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Non-Canonical Texts and Teaching the History of Modern Philosophy: Why We Might as Well Go Ahead and Abandon the Survey – Part I

by Kristopher G. Phillips

There has been significant discussion of late regarding the importance of expanding the canon when discussing the early modern period. (See O’Neill, 2005 and Shapiro, 2016) In my view, this is a welcome and long-overdue discussion. The history of philosophy has been problematically understood to be monochromatic and male. There has also been significant discussion regarding the appropriate way to incorporate underrepresented figures in our Modern philosophy classes. Expanding the canon introduces a challenge not entirely unfamiliar to any teacher: how do we cover all the material that deserves attention in one semester? I am still relatively new to teaching philosophy (I am in my third year of a tenure-track position, and my fourth year of full-time teaching), but I have a modest proposal to help address this challenge. Let’s just stop teaching survey courses in modern philosophy. Here I will briefly make an a priori case for why we might abandon the survey approach when planning and teaching the history of modern philosophy. It is worth noting that this argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to other courses in philosophical sub-specializations. I am not entirely sure what I think with regard to survey courses in, for example, metaphysics. For now, I intend only to address the history of modern philosophy. Whether we should also abandon the survey approach in classes concerned with other sub-specializations will have to remain a topic for another day.

There are compelling reasons to teach the history of modern philosophy to our students. The study of old texts helps to foster intellectual virtues including charitable reading, an understanding of the difficulties present when translating philosophical work, the incommensurability of world-views, and our own temporal parochialism. Additionally, we live in a time of hyperspecialization at virtually every level. This was not the case in the modern period; indeed, Hobbes, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, and myriad other major figures were involved in mathematics, physics, astronomy and optics in addition to their philosophical work. Teaching the history of philosophy can help demonstrate the dense interconnections that hold between seemingly disparate sub-specializations. I do not intend to defend the value of the history of philosophy here, rather I mention these virtues because highlighting the ends for the sake of which we teach this material can help precisify the method by which we should teach. The modern period is particularly rich, and we are no doubt familiar with the traditional narrative. According to the traditional narrative we have the rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, (thesis) then we have the empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, (antithesis), and finally we have Kant (synthesis). When trying to teach a survey in modern, we have between 10 and 15 weeks, so we speed through brief selections of each of these figures. In many ways we have the “greatest hits of the dead white guys” (to borrow a phrase from a colleague). Like most “greatest hits” albums, when we teach the survey this way, we miss the intent of the author and the nuance of the project from which the “hits” are taken. We take brief selections of important works and explain arguments independent of the original context the authors offered, in service of covering as much material as possible. There are several reasons to be unhappy with this approach.

In his APA Presidential Address in 2014, Professor Nadler highlighted one reason to be unhappy. He said,

If you are really going to cover seven philosophers in a 15 week semester, then at best you are going to give each philosopher only two weeks. Ok, Berkeley really does not need two weeks. But all you will read of Descartes is the Meditations, all you will read of Spinoza is the Ethics, and not even the whole thing – just parts one and two, and the students will be left wondering why the book is called “Ethics.” With Leibniz, you will probably only do the Discourse on Metaphysics or the Monadology. With Locke, a couple chapters from the Essay… will suffice. Berkeley will likely be represented by the Three Dialogues. For Hume, you will have them read the Enquiry…, not the Treatise. And with Kant, it will be the Prologomena, not the Critique.

In short, when we try to cover seven figures who offer philosophical systems rather than a singular philosophical view, students are left not really having read the figures, and not really having understood what the figures wanted them to understand. One of the key features of the modern period is the systematicity of their thought, and when we teach a survey we are more apt to fail to teach students this feature. Another reason to be dissatisfied with this concerns the well documented problems with the rationalism/empiricism narrative. While serviceable as a narrative, under the slightest bit of pressure the distinction collapses.

Furthermore, I noted above that teaching the canon ignores the contributions women made to philosophy. Eugene Marshall notes that “our profession is in a sorry state with regard to diversity and we ought to do what we can to address that.” (See Marshall, 2014) One way to address this is to incorporate women into the survey. The first time I taught a modern class, I had the students read Professor Atherton’s Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period and included those figures’ work in the syllabus. At the time, I was teaching a four-credit course so I had a little extra time, but it was nearly impossible to offer a fair treatment of each figure. Just to be clear, Professor Atherton’s book offers selections from an extra 7 philosophers. Seven! In 15 weeks, I tried to cover 14 philosophers. Just as Nadler suggested, I got the impression that the students walked away with a little bit of knowledge of a great many people. Furthermore, several students expressed on their course evaluations that the Atherton text seemed “an afterthought” when compared to the significantly larger Ariew and Watkins anthology (which contains only men). Despite my best efforts, I ran afoul of Marshall’s invocation.

In sum, here are the reasons I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with surveys. First, the traditional survey approach covers too many people too quickly. When we teach a survey, we must ignore one of the central features of early modern thinkers: systematic thought. When covering between seven and fourteen philosophers, each of whom has a complex and broad philosophical system, over the course of a semester we essentially teach a caricature of each philosopher. One simply cannot introduce a nuanced reading of Kant’s philosophical system in three to four hours. Second, the traditional narrative is problematic both in that the rationalism/empiricism distinction is arguably not viable and in terms of considering only work by men. These concerns are not inconsequential. To be sure, they run the risk of abandoning the very reasons we teach the history of the modern period. If we cannot spend time reading philosophers in context, then we cannot properly and charitably interpret texts. If we only have three or four class periods to sketch a philosopher’s work, then we likely cannot flesh out their systematic thought (Marshall suggests focusing on one topic, e.g. the mind-body problem, and covering that theme across many figures). Finally, with there being no comprehensive anthology that incorporates both men and women of the modern period, we run afoul of the reasonable suggestion that we do everything we can to make the canon more inclusive.

In an attempt to address this, I will here offer a brief proposal for how we might reconsider teaching the history of modern philosophy. My proposal is simple. Instead of teaching a survey course, select three philosophers from the period and teach more of their work. Instead of trying to cover all of the thinkers, giving students breadth but little to no depth, teach students to read and think systematically by carefully reading more work from each of these three figures. Teach them how to approach a text and read carefully, attending to arguments, underlying assumptions and relevant background (social, political, philosophical). Encourage the students to look at seemingly bizarre claims and work out why an otherwise very intelligent person would hold such a belief. In short, focus on developing philosophical skills that they can apply more broadly—not just to the history of philosophy. Careful, deep reading, charitable interpretation, and systematic thought are not skills useful only to the student of modern philosophy, but to philosophy in general. I suggest that this approach better serves our students as well as the figures we consider important. After all, if students know how to read modern philosophy, then they can more effectively do so on their own.

In part II, published tomorrow, I will offer an account of the course I taught in the fall semester of 2016 where I experimented with this approach. I will note the benefits, the shortcomings, and some student comments.

Kristopher G. Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Utah University. His research focuses on Descartes’s modal metaphysics and epistemology and the role it plays in his broader philosophical system (including free-will and the mind-body problem). He is also active in pre-college philosophy, having co-founded both the Iowa and Utah Lyceum projects and currently serves on the APA Committee for Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy. 

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