In Ten Neglected Classics of Philosophy, edited and introduced by University of Amsterdam politics professor Eric Schliesser, various modern philosophers make their case that a work has been underappreciated. Most of these unrecognized “classics” were picked because they challenge the current status quo of professional philosophy: male-dominated, analytical, race-neutral.
Some of these works indeed have never been fully appreciated, such as Edith Stein’s On the Problem of Empathy, while others were considered classics in their time but have since fallen from scholarly grace, such as Francois Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemachus. Others have not been remembered on their own merits, but instead portrayed as the constructs of philosophical villains that momentarily led the field astray until they were put in their place by legitimate thinkers. Jonathan Bennett’s Rationality: An Essay Towards an Analysis is often reprimanded as an early attempt to resurrect behaviorism from its intellectual tomb, and F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality is recorded as the last manifestation of Hegelian mysticism before Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore put the idea to rest and began the age of true inquiry, the age of analytic philosophy. Michael Della Rocca, the contributor of Bradley’s entry in the book, calls this last one “the founding myth of analytical philosophy,” and like all founding myths that explain the origins of races, nations, and creeds, it is a falsehood.
Schliesser’s introductory essay, “On Being a Classic in Philosophy,” raises many questions about canonical formation. Why are certain works remembered and others forgotten? What is the value of having a “shared textual background” that allows for “relatively efficient, conceptual and argumentative shortcuts or vivid imagery”? Are there problems with having this shared background? Could these shortcuts in rhetoric bypass worthwhile roads in thinking? Should the classics be so favored against contemporary fads? After all, weren’t many classics at one point mere fashions of their age?
Schliesser doesn’t attempt to provide answers to all these questions. He does, however, provide a list of answers to at least one of them—that one being, “What makes a classic?” Such a question is really asking two things: How does a text become a classic? And why does it become one? Reductive, vituperative, and flippant responses can of course be given to both these subquestions—“Because those texts best expressed the contemporary ruling class’s moral outlook”; “Because those texts effectively distracted critical intellects from serious political commitments”; “Because something, after all, had to be chosen”; etc.—but Schliesser ignores these easy comebacks and instead opts for an ambitious and thoughtful inventory of interrelated possibilities.
He gives four reasons why a text might be canonized. One, it proves a useful way for young students in the field to get their bearings on a particular topic. Most introductory philosophy courses begin by having students read philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, and Nietzsche, not only because these philosophers are easy to read, but also because they clearly demonstrate what’s at stake in conversations about psychology, epistemology, and ethics. Two, a text that temporarily fell out of favor might “renew philosophy, especially in periods after an ahistorical sweep. … Rather than reinvent wheels, people turn to them because they provide resources to recover lost insight.” (Aristotle’s Ethics is an example here.) Three, texts are remembered because of their significance within a particular philosophical tradition (American pragmatism, feminism, monism). A tradition partly grows through interacting with its own past—perpetually studying and questioning its own first principles. Four, some philosophers can be read for the enduring wisdom and enjoyment they provide. Schliesser names Seneca, Montaigne, Kieerkegard, de Beauvoir, and Thoreau as examples. These types of writers—who produce wisdom rather than conveying subtlety—are what the general reading population thinks of when they think of philosophy, not the useless wranglings of many academics.
As for the technical aspects of how a provincial work becomes perennial, Schliesser borrows his criteria from J.M. Coetzee’s essay “What Is a Classic?” The work must be studied by specialists, expounded upon by advanced students, be part of an ongoing argument, inspire imitations, and eventually catch the interest of a wider audience. Schliesser points out that these are, if anything, necessary conditions, not sufficient ones.
Obvious tensions in the book stem partly from its oxymoronic title and partly from the fact that, according to Schliesser’s own standards, none of the texts included would qualify as classics. It’s a given that none meet all of Coetzee’s criteria; otherwise they wouldn’t be neglected and thus wouldn’t belong in the compilation. The only case for most of the entries is that they offer rejoinders to mistaken contemporary trends. For instance, Chike Jeffers’s entry on W.E.B. DuBois’s speech “Whither Now and Why” challenges the “color-blind” ethos of conventional etiquette toward race.
In his 1960 speech, Du Bois argued against the assimilationist method of ending color discrimination if it meant destroying African-Americans’ distinctively black culture, music, and literature along the way. He worried that desegregating schools would lead to an ignorance of African history for black Americans. Above all, he was engaged in a struggle to preserve his race, which he defined as a “vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.” Du Bois’s own solution to freeing the United States from racial prejudice was to help organize a “proliferation of African-American institutions” (Jeffers)—colleges, newspapers, banks, businesses, and literary schools of thought. Rather than color-blind politics, Du Bois wanted a color-saturated morality.
Jeffers is perhaps correct that this programmatic suggestion has little support in American universities. On the other hand, outside the universities it seems to have always done quite well for itself. Malcolm X preached for black Americans to seek education, plan a family, and start their own business—after his death, National Review published a glib obituary that praised him for expounding such views—and today individuals as apparently different as Louis Farrakhan, Jason Whitlock, and Thomas Sowell have encouraged a similar course of action to ending dubious racial prejudices while preserving valuable cultural distinctions. Du Bois’s endorsements of Soviet communism sound ridiculous rather than baleful in retrospect, although it would be hard for most right-wing intellectuals to assail his solutions to racial strife once those solutions have been disentangled from his socialism.
Many of the other entries in Ten Neglected Classics suffer from similar problems to Jeffers’s. Misidentifying a philosophical dilapidation in academia as a philosophical dilapidation at large. Disregarding, intentionally or not, the professed purpose of the book and instead selecting a text unworthy of canonization but useful for historically validating the contributor’s own views. Finally, a complacent urge to knock down barriers that don’t exist.
Editor’s note: The spelling of Chike Jeffers’s name has been corrected throughout.