Monday, May 12, 2008

Debating the κανών

I'm giving the discussions of Hillary Clinton and strategic misreading a rest for a bit to make room for another, more immediately pressing, question of mine.

What counts as the central "canonical" text of Platonism?

Let me set the stage for this question: At my academic home, we have a great-books-ish series of courses that are required for every incoming student called "The Search for Values." It's a three-semester sequence that spans from The Epic of Gilgamesh through mid-to-late 20th C. texts, and it has been a central part of the Rhodes curriculum since 1945. I teach in the first semester (Gilgamesh through Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics) and the thirst semester (which, I kid you not, spans from the Protestant Reformation to today). Every year, the faculty who teach in the Search program get together for about 7 days at the end of the school year to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum as it stands and to discuss what, if any, changes should be made.

Of course, because we have so much material to cover in any given semester, almost everything that is covered is done fairly quickly and non-comprehensively. There are, I know, many complaints that can be levelled against this type of learning, but I actually think that one of the advantages of these sorts of programs for first- and second-year students is that they are provided a kind of generic familiarity with a broad swath of texts, and at the end of the courses they not only should be better acquainted with the canon of Western intellectual history, but also better equipped to choose a major. So, I like the program and I don't complain too much about the fact that in the first semester we are only able to cover a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy. I only get to teach 2 texts by Plato/Socrates and 1 by Aristotle, but I get to teach a lot of things that I wouldn't otherwise teach in my regular philosophy courses, like Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, Sophocles' Theban tragedies, and the Iliad. (As some of you may remember from last Fall, I discussed the ups and downs of my Search for Values experience on this blog.)

This week, we're having the curriculum discussions and I am considering suggesting a change. As things stand now, the Plato texts that we cover in Search are the Apology of Socrates and the Symposium. I love both of these texts, and I have to admit that my students love them, too. However, I find it very difficult to talk about Plato without any reference to the Republic. Last fall, I "cheated" a bit and added a couple of hefty sections of the Republic to my syllabus as supplemental reading, but the idea behind the Search for Values program is that every first-year student should be reading the same texts in the same order in every Search class, so that they find themselves part of a coherent and engaged "learning community." (As evidence of this, the students here, for many years, have staged an all-night public reading of Homer's Iliad at the amphitheater in the center of our campus, since they are all reading it at the same time. That may be a way around "actually" reading the text for some of them, but I still think it's a pretty cool tradition here.)

I don't want to cut the Apology from the curriculum, because I think it is both accessible and engaging for first-year students. But I don't understand having the Symposium as our other Plato text. Not only is it not a representative example of Platonic philosophy, but I'm not sure it's even a particularly representative example of Socratic philosophy (despite the fact that, as you all remember, Socrates claims only to be an "expert" in love.) However, as is the case in most institutions, I suspect that this curriculum is determined in large part by inertia, and that changes will be be difficult to effect. My inclination is to suggest the Republic on the grounds that it is THE central canonical text of Platonic philosophy, but I'm wondering if there is another (in truth, shorter) dialogue that may accomplish the same ends.



melanie said...

what about the phaedo? you've got recollection, discussions of the soul and of eidos, and a dramatic setting that follows very nicely from the apology.

Doctor J said...

That was actually my second choice, so I'm glad to see you confirm it, Melanie!

By the way, when are y'all moving?

Booga Face said...

Please accept my apologies in advance for being a complete snot in this post, but you've touched on one of my biggest peeves.

When I was a college student, my friends and I had a different name for the "great books class." We called it "stuff we read over summer vacation." And my summer reading was often only slightly more random and arbitrary than the list of great books in a great books class.

In my view, great books classes, like SUV's, are criminal.

There are numerous problems with great books classes. First, they begin with the assumption that the student must come to class with a worshipful pose, that these books have been selected as the repositories of enduring value (though the terms of their selection is obviously suspect), and that one can only be a true member of the elite class if one has read these "great works" which are sufficiently distant from our present reality so as not to trouble anyone's actual lifestyle. In other words, great books courses begin with classist (not classicist) assumptions and promote a somewhat fascist orientation to learning.

