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The Canon Game: Preliminary Observations June 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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I’d like to start talking now about possible canons, but, before we get started, I want to make a few observations about what I, personally, would expect out of a canon. I think for a lot of people the idea of a canon is a little repulsive, because it suggests that there is a batch of writings (usually old ones) up on a pedestal that cannot and should not be touched or questioned, and that serve as models for all us mere mortals. I also think a lot of people think of a canon as works serving as methodological milestones. Thus, obviously, we’d have to start with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions or something, and move on from there. In my previous post on the Forman thesis, I rejected this view, arguing that milestones, however influential they may have been in their day, are not best suited to guide future inquiry.

I’m a believer in the inevitable existence of things that must logically exist whether they are acknowledged or not. The idea of the inevitable rationale underlying policy plays a big role in my research on the policy sciences. I think the same applies to a canon: one always exists whether we want it to or not. Even if we don’t have a specific set of writings we’ve all read, there is a certain constellation (or “model” to borrow once again from C. S. Lewis’ framing of medieval literature) of arguments and strategies that are derived from set of writings, as well as certain key ideas about the “Enlightenment” or the “Victorian era” or the “Cold War” within which we may write. Thus, we are best off to acknowledge the necessity of canonical literature, and to ask the questions: what does it do for us, and is there a better one available?

I believe that a canon should help us mine the available historiography, which is actually very deep, and build on it. One theme I’ve been circling around is the tendency of historians of science to do a remarkable impersonation of 19th century Homesteaders in going further and further afield from the actual history of science to find new land to till. This is fine, but are we exploiting the land we’re already on to its fullest? A properly selected canon can be very revealing of the richness of the historical terrain that is available to us.

This brings up the most important point. We can think of a canon as the tool of specialists or as a general tool for all of us. I lean toward the general tool interpretation. Specialists are obligated to be familiar with an entire literature within a certain area, and would probably be inclined to pick out a game-changing paper, thus bringing us back to the pedestal conception of canon. But I think to the non-specialist these papers don’t resonate as effectively without the necessary background knowledge. A well-chosen canon will allow those who know it to be familiar enough with the terrain to speak competently about it, even if they can’t achieve “wonk” status, and thus be a receptive and discerning audience in areas outside their specialty.

Also, at least from my perspective, the selection of canonical works should focus on familiarity with history rather than methodology. I know there are many who disagree, but I’m of the opinion that unless you know the history, you’re doomed to making absurd statements; cleverness cannot save you. This has been a priority of mine, especially since teaching my intro class last semester. So, rather than start out in an area I’m really familiar with, I’d like to start with something I’m semi-familiar with, but in which I still ought to be much better schooled: 19th century physics.

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