Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

8 thoughts on “Remember the West?

  1. Related thought: the bullying quality of someone who wants to subject you to a “rigorous philosophical argument,” asking “Socratic” questions at every step to coerce you into assenting. It’s not good enough that you come to agree with them — you have to tacitly admit you always already should have agreed with them.

  2. I would think a good curriculum would encourage students to fill in all the blanks that the course doesn’t have time to cover on their own time. Call it the “you can lead a horse to water” approach. This would at least justify looking at contemporary and classic sources together at the expense of comprehensiveness. The problem over reading classics or modern works sometimes comes down to there only being so many hours in the day.

  3. I’ve re-posted the Guardian article about Shimmer a number of times. It’s fantastic.

    Do you think that the texts’ “intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts” only because it follows within the Socratic method? As in, if the Socratic method was not adopted as canon, as privileged as THE METHOD, then we might find many other texts to be as equally as rich, say Lorde’s poetry?

    In other words, do you think that what makes the Great Books great is solely their potential for a Socratic dialogue, or meaningful dialogue in general? As in, does one’s methods, be it Western or not, determine in advance what kind of works are deemed to be great?

  4. I don’t think “Greatness” is the relevant standard. City of God is probably “greater” and “more influential” than Confessions, for instance, but Confessions is likely more productive of dialogue. And I’d be happy to put it into dialogue with Lorde’s poetry — or even start with Lorde’s poetry and then try to see how Augustine sounds in dialogue with her.

    Whatever the standard for “Greatness” is, the standard for inclusion in a dialogue-based pedagogy is whether a text is discussable in itself and whether it opens out into dialogue with a lot of other kinds of texts. I singled out Confessions because of its poly-genre aspect, not because it’s Western or a “classic” — I was trying to demonstrate how you’d need to make different kinds of arguments for what to include than under the standard “classics” model.

  5. To use another example: I’ve heard from multiple sources that within the Islamic intellectual tradition, ibn Khaldun is relatively marginal. Yet he’s often included in Western curricula because of the ways he overlaps with Western notions of historical research and the social sciences — and I think that’s probably fine… as long as it can go both ways. For instance, you may want to assign Pseudo-Dionysius rather than “bigger” figures from Christianity, because he fits in more with Islamic ways of talking (and failing to talk) about God.

  6. I see. And your comment about being pedagogically practical to teach art and music within, first, the framework of the western tradition rings true with my experience. Once a professor at McGill tried to (mildly?) shake things up in his intro to music history by presenting it backwards: starting with now and moving backwards. He said that his students were extremely confused and were unable to think critically about the tradition because of that.

    Excellent post.

  7. In remembering the “West,” you might want to shine a spotlight at the moment on the newly released Senate Report about U.S. torture. Furthermore, if you want to go beyond theorizing about the “West” and take action against U.S.sponsored torture, please visit the website of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which I founded in 2006.
    See also my book Torture Is a Moral Issue, ed. George Hunsinger (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), and the essay on Barth and Human Rights in my Conversational Theology (T&T Clark, 2015).

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