Taking Down Descartes: The Canon Wars.

The history of modern philosophy begins with Descartes, right?


In “Descartes Is Not Our Father,” a very interesting–but I also think, very wrong-headed– essay published in The New York Times on 25 September 2017, Christia Mercer writes this:

René Descartes has long been credited with the near-single-handed creation of modern philosophy. Generations of students have read, and continue to read, his famous “Meditations” as the rejection of medieval ways of thinking and the invention of the modern self. They learned that he doubted all traditional ways of knowing before pivoting to the modern subjective individual. Tumbling into a “deep whirlpool,” the doubter of the “Meditations” has no secure footing until he hits upon a single firm and indubitable truth: He is most essentially “a thinking thing.” The modern individual is born, with the rejection of the past as its midwife.

It’s a dramatic story. But it’s false.

Descartes’s contemporaries in the 17th century would have been stunned to hear these accomplishments credited to him. Although he was rightly famous in his time for some of his scientific and mathematical ideas, many considered his philosophical proposals about the radical difference between mind and body implausible and unoriginal. Even his scientific ideas were often ranked on par with others. For example, the English philosopher Anne Conway considered Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s account of corporeal nature to be equally influential, and similarly mistaken.

Another contemporary, the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, agreed, sometimes comparing Descartes’s proposals to those of long-forgotten thinkers like Kenelm Digby. Others noted his debt to past thinkers. In his “Dictionary,” Pierre Bayle writes of complaints about Descartes’s “pirating” of ideas from earlier sources. Fast forward a century or so to Kant, who does not consider the author of the “Meditations” to be worth much attention.

So if Descartes did not invent modern philosophy, how was this false narrative created and sustained?

Mercer then goes on to answer her own question as follows:

This [false narrative] was doomed to fail. The richness and diversity of early modern philosophy were bound to become evident, engendering a growing awareness of the inadequacy of the standard story.

The engendering of that inadequacy was itself gendered. When feminist scholars in the 1980s began to explore early modern women writers, they discovered both the richness of the period’s philosophy and the inadequacy of the lengthwise approach. Scholars like Eileen O’Neill dared historians to widen their scope and include long-forgotten figures, foreseeing how women’s philosophies would offer significant insights into the period’s central debates. This strategy has produced significant results and begun to influence the way historians of philosophy think about the period.

Most relevant to the reconsideration of Descartes and the subjective individual that he was supposed to have invented is the recent recognition that late medieval spiritual meditations — especially those written by women like Julian of Norwich, Hadewijch of Brabant, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila — involved the need to focus on the meditator’s subjectivity as a means to rethink everything the meditator has previously learned about the world. The point was to learn not to care about the external matters so as to develop new habits and beliefs. For most meditators, the only proper means to do this was through subjective exploration.

Longstanding prejudice against women, their capacities to reason, and their right to teach had left women out of philosophy for centuries. But the 12th century witnessed the beginning of a shift to meditative practices emphasizing introspection and feelings. Although created by men, the new forms of spiritual practice gave women the right, for the first time in centuries to write and be read.

Because women were considered naturally predisposed to emotive introspection, their spiritual writings began to be taken seriously. In constant fear of overstepping their bounds, these authors had to find imaginative ways to share their insights while seeming suitably humble. For example, Julian of Norwich writes in late 14th-century England, “Just because I am a woman, must I … not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw … his wish that it should be known?” Women like Julian had to admit their “natural” inferiority and practice their philosophy within the confines of this emotive spiritual genre.

And so they did, brilliantly, writing carefully in their meditations about the subjective individual who doubts everything she was previously taught before progressing to self-knowledge and eventually to truth. It is here in the spiritual writings of late medieval women that we find many of the features that Hegel and Schopenhauer considered new and “Germanic.” To be sure, the steps in Descartes’s “Meditations” are rendered in more explicitly epistemological terms than those of his predecessors, but his strategy and pivot to self-knowledge were already at the time centuries old. It is no wonder his contemporaries were not very impressed. Our understanding of history evolves. We can now see Descartes as the benefactor of a long tradition, to which women significantly contributed. The time seems right to rethink the role of women and other noncanonical figures in the history of philosophy and begin to create a more accurate story about philosophy’s rich and diverse past.

For the purposes of this essay, by a philosophical canon, I mean a reading-&-study list of books, essays, or other writings by some dead philosophers, put forward with special normative force, namely: these are the Great Dead Philosophers, hence anyone seriously interested in philosophy ought to be reading and studying them.

