EducationFeatureO.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

Disrupting Silences in the Philosophy Canon

Teaching 'modern' philosophy

Philosophy is suffering gender-wise (and here I bracket for the moment class, race, and sexuality) — see Sally Haslanger’s “Women in Philosophy? Do the Math” in The Stone. But the gender trouble is not simply a matter of representation in the field. The problem also entails a regretfully enduring elision in the transmission of Western thought, a continued forgetfulness of invaluable labor, which I hope is not for any malicious reasons. Nevertheless, it is still troubling that the problem persists in its current form and thrives because we are comfortable with the standard account. Which brings me to the topic of this post: teaching the philosophical canon.

For the past three years, I’ve taught an introductory history of philosophy class on ancient and medieval philosophy. I love it. But when given the choice of teaching either “ancient” or “modern” at Eugene Lang this past fall, I chose the challenge of teaching something new. And true to form, when planning the course’s structure I began with asking myself questions: What makes modern philosophy just that — modern? How would I teach that? What does it mean to teach modern philosophy?

Admittedly, I find it frustrating to plan courses on expansive historical epochs such as “ancient” and “modern.” However convenient these titles once were in demarcating philosophical development in the west, upon further inspection they prove to be insufficient. Not only do they give the illusion that nothing transpired before, between, or alongside such periods — e.g., early Greek thinking, Renaissance thought, or the poorly classified “Eastern thought” (read: whatever is not done here where the sun sets). But this illusion is also perpetuated by the industrial overproduction of secondary material that makes it increasingly difficult even to give regard to anything beyond what ancient and modern allow. It is quite uncomfortable as a young philosophy teacher to have to earn my bones at the entry level — if not on a fellowship, then as part of the “adjunct reserve” — by teaching misleadingly titled courses on such large swaths of historical development, as if they were uncontroversial or uncontested, as if not much has changed and it were merely a matter of course.

This situation speaks to a languishing in the thought and instruction of philosophy in the contemporary university. It is quite easy to blame “the discipline” (what Richard Rorty called “Big-P Philosophy”) with its mavens and mandarins, or the ever-increasing administrative reach that steers university development. I say “easy” because, however correct the diagnosis might be, it is still partial, and the long lament of academics (of which I do not excuse myself) on this note has not done much to change things. And most importantly, it dances dangerously close to excusing oneself from the issue. None of us who have chosen to become specialists or “experts” in the field of philosophy are innocent in the matter.

But it is at these moments that I turn inward and I hear my mother’s challenge: “Oh sige anak! Anong gagawin mo?” (“Okay fine kid! What are you going to do?”) How should I resist what I otherwise find disconcerting? How should I honor the institution, of which I take pride in being a part, which has granted me the chance to teach a course on modern philosophy? Could I accomplish both?

Returning to the formation of the course narrative, when looking to the canonical “modern” thinkers, we find Descartes is commonly thought to initiate something novel enough to draw the line in the sand between him and his predecessors. And however much that is warranted (though I like to think Montaigne is a nice pivot point), the more difficult question is, “where might the narrative of modern thought end?” Kant? Hegel? Nietzsche? Frege? Some other German? In any event, traditional readers and summary texts that are dedicated to delineating the period tend to punctuate things with Hume or Kant, and the story usually goes that Kant uniquely reorients philosophical thinking away from the war of attrition between “rationalists” and “empiricists.” And again, I’m not sure that this is incorrect all the way down, but it’s too neat for my taste. Too neat because, at the very least, the setup for post-Kantian thought is deceptive in a way that does injustice to that tradition and, more troubling, allows for the picture of European philosophical development as being quite mindfully self-managed in an unquestionable manner.

Even though I made the concession to Descartes when structuring the course, a different endpoint had to be possible. For me, it was going to be Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and for reasons quite pressing for philosophy in an educational context. And so, I had my beginning and end — Descartes’ Meditations (because how could you not begin with that opening paragraph?) and Wollstonecraft’s Second Vindication (lest we forget that she first sought to vindicate the rights of men). Now what of the middle?

