3QD: Our very own annus mirabilis

This isn’t the first time universities have shut down from fear of pestilence. In 1665, “it pleased the Almighty God in his just severity to visit this towne of Cambridge with the plague of pestilence”, and Cambridge University was closed. Students were sent home, and all public gatherings were canceled. Some students arranged to meet with tutors over that time, but we can suspect that a good number of students simply went home, forgot about their studies entirely, prayed fervently, and followed whatever strategies they could to lessen the chance of death.

More here….

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3QD: Thoughts on Killing a Dog

Last week we had our dog put down. It was time. She was getting old and facing some serious neurological difficulties. The tipping point was a pair of severe seizures in the middle of the night, spaced about a minute apart. I know that seizures can trigger more seizures, and as I was trying to help ease her through the second one, I was thinking “What if this is it? What if she keeps seizing until she dies?” and I wondered whether I would have the nerve to strangle her myself rather than let her die in that horrible way. Thankfully, I was not put to that test. She came out of the second seizure, and stumbled around blind for the rest of the night, trying to escape from the dark hole she thought she was in.

The rest of the essay is here.

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3QD: Reflections on It-ing and Thou-ing

We find ourselves always in the middle of an experience. But it’s what we do next – how we characterize the experience – that lays down a host of important and almost subterranean conditions. Am I sitting in a chair, gazing out the dusty window into a world of sunlight, trees, and snow? Am I meditating on the nature of experience? Am I praying? Am I simply spacing out? Depending on which way I parse whatever the hell I’m up to, my experience shifts from something ineffable (or at any rate, not currently effed) to something meaningful and determinate, festooned with many other conversational hooks and openings: “enjoying nature”, “introspecting”, “conversing with God”, “resting”, “procrastinating”, and so on. Putting the experience into words tells me what to do with it next.

Essay here

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3QD: Conversation with a Genie

Essay here.

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Back to 3QuarksDaily

After a bit of a break, I’m going to resume contributing monthly essays at 3QuarksDaily. The first essay is now up, alongside the fascinating essays, poems, and insights from the other contributors.

How To Be Kind

“There’s only one rule I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” —Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Despite Vonnegut’s strong counsel to babies entering the world, kindness seems to be in short supply. Little wonder. Our news media portray to us a world of power politics, corporate greed, murders, and cruel policies which are anything but kind. Our popular forms of entertainment, much more often than not, are stories about battles that shock and thrill us and gratify our lust for bloody vengeance, leaving no room for wimpy, kind sentiments. Success is advertised to us as requiring harsh discipline, dedication, and focus, and kindness, it appears, need not apply. Even though we all like to give and receive kindnesses, they seem to play no role in our political, social, and cultural economies.

The rest here.

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The impact of Boris Hessen

Reading: Gerardo Ienna and Giulia Rispoli, “Boris Hessen at the Crossroads of Science and Ideology from International Circulation to the Soviet Context”, Society and Politics, 2019, 13:37-63.

[These are just some preliminary notes on a very complex story I am only beginning to understand. I was introduced to the topic through discussion of a Facebook post by Martin Lenz.]

If Boris Hessen is known among historians today, it is primarily for playing a foundational role in launching “externalist” views in the history of science, or paying close attention to the social, political, and economic forces at work in the development of scientific theories. In a 1931 lecture presented at a conference in London, Hessen argued that Newton’s physics was inextricably bound up with a burgeoning early modern capitalism (“The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”). It was a Marxist exposition of Newtonianism, and it forcefully challenged the received opinion that Newton and his cohort were simply a bunch of politically neutral boys interested in the truth for truth’s sake. Hessen’s work led directly to Robert K. Merton’s dissertation and subsequent work which expounded “the Merton thesis”, which specifically claimed that early modern science in England had a lot to do with Protestantism, and generally claimed that, even in intellectual history, it’s not only ideas that matter.

But there is much more to Hessen than this. A short history: Hessen was born in modern-day Ukraine in 1893. He studied physics at St. Petersburg and Edinburgh, where he developed an interest in the history of science.  In 1914 he returned to Russia, and a few years later joined the Red Army to fight in the revolution. He continued his studies in physics and history in Moscow and in 1928 moved to Berlin to collaborate with Richard von Mises. Von Mises directed Hessen’s attention to Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle, which was to prove fateful. He returned to Moscow in 1930 and became engaged in philosophical controversies over whether a good Communist could also support Einstein and be a Machian idealist. He lost these arguments – in the sense that he was accused by the Communist Party of conspiracy in 1934, and was secretly tried, convicted, and executed in 1936. He was officially rehabilitated in 1956, which probably would have pleased him had he not been dead already for 20 years.