By an objectively brilliant philosophical idea I mean a philosophical idea that objectively manifests outstanding intellectual creativity, insight, and originality, opens up a new way of looking at a large domain of concepts, facts, phenomena, theories, and/or other information, and would have significant impact and influence if it were widely disseminated and adopted.

By an important philosophical idea I mean an objectively brilliant philosophical idea that is indeed widely disseminated and adopted, a brilliant philosophical idea with actual significant impact and influence.

And by a great philosopher I mean someone who has created objectively brilliant and important philosophical ideas.

Granting those terminological stipulations, then, in a nutshell, here is Mercer’s argument–

(i) The contemporary philosophical canon of The History of Modern Philosophy begins with Descartes.

(ii) But Descartes was actually not all that great, because many of his contemporaries and immediate successors didn’t think he was all that great.

(iii) Descartes’s supposed greatness was mostly the product of later and recent philosophical interpreters, almost all of whom were men, and almost all of whom more or less systematically ignored the philosophical contributions of philosophers prior to Descartes, and most especially, the contributions of some earlier early-modern women philosophers.

(iv) Therefore, Descartes is actually not a great philosopher, and the contemporary canon of The History of Modern Philosophy shouldn’t begin with Descartes, but instead with some earlier philosophers, especially earlier early-modern women philosophers.

Let’s suppose that (i) is true.

Then the step from (i) to (ii) is obviously a non sequitur, because the opinions of a philosopher’s contemporaries and immediate successors don’t determine the objective greatness of a philosopher.

On the contrary, the objective greatness of some great philosophers is recognized only a long time after their deaths.

Let’s also suppose that (iii) is true.

But even so, the first clause of (iv)–Descartes’s non-greatness as a philosopher–obviously doesn’t follow from either (i) or (iii).

And the second clause of (iv)–the canon of The History of Modern Philosophy shouldn’t begin with Descartes but instead with some earlier philosophers, especially earlier early- modern women philosophers–presupposes both (i) that there should be a canon of The History of Modern Philosophy, and also (ii) that some contemporary professional philosophers are rationally justified in dictating to other contemporary professional philosophers about what that canon should be.

But I think that both of those presuppositions are false, so even if the second clause of (iv) follows from (iii), then that clause still can’t be true.

First, there shouldn’t be such a canon, period.

And second, even if for some good reason there should be such a canon, or even if such a canon actually exists despite its not being rationally justified, no philosophers should be able to dictate to other philosophers about what that canon should be.

The reason that both presuppositions are false is that they’re both directly inconsistent with all philosophers’ rational existential obligation to Sapere aude!, that is, their obligation to dare to know!, dare to be wise!, dare to think for themselves!

Every living philosopher should be able to read, study, think about, discuss out loud, use in her/his own philosophical work, and/or teach any dead philosopher’s work, no matter when that dead philosopher lived, no matter what gender or sexual orientation that dead philosopher had, no matter what that dead philosopher’s race or ethnicity were, no matter what that dead philosopher’s native language or nationality were, no matter what that dead philosopher’s politics were, and no matter how uncanonical, obscure, or unpopular that dead philosopher was then or is now.

My own opinion is that Descartes is a great philosopher.

But even if Descartes weren’t a great philosopher, and even if he didn’t belong to the philosophical canon of The History of Modern Philosophy, as the Father of the other Magnificent Six, I should be able to read his work, study his work, think about his work, discuss his work out loud, use his philosophical work in my own philosophical work, and/or teach his work–and the same goes for any other dead philosopher whatsoever, no matter what that dead philosopher’s biography, Curriculum Vitae, or reception-history might look like.

To hell with philosophical canons, and even assuming philosophical canons exist without rational justification, to hell with those who would dictate to others about what such a canon should be!

So what’s going on here?

How has contemporary professional academic philosophy gotten to be so profoundly messed up about Descartes and the philosophical canon of The History of Modern Philosophy?

Let’s see.

In 1984, the intellectual historian Bruce Kuklick correctly pointed out that the contemporary philosophical canon of The History of Modern Philosophy has in fact been heavily determined by various wholly contingent, non-philosophical factors, including 19th century cultural nationalism and religious thinking in Europe and the USA, post-World War I politics, post-World War II politics, the curricular teaching needs of colleges and universities since the 1950s, and, of course, professional academic power-plays and trendiness.[i]

Not altogether coincidentally, moreover, all the members of Kuklick’s Magnificent Seven–Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant–in addition to being Dead Great Philosophers, are also Dead White Males.