Here, I was fortunate to stumble upon an article in The Atlantic by Susan Price, “Reviving the Female Canon” that led me to Project Vox, an initiative to recover the lost voices of women in the Western philosophical canon under way at Duke University. Many of the readings that I ended up assigning were influenced by the syllabi shared on their site. (As an aside, thanks to two separate casual conversations about course planning with Associate Dean Ellen Freeberg and Professor Alice Crary, I became aware of a similar endeavor, Project Continua, directed by The New School’s own Professor Gina Walker.) All these resources opened up a treasure trove of material and scholars resisting and honoring the tradition in an exemplary manner. The only “original find” on my part was the invaluable four-volume History of Women Philosophers (1987-1995) edited by Mary Ellen Waithe.

My work was cut out for me, and the summer was partially dedicated to the effort necessary to shape a modern philosophy class for the fall that I would be proud of teaching — worthy of the discipline, my teachers, my colleagues, and students. (I sometimes take my duties a bit too seriously in the estimation of some.) The faculty members whom I consulted were very encouraging of the idea. In fact, Professor Zed Adams noted that I should think about just teaching modern women philosophers. I don’t think I’m adequately trained to lead such a course (I’d look to Professor Walker’s classes for that). Or I balked (you choose). In the end, this is the course description (see the course outline below) that I came up with:

Traditionally speaking, “modern” philosophy is thought to have begun with the radical break from the dominance of Aristotle on the philosophical landscape characteristic of the Middle Ages. This departure from medieval scholasticism developed alongside the European Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, continuing well into the outbursts of “enlightenment” throughout Europe in the 18th century. In this respect, it is common to bookend the modern philosophical epoch with René Descartes’ foundationalism and Immanuel Kant’s critical project. Told this way, the progress of philosophical thought is the story of great men, their genius, and how they changed the world. But to view matters this way is to cover over and take for granted the formative achievements and contributions of those important women whose philosophical insight and social ingenuity did just as much to make the modern age what it was — a break with old ways of thinking, doing, and feeling. In this course, we will study the thought of some of the modern age’s great movers and shakers, those women and men who sought to fashion what “modern” meant or could mean — at least in the philosophical sense. Our itinerary will focus on five important themes of the day that occasioned the meeting of minds: (1) “Mind-Body Dualism” with René Descartes and Elisabeth of Bohemia; (2) “Natural Philosophy and Philosophy of Mind” with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Margaret Cavendish; (3) “Theories of Substance” with Baruch Spinoza, Anne Conway, G.W. Leibniz, and Damaris Masham; (4) “Skepticism and Knowledge” with George Berkeley, David Hume, and Mary Shepherd; and (5) “Education and Social Organization” with Mary Astell, Immanuel Kant, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Looking at it now, there are things that trouble me still. For example, I begrudgingly stuck to the orthodox “rationalism v. empiricism” narrative despite attempts to be unorthodox and mask this fact in the movement of the syllabus — a well-trained eye can see I’ve tried to color over my tracings. In addition, and more importantly, I’ve left out other important non-English women philosophers such as Anna Maria van Schurmann, Queen Christina of Sweden, Émilie du Châtelet, and Laura Bassi Veratti. My only defense is that there isn’t much translated and that 15 weeks is hardly enough time to do anything more than introductory given my aspirations. But I’d rather swing for the fences because the stakes are high.

If voices aren’t actively being silenced, then they’re surely being allowed to fade into obscurity because so few out there are telling this part of the story — and it isn’t an insignificant part. Due diligence, the mark of a respect and reverence for one’s craft, will show that the women contributors to the development of modern philosophy were just as able and keen in their endeavors — without formal education, without acknowledgement, and engaged in ways we forget are part of the scholarly history of philosophy: the epistolary tradition. To remain willfully blind to this part of the tradition is to allow it to languish. Business as usual incriminates us all, and the tradition suffers. And like anything else, philosophy is only as good as its practitioners.

