Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens

Detail of Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, depicting among others Plato and Aristotle

In 2020, Dr Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) was interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Trouw [in Dutch]. In that interview, he outlined his case for getting rid of philosophical canons. “The Dutch far right got very angry with me on Twitter,” Bright says. “A quite prominent far-right politician said what a terrible person I am, and a bunch of her followers agreed.” But much of this anger was based on a misunderstanding of Bright’s argument. “They assumed without really reading what I was saying that my objection was to the particular people on the canon, so say Descartes, because he was a white guy from Europe. And they, being the far right, didn’t like that. But actually my objection isn’t really to any particular items on the canon at all.”

To start off our new series of posts about teaching philosophy – titled, unimaginatively, “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century” – we caught up with Dr Bright in August 2021 to discuss his argument, and to learn more about what teaching philosophy without teaching to the philosophy canon might look like.

Sara Van Goozen [SVG]: When you are talking about the canon, what is that you’re actually talking about?

Liam Kofi Bright [LKB]: I think of canons as a set of shared texts, which it is normatively expected that the people we teach philosophy to will have to engage with – either read them or at least read summaries of them or discuss them in class. It’s what people are meant to be familiar with.

What’s in the canon will differ a lot depending on what field you’re in, but in philosophy, in the bits of the English speaking world that I have been part of, typically some familiarity with at least some of Plato’s Republic will be expected, as well as Descartes’ Meditations, and some familiarity with Kant [especially, his Critique of Pure Reason] is typically also required. So, it’s thought that your education as a philosophy student isn’t complete unless you have some working knowledge of these texts. Now, as you go into graduate school this remains, but it will be more sub-discipline specific. For example, I do philosophy of science, and while it’s not the case that Kuhn and Hempel are still driving contemporary research, a student of philosophy of science is still expected to know a bit about what Kuhn and Hempel thought, because that’s part of being educated into philosophy of science. So, it’s basically a shared idea of shared texts which normatively you have to engage with as part of a good education.

SVG: What then is the problem with the canon as it’s currently used in teaching philosophy?

LKB: My objection is to the idea of a canon, rather than any particular items on it. I think it’s a mistake to think that we need to homogenise or standardise the texts undergrads deal with. I think that there are various benefits to there being a wide variety of skill sets and knowledge bases available in society. As teachers, the little bit we can contribute to that is anti-coordinating our actions, and ensuring that by diverse efforts across the world and across whatever country we are in, we are teaching people different skills, different kinds of knowledge, and different ways of looking at the world. What I would like is for people to come at the world with lots of different ways of seeing things and that’s what I would like to achieve through our teaching. So, from the perspective of the education system as a whole, I would like education systems to produce a diverse set of knowledges, perspectives, outlooks, and so on. And to do that, I think we need to resist the idea of needing a canon, because a canon homogenises what people know.

I think it’s a mistake to think that we need to homogenise or standardise the texts undergrads deal with.

SVG: Assuming for the moment that we have a properly constructed canon – one which doesn’t only focus on Anglo-American philosophers, and which includes perspectives from all over the world – would it still have this homogenising effect, do you think?

LKB: Yeah, it’s almost an analytic point – the point of the canon is that it’s a set of texts all students of philosophy are normatively expected to have read. And so, by design, a canon introduces a particular set of ways of thinking about what the important questions in philosophy are, how they are to be approached, etcetera. Of course, if we could literally teach everything, hypothetically, that issue would go away. But since that is not feasible, the canon is always going to be a very tiny subset of the available things we could teach in philosophy, and it takes up a fair bit of time in an undergraduate education.

If the concern was simply for demographic diversity, you could easily do that even while sticking within the same philosophical confines. For example, you could get a lot of interesting [canonical] ideas from early modern European philosophy, but teach them through Anton Wilhelm Amo and Lady Anne Conway. So if the concern is just demographic diversity I don’t think it would be very difficult to switch up what we have but keep the same core ideas and themes and modes of looking at the world, but that’s not the only concern I have.

One common counterargument that I hear is about the necessity of a shared language. The thought being that we actually do need some homogeneity, because otherwise people can’t build a common culture or can’t communicate with each other that easily. And I just think that people lack courage here. It’s not that hard to construct a philosophical pidgin in conversation, where you build up a repertoire of concepts and mutual understanding, as long as you try. And I think people should have the courage to make the positive effort to get along even if we come from quite different backgrounds. And so the main counterargument to this I find quite unpersuasive – people are maybe afraid of difference when they need not be.

SVG: Now, I think I actually agree with you – also because I think there are so many interesting texts and authors that should be included that there seems little point to have a canon at all. But, just to play devil’s advocate, I suppose, what would you say to those concerned about relevance? For example, I teach in a Politics department, and I sometimes have students who don’t understand why they have to study philosophy when they’re there to learn about Kissinger or the Clash of Civilizations or whatever. And a lot of the time the lazy but not necessarily inexcusable impulse is to try to sell philosophy as something that will help students understand the political world around them.

LKB: There are three reasons I wouldn’t really let that kind of concern sway me from my position on the canon. The first is that, actually, this pushes in the other direction. If the concern is to motivate philosophy through relevance to immediate political concerns on a sufficiently large scale that really shouldn’t lead us to teach the same thinkers everywhere. You know how the French decided that everyone in their colonies should have the same education in primary school, so you ended up with the absurdity of people in Senegal learning about “our ancestors the Gauls.” And similarly, if the concern is for local political relevance then OK, Locke is going to be very relevant in the UK and the US, but is he going to be as relevant even in Europe, leave alone the rest of the world?