Pedagogically, it's worse. Let me compare a great books class with a real literature class. A real literature class has some sort of method. There are many methods. One method is historical, in which the students are taught how literature responds to various events and literary genre change over time as socio-economic conditions change. For instance, the novel can't exist as a form until print culture becomes cheap enough. Likewise, the so-called "canon" of great books was largely created in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by white men to justify Western European imperialism (and Plato is part of that, not because Plato himself promoted imperialism, but because claiming Plato as our intellectual ancestor -- and not claiming, for instance, the inventors of modern math and Algebra because they happened to have written in Arabic and lived in Baghdad -- clearly has a politics to it.) Understanding literature historically teaches students to question what ends up on the fucking list of books handed to them, and enables them to think about how to revise that list themselves.

That's the historical method. There are other methods of course -- deconstruction being one of them.

However, I recognize that our teaching has to deal with the many preconceptions that students have about what learning is when they come to college. Most of them have already been brainwashed into thinking that great-books learning is what real learning is, even though they haven't a clue why. So, we have to start with where they live, and move them somewhere... um... so I suppose ultimately, I somewhat agree with you that a great books class is good for first-year students, so long as the goal of that course is to move them away from great books learning. A paraodox, surely.

I think most great books classes end up being centered around a "theme." The theme method -- if one can call it a method -- seems to me good enough, so long as the theme is tackled with some conceptual rigor and focus. When I teach literature, I usually try to blend the conceptual with the historical, so that the students can be excited by big, fancy concepts (like freedom or something) at the same time that they attend to historical context and alternative points of view. For example, putting John Locke's notion of freedom next to an 18th c. romance novel's hypothetical situating of freedom is more illuminating in my view than tracing the stale genealogy of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Hume... groan, kill me. All of my students very quickly noticed how much Locke overlooks simply by noticing how much richer something as patently silly as a romance novel was. It's obvious that the woman in the novel doesn't have the same ability to form social contracts as the man does, and so... yes, clearly Locke is more even more simplistic and fantastic than romance novels, and that's not to say that romance novels aren't also simplistic and fantastic. Putting Locke next to Olaudah Equiano or any text that even mentions real slavery is similarly illuminating.

So, in my view, the attempt to "cover" the great classics of Western civilization is a mistake, because you can't. And you shouldn't even want to. And likewise, focusing on "content" rather than on "context" or "concept" is also a mistake. In other words, your question about "which Plato" to read (i.e., which content to include on the syllabus) is the wrong question. The right questions are "which context" and "which concept"?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Leaving aside questions of canonicality, if you want a good introduction to Plato that's shorter I agree the Phaedo is a good way to go...
But the Symposium is so much more enjoyable a text.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

And by Plato, I of course mean Platonism since the best way to get a good introduction to Plato remains to go to the right kind of bar in Athens and ask for Alcibiades...

NC John said...

i guess my question would be the same as ideas man implicitly asks, namely, what is the ultimate aim of the program (i.e. what do you want your students to learn, or get, from the 3 courses)? if you're going for a rudimentary "systematic" knowledge of certain figures or schools, then the Republic or Phaedo routes would be the way to go. if something else is the primary motivation, though, it might not be.

i am inclined to agree that the Phaedo is the best way to go for certain purposes (classic "Platonism"), but for other purposes, the Symposium has obvious advantages. and i have to say, virtually every semester in which i have taught the _Symposium_, it has ended up being the class favorite.

the S also gives you an opening into certain aspects of Athenian culture that i think are not as obvious with the Phaedo, if that's what you're going for. either one, i think, gives you a great (though different) route into discussions about the body. i've also found that the move from love of soul/character to love of laws and customs, provides a nice route towards discussing a vision of society in which government is supposed to help direct us towards a/the g/Good. so for me, the Symposium also works better as a sociopolitical text, as well.