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Ten Neglected Classics of Philosophy

Mark Dunbar reflects on what makes a book a classic.

Most of the texts chosen by the contributors to Ten Neglected Classics of Philosophy (2016), edited and introduced by Eric Schliesser, were picked because their choosers believe they represent or embody a refutation of the current status quo of professional philosophy, which is male-dominated, analytical, and (ostensibly) race-neutral. Some of the works chosen, such as Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy (1916), have never been fully appreciated, while others were considered classics in their time but have since fallen from scholarly grace, such as Francois Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (1699). Other works have been remembered, but not on their merits, instead being portrayed as the constructions of philosophical villains who momentarily led the field astray until they were put in their place by legitimate thinkers. For example, Jonathan Bennett’s first book Rationality (1966) has been reprimanded as an early attempt to resurrect behaviorism from its intellectual tomb, and F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893) is often recorded as the last manifestation of Hegelian idealism before Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore put such mysticism to rest and began the age of true inquiry – that is, the current age of analytic philosophy. Michael Della Rocca, the chooser of Bradley’s entry, calls that “the founding myth of analytical philosophy” and like all founding myths, it is a falsehood – a product of hindsight.

Classic Criteria

Schliesser’s introductory essay, ‘On Being a Classic in Philosophy’ raises many questions about the formation of the philosophical canon: Why are certain works remembered and others forgotten? Should the classics be so favored against contemporary fads? After all, weren’t all classics at one point merely the result of the fashions of their age? What’s the value of philosophers having a “shared textual background” that allows for “relatively efficient, conceptual and argumentative shortcuts or vivid imagery?” (p.xxi). Are there possible faults to philosophers having this shared background of ideas? Could it be that these shortcuts in rhetoric bypass worthwhile alternative roads in thinking? Schliesser doesn’t attempt to provide answers to all these questions. He does, however, at least provide a list of answers to ‘What makes a classic?’

This question is really asking two things: How does a text become a classic? and Why does it become a classic? Reductive, vituperative and flippant responses can of course be given to both these subquestions: “Because those texts best expressed the contemporary ruling class’s moral outlook”; “Because those texts effectively distracted critical intellects from serious political commitments”; “Because something, after all, had to be chosen” etc – but Schliesser ignores these easy comebacks, and instead opts for an ambitious and thoughtful inventory of interrelated possibilities. He gives four reasons why a philosophical text might be made part of a canon of classics:

(1) Making them read a selection of canonical texts has proven a useful way to give new students in philosophy their bearings on a particular topic. Most introductory philosophy courses begin by having students read famous writers such as Plato, Descartes, and Nietzsche, not only because these philosophers are easy to read, but because in their conversations about epistemology, psychology, and ethics they clearly demonstrate what’s at stake.

(2) By studying a classic text, something discriminating can be gained that needs to be rediscovered: “Rather than rereinvent wheels, people turn to [classic texts] because they provide resources to recover lost insight” (p.xxii). In this way, a canonical work may offer a rejoinder to an ahistorical trend which claims to have solved some major philosophical riddle.

(3) Texts are remembered because of their significance within a particular philosophical tradition (American pragmatism, feminism, monism, etc). And a tradition grows partly through interacting with its own past – by perpetually studying and questioning its own first principles, as stated in these works.

(4) Some philosophers are read simply for the enduring wisdom and enjoyment they provide. Schliesser names Seneca, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir and Thoreau as examples. These writers, who produce wisdom rather than convey analytical subtlety, are what the general reading population thinks of when they think of philosophy – not the useless technical wranglings of many academics.

As for how a work becomes perennial, Schliesser borrows his criteria from J.M. Coetzee’s essay, ‘What Is a Classic?’ (1986): the work in question must be studied by specialists, expounded upon by advanced students, be part of an ongoing argument, inspire imitations, and eventually, catch the interest of a wider audience. Schliesser points out that these are necessary conditions for a work becoming a classic, not sufficient ones. That is to say, more may be needed.

Classic Paradoxes

W.E.B. DuBois
W.E.B. DuBois in 1918

Obvious tensions in the book stem from its oxymoronic title, and from the fact that according to Schliesser’s own standards none of the texts included would qualify as classics: it’s a given that none meet Coetzee’s criteria, otherwise they wouldn’t be neglected, and so wouldn’t belong in the compilation. The only case that can be made for most of the entries as ‘classics’ is that they offer rejoinders to mistaken contemporary trends. For instance, Chike Jeffers’ entry on W.E.B. DuBois’ speech ‘Whither Now and Why?’ (1960) challenges the ‘color-blind’ ethos of conventional etiquette toward race.

In this speech, DuBois argued against assimilationist methods of ending color discrimination, if it meant destroying African-Americans’ distinctive culture, music and literature along the way. He worried that desegregating schools would lead to an ignorance of African history for black Americans. Above all, he was engaged in the struggle to preserve his race, which he defined not biologically but culturally, as a “vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life” (p.225). Rather than desegregation, then, DuBois’ own solution to freeing the United States from racial prejudice was to organize a “proliferation of African-American institutions” (Jeffers, p.224): black colleges, newspapers, banks, businesses, and literary schools of thought. Rather than color-blind politics, then, DuBois wanted a color-saturated morality.

Jeffers is perhaps correct that this suggestion has had little support in American universities. On the other hand, outside the universities it seems to have done quite well for itself. Malcolm X preached for black Americans to seek education, plan a family, and start their own business – and today commentators as different as Louis Farrakhan, Jason Whitlock and Thomas Sowell have encouraged similar courses of action for ending racial prejudice while preserving valuable cultural distinctions. In retrospect, DuBois’ endorsement of Soviet Communism sounds ridiculous, although once his solutions to racial strife have been disentangled from his socialism it would be hard for most right-wing intellectuals to assail them.

Many of the other entries in Ten Neglected Classics suffer from similar problems to Jeffers’: first of misidentifying philosophical dilapidation in academia with philosophical dilapidation at large; then, of disregarding (intentionally or not) the professed purpose of the book, and instead selecting a text unworthy of canonization but useful for historically validating the contributor’s own views; and finally, of giving into a complacent urge to knock down barriers of exclusion that don’t exist.

© Mark Dunbar 2017

Mark Dunbar is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. He can be reached by email at mark.dunbar1988@gmail.com or on Twitter @Mark1Dunbar.

Ten Neglected Classics of Philosophy, ed. by Eric Schliesser, Oxford University Press 2016, 310 pages, £18.00/$29.95, ISBN:0199928924

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