Mar 18, 2024, 07:00AM

Canonized or Cannonized: Who Makes it to Classic and Who Gets Fired

I think it's a lot more arbitrary than you may believe, in philosophy and elsewhere.

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For the last couple of months, I've paddled around in a real scholarly backwater: American "New Realist" philosophy of the early-20th century: the work of once-eminent but now entirely-forgotten philosophers such as William Pepperell Montague of Columbia, Ralph Barton Perry and E.B. Holt of Harvard, and Edward Gleason Spaulding of Princeton. In their own period, they were among the most eminent of American intellectuals. They were mentored by great philosophers such as Josiah Royce and William James. They occupied distinguished professorships at prestigious universities.

I've been extremely impressed by their work ethic: each produced a vast authorship over a long life, and each produced an internally coherent and elaborate philosophical system, as though they were American Hegels. (They hated Hegel though, and their Realism was the opposite of his Absolute Idealism, which had dominated philosophy in the previous century, and which the Realists dedicated themselves to destroying.)

Furthermore (and this is why I'm reading), they produced a number of fundamental theories on a number of fundamental matters (the nature of truth, the nature of human perception, the nature of values such as beauty and justice) that were fundamentally innovative when they wrote. Some of these, such as the extended mind thesis, the identity theory of truth, and the situational account of value, reappeared in much the same form a century later, put forward by people (me, for example) who had no idea that anyone had ever advocated the positions before, much less that they’d been systematically developed by Ivy League philosophers of mind a hundred years before. The extended mind thesis (and others) could’ve been part of the debate through the whole century. Instead, it died undetected and had to be naively reconstructed.

Maybe I should speak for myself. I had every reason and opportunity to know this work. I’ve studied the Realists' contemporaries and rivals the pragmatists elaborately (I wrote a dissertation about the aesthetics of John Dewey, for example, and a series of papers on James's epistemology). I’d dipped into Ralph Barton Perry's magisterial and Pulitzer-wining biography of his teacher James. I was vaguely aware that there was a book written by six philosopher-titled The New Realism. I was vaguely aware that Montague's theory of truth and mine were, roughly, the same.

I mentioned Montague and the book when I published my own system of philosophy as Entanglements in 2017. But what I didn't realize was that more or less the whole picture of the universe and the place of humans within that I advocated there had already been developed by American philosophers whose names I vaguely knew. This vagueness had causes. Their contemporaries Dewey and G.H. Mead carried the day for pragmatism against realism. By 1930, the Realists were already being forgotten, and pragmatism was widely termed "the characteristically American philosophy." It was forgotten even that many of the pragmatists' positions had been developed in specific contrast to the Realists.

The classical pragmatists and, in particular, their followers and descendants, no doubt narrated their victory as follows: American Realism was naive and incompetent philosophy. It had its role in helping the pragmatists refine their positions, but it was the very acme of mediocrity. Theories survive like creatures, according to a basic Darwinism: the strongest and best-adapted survive. The rest disappear, as they should.

But I have a somewhat different picture. I spent 40 years in academia, enough to see new dominant research programs take over and old ones fall by the wayside. The reasons are, in general, less survival-of-the-fittest and more oriented to eliminating one's opponents, fit or not. The driving force of intellectual history is academic politics. The people who tried to persist in Realism (and there were some, such as the now-also-forgotten Justus Buchler) got sidelined. The internal intellectual politics of departments skewed toward pragmatism, and slowly its opponents disappeared. This is the way academic politics works: you establish the next phase by eliminating your opponents' grad students. Who can do that in the long run is who wins the argument, and maybe the century. (The pragmatists, by the way, were in their turn eliminated in very much the same way, by analytic philosophers.)

By the time I showed up in organizations such as the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy around 1990, a canon of American philosophy had been established. The 19th-century transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau gave way to the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce, James, and Dewey, along with a few satellite figures such as Royce and Mead. There was one path, and we young American philosophers were traversing it together. Lately, the "neo-pragmatism" of Richard Rorty has been canonized as the outcome or culmination of these developments. People such as John McDermott worked their whole lives to establish this canon and this story. And to eliminate all others. Organizations such as SAAP, that is, also have a police function, and performing it is how the canon is formed. The intellectual history gets profoundly skewed: most things are eliminated, and there’s less and less indication that the dominant discourse has ever been challenged.

Do this for two generations, and the people coming along will have difficulty imagining an alternative. Do it for three generations, and no one will even have heard of what the American realist Roy Wood Sellars called "neglected alternatives." Even people who need the material for their own work (me, for example) might not be likely to find it anymore. And when they do, they're liable to be dismissed.

One book I've been reading in this vein is Spaulding's The New Rationalism: The Development of a Constructive Realism Upon the Basis of Modern Logic and Science, and Through the Criticism of Opposed Philosophical Systems, published in 1917. It’s incredible how much labor there is in it, how many fascinating and possibly fundamental ideas are here that were never further developed. Spaulding was a distinguished professor at Princeton, but I wonder whether, by the end of his life (1940), he was worrying about whether anyone would ever read his system of philosophy. Maybe he wondered why he worked so hard. Maybe his hopes had dwindled to “Perhaps someone will pull this off the shelf in a hundred years and realize I was on to something!" I’m trying to be that person.

The Spaulding situation makes me feel better and worse about my Entanglements: A System of Philosophy, which hasn’t even been reviewed. I also need a hypothetical future devotee to save my philosophy, circa 2124, if philosophy makes it that far. But maybe all that work was just futile. On the other hand, I enjoyed the process of thinking and writing, even as the thing sinks. But one thing these observations will allow me to do: assert that the neglect of me may be intellectually arbitrary, that the canon is formed in philosophy by sociological factors in which professors are embedded, not by excellence.

It may be self-serving for me to think that who gets canonized and who gets cannonized is intellectually arbitrary. I don't suck as bad as people think I do! And I regard this as true of all canons. I think The Beatles’ promotion to rock gods, or Dylan's, was arbitrary. There were a lot of novelists as good and at least as interesting as Philip Roth or Ernest Hemingway. I think Picasso is a repulsive person and artist, and there’s just no escape. It's all down to this: whose taste can be enforced.

I'm a little angry that I didn't know Ralph Barton Perry had written more or less my whole philosophy a hundred years before I did. True, I should blame myself. I should’ve found these figures and ideas and texts and pursued them. I could have, in some sense. But the reasons I didn't aren't just incompetence, but also to the scholarly atmosphere I came through in my training. Meanwhile, like Ralph Barton Perry and Edward Gleason Spaulding, I’m a human canonball.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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