Robert Paul Wolff has on his blog a list of what he thinks are the 25 must read books for philosophy graduate students (he has added clarifications here and here). Every book on his list is of course a classic. Any philosophy graduate student would benefit from reading those texts. No arguing that. And yet... And yet what?
Reading Wolff's list it was hard for me to pinpoint how I felt as there were so many mixed emotions. There was anger, frustration, confusion for the imaginable reasons: what, just these entries again? Really, these are the top 25 texts any graduate student in philosophy has to read, irrespective of their philosophical interests, and irrespective of contingent features such as gender, culture, race, etc.? There is a faux universality to the list which it is almost hard to believe anyone could take seriously. And yet, here is a person who is genuinely putting it forward as what he sees as a kind of normative list for any graduate student. Could Wolff be really so oblivious to the issues of diversity? It is hard to believe, as he has himself made clear on his blog how much he had been involved in making academia more open to minorities.
Pondering this juxtaposition - an utterly conservative list made by someone who is otherwise open to issues of diversity, and who is a marxist even - turned the anger into disbelief, which in turn turned into comic relief. Ha! Yes, there is bound to be a limit to every rebel, and Wolff is generally, in a wonderful sense, a great rebel within academic philosophy. And yet, dear rebel, here your age and limits are shining through: you got your PhD at Harvard fifty years (1957) before I did (2008). And it is hilarious that the list is itself being put forward in a spirit of rebellion, as a way to go against these-young-philosophers-and-their-latest-journals-mindset, as if Wolff is standing up for the right and the good, against the forces of fashion. Bravo! Yes, let us fight against fashion. But to do that do we have to go back to that same old list?
At this point slowly the humor receded into a sadness. For I recalled how many times in my classes my professors trotted out a similar list, when in fact the curriculum more generally was nothing other than such a list writ large onto my education and my development as a thinker. I remembered how those books were introduced to me as what I need to grow as an intellectual, to free my mind from the tyranny of my cultural background, and how I just sat there in those classes, staring blankly, absorbing it all as if it was the Holy Word from the professors on high. As a student I put myself in the care of my professors - teachers no different in many ways from Wolff - and yet how much did my teachers really know, or care to know, about my situation, about where I was coming from? How much did they care about what it must feel like for me to see these same European authors repeatedly put forward as who I was supposed to grow into, and to hear the same silence about other philosophers and traditions that I knew existed, and which I knew that my professors were not so dumb as to not at least have heard of? But if they know of those other traditions, if they have heard of them, why do they keep being silent about them?
Here the sadness turns into shades of anger again. Have some guts and say it out loud and say it to my face: yes, we think these European thinkers are the best philosophers the world has known, and that is why you are learning only them. Don't hide behind silly claims like that all you know is European philosophy. You know there are other traditions. So why don't you want to learn about them for yourselves? How can you evaluate them if you don't even know them? Would you feign the same ignorance and disinterest if a lost book by Kant was discovered, or if another letter Wittgenstein wrote to Russell was discovered? Of course not, You would run to those texts as if the very meaning and nature of philosophy might lay hidden in those texts. So are the thousands upon thousands of texts of philosophy from across the world that much less important than drafts of writings by Kant or Wittgenstein's correspondence?
And, no, don't bother giving a trite defense like: "well, you are in America, and these European texts are what one needs to learn in order to be a philosophy professor in America." Really? Is that what America is essentially, a former European colony, and this is what any American has to pledge allegiance to? This is the same defense people give in teaching a white washed history of America in middle school, and it is no better when given in defense of a college curriculum. In fact, it is a worse defense when given with respect to philosophy, which is supposed to aim at sharing our common humanity, and finding ways to bridge and reach across differences of where we were born or what culture we are living in. To use being in America as a defense of a Eurocentric philosophy curriculum is to miss what is glorious about both the ideals of America and philosophy.
None of this is to say I can't understand why Wolff wrote the list that he did. It is easy enough to understand. Wolff was talking to one of his students, and Wolff is passing on what he thinks are the 25 central texts to read in graduate school. At bottom, it is about the dynamics between teachers and students. Wolff is the teacher. That means that, from his perspective, what he knows is what must be worthy of being taught. And what does he know? These texts, and so they become the basis of the curriculum as far as he is considered. This is perfectly reasonable in a sense.
But in another sense, it raises the question: Does what Wolff knows, and what he learnt in the course of his career, track what is most pertinent for students to learn in the current time? Or have there been cultural changes in the last fifty years such that there might be a schism between what and how Wolff learnt and what and how students now need to learn? Here is where I think Wolff's inference goes awry. He wants to contrast what is fashionable every twenty years (and what is in vogue in the latest journals) with what is lasting and more universal, with what is the essence of "the tradition". Wolff assumes that in the course of his career he has learnt what is most essential to the tradition. I don't believe this. And I am not falling for it anymore. In his career Wolff learnt a lot about one tradition. That's it. A great, grand tradition. A beautiful, inspiring tradition. Yes, definitely. But that is not the tradition. And no matter how cool Wolff is as a teacher, how hip, how much he is down with Marxism, it doesn't change the fact that his education might not be a guide to my education, his arc as a philosopher might not be a guide to my arc as a philosopher.
There is a contrast to be drawn with what is in vogue in the latest journals, but that is not with a tradition which is already set in stone and familiar to us. It is in contrast with a new, global tradition which we as thinkers and world citizens have to co-create and knit together. My situation as a person, and as a philosopher, begins with the fact that I am an Indian-American, that I belong to the east and to the west, that no one tradition as they used to be defined in the past captures what my tradition is, or can be. I am a mutt. A mongrel. Someone on the boundaries of traditions and cultures. And an education which does not acknowledge that fact, which does that begin with that fact, which does not speak to that fact, is not an education worthy of me.
Yes, there are, and will be, innumerable open questions about this new path. Much to be debated and argued. Much to fight about. There is bound to be pain, confusion. Old structures have to crumble and there will be uncertainly of what can take their place. In the face of such imminent chaos, a list which affirms the familiar, old structures is soothing, and provides something to hold onto. But for me the choice is made. I am not living into that fantasy of stability and false universality anymore. As a person and as a teacher Wolff can of course make whatever list he wants. As long as some students find such a list helpful, it is naturally worthwhile to some people. But that list has no claim on me. As I see it, it belongs to structures which, though still contemporary, are quickly becoming outdated and out of touch.