Secondly, I think that within the constraints of relevance people can be a little under-ambitious. For instance, if you have a bunch of students who want to think about what’s relevant to them, and they want to think about hard-nosed neo-Machiavellian politics and Clash of Civilization stuff, then actually I think they should read Ibn Khaldun and Han Fei to give them a sense of how these ideas have reoccurred, and what the differences are in how these ideas have been expressed in different parts of the world. And that is relevant to their concerns, because in a sense it directly challenges the [Western idea of a] clash of civilizations, that in these very different civilizations these very similar ideas are circulating. And it also lets them understand different ways of looking at these basically shared issues, based on differences in philosophical frameworks or background cultures. And so I think often even a concern for relevance can push you in different directions.

The third reason a concern for relevance doesn’t really sway me against the anti-canonical thought is that, I guess I think that some people should push back against that. Of course, it depends on how secure the teachers – and the department – are, but some people should be in a position to just say, “I am not teaching this class for the sake of you being better able to interpret the headlines, I hope that ultimately it will help you better understand the world but it’s just not going to have that direct link.” I don’t think that would be good everywhere, but I also don’t think the opposite would be good everywhere. Part of me liking infinite diversity in infinite forms includes liking different ideas of what the class should be about. So, for those three reasons I don’t really see this as reason to break with my anti-canonical thought.

I do want to respond to something you said earlier about your different reason to be against the canon, the idea that there are going to be so many exclusions there seems little point in bothering. I actually agree with that thought, and I think that here there is a quite deep disagreement between me and people that think we should have a canon. Which is to say that my model of the world is that there are many, many, many thinkers, ideas and texts that are sufficiently interesting to merit serious consideration. So in any act of constructing a teaching curriculum, as you say, inevitably you have to leave some out. I think some people’s model is that there are very few texts of true genius, and it’s important to get those across. I think how much you think there is an abundance of philosophical quality makes a difference. For myself, since I think there is an abundance I’m not so worried – even though I really like Descartes’ Meditations, if you don’t read that you’ll read something else that’s great, whereas not everyone else sees it like that.

Each philosopher should think about what’s important to them, what they would like to impart to their students, what they think would make their students passionate about philosophy, and construct a course that builds a narrative around that.

SVG: Finally, if you were to have complete freedom to design a first year module to introduce students to the area(s) of philosophy that you’re interested in, free from institutional expectations, or considerations of relevance, who are some of the people and what are some of the texts that you would include in such a module?

LKB: Well, I can name some texts but, you know, I wouldn’t design a course just around some of my favourite greatest hits of philosophy because I want there to be a coherent narrative.

But just to list some things that I would like to introduce philosophy students to – one would be The Zhuangzi, by the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. I think it’s my favourite text in the history of philosophy. It’s a beautiful, playful series of arguments and considerations and anecdotes and stories, to promote a certain form of philosophical Daoism. Some of the issues addressed are very perennial, like issues around scepticism, and what a good life consists in. And some of the issues are very quirky and particular to Zhuangzi. The style is very unique, and it’s also just a very fun text – very few philosophers are genuinely funny, and Zhuangzi is one of them. And so as a way of getting students to grapple with some of the big issues, I think the Zhuangzi would be great.

Second, I am somewhat of a fanboy, or rather a scholar, of W.E.B. DuBois, and I think he has very interesting things to say about applied issues in the philosophy of science. Somewhat relatedly, actually, I think Angela Davis has some of my favourite work that is like, “OK, you want to think about what’s on the news right now? Here’s a set of considerations on prison abolition.” And it has that nice quality – I got this from a post-doc I am working with, Dr Tena Thau – of going from premises that seem kind of obvious to conclusions that seem very radical, which is, according to Bertrand Russell, the classic mark good philosophy.

Finally, there’s the text from Ethiopia, Zera Yacob’s Inquiry which is really good, I really recommend that. Also, one of the other things about Zera Yacob, Zhuangzi and Angela Davis is that they’re all very different genres: where Zera Yacob writes a more personal text, Zhuangzi writes a jokebook, sort of, and Angela Davis is just writing argumentative essays. So that gives students a sense of different genres in philosophy which might be nice.

But look, now I’m just naming different people I like and works I like. What I would really do is sit down and think about a coherent narrative and try to string things together. And that’s what I think people should do. Each philosopher should think about what’s important to them, what they would like to impart to their students, what they think would make their students passionate about philosophy, and construct a course that builds a narrative around that. I just trust that if people did that, there is enough variety in the world – and philosophers are interesting, thoughtful people when they want to be – that we’ll end up with a lot of different and experimental and creative things, and that would be great.

Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century is a new series on Justice Everywhere. It aims to feature blogposts, interviews and case-studies broadly relating to the topic of “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.” A non-exhaustive list of possible topics includes:

  • Accessibility and inclusion;
  • Using new technologies in the classroom; 
  • Intersectionality in the classroom; 
  • Teaching controversial topics and/or controversial authors;
  • Ongoing calls to diversify/decolonise the (philosophy) curriculum;
  • Different ways of delivering typical political/moral/social philosophy education.

Please get in touch with Sara Van Goozen if you would like to contribute, or if you have any suggestions (for instance someone who does something interesting and new in the classroom who might be interested in talking to us).

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge.
I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.