by Marie Snyder
I knew it was coming, yet I was still surprised when it hit my classroom.
“We shouldn’t be looking at this.”
Students have complained about my course before, certain that they should not be expected to read anything so difficult in a high school philosophy course. The effect of this grumbling can be seen in the watering down of some English courses deciphering Hunger Games instead of Hamlet. I enjoyed that popular trilogy, and I’m no Shakespeare stan, but I do assert that it’s vital to develop more complex reading skills and close reading habits in our teenagers with works that demand consideration of each word before they walk out of high school. Too many in our society are losing their ability to sustain attention to the end of a magazine article and grasp the nuances of an ambitious claim to the point of believing radical headlines and letting noxious chants sway their voting habits. So I firmly stand my ground, luring them to continue with the potential reward of being able to impress their friends and destroy their enemies with their enhanced reading superpowers.
But this semester brought out that other quibble.
A few students were adamant that I shouldn’t be getting them to read philosophers who are sexist or racist or homophobic.
But that’s almost all of them!
They do have a point. We definitely need a wider scope of readings that are more inclusive in approach and in authorship; however, we can still benefit from exploring controversial ideas from the past, and from reading exceptional ideas weeded from the abominable, even from dead philosophers who don’t deserve our accolades.
I was taught the dead white male philosophers by white men who were taught by white men and so on and so on. I’ve augmented my classes from my own explorations of Indigenous philosophies and Buddhism and Taoism, but not nearly enough of the world is covered. The workload of learning so much outside my own education on top of teaching makes it difficult to develop a solid enough understanding about everybody else, or even a larger smattering of voices from the world, but that’s on me. It wasn’t the priority that it should have been over the years, so I followed along with that trajectory of dominating names interspersed with a few tokens from the margins.
A bigger conundrum is the time constraints of the course. What gets removed in order to include new names? With an intro philosophy class, knowing that most students might never take another course in the field, do we take the names that are most known in this corner of the world in favour of a more thoroughly diverse choice of readings? I’m finally at a point where I think diversity must triumph over the established. Unfortunately, I just retired and passed on my notes to the next guy who will likely take the easier path of continuing that old, white, male cycle of education.
There is, however, some benefit to tracing the dominant ideology to its origins, as has been tackled in book form by Hannah Arendt and Charles Taylor, so that we can better chip away at the foundation. It can be useful to see what spawned exploitation, to see how long we’ve been thinking this way and how slowly our understanding of the world has changed as necessary words to the contrary were finally heard. We can infiltrate the enemy to deconstruct the arguments. But that shouldn’t be the entirety of an intro course.
We further benefit from controversial ideas in order to test the limits of our own thought-process by disputing them, either on our own or in discussions. We’ll have a limited knowledge, a dangerous naivety, if we only read what’s agreeable to us. I introduce some of Peter Singer’s controversial ideas, provoking them to find problems with the logic without leaning on amassing criticisms from social media, an unfortunate skill they’re developing outside of school even though unpopular opinions are not necessarily wrong. In my class, they have to look at problems with the position, specifically, premise by premise. Learning that bit of artistry is vital to counter the effects of wayward Instagram or Reddit threads; just imagine if it were mandatory!
Schopenhauer’s theory of attraction in a portion of his Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes provoked peak outrage this year. Normally I’d be pleased to arouse rebuttals and hone debating skills, and some of his claims are excellent fodder for refutation in an intro-level class. But a few ignored the weakness of his specific claims to focus instead on what he didn’t say: There’s nothing about asexuals or gay attraction in this, so it shouldn’t be discussed. He’s just talking about heterosexual attraction, and we shouldn’t read works that aren’t inclusive.
This is becoming a more common take down, and while I applaud the concern, I suggest it’s misdirected with a counterargument that uses ethnicity to illustrate the problem: If an Indigenous writer is discussing their theories around being Indigenous, is it objectionable that they aren’t also addressing every other ethnicity? If not, then is it objectionable for a heterosexual writer to write about his understanding of heterosexual attraction only because it’s the dominant sexuality? Or are we asking too much to expect a full discussion of all types of people within an essay developing an idea about one? There are other ways to dismantle Schopenhauer, but that he uses a narrow spotlight certainly isn’t the strongest criticism. While it’s vital that our institutions are inclusive and that our courses have a diversity of voices, an essay can have a narrow scope on a topic that doesn’t discuss the many other perspectives. We have to allow room to explore our own ideas and theories from our own unique perspective.
