Considering the Western Canon in General

Peggy Li, Opinion Editor

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You may have noticed it in the course catalog, there is now an offering for ‘East Asian Philosophy,’ where one can learn about the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius or any number of crusty dead Asian men, instead of the usual crusty dead white men. In a twist of irony, one may now imbibe the east Asian equivalent of the western philosophical tradition, where one reads Confucius instead of Aristotle, and learns about Buddhist philosophies in place of Descartes’ proof for the existence of God. Different flavor, more or less the same stuff.

Like traditional western thinking, learning about classic east Asian philosophy texts analogously face some of the exact same problems: few, if any female perspectives, and of course, knowing that sexism certainly must have been prevalent at the time, even if it’s not directly addressed in class or in text. Because for all efforts towards inclusion and diversity, most, if not all works of literature and philosophy before the 1800’s are unavoidably sexist. While there are some exceptional female philosophers like Christine de Pizan, Lady Anne Conway or Hypatia of Alexandria, it is undeniable that the majority of old ‘philosophers’ are male. And even of the female philosophers, they are almost always white, upper-class women; the rare minority who were allowed to be educated, in large part because of their social standing. The problem then becomes, how do we want to think about these philosophers, regardless of heritage, if they are sexist, racist or classist?

Yet, for all of my peers who proclaim their feminism, their intense love of social justice, who sticker their possessions with support for Bernie Sanders, and therefore may not want to take these sorts of classes, I ask you to please give the western canon a chance. Because a large part of why texts like “The Symposium,” or “Genesis,” are required is because of how old the texts are. And due to their age, the subsequent impact on culture, politics and thinking that these works have had is huge. Like it or not, many of the dead white men that we are required to read are part of an intellectual tradition that we unknowingly and possibly unwillingly participate in. It is only because of contingent factors that there were not more female philosophers (many were not allowed to be educated or to publish), whereas we now know that women are unequivocally capable of rigorous intellectual thought, and are just as good as the men. Nevertheless, our arguably patriarchal, racist and imperialist past remains unchanged. In order to gain insight into the present culture we live in, it is imperative we know the historically relevant ideologies that led up to our modern society, even if we don’t agree with their what they had to say.

Even more important than knowing our intellectual heritage in order to gain insight though, is to better understand the western tradition in order to better subvert it’s power over you. One cannot possibly be against western cultural imperialism, if one does not actually know the writers, thinkers and ideas that make up the western tradition. If you are so inclined, learn it in order to better voice your dissent.

Or, if you’re like me and you actually enjoy these classes about dead white (and now, Asian) men, just learn it, and appreciate that many of these writers and these works have universal appeal. You’d be shocked at how similar Confucius and Aristotle are, only furthering some philosopher’s claims at ‘universal truth.’  I certainly enjoy my east Asian philosophy class, and suspect that many Whitman students would also enjoy western philosophy classes if they gave them a chance.

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