This month was marked by two special moments. The first was on its first day – being the day that it was twenty years ago that I started working at the Free University (which has called itself VU University for some time). I still remember when I knew I was hired, and called home from the phone booth in the dark grey concrete hall. Now there is no phone booth anymore, and everything has been made lighter. There was no party to celebrate my anniversary, there were no speeches – such things are not very usual at the VU. Nobody knew, except those whom I told, but still it was a special day for me. In those twenty years I have seen many changes at my university, and not only where its buildings are concerned.
For one, the student population changed a lot. When I came to work there, the students were mostly white, and there were more protestants among them than at the other Dutch universities. The days of student protests were long ago, and, as the VU was in a suburb without anything to do but work (or do sport), it had an air of seriousness. Since those days the socker fields have made way to large banks and law firms and hip but expensive bars. Our students nowadays come from all over the world, and have brought new perspectives with them. And, since the long occupation at the other Amsterdam university last year, a more rebellious spirit has also come over the VU. In this sphere happened the second special moment. It was a student-organized meeting, to present a petition which called for more diversity in the courses to the heads of the philosophy department. In all my twenty years at the Free University philosophy students had never done anything like it.
So staff and students gathered to discuss the petition, which argued for diversification of ´the canon´. The organizing students wanted more female philosophers included, the position of the heads of the department was not entirely clear. It seemed they thought that on the one hand there was already quite some representation of female viewpoints in the curriculum, especially where the field of ethics was concerned, but on the other hand that all the ´great (male) thinkers´ should not get any less attention. The discussion that followed made me reflect on the strange phenomenon of a ´canon´, a word so much used in today´s discussions about teaching. History teachers in the Netherlands should teach a national canon, classes in literature are debating who belongs to the canon of writers, and now even philosophers do the same with their own predecessors.
I don´t believe in canons. They are ideological constructions, to my view, and provide no representation of the most important thinkers or writers. I do not subscribe the darwinian-capitalist view that there is a struggle between thinkers, which will result that the best ones, the most excellent or the deepest ones will win and make up the ´canon´. Neither do I adhere to a marxist viewpoint, though, which would hold that a canon will mirror the material power relations, and that, if those are not benefiting the struggle of the working classes, we will consciously have to change it. I do not believe in pure chance, which seems to provide the foundation for the darwinian-capitalist view, nor in changing the course of history for the better by revolutionary acts.
I believe rather in the power of enchantment – that we can see meaning in a certain pattern or structure, and can deconstruct it too. What appears as a canon in this view is nothing but the unstable mirror of the desires of a certain group or society. Desires to be rational for instance, to hold measure, or to be exuberant. To be wise, constrained, or god-like. There is no necessary struggle, no selection of the best. There is a lot of illusion, and what seeking truth should be about is to look at the illusions, turn them around, look at the labels on their backs (´made in Europe´ or ´made in the USA´ for instance), and study what maintenance they need. Do we want to maintain them? Or is it time to change some old pieces for new ones? Reconstruct or deconstruct them. Or get us some other ones which know of themselves that deconstruction is already at work in them, even while they state their importance.