Now, I don’t want to be innocent. I just don’t desire to be deliberately complicit given the new evidence that’s come to light. Those of us who are inheritors of the sin of Socrates — which I proudly bear — must, in the ways available to us, make good on the criminal charges: to corrupt the youth and doubt the god’s abilities. That is, we need to get students to think and question their prior disciplinization — and not overlook the fact that we too are changed in the process. This could or should be the honest and sincere work of the tradition. Or at least that is how I take up the vocation as a teacher. To do otherwise, in my estimation, is to permit idling and inanity.

Course Outline







o. Introduction: A Brave New World




Introductions & a Short Lecture on the Transition to Philosophical Modernity



Shifting to ‘Modern’ Thought & Breaking the Silence

(1) Jacqueline Broad, “Introduction” to Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century(2) Anthony Kenny, “Introduction” to The Rise of Modern Philosophy, Vol. III of A New History of Western Philosophy

* Andrea Nye, “Preface” to Feminism and Modern Philosophy

* Roger Scruton, “The Rise of Modern Philosophy”

I. New Foundations, New Problems: Cartesian Dualism Sets the Modern Agenda




Labor Day

(No Class)



Beginning Again in a New Key, Reality’s Order, Our Access to It & How We Know

René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, First – Fourth*Descartes, Fifth & Sixth

Preliminary Assessment Essay




Rosh Hashanah

(No Class)



The Persistence of a Princess on the Relation of Mind & Body

Elisabeth of Bohemia, selections from The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes, in Margaret Atherton (ed.), Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period [WPEMP], Chapter 1* Descartes, Objections and Replies, Fourth Set

II. On the Nature of Things & Human Capacities Therefrom: Matter, Motion & the Mind




Living in the Material World

Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Chapters I – VII



Yom Kippur

(No Class)




It’s Human Nature

Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Chapters XIV – XVII

Descartes-Elisabeth Correspondence



The Thing About Matter Is…It Thinks

Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, Chapters XXXI & XXXVI




An Empirical Mind Before There Were Any Empiricists

Cavendish, Observations, Chapter XXXVII, questions 1 – 10* Cavendish, selections from The Blazing World



Prefiguring the Debate on Substance

Cavendish, Further Observations, Chapters VI – XVI* Cavendish, selections from Philosophical Letters, in WPEMP, Chapter 2

III. Theories of Substance: The Basic Constituent(s) & their Arrangement into the Known World




Substance – If Not God, then Nature

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Part One, D1 – P16, P25, P28 & Appendix*Spinoza, Ethics, Part One, P17-36



Mind-Body Parallelism & Striving for Self-Preservation

Spinoza, Ethics, Part Two, P7 – 13L3 & Part Three, D1-P10*Spinoza, Ethics, Part Four, Appendix

First Essay




Created Things Can Change Into Each Other

Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Chapters VI – VII



The Spirit & Body Differ Existentially, Not Essentially

Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Chapters VIII – IX

Course Outline (continued)





Reading(s) Due
9 M 10.26

The World, Composed of Simple Stuffs, Is Held Together By Love

G.W. Leibniz, The Monadology* Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics, paragraphs 1-3, 6, 8-16, 19, 23 & 33



A Lady’s Lockean Letters to Leibniz

Damaris Masham, selections from correspondence with Leibniz, in R.S. Woodhouse (ed.), Leibniz’s ‘New System’ and Associated Contemporary Texts, Chapter 8. Spinoza-Conway Correspondence

IV. What We Can & Do Know (If Anything at All): On Experience & Skepticism




Against the Skepticism that Empiricism Entails

George Berkeley. Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, First Dialogue* Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1 – 25



Material Substances Don’t Exist, Better to Go the Idealist Route

Berkeley, Three Dialogues, First Dialogue (con’t.)* Berkeley, Three Dialogues, selections from Third Dialogue




