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Disrupting silences in the philosophy canon


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At Public Seminar, philosophy professor PJ Gorre reflects on the inadequacy of canonical historical designations such as “ancient philosophy” and "modern philosophy," not least because these designations completely omit women philosophers. An excerpt:

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.

Image: Detail of illustration from medieval translation of Euclid’s Elements, showing woman teaching geometry, circa 1310. Via Public Seminar.