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So here is a random thought that I've been struggling with: what if you had students who were fully prepared for a liberal arts education, so that they could write clearly, read complex texts and struggle with them, sit for hours at a time making sense of a text until they could write a reasonable approximation of its main claims, etc. If those were your students, would teaching the canon make more sese? I think to a large extent, teaching the canon has just gotten more difficult, and also more pointless; I can get a class to follow and engage with Singer in a way that it's hard to do with Kant or Mill. In part, though, I think philosophers are also at fault: the current concern is with application, and Aristotle and Kant are just not clearly applicable as they stand, so again there's incentive to teach contemporary philosophers who are concerned with application.

Kyle Whyte

In the scenario Roman mentions, I would be inclined to teach the canon even less. This is because I would expect that students would be dedicated enough to work through materials coming from populations whose intellectual life has been excluded from what we're calling the canon in this discussion. So the scenario Roman mentions, I think, also affects our ability to provide alternatives to the canon.

Brad Cokelet

There is are two excellent mid-level undergrad books that might well enable you to balance contemporary and historical stuff. I have found each works and enables me to overcome the problem situation Roman describes.

(1) John Deigh's "Introduction to Ethics"

(2) Steve Darwall's "Philosophical Ethics"

Chike Jeffers

I had not heard of Bennett's translations before. Interesting stuff. Of the kinds of changes he makes, I worry about the omitting of a passage that, in his view, doesn't "earn its keep": http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/f_how.html ... but otherwise, it seems like this may be a very useful resource for students. They can perhaps be offered the original texts through the university bookstore but told about their ability to use this website as a resource.

About your question: it seems to me that thinking through these issues requires discussing why we might feel like a student should not graduate without having read at least some of this person, that person, etc. At times when I have said this to myself, it has often been a way of saying: for those who will go farther in Philosophy, I owe it to them to have introduced them to this stuff that it is generally thought that those who have studied philosophy will be familiar with. This way they won't feel ill-prepared when encountering that expectation. But notice how this is different from feeling like you owe it to students to have introduced them to at least some of the most impressive, insightful, ground-breaking treatments of this or that issue.

I am curious, then, to hear more from you about your admirable inclusion of Confucius. If the canon is important and Confucius is important, is it because Confucius is canonical from a non-Eurocentric perspective? Note that, in that case, the canon is not important because it's what you need to be familiar with in order to meet expectations, because people studying philosophy at the graduate level or taking it up as a career in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world are not generally expected to know Kongzi. So is it important to read The Analects simply because of something about the content? Or is there also an idea of here of helping to reshape what people in philosophy are expected to know? Or is there a kind of reason for reading The Analects that I have not yet pointed to?

Mark Alfano

Interesting discussion, which I don't have time to contribute to right now. Just wanted to say that Koons deserves no credit for creativity in his choice of title, since he's just ripping off William Blake.

David Morrow

Thanks for the input so far, everybody.

Roman, I think the same issues will still arise, even if you have students who are prepared to tackle tough texts. There's only so much time in a semester, and it would be easy to fill that time with discussions of a few classic texts or with discussion of contemporary stuff -- no matter how good your students are. But I agree that unprepared students can tip the scale in favor of contemporary stuff. But what do you mean when you say that "philosophers are at fault?" Are you saying that we focus on application more than we should? If so, what should we focus on -- and is that content better available in the canon?

Interesting point, Kyle. BTW, I'm definitely using 'canon' in a descriptive sense here -- i.e., "those texts that are traditionally regarded as comprising the historical core of the discipline."

Thanks for the pointers, Brad. I hadn't seen Deigh's book. I'd actually be more inclined to use historical sources for an introductory ethics course (though not a contemporary moral issues course) than for an upper-level ethical theory course. I think I considered using Darwall once and declined, but I forget why. I've heard good things from people who've used it.

David Morrow

Chike, I have mixed reactions to Bennett's stuff. I take it you do, too. I think omitting "inessential" passages is probably the right choice, though. There are lots of passages in historical texts that just aren't that important for my purposes. Since I can only expect students to read so many pages for any given class, I need to choose carefully. Eliminating inessential passages makes it easier to get students to read "just the important stuff." But I do see the objection to it. (Incidentally, I think some textbook editors do this too, but without telling you.)

