Teaching Diversifying the Canon: Interview with Andrew Janiak

Diversifying the Canon: Interview with Andrew Janiak

Andrew Janiak is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Duke University, where he is also a Bass Fellow. He received graduate degrees from the University of Michigan and Indiana University and then held a Dibner Postdoctoral Fellowship at MIT before coming to Duke in 2002. He is the author, editor and co-editor of five books; most recently, he has edited Space: A History for the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series. He is currently co-writing a monograph on the philosophy of Émilie Du Châtelet with Karen Detlefsen.

What are you doing in your own classroom to diversify the philosophical canon?

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching a unit on Émilie Du Châtelet (depicted above), focused on her Foundations of Physics (1740), in all of my early modern classes. Integrating her work into my course was exciting and challenging, but in some ways, it felt rather natural. I’ve always taught the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, and that serves as an excellent segue to her work. She takes that debate to help frame a number of issues, from the nature of space and time to the use of the principle of sufficient reason in the study of nature.

What’s your favorite piece to teach and why?

My favorite text is in fact Du Châtelet’s Foundations of Physics (one might also translate Institutions physiques as the Elements of Physics) because it helps students to understand how different the science of nature was in the mid-18th century from what they would expect. Her work helps to show students that many major philosophers were interested in thinking of the laws of motion as mid-level principles that could be explained, if not deduced, from more fundamental principles, such as the principle of sufficient reason. It also helps to show students that the proper subject matter of physics in those days – say, at least until the mid-to-late 18th century – was very much in dispute. Many philosophers thought of the science of nature or of physics as the general science of body, and so their treatises attempted to explain essentially all natural phenomena, from phenomena associated with human physiology to those associated with meteorology to basic questions about space, time and motion, and the nature of matter. But Du Châtelet has a much more restricted view – wisely, in my opinion, since she thereby avoids a great deal of speculation! – according to which physics is really the science of forces. And so she focuses her attention on forces, along with some of the other issues I mention, and then criticizes philosophers who fill their physical treatises with speculation. Indeed, one of her most intriguing chapters – it’s the one that Euler appreciated the most – concerns the proper use of hypotheses in philosophy.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards in teaching Du Châtelet’s work?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was overcoming my initial fear that I did not understand Du Châtelet’s work well enough to teach it alongside work that I know pretty well, like Descartes’s Meditations or Leibniz’s correspondence with Clarke or Kant’s Critique. Then I started to wonder, what is the origin of that fear? After some reflection, I came to this answer: the fear originates, at least in part, from the fact that I never heard about any women in any history of philosophy of class throughout my entire (long!) education. And I think I came to appreciate the fact that when we need to explain the ideas of some canonical philosopher to students, say the ideas of Descartes, we rely not just on our preparations for class, but also on many years of background knowledge that we have acquired. When I first taught Descartes, of course I was hesitant and unsure of my presentation. But I didn’t have a deep fear that I just couldn’t explain his ideas to the students, and I think that results from the fact that I had been hearing about Descartes for many, many years. So I had a lot of background knowledge to rely upon when teaching. I had no such knowledge when it came to teaching Du Châtelet’s ideas. So I had some fear: what if students ask me about something that I don’t know anything about? I want to be honest about that fear, because maybe others will feel it, too. I can honestly report that after some hard work and some trial and error, that fear goes away. Now I love teaching her work and look forward to it each semester.

What advice do you have for other philosophers interested in possibly teaching Du Châtelet’s work?

My last thought does not lead me to have any very special advice for other philosophers, but maybe I can say that I think it’s okay to be honest if one is a bit afraid of teaching new figures and new works. That’s only natural! After all, when students ask questions in class or in office hours, how often does your answer come from your actual preparation for class and how often does it come from background knowledge that you already had? I bet it’s often from the latter, and that’s why I think it’s okay for us all to find it challenging to teach new figures and new texts. It will take a generation for this situation to change, but hopefully one day in the future, instructors will have plenty of background knowledge of figures like Du Châtelet and then will find it straightforward to teach her work. I say that it will take a generation, but I also think that we shouldn’t be naïve about the situation in our profession. After all, there are still plenty of textbooks published nowadays in which no work by any woman or any person of color appears at all until the textbook reaches the 20th century, and often the mid-to-late 20th century at that. That is true even of new textbooks that are more than 1,000 pages long! The picture of philosophy’s history presented by such textbooks to our students is totally inaccurate, in my opinion, and simply reinforces old conceptions of the canon that have been subjected to very serious scrutiny and challenge over the past twenty years or more. Yet some textbook authors and editors seem unaware of that scrutiny. Anyone who is unfamiliar with this issue should probably begin by reading the late Eileen O’Neill’s classic piece, “Disappearing Ink,” which is now roughly twenty years old. It provides an amazingly detailed wealth of information about the contributions of women to the development of early modern philosophy. And there’s plenty to be said about the medieval period, antiquity, the 19th century, the early 20th century, and the Renaissance. I have to be frank in saying that I think it’s pretty embarrassing to our profession that students can read, say, 500 or even 1,000 pages of material and come away thinking that the first time a woman had anything to say of any importance in philosophy was in 1970. It’s embarrassing because it’s just plain wrong. Other fields in the humanities and social sciences corrected such inaccuracies decades ago. It’s high time we did the same.

What general advice do you have for other philosophers interested in diversifying their syllabi?

My advice about diversifying syllabi isn’t terribly sophisticated, to be perfectly honest, but I can explain the process that I went through. My main goal in reworking my early modern syllabi was to avoid a situation in which I took the old canonically-focused syllabus and simply dropped a few new items into it here and there. There is a temptation to do something like that, but upon reflection, it’s pretty obvious that it’s a bad idea. We don’t want the new texts and figures to stick out like a sore thumb; we want them to be fully integrated into the course. Now as I say, in my own case, it was rather natural to include Du Châtelet’s Foundations in my course because I had always included the Leibniz-Clarke debate in my class, and that’s a perfect text for setting the stage that Du Châtelet’s Foundations enters. If one does not normally teach Leibniz and Clarke, however, there are plenty of other ways of making it a natural inclusion, thereby producing an integrated syllabus. For instance, if one has already discussed the importance of the principle of sufficient reason, whether in Leibinz or another figure, then one can progress by discussing the many fascinating uses to which Du Châtelet puts that principle. She also discusses a host of other issues: the importance of including conceptions of force in one’s understanding of matter; the nature of space and time; the failures of the Cartesian concept of body; and so on. Or if one prefers to look forward, her fifth chapter, on space, presents a number of arguments about not just the nature of space itself, but also about the representation of space. And these arguments, in turn, can certainly be read as prefiguring some of the more intriguing moves that Kant makes in the “Metaphysical Exposition of Space” at the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason. That connection has not been properly explored in the scholarship, I think, and it would certainly make for a good classroom discussion, albeit at a somewhat advanced level.


This series of the APA Blog is dedicated to understanding what our fellow philosophers are doing in and out of the classroom to diversify the canon. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone else to write a post for this series, please contact us via the interview nomination form here.

Header image: Portrait of Émilie Du Châtelet, Wikimedia Commons



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