We’ve set up a double-edge sword. Authors are questioned for writing outside their experience, primarily targeting white, straight, cis, men for writing about anyone else, but we also want thinkers to include everyone in their scope, even if they wrote before the concept of asexuality as an identity was acknowledged. As a bisexual woman, I wouldn’t write about gay men in an analysis of attraction because it’s not something I feel like I can write about with any authenticity, but I suggest people read other works to get a more comprehensive picture if they’re assembling ideas with a wider scope.
Sometimes it’s a case that we need to sever the exceptional ideas from the distasteful within the collection of works of a specific writer. For instance, what do we do with Kant who, in Metaphysics of Morals, claims, with nary a supporting point, that homosexuality is unnatural and going so far as to enmesh it with bestiality. It’s an offensive claim, for sure, but education requires an awareness of offences while being careful not to excuse outright prejudices as an acceptable view from an earlier time as there were anti-homophobia and anti-racists writing throughout history. It can also be fruitful to establish arguments to dismantle their views when they actually have an argument instead of a random claim tossed into the mix. It’s very necessary to be able to distinguish the difference. And the awareness of this part of his writing is relevant to better catch it if he were to sneakily or haphazardly inject the view elsewhere. Equally paramount is not discounting views as if they’ve been tainted by the offending claim(s) when we have no evidence that they’ve been so tarnished. We can still contemplate his logical argument for ethics derived from duty as superior to that procured from the best outcome separately from his more abhorrent views. It’s possible for someone with a despicable view to also have some brilliant ideas that shouldn’t be spurned by association.
When it comes to the behaviours of people, we comfortably keep the brilliant works produced by nefarious mathematicians and scientists, but some want to dismiss all of the work by equally odious writers and artists, ignoring the benefit they could bring to our grasp of the world. It’s more difficult to divorce the person from their products in the arts, but it’s still possible and valuable.
We’re living in an era of dismissing people after one bad communication or action, sometimes decades earlier rather than just those who have doubled-down on the damage. Some people need a way back in after atoning if they come to see the error of their ways, but that’s a story for another day. For those who are long passed and unable to finally come to realize the errors in judgment they made, we can learn from their inspirational or provocative ideas without honouring them as people.
Edinburgh University was right to remove Hume’s statue in 2020, and perhaps we should stop putting up statues or naming buildings or roads after human beings. We are too fallible. If we put our thoughts in writing or they are captured by others for potential future scrutiny, we might all be likely to have done or said something wrong at some point over our lifespan. However, I hope Hume’s work is still studied.
It’s important that we scrutinize behaviours. It’s useful to clarify that discrimination or harm of any kind — from former cultural appropriation to sexual crimes — is not to be tolerated. We should definitely overtly chastise damaging behaviours of people as a means to shift society to evolve down the best timeline. But we are all greater than our worst actions; for instance, Heidegger’s overt anti-semitism doesn’t obliterate his theories of being. His student and lover, Hannah Arendt, is another name potentially requested stricken from syllabi for a collection of racist comments despite her quarrel with her mentor about his bigoted position.
We have to look at ideas, not people, when sifting the wheat from the chaff. Some ideas stand the test of time even if their author is found otherwise wanting. It doesn’t suggest that they’re an honourable person when we find a piece of work worthy of our attention, and it’s not like we’re contributing to their wealth if they’re long dead. We need to bring back a nuanced approach to these works instead of the current dichotomous path of slotting people in a good or bad box.
I have a tattoo inspired by Picasso. Back in grade three, a rebellious elderly supply teacher tossed the lesson on file to discuss her slideshow of famous works of art with us. The “Three Musicians” somehow woke me up to a different level of imagination. The man’s a monster, but his paintings are genius! There are many such works that help us understand our past or contemplate our current world or transcend our conundrums for a much needed escape, and they must be saved from the flames. We should be looking at this, but we also need to transform the canon, augmenting it to encompass further experiences of the world.