It may seem surprising that anyone could be convicted and executed for being an idealist, but the dialectical space of the Soviet Union was a treacherous place. Earlier in the century, Lenin had argued that attempts to ground scientific knowledge in an individual’s fluctuating experience leads to the conclusion that scientific theories are necessarily open to revision as experience demands, which meant that Marxism in particular was open to revision. Hessen and his colleagues were arguing that Machian idealism (which is basically a ramped-up version of Berkeley’s idealism) was in fact a kind of lawbound materialism, inasmuch as “matter” could be  reduced to measurements and experience, and bound by lawful regularities. But in the estimation of Stalin’s courts, these arguments were insufficient – or, one speculates, the simple fact that Lenin’s word was not sufficient for these uppity philosophers was reason enough to convict them of something.

The effect of Hessen’s 1931 lecture on anglophone historians and philosophers of science was complex. On the one hand, there emerged several varieties of externalist approaches to the history of science, emphasizing economics, religion, culture, psychology, and politics in varying degrees. Some (e.g., John Desmond Bernal) held to a strictly Marxist line, putting economic considerations in front of everything else, while others (e.g., George Norman Clark and Robert K. Merton) assembled multi-causal explanations of scientific development. On the other hand, in opposition to Hessen, other historians and philosophers (e.g., Alexandre Koyré) leaned toward internalist explanations, maintaining that it was clear-eyed empiricism and logic that pushed science forward, and social factors could be safely ignored. Inasmuch as such internalist accounts were rooted in conceiving individuals as behaviorally free from social determination, they served to promote the ideology of liberal capitalism. It is not surprising that, for the most part, internalist approaches to the history and philosophy of science dominated anglophone academics for the better part of the 20th century. The principal exception was the sociology of scientific knowledge program (SSK), founded in Edinburgh by David Edge, advanced in following years by Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin, and Simon Schaffer.

I *think* it’s safe to say that the principal holdout nowadays for thoroughly internalist historical approaches is a sect of historians of philosophy, trained in philosophy departments with very little exposure to history. But even here, there is a steadily advancing wave of more externalist or “contextual” approaches, though these approaches still typically steer clear of economics, politics, and culture. They are contextualist only in the sense that they pay attention to lesser-read texts published in the period they study. So their subjects are still free, disembodied minds, though these minds have read more broadly than imagined previously.

Posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning | 8 Comments

Is there such a thing as the history of philosophy?

(Reading Christia Mercer. “The Contextualist Revolution in Early Modern Philosophy.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 57, no. 3 (2019): 529-548.)

Christia Mercer has revisited the methodological battles that have waged among scholars of the history of philosophy. She uses as her starting point a 2015 exchange between Michael Della Rocca and Dan Garber. Garber charges Della Rocca with being engaged in “rational reconstruction” of Spinoza’s Ethics. What this means is that Della Rocca is not concerned so much with Spinoza’s historical context as with the integrity of Spinoza’s thought. With such an approach, Della Rocca is prone to creating new arguments on Spinoza’s behalf, and considering objections Spinoza never conceived, in an attempt to push Spinoza’s philosophical system to its greatest philosophical potential. Garber, by contrast, is more interested in situating historical philosophers in their social and political contexts, without caring so much about whether the resulting interpretation of their views makes for “legitimate” philosophies, as judged by contemporary standards. 

Mercer’s main claim is that these two apparently different approaches really have more in common than one might initially think, and that since the 1980s there has been a decisive trend among historians of philosophy to pay closer attention to both texts and contexts. Until the 1980s, the prevalent methodology could be seen as “extreme appropriationism”, where so-called historians of philosophy in fact did not care at all about historical questions, and instead raided the works of dead philosophers for new ideas whose value rested in their applicability to the philosophical questions currently en vogue. But steadily over the following decades, according to Mercer, philosophers began to care about issues of translation, and so historical contexts, and so the relevance of other thinkers then important but now forgotten. Historians of philosophy as a group traveled in the direction of obeying a “Getting Things Right Constraint” (GTRC), which means paying attention both to historical context as well as philosophical intelligibility, with different individual philosophers perhaps placing more weight on one dimension than the other. In short: historians of philosophy have gotten much better at their craft, and as a whole are providing accounts and interpretations that are both historically informed and philosophically fruitful.

