Expanding the canon part n

We have discussed several times (see also here and here) about the problem of how Indian philosophers should be part of normal classes on Medieval philosophy, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, etc. etc. Podcaster and scholar of Neoplatonism and of Falsafa Peter Adamson makes several interesting points on the Blog of the APA, in this post.

At least two points are worth repeating:

  1. You might tell yourself you have covered the important medieval philosophers if you’ve done Anselm, Abelard, Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. That’s an impressive line-up, no doubt. […] But do these big names really have a greater claim on our attention than Eriugena, Hildegard of Bingen, John Buridan, Meister Eckhart, and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi?
    My answer would be no. The fact that such authors are not, or not yet, “canonical” has little to do with historical and philosophical merit and much to do with the historiographical priorities and limited perspectives of previous generations. These generations wrote our textbooks, designed the syllabi for courses we took as students, and decided what to edit, study, and translate—and in so doing, shaped out sense of what is too “important” to leave out. In reality, there are simply too many important thinkers in every period to be fit into any undergraduate historical course, in both the historical and philosophical sense of “important.” […] So when we’re exposing students to any period in the history of philosophy, we should not tell ourselves that we only have time to visit the highlights. In fact we should admit that we don’t even have time to do that. […] This realization might be liberating. If we give up on the idea that teaching history of philosophy is about paying a brief visit to the most famous thinkers, that will free us up to prioritize other concerns.

  2. And it would be more than reasonable to insist on including women philosophers and philosophers from non-European traditions. I suspect that many instructors are reluctant to cover such topics, even if they sympathize with the goal, precisely because the authors and texts in question are so unfamiliar. But as I’ve been pleased to discover doing the podcast, there are plenty of translations and there is plenty of secondary literature out there for all but the most abstruse and under-researched topics. […] Thanks to scholars who have been plowing these fields for us, prepping a class session on the Upanishads or al-Farabi is going to be a lot easier than you might think.

  3. What do you think? Should we now be free to leave Thomas the Aquinas out of our classes and to include Pārthasārathi instead?

    Should you not know Peter Adamson’s podcasts yet, you are strongly encouraged to check on them. The ones on Indian Philoosphy are here.
    (cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

11 thoughts on “Expanding the canon part n

  1. Yes! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with designing a course around a given philosophical tradition, geared at a particular time period. So I don’t think it’s wrong to do a European Medieval philosophy course (much like I need to ability to do sometimes do a course on early Indian Buddhist philosophy and so on). But we do need to find ways to expand offerings in non-Western philosophy and so on, and adding a section to a largely Western course is one way to start doing this.

    • Stephen, I agree that there is nothing wrong in it —as long as one clearly marks it. Having a class on “Philosophy of Language” in which no Indian author is mentioned risks, by contrast, to be at least misleading since students will end up thinking that there is nothing beyond the Urals worth mentioning in the field of Philosophy of Language.

      Peter’s suggestion seems to me to also imply that one could or should point to the fact that each survey is necessarily arbitrary and at least point to the many regions one has not had the time or the energy to explore. Something like “This is what I ended up considering ‘the main authors in Epistemology’, but there is much more out there for you to (re-)discover”.

  2. As with any class, I think the most important question is “what are your learning goals?” What is it, at the highest level, that you want students to learn – and why? This is particularly important in teaching the history of philosophy, which has a lot of different motivations. The most justifiable reason for excluding Indian or Chinese philosophy would be in a class whose animating question is “How did we get where we are? Why do we now think the way we do?” (There is, of course, no justification for excluding Islamic philosophy from such a class!) If, however, the class is exploring the history of philosophy either as a museum of fascinating ideas or as live options and resources to consider in current thought, then excluding Indian and Chinese philosophy makes little sense.

  3. I found a relevant passage by Daya Krishna on the same topic: “The picture of the past is ultimately a creation of the historian. And that picture becomes the ‘truth’ in the minds of those who read it, especially the young you are ‘educated’ in the schools and colleges to ‘see’ it that way. Once the picture becomes a part of the settled heritage of the mind, then anything that comes to one’s attention is itself seen and interpreted in terms of this picture” (Conclusions of his Developments in Indian Philosophy from Eighteenth Century Onwards, 2001).