Diffusing Doubts About Skepticism

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Sections 4 & 5* Hume, Enquiry, Sections 2 & 3



What Appears Conjoined Isn’t Necessarily Connected

Hume, Enquiry, Sections 6 & 7* Hume, Enquiry, Section 8




Miracles Busted

Hume, Enquiry, Section 10* Hume, Enquiry, Sections 9 & 11



Against the Atheism that Skepticism Entails

Mary Shepherd, selections from Essays on the Perception of an External Universe, in WPEMP, Chapter 7

Midterm Essay

V. Forming Institutions & Associations Fit for the Title of ‘Modern’—A Renaissance of Humanism




Women Aren’t Intellectually Inferior, their Education Is

Mary Astell, selections from A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Pt. 2, in WPEMP, Chapter 5



Towards the Formation of a Rational & Morally Upright Society

(1) Immanuel Kant, “Ideas for a Universal History”(2)“Preface to the First Edition” of the Critique of Pure Reason




To Not Use One’s Reason Is to Be Either Lazy or a Slave

(1) Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”(2) Kant, “What is the Orientation in Thinking?”



On the Subjugation of Women

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (Abridged), Letter to Talleyrand-Périgord – Chapter II




What Motivates & Reproduces Systematic Oppression – On How Women are Viewed

Wollstonecraft, Vindication (Abridged), Chapters III – VI

Astell-Kant Correspondence



A New Model for Educating—One that is Wholesome

Wollstonecraft, Vindication (Abridged), Chapters VII – XIII

ø. End Game




Review for Final Papers



Review for Final Papers




Conclusion of the Course

Final Papers

PJ Gorre

  • Mary Ellen Waithe

    Thanks for your kind mention of my works. Your students may find it valuable to check the website, There you will find “Kate’s Pages” which are individual pages about dozens of women philosophers since antiquity. – Mary Ellen Waithe

  • Michael Quirk

    First of all, great syllabus…..

    As a veteran of the “Canon wars” of the 80s and 90s, I came away with the conclusion that both sides in that debate somehow thought that you had to teach Philosophy (or Literature, or Art history, or Social Theory, etc.) as if your students will never ever read another book again after they graduate. Thus curricular conservatives (not necessarily all political conservatives: Harold as well as Allan Bloom was one) were frantic about building a fortress around Shakespeare and Kant and Herodotus, and currucular radicals were equally adamant about giving equal or compensatory time to the excluded and marginalized, women and non-Western voices. There is something prematurely desparate in all this. In a way curricular conservatives and curricular radicals both were right yet were attacking the wrong problem, which is, basically time. What can be fit into a semester-long course that is coherent, does justice to the twists and turns of historical tradition, but also lets the light in to show that there are other perspectives than those of the “cultural all-stars?”

    There is no one way to do that, and no way is without its disadvantages. Teaching Wollstonecraft and Kant is, in fact a good start; a version of “Modern Philosophy” whose syllabus is works written exclusively by women is another. The point is to design the class so that, when finished with it, one is tempted to continue reading, say, Jane Addams, or Simone de Beauvoir, or Martha Nussbaum on the Stoics. Or for that matter, Hegel or Nietzsche. It is what comes after the final exam that, in my humble opinion, matters most.

    • David Kretz

      A good point well put! I wonder though how many people really continue reading philosophy regularly after college if they do not go on to grad school and do not stay with the profession… and empirical questions, I guess. If anyone knows of studies that would be highly interesting.

      Beyond the question of how much people read afterwards there’s also the question how. Reading as part of a class, having regular conversations with others (and teachers) on texts, is a different quality than reading “alone”…

      Because of those considerations I have some doubt as to how much weight the “there is time” argument pulls. But eliciting curiosity is definitely a worthwhile goal! (And perhaps all the more important, if my intuition about how little philosophy is read after college is right?)

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