History of Ideas module

With the start of term arriving tomorrow, I’m finishing up my teaching plans. The module that I’ve struggled most to pin down is ‘The History of Ideas: Greeks to the Modern Day’. 

The biggest challenge is the lack of time – we have an 11 week term which includes reading week. So I have 10 sessions to teach the history of ideas. The first week it’s hard to assign reading (especially since it’s my first year – I couldn’t tell students at the end of last year to keep an eye on Moodle for preparatory readings). I’m going to try to work around this dilemma by doing an in class reading. This has two advantages. First, I don’t lose the first week. Second, in reading a text together, we can talk about how to engage with a text.

My instinct is to read a selection of great canonical works, alongside the less canonical, more disruptive critiques that emerge from feminist and post-colonial perspectives. It’s hard to do that, though, in 9 sessions. I was thinking about this this morning when I was reading a blog post by Scu on teaching canons.

I’ve pretty much set the reading schedule and it’ll be as follows: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Foucault (together), Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir. This will allow students to engage with some classic texts that come up a lot in philosophy of religion (Aristotle’s Physics, for example) and familiarise them with basic debates about transcendence, immanence, analogy, subjectivity, empiricism and nihilism. The reading from de Beauvoir, I hope, will recontextualise the work we do over the course of the term, showing how these histories of rational development and progress are built upon a foundation of invisible contributions of others. The week on Kant and Foucault will look at ‘What is Enlightenment?’ and will provide an opportunity for students to read a text followed by a philosophical critique of the same text. Students often go to secondary sources to understand assigned reading, but I want to push them to engage directly with the issues raised by Kant. Finally, I’m encouraging students to supplement their readings with Clack’s Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition.

Still, I have 8 weeks of white men. Even if I push students to think about the history of Western philosophy from a wider context in which we consider race, gender and sexuality, I can’t avoid the fact that by structuring the module this way I’m denying the agency of philosophers and theorists who have worked to combat this lopsided view of history. In future years I could propose making the course last the entire year or breaking it into two separate modules, but that won’t help now.

I tend to think it’s important to teach both the canon and the important work which deconstructs the very notion of the canon. Without both, I run the risk of installing a new master (to use Lacanian terminology) rather than pulling apart the master’s discourse. It’s the techniques of questioning and dismantling a canon that is key, but in order to engage in that work students need to first come to terms with the ways in which the western philosophical tradition has structured many people’s experience of the world.

Of course, this is one module in a degree progamme. We don’t have to do everything in one term. Nonetheless, this remains one of the most difficult issues for me. How do you balance tradition and critique for the purposes of undergraduate education?


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