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Antagonising the canon

Date:16 November 2018
Author:Barnaby Hutchins
Cavendish's signature Source:
Cavendish's signature Source:

In turns out that Laura Georgescu (the editor of this blog) and I happen to be working on somewhat convergent papers. In my terms (Laura, sensibly, wouldn't put it as grandiosely as this), they're both about metametaphysical pluralism—the position that multiple metaphysics can hold simultaneously without one's being reducible to another. I'm arguing for this kind of thing in the context of a canonical figure, Spinoza; Laura's doing it in the context of a currently non-canonical figure, Cavendish. 

The differences in our approaches nicely crystallise some issues I've been worrying about in how we do history of philosophy—specifically, should we be dealing with canonical and non-canonical figures in the same sorts of ways? My approach is almost entirely negative: Spinoza's commitments lead him into metametaphysical pluralism, despite himself, and his system ends up the more interesting because of his own failure to actually do what he thought he was doing. Laura's approach is positive: Cavendish saw the need for something like metametaphysical pluralism, and built it into her system. 

Arguably, either approach could work for either philosopher. There's nothing within Spinoza's work itself to really stop me from proposing that he saw the need for all of this and deliberately set up his philosophy to take account of it. And Laura could at least defensibly say that Cavendish is confused about what she's doing*, and that we thus need an interpretation like this to save her from herself, poor thing. But that feels not great. It feels like a pretty awful way of doing things. 

Maybe it sounds like I'm presenting a false dichotomy here: maybe it would be completely fine if we were just positive to both of them. That is the kind of interpretative generosity, the principle of charity, that we're supposed to apply to  philosophers who, by dint of their deadness, can't answer back. But it's kind of revealing that applying a negative approach to Cavendish seems so much worse than applying it to Spinoza. And there seems something slightly discomforting about applying a fully positive approach to someone as (currently) canonical as Spinoza—it feels like it verges on being a little sycophantic, a little jingoistic. 

I think it feels this way because it's really easy—too easy—to see a canonical figure as some kind of genius. And it's easy because our practices for and institutions of doing philosophy have come to be set up in relation to the canonical philosophers: they are our examples and models, as well as being the sources of our background knowledge and shared presuppositions (at least, a certain representation, or reconstruction, of them is). Of course a Spinoza or a Descartes is going to look like a good philosopher when your image of philosophy reflects precisely them. 

In exactly the same way, it's easy to see someone like Cavendish as confused, as a bad philosopher, just because our practices and institutions don't reflect her.**

The effect of this structural bias towards canonical philosophers and against non-canonical philosophers is that we're at constant risk of falling into hagiography with respect to the former and condescension with the respect to the latter. We're at risk because our inherited practices and institutions pull us in exactly these directions: they pull us towards a canon-centric chauvinism. 

We probably want to avoid this chauvinism, for a variety of reasons. One might be historical accuracy: a structural bias is likely to distort our view of both canonical and non-canonical philosophers, and if we want, ultimately, to get them right (to whatever extent that's possible) and to do them justice, we're going to need to correct for it. Another might be innovation, in whatever form: there's innovation in terms of new ideas and new approaches, for one; there's also innovation in terms of representation for currently marginalised groups. Any chauvinism is by nature conservative, and so resistant to change. If we want innovation, we're going to have to counter our chauvinism.

The point is that a neutral approach to doing history of philosophy doesn't seem to be a possibility, at least not if we care about, e.g., historical accuracy or innovation. Our approaches need to be responsive to the structural biases that pervade our practices; they need to be responsive to the constant threat of falling into this chauvinism. So it's risky, at best, to take an indiscriminately positive approach towards canonical and non-canonical alike. We have an ethical duty (broadly construed) to apply a corrective generosity to the interpretation of non-canonical figures. And we also have an ethical duty to apply a corrective scepticism to the canon. Precisely because the structures of philosophy are always implicitly pulling us in favour of canonical philosophers, we need to be, at least to some extent, deliberately antagonistic towards them.

* Which is something people do still keep on saying, alas.

** Or at least, they don't reflect her in some relatively salient respects. If they didn't reflect her at all, presumably we wouldn't even start to recognise her as a philosopher in the first place.

Supported by the FWF Project Spinoza and the Human Lifeform/P-29072-G24

About the author

Barnaby Hutchins


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