For a brief spell in the 80’s and 90’s, higher education was consumed by the canon wars. For those too young to remember, the canon wars were some earnest and intense battles among people who couldn’t agree on which authors needed to be taught for students to be considered properly educated.--Inside Higher Education (2013).
A year ago Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman succesfully managed to ignite discussion within professional philosophy about the status of the canon (recall my response).* Other humanists might think -- paraphrasing a quip falsely attributed to Heinrich Heine (which doesn't stop the Wall Street Journal from recycling it) -- that philosophy is the Netherlands of higher education, everything happens there three decades later. (Genuine humanists know that debates over the canon are as old as the canon itself.) While there are solid sociological-demographic reasons that help explain why philosophy remained aloof from the canon wars (the short version: professional anglophone philosophy is overwhelmingly white, male, change-averse and unreceptive toward unmasking narratives), there is also a key intellectual reason: within analytical philosophy the (Western) canon is largely irrelevant to disciplinary conversations.+ No command over the details of the text is ever presupposed. This is no surprise because analytical philosophy was founded -- self-consciously mimicking Descartes's dismissiveness toward book-knowledge -- as a revolt against historical approaches to philosophy.
While the days may be gone in which one could count on all literature professors to recite Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Virgil, Goethe, Dante, and the other mighty dead, especially Middlemarch, from memory, to this day working knowledge of some such books provides a shared, contested frame of reference in literary and cultural studies even if nobody thinks that command of such books is a mark of civilization or even a signal of one's cultural capital. And while close reading persists in college courses, the idea that literature can replace Scripture has long been deconstructed, and De Man unmasked; I would not be surprised if it has had its brief, ironic revival prompted by a Simpsons episode.
By contrast even when I present on David Hume's Treatise to professional historians of philosophy, let alone generalist philosophical audiences, I make sure to prepare detailed excerpts of key passages. Hume is the fourth most admired philosopher in history (according to a recent poll); he is the highest ranked English language philosopher--his Treatise the acknowledged masterpiece.** Even the anti-historical logical empiricists would say nice things about Hume. My excerpts are not merely aids to memory; I know that the passages I am calling attention to are simply unknown. Professional philosophy is not a discipline in which texts from the past are internalized. (Yes, there are a few Hume scholars that have working knowledge of some texts, but even among that lovely crowd -- dominated by professional philosophers -- there are very few people that know Hume's major works really by heart.)
Even when working positions come to be known as Humean or Carnapian (etc.), odds are we are dealing with Hume* or Carnap*. It doesn't matter, really, if Hume is not a Humean. (The relationship between, say, Carnap and contemporary Carnapians is very interesting and illuminating.) While there are a few magisterial clubs within professional philosophy -- Kantians often really try to get Kant right (even at the price of introducing anachronism), Wittgensteinians even have a second-order debate whether it makes sense to get Wittgenstein right, etc. --, philosophical puzzles and controversies do not get settled by authoritative interpretation of major texts. Of course, interest in such puzzles can be started by way of some such interpretation.
The above is not to deny that there is an image of philosophy prevalent within professional philosophy in which a limited number of historical, canonical figures are very prominent: starting with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant (etc). These folk are often, indeed, implicated in subtle and not-so-subtle forms of ideological domination (or worse). It is worth serious reflection why Gorgias's Helen is unread; why even specialist scholars are unaware of the male feminism of Toland, Mandeville, and John Millar--all eighteenth century figures that were once extremely famous. (Even world class Nietzsche scholars tend to be ignorant on the genealogy of genealogy.) It is shocking that (the first) professional interest in early modern female philosophers only commenced less than a generation ago.
If we abolish the canon in professional (analytic) philosophy, we just give folk another excuse not to read books. This trend may be unstoppable anyway: the textbook is beloved by university technocrats who hire cheap labor to teach pre-set curriculum with well-defined (achievable) goals.
For, in addition to the image of philosophy, there are classic works, often drawn from those canonical figures that figure in the image of philosophy, which are routinely but not exclusively used to introduce students to philosophy (e.g., an intro to ethics course with Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill--hopefully Sophie de Grouchy before long, too) [recall, recall, and more if you use Google]. Arguably, Nietzsche has become canonical within professional philosophy because teachers could not resist the allure of assigning him in their courses. There could be quite a bit more experimentation and innovation in the pool of such classics. In preparing a course on Islamic philosophy, I encountered Ibn Tufayl (recall) and was certainly not the first to be struck by how easily he could fit in any text-based introductory course in epistemology, philosophy of religion, and political philosophy.
What does exist in professional philosophy is a kind of hero-worship of living authority figures and the recently deceased.* Manifestly odd views can endure because they are associated with some such hero and, more importantly, because they put (often informal, but no less tight) conceptual and methodological constraints on what is acceptable within professional discussion. Williamson describes the mechanisms involved in a recent essay: he patiently explains the fear factor that surrounded Quine for a while [recall my post]. This is why in the overthrow of such heroes we find more than argument--there is also rhetoric; Williamson describes Lewis's metaphysics as "extreme" (9) and memorably, but unflatteringly, notes that Lewis is "also known as ‘the machine in the ghost’ for his eerie computational power, mechanical diction, faint air of detachment from ordinary life, and beard from another era." (8)
This hero-worship is associated with a lot of the worst features of the discipline; the common cruelty, the lack of respect for viewpoints associated with outsiders, the willful ignorance, and the awful systematic demographic patterns of exclusion. So, if we abolish the canon in professional philosophy without ending the hero-worship not much will change about the professional practice.