  4. I am obviously with you, Elisa, in this great task of widening the notion of canon.

    I just want to add that that I do resist shaming people because they don’t include whatever group or thinker I (rightly) cherish. It’s too easy to do, and it could be done at any time simply because there are always limited resources and competencies on all sides.

    I remember that as soon as Peter Adamson mentioned that he was including non-Western philosophy in his great series, there were multiple “well if you include x, why aren’t you including y” sorts of comments.

    I understand this spirit (and often agree), but I think that it is sometimes overdone. We can’t be experts in everything, and how much can we include in a single class? We face this problem ourselves. “You include Uddyotakara, but not Jayanta?” “You include Nagarjuna, but not Vasubandhu?” “Have you worked enough to give group x, or sect y their say in your syllabus?”

    Following your point in discussion with Stephen, At minimum, I think people MUST use appropriate qualifiers and try to make it clear, in very rough outline, what they are leaving out. For example, title a class “The history of ancient Greek philosophy.” Instead of “Ancient Philosophy.”

    Better than this, what and why. “Truthfully, I only know the Greek thinkers, and I can teach them effectively, so they will be the major focus in our course.”

    Better than this, what, why, and some offers of direction.

    “But if you are interested in Chinese or Indian philosophy, I’ve included some introductions that my colleagues have suggested in the syllabus.”

    • That’s fair, Matthew, and a good recommendation for lecturers and teachers. I think Peter Adamson’s point is to relax about having to cover “the musts”, since one will fail anyway:-) Thus, one can honestly start a class on the “golden age” (I know, we should avoid these definitions, but let us forget about it for a moment) of Indian Philosophy saying “I am going to cover Dharmakīrti, Prabhākara, Kumārila and Uddyotakara, but not Śaṅkara, since I think his importance has been overestimated”.

  5. And I get Dayaji’s point, but it seems a rather banal observation about how learning occurs, historical or otherwise. A freshman student reads Derrida in her Theory and Method 101 class, and he becomes a major influence in how she reads and understands things that she encounters later in her education. Is this really such a deep point?

    We’ve all read our Kuhn right?

    • Yes, you are right. But still I like DK’s incisive style and his courage for opening in this way the conclusion of a historical book. Would you imagine reading it at the end of one of the volumes of Potter’s Encyclopedia? Anyway, I will add less quotes in the future:-)

      • Please don’t hesitate to add quotes. They are nice. Didn’t mean to cause any hesitation in that regard! And the fact that he’d put it as a qualifier to his own work is an admirable motivation.

  6. Agreed re points about qualifications: Ancient Greek philosophy, contemporary (late 20th up century academic) epistemology etc.

    I think what’s tricky is that, of itself, tradition-based courses are very good. So (other things being equal, which they’re not), history of European ethical theory (Kant, Mill, Aristotle etc) is a good course, and of itself it’s not a problem that the course doesn’t include a segment on Confucian ethics (and so on). Likewise, of itself, a course on early Indian Buddhist ethics is fine etc. But of course almost every philosophy department has a history of European modern philosophy course wedged between the history of European ethical theory and ancient Greek courses, while almost no-one has a regular repeating history of Indian Buddhist ethics course.

    I’m pretty much happy to add non-Western (excuse the term) philosophy to the curriculum any way we can do it for the moment–I think getting it taught is probably the most immediately important thing. But there are huge curriculum restructuring questions looming. Right now there’s a perhaps sometimes unnoticed ambiguity in much of the basic liberal arts model B.A. philosophy curriculum. Is the 200 level “Ethical Theory” course an a-historical introduction to ethical theory (bracketing worries about a-historicality for the moment)? Or is it history of European ethical theory. If it’s the first, we need to made it comparative–add the Dhammapada etc. If it’s the second, then I think that’s ok as a course, but we need to supplement it with other world ethical traditions. (And of course that means getting rid of a lot of these European-tradition courses).

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