I'm not entirely sure why I feel like students should have read some Kant, some Aristotle, etc., even if they're not going on in philosophy. I do think that knowing the history of philosophy is important to understanding what's going on in contemporary philosophy. I also think it's important to try to get inside the head of people writing from a very different perspective than one's own. I guess those contribute to it. But I'll admit that it's partly just because I'd feel ashamed if a former student of mine told someone that he'd majored in philosophy but had never read, e.g., Kant -- as if I hadn't done my job.

As for Confucius, I think he's important for most of the reasons you mentioned: Confucius is the cornerstone of the canon for a culture that I think American students should understand better than they do. And I would like it if Western philosophers were expected to know Confucius, although I doubt that my teaching him will make any difference there. But more than that, I think The Analects is a fascinating, valuable piece of philosophy. Students seem to enjoy it, it requires a different approach than the other historical sources I teach, and I think it provides some ethical and social insights that you don't get reading the Western canon.

David Morrow

Mark: Well, in that case, I award Koons no points for his title -- but I've inadvertently made his point. I am not liberally educated. I spent almost all of my entire undergraduate career learning exactly four things: music, philosophy, psychology, and foreign languages. I could do that partly because of lax distribution requirements, which allowed me to replace, e.g., math classes with music theory. I tried to take a poetry class once, but after the professor spent the first day analyzing "London Bridge Is Falling Down," I thought, "This is bullshit," and I dropped the course.


Kyle, I'm curious: do you think "materials coming from populations whose intellectual life has been excluded from what we're calling the canon" are more difficult than the canon? I agree that that is material it would be great to introduce students to. But, (1) I think much of it (at least the contemporary material) is easier to read than, say, Aristotle or Kant, and so students need more in-class work on the canon, and (2) insofar as it offers an explicit alternative to the canon, is hard to really make sense of without first a solid grounding in the canon. So, for example, having taught Medieval philosophy to students who hadn't read Plato/Aristotle, and having taught Feminist Theory to students with no philosophy background, I found the latter much more difficult. Maybe that was just me, but I don't know. Challenges to theories of rationality or autonomy the students aren't familiar with don't resonate with them. But maybe you mean non-canonical work that isn't explicitly opposed to the canon. Perhaps you could list some that would work well at this level?

If the question is about upper level ethics, can we already assume the students have read Aristotle, Kant, and Mill?

But in any case, I wonder if one problem isn't that majors and non-majors are often mixed together in the same classes. I tend to think it's obvious that it is crucial for majors to know the reference points for further work on the topic; for non-majors, this may not be the case.

And David: I think application--"what ethical behavior does this approach recommend? what about this one?"--is a pretty recent obsession, and not one Aristotle or Kant shared; they pretty much assumed a shared background, and looked to justify and ground it. Insofar as the current interest in ethics tends to focus less on why we should be ethical and more on concrete courses of action, I think it changes the subject from older concerns. This raises a question about what's more important: teaching abstract thinking, or teaching concrete application? (Obviously the two are not essentially opposed, but time constraints do put them in conflict.)

David Morrow

Roman: Thanks for the clarification about application. I agree that Aristotle and Kant are not as interested in figuring out what to do in particular cases. I like your point that this is because they generally take it for granted that they know what to do.

I don't teach the canon at all in my contemporary moral issues class. I run that class as a critical thinking course in which the subject matter of our arguments is ethics. I don't even teach a huge amount the "contemporary applied ethics canon" in that course. That's because most of those students are taking their one and only philosophy course. They won't remember much about Aristotle or Kant anyway, and so I'd rather spend the time training them to think ethically. In my upper level ethics course, by contrast, I spend almost no time on application. If I were to teach a lower-level intro ethics course, I would do more of a mix--some theory, including the canon, and some application.

Kyle Whyte

Roman: I was actually making a point that would go along side yours. That is, in the context you mentioned, I would try to build a set of courses on a topic like American Indian Philosophy, building them up from all of the different kinds of texts that constitute the intellectual contributions of American Indian people. The goal would be for tribal and non-tribal students to have options for how to enter the subject matter; they wouldn't have to do so by referring back time and again to non-tribal reference points. Building these sorts of courses, then, is not a matter of including a text or two. In the context that you mentioned, I'd see the opportunity for courses like what you suggested, but also what I'm suggesting here too. I agree with the earlier comments that it is also important to keep in mind that we do have a responsibility to train students accordingly if their goal is to get into a graduate program in philosophy. So I'm not sure I really meant I'd do one or the other, but I would definitely be more inclined to explore non-canonical options - but robustly.

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