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Canonized Thoughts, or Thoughts on the Canon

In 2013, I applied to the Graduate Program in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. I had for some time nourished a persistent fantasy regarding that specific program at that specific school. My fantasy regarded the canon. At The New School, I imagined, the philosophical canon is surely heavily contested, at times even rejected, but most importantly creatively reassessed. Nothing could have prepared me for the surprise I experienced beginning the master’s program in philosophy last fall. Most courses focused on specific thinkers: Deleuze, Gramsci, Merleau-Ponty, Spinoza, Aquinas, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Adorno; all courses focused almost exclusively on dead cis-gender white men.

What an old boring second wave observation! you might be thinking while reading this. Isn’t the most important thing how, and not what we read? Can’t we just read the same old things as long as we spice them up with some critical commentary here and there to prove that we do realize that Kant was racist, that Foucault was sexist, that Heidegger was antisemitic? These were questions we frequently discussed this spring in the “Philosophy and Literature” seminar taught by Chiara Bottici, and our discussion became particularly vivid during our fourth week of class when we read Machiavelli, someone who lingers at the outskirts of the Western philosophical canon.

Some days I am better built for engaging with the Western canon than other days, and those other days when I’m worse equipped, I have trouble maintaining enough strength to remain within the discourse of activity where I need to stay in order to perform the only thing (action) I can while reading Machiavelli — critique. But nothing bores me more than critique, and nothing exhausts me more than masculinist ideals of activity, so on those other days I seek refuge from this canon, from those critiques.

Some days, those other days that is, I can’t shake the feeling that reading elaborately sexist texts contaminates not only my thinking, but my way-of-being. Perhaps I should have learned by now that the system, as Luce Irigaray thoroughly reminds us, has no outside that I can strive toward reaching; but it does have a nasty center that I can strive toward avoiding. No matter how many feminist analyses I read that skillfully dissect any given canonized text in an attempt to cleanse myself of the phallologocentrism imposed by the works constituting the Western philosophical canon, I still feel dirty.

Femininity for Machiavelli, as argues Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, is characterized by its all-encompassing, natural, eternal qualities, and feared for the same reasons. The men in Machiavelli’s world are threatened by the mythological element of femininity. In the same way as logos had to insert a clean break between itself and mythos in order to come into being, masculinity has constituted itself at the expense of erasing femininity, its source and predecessor. Machiavelli’s men are threatened by the passivity suggested by femininity, by the temptation it suggests; if they don’t stay constantly alert and active, they might just lose themselves in the passions, in the passivity suggested by the mere presence of feminine figures. Besides the question of who and what we read, we have in the “Philosophy and Literature” seminar also asked: “Who can write what?” Who in this case is Machiavelli, and he can write about rape and make it sound consensual.

Today is one of those other days where my permissiveness is low, and I am wondering what good having read The Mandrake and The Prince is to me? And further, when will we start reading other texts? Of course, you, as well as I, as well as The New School for Social Research, already know the answer to these questions: we will read other texts when it is possible to read other texts and still get by; when it is possible to be more interested in thinking than in money. Perhaps it already is; perhaps it is just hard to realize when enshrouded in readings of Deleuze, Gramsci, Merleau-Ponty, Spinoza, Aquinas, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Adorno, at a private neoliberal institution in the United States of America.

Also for you:

Angelica Stathopoulos

  • This is spectacular and so, so needed. Thank you for giving voice to this.

  • Teresa Casas

    Great piece! Yes, I think a few of us shared your fantasy on the NSSR. Changing topics: I have my doubts about Fortune. I mean, yes she is a woman ( according to Machivelli) and he encourages virile actions like rape to dominate her… but she doesn’t look specially passive to me.

  • Ali Shames-Dawson

    Great piece, voicing many concerns I shared as a philosophy student and articulating the specific variety of weariness that comes from vigilant performance of everlasting critique lest one get swept toward the nasty center.

  • ht

    Yes!! And it is not just the Philosophy department by all means…

  • AW

    Thank you for writing about this! Absolutely not to be dismissed as some silly “second-wave” concern – if social science departments did not address this properly during the 70s and 80s, why wouldn’t we still have this concern? Even more patronizing is the idea that students should mine the above texts for vague, half-hearted, once-in-a-blue-moon feminist sentiments. Fix the canon, or f the canon.

    • Ingersolid

      Analytic philosopher here, wading into the fever swamps of identity politics, tortured exegesis, and elaborate grievance that characterize continental philosophy on even its best days. Should you “f— the canon,” does that mean you will abandon it, at long last? We who do serious work on that nasty old canon would be delighted if you dilletantes focused entirely on your clown show and left it alone.

      • Shame on you, anonymous Ingersolid troll! You give respectable analytic philosophers a bad name. People who think about what it means to live a good life should try to be nicer to one another.

        One of the things that I found interesting in this article is how clearly it illustrates different conceptions of the canon. This rather mean-spirited young person who seriously works on the canon is, I suspect, not working on any of the “canonical” figures mentioned by Angelica. I started out in a very Analytic department, where people like Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Gramsci, Adorno, and Foucault (let alone anybody whose name begins with “H”) were almost never mentioned. There was also relatively little interest in historical work. Obviously there were courses on the Descartes-Kant line, but often enough courses were topical (What is “consciousness”?) and focused on contemporary specialist figures (like, say, Daniel Dennett) who make almost no reference to “the canon” at all! Their canon was quite different than the one you mention. So for me, coming to NSSR and reading Adorno or Deleuze or whatever was already pretty off-canon for me. The canonical texts of, say, a “cultural studies” department are also quite different.

