy a very complex piece of music without understanding the details of it, I can equally enjoy thinking or reading without understanding it. Even if I want to understand (both music and philosophy), the desire and enjoyment is there before I understand. Perhaps even partly because I don’t understand. In this sense, I think that thoughts have an emotional dimension, just like music has an emotional dimension. What’s more, we’re engaging in the practice of philosophy or music or indeed any practice well before we master it. Arguably, such engagement is carried by the emotional and more tacit un-analysed features of our being. (Victor Wooten makes this case beautifully for music and language learning.)

For me, then, understanding thoughts does not only involve understanding the content or structure, but also the emotional and phenomenal qualities of thinking. You think that thoughts and emotions are separate? Well, think again! Most thoughts are expressed in language. Already the way they are expressed (whatever their content) has emotional features. The language can be dry or enthusiastic, complex or simple, feel like withholding something etc. If thoughts are verbally expressed, you get the whole register of tone of voice etc. If you see or imagine the speaker, you get their facial expressions etc. These features are not merely subjective but mostly culturally coded. If you take into account the vast history of traditions of thought, you begin to see quickly that the current way of doing philosophy in Western philosophy departments is far from the only way of doing and expressing the feel of it. As I see it, such features matter for the identity of thought. And while they might draw you in or repel you, they can also become the object of study. Yes, it’s worthwhile not just to study Kant’s ideas but the sound and rhythm of his prose. People often say they find him difficult. But the reasons behind these difficulties might owe less to his ideas and perhaps more to the emotional and phenomenal properties of his prose. In other words, the rhetorical features might weigh no less than the logical features. But for some strange reason rhetoric is largely neglected in our current practice of philosophy. Thinking about music (or other arts) and the way thoughts feel might go a long way in re-establishing such insights.

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

Meditation in philosophy. A conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo (podcast)

This is the fourth installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Andrea Sangiacomo who is an associate professor of philosophy at Groningen University. In this conversation, we focus on meditation both as part of philosophical traditions as well as an approach that might be a resourceful factor impacting (academic) philosophy, teaching and academic culture. While Cartesian and Buddhist ideas* form a continuous resource in the background of our discussion, here is a list of themes in case you look for something specific:

  • Introduction   0:00
  • Meditation and Descartes’ Meditations   2:20
  • The notion of experience – and objections against experience as a basis in philosophy   9:00
  • Meditation in teaching   21:14
  • Why aren’t we already using these insights in education?   37:00
  • How can we teach and learn effectively?   44:36
  • How can we guide and assess?   52:50
  • Where is this approach leading, also in terms of academic culture?   1:03:00

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* The opening quotation is from Andrea’s blogpost What can we learn today from Descartes’ Meditations? Here is the passage: “Since last year, I appreciated the text of the Mediations as real meditation, namely, as a way of practicing a meditative kind of philosophy (for lack of better term), a philosophy more concerned with what it means to experience reality in this way or that way, rather than with what a certain set of propositions means.”

He has published four more posts on this topic on the blog of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought. They are:

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.

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* 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.

History is about you. On teaching outdated philosophy

Everything we take to be history is, in fact, present right now. Otherwise we wouldn’t think about it.

When I was little, I often perceived the world as an outcome of historical progress. I didn’t exactly use the word “historical progress” when talking to myself, but I thought I was lucky to grow up in the 20th century rather than, say, the Middle Ages. Why? Well, the most obvious examples were advances in technology. We have electricity; they didn’t. That doesn’t change everything, but still a lot. Thinking about supposedly distant times, then, my childhood mind conjured up an image of someone dragging themselves through a puddle of medieval mud, preferably while I was placed on the sofa in a cozy living-room with the light switched on and the fridge humming in the adjacent kitchen. It took a while for me to realise that this cozy contrast between now and then is not really an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about history, more precisely about what separates us from the past. For what my living room fantasy obscures is that this medieval mud is what a lot of people are dragging themselves through today. It would have taken a mere stroll through town to see how many homeless or other people do not live in the same world that I identified as my present world. Indeed, most things that we call “medieval” are present in our current world. Listening to certain people today, I realise that talk of the Enlightenment, the Light of Reason and Rationality is portrayed in much the same way as my living-room fantasy. But as with the fruits of technology, I think the praise of Enlightenment is not an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about what separates us from the past. One reaction to this prejudice would be to chide the prejudiced minds (and my former self); another reaction is to try and look more closely at our encounters with these prejudices when doing history. That means to try and see them as encounters with ourselves, with the ideologies often tacitly drummed into us, and to understand how these prejudices form our expectations when reading old texts. Approaching texts in this latter way, means to read them both as historical philosophical documents as much as an encounter with ourselves. It is this latter approach I want to suggest as a way of reading and teaching what could be called outdated philosophy. According to at least some of my students’ verdicts about last term, this might be worth pursuing.

