The Medieval Survey Class: An Opinionated Prologue

For the first time in six years, I’m teaching a medieval philosophy survey class, and I’ve become a bit obsessed with the question of how best to do it. Over the next month or so I’ll be writing a series of posts on the subject.

Part of my obsession comes from the feeling that this is an extremely important and unsettled question in our field. That it’s unsettled will become clear over the course of my series of posts. That it’s important is obvious, in one way, inasmuch as we think it’s important to teach any class well. But it also seems to me important for a reason that’s less obvious and perhaps might be questioned. For it seems to me of value to the field to have some kind of shared core curriculum that we teach our students, and that, ultimately, we expect scholars in other areas of philosophy to have some grasp of.

As things are, there certainly is no such common core. Perhaps the only text from medieval philosophy that philosophically educated folk can be expected to know about is Anselm’s ontological argument. Beyond that, there’s just a whole lot of more or less obscure stuff, from among which we pick and choose in making up the curriculum for a medieval survey. (And perhaps we don’t even pick the ontological argument, on the grounds that this will get covered in a philosophy of religion class.)

It may be quixotic to think that anything like a shared consensus will emerge over some canonical group of texts. But the more interesting question is whether I might be quite misguided in supposing that such a thing would be desirable. For there is certainly room to wonder whether, instead of bemoaning the lack of a canonical core, we should instead celebrate the splendid freedom that allows us to teach a huge variety of material without feeling any pressure to cover the supposedly greatest hits. And if you are suspicious about the cultural and political pressures that, in other domains, have created our rigid canons of great books, then you might think that the last thing we should be doing is trying to impose such a canon on medieval philosophy.

So there’s a thought one might have. Yet although I see the force of it, I don’t think it’s of such force as to undermine the original thought that it would be desirable for we the experts to coalesce at least a bit around those works that we regard as most important to teach from within our field. To the extent we have political worries about a canon, then those worries should inform the choices we make, so that, in particular, we give a healthy weight to non-Christian material, and take seriously the question of whether any women should get into the curriculum. To the extent we’re worried about our autonomy, well, that seems misguided, inasmuch as we as individuals can of course always make whatever modifications we feel like making, semester by semester.

Weighing against those concerns about the canon are various reasons it would be desirable for the field to coalesce around some sort of common curriculum. Let me mention three.

First, I think it makes a contribution to philosophy as a whole, and indeed to our larger culture as a whole, to develop a shared narrative about the period. If the history of medieval philosophy is simply 500 different texts, and 50 different authors, then no one other than our hearty band of scholars will be able to find it comprehensible, and to learn from it in anything more than a scattershot sort of way. It’s just too much to comprehend. An intelligible narrative about the period, running through a manageable set of canonical texts, would allow educated people to comprehend medieval philosophy in the way that, as things are, is simply not possible for even highly educated people.

Second, following from the first, to the extent we care about promoting the value of medieval philosophy, the development of a shared narrative would be the best way to make that case. As things are, it seems to me that our colleagues in other fields have been persuaded that there’s a lot of interesting material in the medieval period. But they have not yet been persuaded that the study of medieval philosophy is obligatory, or that it’s obligatory for even a large department to have a specialist in the field. And no wonder this is so, given that we ourselves have failed to articulate a well-defined course of study that strikes us as having canonical status.

Third, shifting to the perspective of the undergraduates taking our survey classes, I think we have not served those students well, not because we are not exposing them to a shared canon of texts, but because we often do not do a good job giving them a story about the period, and a set of texts, that is genuinely interesting, or even, often enough, intelligible. Looking back over my own previous attempts to teach surveys of medieval philosophy, I find that I have often tried to get students interested in texts that are outrageously obscure and difficult. Of course, that can be a problem for any historical period. But, at least, if you are trying to lead students through Kant, there is a sense of doing something that fits into a larger narrative and a shared intellectual heritage. How can we justify making students suffer through Henry of Ghent? I don’t mean to stipulate that we can’t. Still, to the extent we think the road through medieval philosophy must go through some very difficult material, we need to do a much better job as a field figuring out what that road is, and what the highlights should be. As we all know, there are marvelous sights to be seen along the way. But I am sure that I am not the only one who has often not been a very good tour guide. By working harder at developing a common core for the period, uniting genuinely accessible texts linked together by an intelligible narrative, we would be producing a curriculum that would be better for our students, and that even non-experts could pick up and enjoy teaching.

One final thought. Might it be that medieval philosophy just doesn’t lend itself to the sort of narrative and canon I am urging us to find? This, I think, is a very naive thought. The reason we think of “early modern” philosophy, say, as having such a well-defined narrative and canon is that scholars have imposed this structure on the period. There is nothing about the 17th and 18th century that makes it specially intelligible in this way, and nothing about medieval philosophy, other than its size and scope, that makes it inherently unintelligible. We have just failed to do the job. And though I can well understand that there will be those who resist the sorts of distortions and oversimplifications and prejudices that such a narrative requires, I think we should accept that this is what historians do, and it is what we must do, if we want the material we love to have any influence on the wider culture.

Obviously, this has now become the sort of rant I try to avoid on this blog. So let me reassure anyone who’s made it this far that future posts will confine themselves to presenting the data I’ve collected. Next up: which textbooks are people using?

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This entry was posted in Rants.

