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?