Thursday, October 15, 2009

Local canons

Before our pragmatism seminar began yesterday, Kevin Hector was asking us which texts we thought were part of the "canon" of philosophical works at the University of Chicago Divinity School. That is, which texts were continually referenced in lectures and discussions-- which ones, even if not assigned, could be easily identified as necessary reading in order to properly orient oneself in the ethos of the institution.

I was not familiar enough with the philosophical lay of the land to contribute to the conversation, but it was interesting listening. One student suggested that for Marion and his circle, Being and Time was necessary. Kant was the most obvious thinker; even I, in my limited interactions, could pick up on the centrality of his first Critique, and within my first two semesters at the Divinity School I had been assigned Kant's Religion twice, by two different professors. Another student brought up Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations as a work that should be canonical, though it did not quite enjoy that status. I believe Hegel's Phenomenology was mentioned but not accepted into the inner circle of Chicago texts.

Eliade's work was brought up as something that was decidedly not canonical; that it was even a faux pas to introduce it. If I'm ignorant of the philosophical culture here, I'm even more ignorant of the history of religions culture, so again I couldn't really submit an opinion. The mention struck me as odd, though, since Eliade is so tied to the "Chicago School" on religion. But one thing that I do see at the Divinity School (and this can be both good and bad) is that the young eat their parents rather than vice versa. I imagine that the decidedly critical attitude here leads to a good bit of generational turnover in ideas.

Hector was less interested in discussing theology texts, as he took them to be more readily identifiable. Upon volunteering that he could think of five or so off the top of his head, someone mentioned that Schleiermacher was surely one of them. Hector said that they were all Schleiermacher texts... he was joking, but the kernel of truth therein was rather large, I think.

The exercise was quite helpful. Hector said, and I'm inclined to agree, that local canons are useful for communities of discourse insofar as they provide points of commonality. A set of texts presents a set of problems and perspectives. And it doesn't matter so much whether the reading list is the "correct" one; the canon is not scriptural. Its purpose is to stand as a framework for thinking in the context of one's immediate neighbors in a way that will become gradually, mutually intelligible.

While the point didn't come up yesterday, I think it's fair to say that there will also be instances of friction amongst canons that are constructive. The canonical status of Being and Time, for instance, only characterizes a portion of the Divinity School. When these folks talk with others who are not of the Marion circle, there will hopefully be fruitful dialogue as a result of the interaction of differing perspectives. There is also a significant presence of process thought here that will certainly contribute to, if not define, the conversation.

Hector himself is another instance of this friction. In our pragmatism seminar, he is bringing in texts that are relatively canonical at Princeton, though not native to Chicago soil (Dewey's ghost haunts elsewhere, I suppose). Wilfrid Sellars, Robert Brandom, Donald Davidson, and Jeffrey Stout loom large. Victor Preller's Divine Science and the Science of God is also a work that is somewhat unknown outside of certain (East Coast) circles, but has been brought up periodically during discussion. The genealogy is notable. The footnotes of Hector's Theology Without Gaps are clear indicators of a canon that he has now introduced in the Divinity School for the purposes of dialogue on theology, pragmatism, and the philosophy of religions. The fruitfulness of the interaction is also already notable- in the spring, Hector will be working with Richard Fox (who does history of religions) to give the Brauer Seminar on "Religion and the Idea of Practice".

The discussion on canon was helpful for thinking through the task of theology (or any other academic task) in community. It may be worthwhile to consider what similar canons dwell in your own institutional home, as a way of establishing a deeper sense of where the current conversation is going. This also may be a more constructive way of thinking about the "ranking" of theology programs than the recent attempt by R.R. Reno to separate the sheep from the goats. What canons inform various communities of discourse, and which institutional community is the best place to get certain tasks done in academic theology?


  1. RE: "Hector was asking us which texts we thought were part of the "canon" of philosophical works at the University of Chicago"

    Friedman's "Monetary History of the United States"!!!!!!

    Oh... University of Chicago DIVINITY SCHOOL. Nevermind :)

  2. That, I think, goes into the category of "young eating their parents"... at least as far as the Divinity School is concerned.

  3. This is a fascinating question. Regent College in Vancouver is hardly on par with the schools you mention but, for the sake of interest, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Charles Taylor are names you'll often hear there.

  4. Evan - Have you read what Krugman has been writing about the "Dark Age of Macroeconomics" and the fact that people at some schools simply aren't even reading or talking about certain literature (a great example is that your own Richard Posner just read Keynes's General Theory for the first time in his life this year)? He wrote a long article on it in the New York Times magazine, but he's written even shorter stuff on his blog.

    Anyway, he's very critical of these "local canon" issues. Creating a community that's ignorant of other important work can leave dangerously glaring blindspot.

    Anyway - I was reading something that reminded me of that. Just google "Dark Age of Macroeconomics" and you'll find a lot of stuff on it I'm sure.

  5. *read it for the first time in his life and declared himself a Keynesian after the experience, by the way.

  6. I think this is a great way of getting a birds-eye-view of a particular program. It is also really helpful to step back and assess the texts which are given a particular spotlight at your own school. What does this say about your program? How does it help you? How does it limit you? Great questions to be asking.

    Having not been at Fordham long enough, I can't speak to its canon. But I can tell you that Emory's seemed to be rather eclectic given (while I was there) the broad diversity of thinkers from whom I was taking courses. But I do know that Foucault, Derrida, Girard, Irigaray and Ricouer were among the more popular ones for students in the doctoral program 2-3 years ago.

    My best friend at Emory who is still there working on a PhD in Systematics (he is interested particularly in Reformed Theology and Ecumenical Ecclesiology) used to joke that he was actually getting a doctorate in gender theory. The comment was tongue in cheek, but I think it did speak to the fact that - at the time - Mark Jordan and Wendy Farley were drawing almost all of the incoming crop of theologians...most of whom were not working in systematics, strictly speaking. The faculty there has had some significant turnover recently...I'd be curious to see how this question would be answered there in a few years time.