10 comments on “The Medieval Survey Class: An Opinionated Prologue

  1. RP says:

    Coincidentally, I just saw that Martin Lenz has recently written, on his own blog, some brief thoughts about the status of canons in the history of philosophy. Reposted on the APA blog: https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/08/16/the-purpose-of-the-canon/

  2. Very interesting post, Bob. I myself would be in favor of not worrying too much about forming canons. Though there is some advantage to that, in terms of creating a common body of authors and texts that one can expect students and colleagues to know about, as it stands we are much more in danger of excluding lots of interesting material than of lacking such a common store of touchstone topics. Both within medieval philosophy, and across the whole history of philosophy, I think that in both teaching and research we would greatly benefit from different texts and topics being offered in different places. Above all your point about the artificiality of canons in, say, early modern needs to be understood by more people: the problem is still that people think they are covering (all) the “highlights” when in fact there are so many highlights just in medieval philosophy that there is no time to cover them all in an undergrad degree, even if you didn’t teach anything else. Since comprehensiveness is not possible, and too many texts would deserve to be in a canon if there were one, the goal should be more diversity and variation. As I say I think the dangers of getting _too_ various and diverse are, at this stage, pretty theoretical anyway since we are erring very far on the opposite side as things stand.

    • RP says:

      Thanks much for this remark. I’m inclined to want to distinguish between a simpler, doubtless somewhat artificial narrative we tell at the introductory level, and a robust and complicated research program we carry out at the PhD level and beyond. I’d like to think we can have both things. But maybe we can’t?? Indeed, perhaps what we see in other periods is that an oversimplified narrative at the undergraduate level shapes how the field is perceived all the way up, so that — as I’ve complained in other contexts — one can’t even write a PhD dissertation on a non-canonical figure without running a serious risk of marginalization. So I feel very far from sure about these matters.

      • I think it is really important to get diversity of topics already at the undergrad level, for the reason you say and also because people’s research tends to cluster around whatever they are having to teach. These are the texts you wind up reading over and over again, and thinking about every year. Also the only realistic way to undo the current canon is to avoid drilling it into students at the first step – precisely because they don’t know there is a canon yet, or at least don’t know what would be on it, especially for a topic like medieval philosophy. The rest of us are already ruined!

  3. What are the most appealing candidates for Big Story of Western Philosophy into which the medieval period story would fit? I know two — Bertrand Russell’s and Heidegger’s. Both seem really bad for different reasons, but in a weak moment I’ll revert to them rather than have no story at all — just a bunch of complicated stuff happened.

  4. LisaShapiro says:

    Thanks, Bob. Very interesting to read, and I look forward to the future instalments.
    As someone driven to shake up the early modern canon, I am quite inclined to agree with Peter Adamson. The way we teach philosophers at the intro level has a way of entrenching an ossifying future work. This is in part because it is often the case that non-specialists end up doing the intro teaching, and they just stick with what they’ve been taught. That being said, I do agree with the consideration that we need a shared end, if you will, to motivate student interest and to be able to explain the value of what we are teaching and researching. For this reason, I think it is helpful to focus on the central questions we are interested in — to appeal to curiosity (and even to encourage that curiosity) — and to find the people interesting insofar as they are addressing the questions. This allows for a common conversation, even if the particular points of entry into the conversation may be different.

    But I want to raise another point. My medievalist colleagues in other disciplines (English, archaeology, history), tell me that medieval studies is in the midst of a real change — to go interdisciplinary, and attend to the diversity of peoples in the medieval form of life. At least part of this is being driven by the appropriation of anglo-saxonism by white nationalist political movements and others. I don’t know whether medievalists in Philosophy have something to bring to that conversation, but that complicates the challenge you articulate even more.

  5. Mark J. Barker says:

    It seems to me that what Bob Pasnau is suggesting here is long overdue. While narratives such as the standard one regarding Modern phil. necessarily omit many details, such narratives are the starting point for grasping a historical period; one can thereafter discover how much minor (or even details of major) figures depart from those narratives at one’s leisure. Anthony Kenny has a recent History of Medieval phil. that I found helpful; especially relevant is his listing of four barriers to the study of the period in his Introduction.

  6. ZT says:

    I also think some sort of canon would be indeed beneficial, even though am rather skeptical regarding the possibility of coming up with one. The main advantages would seem to be what Bob and Mark already suggested. While pretty much every philosopher is expected to have heard about Descartes’s cogito, or what Hume thought about causation, or Berkeley’s idealism, we could hardly expect these same philosophers to be able to at least list the five ways, or have heard about what Ockham though about intuitive cognition or Buridan of the theory of impetus. (This is obviously a random list.) While every item in the early modern list raises a whole bunch of interpretative and philosophical issues, most of which are lost in a canon like this, still, main payoff seems to be that figures and concepts highlighted by a canon become part of the philosophical language in a unique way. They become examples, contrast cases, etc. in papers and talks that are not concerned with the specific figures in question at all, and in this way they seem to help the philosophical discussion on a wide variety of topics. (E.g.: we use the term “Humean” [about xyz] in all kinds of philosophical contexts, which seems to be possible because — rightly or wrongly — Hume became part of the early modern canon. I don’t think we have such currency with medieval figures or concepts.)

  7. […] a recent blog post, Robert Pasnau makes a strong case for designing a canonical survey in medieval philosophy. He […]

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