What happens in those canonical texts is more than just pursuits of truth and the like. They are also texts that reproduce base ideological forms – or revolutionize them – that are key to reproducing certain kinds of societies. In the case of white Western societies, this means slaving, conquering, and subjugating societies. This is why Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, etc. all had theories of race, nation, genesis of human difference, and justifications for all sorts of slavery, conquest, and domination. In the contemporary academy, most of this part of the white Western Tradition has been forgotten. It’s been relegated to tertiary or boutique concern. But it is not, actually, in terms of the kinds of intellectuals white Western thinkers have always been and wanted to be: genius people who had something to say about the central concerns of their era. Kant’s conception of race is central to his ethics and politics, same with Locke and slavery and conquest, and Hegel’s conception of history has no accidental relation to his depiction of Africa...One could make similar arguments for the place of women in so much of the white Western philosophical tradition, where whole societies are built on the subordination of women and the feminine (thinking here of Philosophy of Right and especially Irigaray’s critique via the figure of Antigone).
If those text reproduce ideology, and therefore reproduce empire’s projects of conquest, enslavement, and colonialism, then we can’t just say “nothing is intrinsically wrong.” We in fact have to be open to the notion that these texts are entangled in the most violent, destructive ideas in world history. That they are rooted in whiteness and what whiteness meant in those moments: the right to murder and steal and subjugate...One rarely reads the White Western tradition in this register or with this frame. --John Drabinski Diversity, Neutrality, Philosophy.
In what follows, I ignore if 'the canon' is the relevant target. But see yesterday's post, which was criticized by Leigh Johnson [and implicitly by Protevi] for the androcentocity of my argument (which mentioned female philosophers, but did not name them while some men were). I hope to do better today.
Drabinski offers us a self-consciously historicist enterprise. By 'historicist,' here, I don't just mean the idea that (a) these canonical texts reproduce the ideologies of their age nor just the idea that they (b) produce or even revolutionize the ideologies of their age, nor just the idea that (c) the authors now treated as canonical are understood as "genius people who had something to say about the central concerns of their era" -- Drabinski does not necessarily imply (although he could) that "Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel" intended to belong to the category --, but rather the following three points: first, his package (a-c); second, the invisibility of texts and authors that do not fit his homogenization of the tradition he describes, those that contested the "justifications for" -- and the facts of -- "all sorts of slavery, conquest, and domination" (I return to this below); third, the invisibility of the mechanisms, processes (etc.) that both (i) effaced the contestations and, perhaps later, also effaced (ii) the relegation of the (real) evils of the tradition "to tertiary or boutique concern" (more about which below); and (iii) the production and recycling of boy-wonders that grow into genius (etc.). What the three elements have in common is that they produce a friction-free, flattened narration (I'll call it a 'smooth surface' in the next paragraph).
As an aside, if I am right about this flattening (see below), then Drabinski's version of historicism is an odd practical contradiction because Drabinski "calls us to thinking." Because Drabinski shares his pedagogical experiences, I will remark that any teacher knows that real thinking for oneself -- as opposed to acquiring information -- does not commence from (such) smoothed surfaces. Let me explain.
By effacing the undoubtedly imperfect in their own way -- there are no angels -- dissenters and nay-sayers, Drabinski reinforces a historical injustice in their silencing and he perpetuates not just historical myths about the tradition (that's a shrug), but also fictions about the possibility of thinking. For, by reinforcing such historical injustices, Drabinski effectively denies the possibility in which being opposed to ruling ideologies, in which speaking to the future or making available dissonant perspectives can be conceived; that is to say, he ends up claiming that thinking is impossible (with an exception to be noted below).
By insisting that thought is impossible, we fail to attend to the very aristocratic Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, who decides to translate Mandeville's Fable, which she considers the greatest work on ethics, not just for its defense of luxury (and its free-spiritedness), but almost certainly because Mandeville so clearly shows the social construction of gender. When, at the heart of empire, Annie Besant took on Darwin (and J.S. Mill) in the court-room she understood quite well the complex interactions among birth control, eugenics, and Darwinism in a broader context of political economy. When Sophie de Grouchy and Wollstonecraft praise the cautious Adam Smith, they did so, in part, because they recognized the centrality of his anti-slavery and anti-colonial message.
Moreover, by effacing the mechanisms of myth-generation and canon formation (and enshrining of boy-wonders, and genius, etc.), Drabinski makes the canon and the tradition become a deus-ex-machina, one might say, a myth of the given (if it weren't used already) not a practice of individual curricular decisions, of text-book writers, encyclopedists, publishers, and the self-fashioning, if not propaganda, of successful university professors or bureaucratic administrators (etc). In his scheme, we have the 'happenings' in these texts and we have 'readings,' but we do not receive even hints of the material and educational pre-conditions that help generate if not facilitate the forms of intelligibility and the practices that sustain them; all the small acts of forgetting. His is the production of a virtual plane of action in which all the most important decisions are off-stage. How come celebrities-in-their-own-time, the witty and brilliant, De Gournay, and the earnest and razor-sharp, Van Schuurman, were not transmitted to posteriority? And how can Drabinski allows himself to ignore that the brave philosophical scholars -- e.g., Sarah Hutton, Marcy Lascano, Lisa Shapiro, Margareth Atherton, Eileen O'Neill etc. -- have developed the enterprise of recall?
Now, you may think that Drabinski does think genuine thinking is possible, but only at the "margins." And that, in fact, 'we scholars' know this because, by his lights, we are much better readers of texts produced at those very margins. It's undeniable, that what he calls the situatedness of thoughts and text can be made more evident when one engages with such 'marginalia.' But it's not as if this situatedness is not relentlessly thematized in 'the' (?) tradition: for every Descartes and Carnap who claims that temporal and geographic situation does not matter formally, there is an Ursula Le Guin or an ever so Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf (who challenges patriarchy and also makes available for critical reflection the professional philosopher's self-delusions.)
Drabinki's stance is not just empirically wrong-headed, it's also immoral because it lets people of the hook way too easily. It's not just the (Drabinski-style) prosecution that prefers such historicism, but also the Great Books defense, which, too easily, will insists that 'everybody-thought-like-that' [the so-called TEDI-syndrom]. Both sides happily embrace a self-aggrandizing narrative of progress in which those that come later are in a better moral epistemological position, and all that 'we' need to do is to apply the latest moral and political insights we can generate a properly decolonized curriculum, even anti-canon, and, thereby, keep the risks of thinking at arm's length. As if the practical implications of her racialized hierarchy were not available to Margaret Cavendish; as if Hume (or Kant) did not understand that their preference for 'civilization' meant a savage treatment for others (see why and how Hume praises Edward I).
For, the uncomfortable truth is not that we are the racialized and gendered (etc.) inheritors to centuries of evils. Nor is it the fact that the unity of the virtues is false: that philosophical acuity need not entail a proper functioning moral and political compass. (This is why it's okay for Drabinski to relentlessly repeat, "Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, etc.") By all means let's detect and strip Whiteness away. But the very institution of philosophy that has been shaped and will be shaped by conceptual and intellectual decisions, some of them even brave and heroic, that have and, perhaps, will ensure its survival (in terms of flourishing traditions, political economy, access toward the metaphysical truth, etc.) and, -- with the exception, perhaps, of the ancient Cynics -- , thereby, generate loss, sometimes grievous harms, for others.
*Near the end of his essay he writes: "Even if what we find is profoundly disturbing and difficult, because the white West has been profoundly disturbing and violent and so is difficult to reckon with honestly. We can be honest readers." In context he presupposes that he has already performed such readings, that is, 'we' can become like him.