And there’s the rub.

In 1994, in “The Unpatriotic Academy,” Richard Rorty correctly identified and described a new class of elite “left-wing” intellectuals,

found in colleges and universities, in the academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views. I am glad there are such sanctuaries, even though I wish we had a left more broadly based, less self-involved and less jargon-ridden than our present one. But any left is better than none, and this one is doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.

But Rorty also criticized this new professional academic “left-wing” elite:

If in the interests of ideological purity, or out of the need to stay as angry as possible, the academic left insists on a “politics of difference,” it will become increasingly isolated and ineffective. An unpatriotic left has never achieved anything. A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt.

Rorty’s term “academic left” is also roughly equivalent with “academic multiculturalism,” “academic politics of difference,” “academic politics of inclusion,” “academic politics of diversity,” and also, more pejoratively, “academic political correctness,” “academic social justice warriors,” and so-on.

Rorty’s appeal to American patriotism is philosophically and politically questionable, so I’m simply going to bracket that from here on in.

In any case, the crucial point is that, twenty-three years later, in The Age of Trump, Rorty’s prediction that the “academic left” would “become increasingly isolated and ineffective,” “have no impact on [the] country’s politics,” and “eventually become an object of contempt,” has had an extremely ironic fate.

On the one hand, from the standpoint of the larger world outside the professional academy, this actually came true: certainly, all those who elected Donald Trump as POTUS, and everyone who claps for Betsy DeVos, would agree on that.

And they’re far from being the only ones outside the professional academy who think that Rorty’s “academic left” has actually become an object of contempt: for example, the extra-academic radical or “woke” progressive left has essentially the same opinion about the “academic left,” aka “Clinton(s)-Obama era academic liberals,” although of course for different basic reasons.

But on the other hand, inside the professional academy, in fact, the institutional dominance and ideological hegemony of Rorty’s “academic left” are pretty much complete and universal.

Indeed, nowadays, Rorty’s “academic left” is nothing more or nothing less than the contemporary professional academic power elite.

Correspondingly, contemporary professional academic philosophy has its own power elite, including the most institutionally and politically important people in the profession and the leadership of the APA.

It’s also a plain fact that professional academic philosophy’s power elite, sometimes encouraged from above by administrations, and sometimes encouraged from below by students, but always also on their own initiative, has decreed that the philosophical canon of The History of Modern Philosophy must be changed in order to conform to the elite’s dictates.

Here, for example, by way of empirical confirmation, are three recent articles, selected more or less at random.

The first one is by Minna Salami, “Philosophy Has To Be About More Than White Men,” in The Guardian, 23 March 2015.

The second one is by Jonathan Petre, “They Kant Be Serious! PC Students Demand White Philosophers Including Plato and Descartes Be Dropped From University Syllabus,” in (OK, I know, I know–still, they seem to have gotten the basic facts right) The Daily Mail, 7 January 2017.

And the third one is by Rachel Treisman, “[Yale] Philosophy Department Confronts Diversity Issues,” in The Yale Daily News, 11 September 2017.

So, by way of conclusion, here is how Kuklick concluded his 1984 article:

My analysis of the history of modern philosophy … suggests that initially the questions historians of philosophy asked were: what past philosophers are great; and how are they connected to what interests us now? More recent historians of philosophy have even further reduced interrogative complexity. They ask only: how are the conventionally great philosophers related to what interest us now? I would suggest, in conclusion, that these are not particularly subtle queries. They avoid all variety of exploration of past ideas in exchange for learning what a sub-group of philosophical practitioners thinks is worthy in past thinking. The enterprise of the conventional history of philosophy does not rest on a mistake; but it does rest on a feeble inquisitiveness about the past.

Right!, mostly.

My only objection to Kuklick’s conclusion is that his final sentence is false, and should be amended as follows, in order to make it true.

The enterprise of the conventional history of philosophy, insofar as it is committed to (i) the very idea of philosophical canons and also to (ii) obedience to the dictates of contemporary professional academic philosophy’s power elite, is based on two mistakes; and not only does it rest on a feeble inquisitiveness about the past, it also rests on feeble philosophy, period.


[i] B. Kuklick, “Seven Thinkers and How They Grew: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz; Locke, Berkeley, Hume; Kant,” in R. Rorty, J.B. Schneewind, and Q. Skinner (eds.), Philosophy in History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 125-139.

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