        Questions for Angelica (or anyone else): Can you suggest a few figures/texts/topics to be looked at instead of the authors you mention? And do you think this is the sort of stuff that should be studied everywhere by all, or that it is good to have some people doing Kant, some people doing Irigaray, and even some people doing good old Dennett? Also, FYI, I think the department often sends round a kind of petition every year/semester asking what sorts of things people would like to study, so maybe you can gather a critical mass and get some of your interests addressed? This also means that the courses available are at least to some extent student-selected. Likely other students know more about this than I do. Plus, forming reading groups is pretty popular in the meantime.

  • topofred

    “What good having read X and Y is to me?”, you ask–a disturbing question coming from a student of philosophy. You add that “nothing bores me more than critique”. Did you pick the right path, then? I’ll offer a comparison. I’m teaching mathematics. One day, I had a student tell me “I want to teach algebra, so why do I need to study Calculus?”. That’s what this piece sounds like to me…I find the consumer viewpoint of many students quite regrettable. I now realize that this consumer attitude is not limited to students in sciences… You complain that you have to study things that are not your primary interest–this is a consumer complaint, not a student viewpoint.

    • Angelica

      Topofred,

      I am not “complaining”, and I am not speaking from a consumer viewpoint. I am discussing the western philosophical canon.

      I would further explain my views on critique, had it not been for your belligerent tone.

      • topofred

        Angelica,

        Thanks for taking the time to reply.
        It is of course up to you to engage further or not. I’d be happy to know more regarding your views of critique, but I understand that you found my tone too “belligerent”. I don’t think it was–I was merely trying to offer my reading of your piece, in which I do not think I put words in your mouth, but rather pointed out how negatively some of your own words can easily be interpreted, whether you welcome this interpretation or not. But of course, I would be a poor judge of my own tone (similarly, you don’t think you were complaining about what you are given to read…). At any rate, I was not trying to be belligerent, but rather pointing out that such sayings as “What good having read X and Y is to me?” would need a lot of unpacking to not be interpreted as another instance of student-consumerism. As it is, I still have some trouble reading it differently. You say that you do not speak from a consumer viewpoint, and that may well be the case, but what in the piece clarifies this? Similarly, a statement like “nothing bores me more than critique” without further clarification as to what you mean begs the question: what are you doing in a philosophy program then? Now, I do not mean to truly ask you this question for I imagine it does not reflect your true relationship to philosophy, but rather, I am pointing out that by making such statements without elaboration as to what it meant, you put yourself in the position to be seen that way.

  • lilyboosh

    The initial observations are quite valid, the Western canon (like all age-old canons) is most certainly dominated by (white) men who spend an inordinate amount of time propping up their masculinity with dismissive systems that saddle women with all their insecurities. That being said, I have a problem with articles/blog posts such as this that see no value whatsoever with the past due to discovering that it has oppressive and/or unsavory elements. I’m sorry, but you cannot “fix or forget” the canon. No amount of tokenization will make up for the scores and scores of people from oppressed populations throughout history who saw their potential cut down, their intellect denied and their prospects rebuked just so they could take on the burdens of white men or who had their contributions to human thought stolen by them (same with historical issues of class). It won’t help for the many women who through herculean work rose above the restrictions of their time only to be deliberately erased or discarded by later (male) chroniclers either. While the history of thought is messy, this doesn’t make a lot of the arguments and reasonings put down undert the rubric of Kant, Hume, etc. less groundbreaking or interesting and they rightly belong in the received canon, it’s just that that’s all it is, a received canon from which you can set out on your own path.
    To me the best we can do is to add and fill in the blanks as much as we can with regards to oppressed populations and supplement the canon we have; more importantly, we need to make sure our present and future blocks of canon-building are wide, diverse, open and inclusive. You can’t fix the past, but you can reappraise it and build better futures: this is the key value of rereading the received classics.

    PS: As a trans woman myself, something that I wanted to address on its own paragraph was your inclusion of “cisgender”. While there have been trans people since time immemorial, “transgender” is a thoroughly modern construct which includes a hitherto unprecedented awareness of the distance between gender and biological sex as assigned at birth. Furthermore, the discovery of hormone synthesis in the mid 20th century utterly blew out of the water any prior concepts of cross-gender expression and threw into stark relief the social quality of gender and its norms. Therefore, speaking of Kant or Machiavelli as “cisgender” seems to me uselessly anachronistic.

    • Angelica

      Dear lilyboosh,

      If anything, uninterested in history is not how I describe myself. I thought it might be obvious that I, as a student of philosophy, is nourished by, and therefore cherish, the past. And like you, what I adress is precisely a call for building better futures. My critique comes from a place of love, a love of thought.

      Of course, it is terribly anachronistic to say that Kant was cis or that Plato was gay, since they had other ways doing and thinking gender and sexuality. My intention was to characterise the western philosophical canon as such, which, from my point of view comes across as being terribly homogenous. Describing the canon as being inhabited by “men” seems somewhat accurate but simplified, for what kinds of men are these men?

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