Let’s begin with the way that especially medieval philosophy is often introduced. While it’s often called “difficult” and “mainly about religion”, it’s also said to require so much linguistic and other erudition that anyone will wonder why on earth they should devote much time to it. One of the main take-away messages this suggests is an enormous gap between being served some catchy chunks of, you know, Aquinas, on the one hand, and the independent or professional study of medieval texts, on the other hand. Quite unlike in ethics or social philosophy, hardly any student will see themselves as moving from the intro course to doing some real research on a given topic in this field. While many medievalists and other historians work on developing new syllabi and approaches, we might not spend enough time on articulating what the point or pay-off of historical research might be. – I don’t profess to know what the point of it all is. But why would anyone buy into spending years on learning Latin or Arabic, palaeography or advanced logic, accepting the dearth of the academic job market, a philosophical community dismissing much of their history? For the sake of, yes, what exactly? Running the next edition of Aquinas or growing old over trying to get your paper on Hildegard of Bingen published in a top journal? I’m not saying that there is no fun involved in studying these texts and doing the work it takes; I’m wondering whether we make sufficiently explicit why this might be fun. Given the public image of history (of philosophy), we are studying what the world was like before there was electricity and how they then almost invented it but didn’t.

Trying to understand what always fascinated me about historical studies, I realised it was the fact that one learns as much about oneself as about the past. Studying seemingly outdated texts helped me understand how this little boy in the living room was raised into ideologies that made him (yes, me) cherish his world with the fridge in the adjacent kitchen, and think of history as a linear progress towards the present. In this sense, that is in correcting such assumptions, studying history is about me and you. But, you ask, even if this is true, how can we make it palpable in teaching? – My general advice is: Try to connect to your student-self, don’t focus on the supposed object of study, but on what it revealed about you. Often this isn’t obvious, because there is no obvious connection. Rather, there is disparity and alienation. It is an alienation that might be similar to moving to a different town or country. So, try to capture explicitly what’s going on in the subject of study, too, in terms of experience, resources and methods available. With such thoughts in mind, I designed a course on the Condemnation of 1277 and announced it as follows:

Condemned Philosophy? Reason and faith in medieval and contemporary thought

Why are certain statements condemned? Why are certain topics shunned? According to a widespread understanding of medieval cultures, especially medieval philosophy was driven and constrained by theological and religious concerns. Based on a close reading of the famous condemnation of 1277, we will explore the relation between faith and reason in the medieval context. In a second step we will look at contemporary constraints on philosophy and the role of religion in assessing such constraints. Here, our knowledge of the medieval context might help questioning current standards and prejudices. In a third step we will attempt to reconsider the role of faith and belief in medieval and contemporary contexts.

The course was aimed at BA students in their 3rd year. What I had tried to convey in the description is that the course should explore not only medieval ideas but also the prejudices through which they are approached. During the round of introductions many students admitted that they were particularly interested in this twofold focus on the object and the subject of study. I then explained to them that most things I talk about can be read about somewhere else. What can’t be done somewhere else is have them come alive by talking them through. I added that “most of the texts we discuss are a thousand years old. Despite that fact, these texts have never been exposed to you. That confrontation is what makes things interesting.” In my view, the most important tool to bring out this confrontation lies in having students prepare and discuss structured questions about something that is hard to understand in the text. (See here for an extensive discussion) The reason is that questions, while targeting something in the text, reveal the expectations of the person asking. Why does the question arise? Because there is something lacking that I would expect to be present in the text. Most struggles with texts are struggles with our own expectations that the text doesn’t meet. Of course, there might be a term we don’t know or a piece of information lacking, but this is easily settled with an internet search these days. The more pervasive struggles often reveal that we encounter something unfamiliar in the sense that it runs counter to what we expect the text to say. This, then, is where a meeting of the current students and historical figures takes place, making explicit our and their assumptions.

During the seminar discussions, I noticed that students, unlike in other courses, dared targeting really tricky propositions that they couldn’t account for on the fly. Instead of trying to appear as being on top of the material, they delineated problems to be addressed and raised genealogical questions of how concepts might have developed between 1277 and 2020. Interestingly, the assumption was often not that we were more advanced. Rather they were interested in giving reasons why someone would find a given idea worth defending. So my first impression after this course was that the twofold focus on the object and subject of study made the students’ approach more historical, in that they didn’t take their own assumptions as a yardstick for assessing ideas. Another outcome was that students criticised seeing our text as a mere “object of study”. In fact, I recall one student saying that “texts are hardly ever mere objects”. Rather, we should ultimately see ourselves as engaging in dialogue with other subjects, revealing their prejudices as much as our own.

The children in the living room were not chided. They were recognised in what they had taken over from their elders. Now they could be seen as continuing to learn – making, shunning and studying history.

The canon as a status symbol? White men, cancel culture, and the functions of history of philosophy

“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.

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* 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.