Philosophical Canon

 In your journey reading and learning about philosophy, you’ll probably come across people writing or talking about something called the “philosophical canon.” Cannon? Does that mean that all philosophers are actually just pirates ☠️ sailing the seven seas and doing whatever swashbuckling is? Obviously, yes. But, when they’re not pirating it up, philosophers like to talk about the canon (with just one n), a big ol’ group of books, texts, people, and ideas that are generally regarded as absolutely fundamental in the study of philosophy. The canon includes a lot of figures you might not know, like Leibniz, Spinoza, and Berkeley, and a lot of figures you probably do, like Locke, Kant, and Mill. Even if you don’t know their names, you definitely know their ideas. For example, one of Locke’s key concepts is the idea that we have  natural rights, including “life, liberty, and property.” Sound familiar? It should! You might get in trouble for plagiarism, but in writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson ripped off Locke big time. (He decided the pursuit of happiness was more important than property, though, and can you blame him? Will Smith is pretty great.) 

There are a lot of people who think the canon is not so hot. If everyone agreed to read all the same things, why do we want to change this up now? Well, for starters, pretty much everyone in the philosophical canon is a straight, white, European dude 👴. What’s more, pretty much everything in the canon is really old. Like really old. Like with a lot of old things, that means it comes with some pretty outdated ideas. But you might say, my grandpa’s old, and he’s not racist, he’s just from a different time! We don’t need to throw him out. Well, even if that were true, there’s a pretty good chance your grandpa’s ideas aren’t foundational in the construction of Western civilization and all contemporary studies of philosophy. Take Kant for example. One of Kant’s most famous ideas is called the categorical imperative which says, in a really fancy 18th century German way, treat other people👨🏻🧕🏽 like people👩🏿‍👩🏼‍and don’t do anything you wouldn’t be okay with everybody doing all the time. Great, right? Well, turns out Kant’s idea of “all people” pretty much only included white guys. It’s these ideas and concepts that give a lot of people pause and ask whether we should add more women like Mary Wollstonecraft or philosophers of color like Frantz Fanon into the canon. Others argue we should just get rid of the whole thing! Still others say maybe we can keep the canon, but use the ideas of these philosophers in ways that really do support equality and equity. What do you think?

Questions to Think About

  • If a philosopher had sexist or racist ideas, can we read or use their work without including those ideas?

  • What kinds of texts should be included in the canon?

  • Should we have a philosophical canon at all?

  • What is the purpose of having a canon?

  • Who decided what goes in the canon?

Key Thinkers

  • Plato

  • Aristotle

  • Augustine

  • Tomas Aquinas

  • Niccolo’ Machiavelli

  • Francis Bacon

  • Thomas Hobbes

  • Rene’ Descartes

  • Baruch Spinoza

  • Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz

  • John Locke

  • David Hume

  • George Berkeley

  • Immanuel Kant

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

  • Karl Marx

  • Bertrand Russell

Key Texts

Key Terms

  • Canon
    A collection of works accepted as central to study of a field

Similar Starter Packs

All Resources