In short, a methodological revolution has come upon us like a thief in the night:

As the philosophical advantages of a non-appropriationist approach became increasingly evident and as innovative early modernists exposed the richness of the period’s philosophy, contextualism and its commitment to the GTRC gained a momentum that could not be stopped. Early modernists are now committed contextualists in that they aim to explicate as clearly as possible the authentic views of a wide range of historical texts, although they differ in the skills used and projects selected to attain that goal.

Mercer adds a further interest that historians of philosophy would do well to consider, which is to explore the ways in which historical philosophers, in their particular contexts, may have light to shed upon social and political problems of our own day. Some things, alas, never change; and understanding how Spinoza or Wollstonecraft responded to problems of their own day may give us further material to consider as we grapple with our own, and especially issues of diversity and inclusion.

I am always heartened to see someone offer a friendly, ecumenical approach, and so am cheered to read Mercer’s insights into recent history of history of philosophy. I think she is right to see that scholarship has gotten much better as a whole over recent decades, and that there is room within the GTRC for a variety of approaches, questions, and methods. But I would like to add to her insights some further issues about academic disciplines that her account does not address.

I think the bigger question that lies below Mercer’s discussion of methodological disagreements is the question of whether philosophy, and history of philosophy in particular, is to be counted among the humanities. It is a question about the sort of scholarly activity philosophy is: is it in the same general category that literature and history fall within, or is it something else? Historians and scholars of historical literature do work that often overlaps. An historian studying early 17th century London and a literary scholar studying Shakespeare will read each others’ works with great delight and profit, and can expect to have interesting disagreements. Some historians of early modern philosophy will be able to join in this discussion, especially those who are studying Francis Bacon in contextual fashion. But many others will twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines until a properly philosophical topic comes up for discussion, like the adequacy of empirical induction as a basis for science. The first group places philosophy within the humanities, and is interested in reading literature and learning history in order to deepen their understanding of the philosophers of the period. The second group cannot find much of interest in all this talk of guild formation and Atlantic trade routes. Their concern is over something the historian and literature scholar are ignoring: namely, whether Bacon (or whomever) managed to come up with anything of genuine philosophical interest, and not “merely” of historical or literary interest.

The “humanities” as a group of disciplines was a 19th century invention, and it has never been exactly clear where philosophy fits. Practically, of course, the academic departments have been shoe-horned into colleges of humanities, mainly because there has been nowhere else to put them. Several subdisciplines of philosophy – like metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and philosophies of action, mind, and science – really have nothing to do with other humanistic disciplines. Really nothing: the separation is entire and complete. History of philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics are mixed cases, depending on the sorts of interests of the individual scholars. A philosopher interested in the ways in which gender has been portrayed in films will have much to discuss with humanists, as will a philosopher interested in the politics of race. But a philosopher interested in the legitimacy of Rawls’ theory of justice or rule-based utilitarianism can expect to have little to say to other humanists, and little to learn from them. (For the most part; again, individual types of interest vary considerably.) 

When it comes to the history of philosophy, this disciplinary aporia gets played out in disputes over methodology. Questions over “the right way to do history of philosophy” are in fact questions about the sort of discipline philosophy is. Normally questions over methodology can get settled at least somewhat by trying to see which methodology yields the best results. But what is at issue here is what counts as best results. Do we want a richer understanding of the world in which Spinoza crafted his philosophy, and why his context led him to raise some questions while ignoring others? Or do we want to explore the conceptual space in which Spinoza carved out a distinctive niche? The answer here depends on the philosopher, and what gets them excited, or at least which group of peers they are trying to engage.

In this way, history of philosophy (and perhaps also ethics and political philosophy) come to resemble “multidisciplinary disciplines” like religious studies, international studies, or gender studies. There isn’t a single disciplinary model, no shared methodology, which brings unity to these areas of study. That is not to say they are not valuable, of course, but they are not, properly speaking, disciplines. They are instead “areas of study” admitting of different kinds of questions and different methods. A scholar in religious studies may be more of a historian, or more of a sociologist, in terms of method and approach. The same is true of historians of philosophy, as they may be more historical or more philosophical. Just as it would be futile to try to establish a single method for religious studies, it would be futile to do so for history of philosophy.

(That being said, I will state my own preference. I think philosophers ought to be humanists, mainly because that suits my own inclinations. It also is a good idea, I think, for academic programs to try to integrate with others, where possible; and, frankly, no one else has much interest in the non-humanistic endeavors of philosophers. But this latter point is merely one of strategy in the politics of academia.)

In all, I suppose this leads me to a question I would like Mercer and others to reflect upon – namely, whether there really is a discipline of history of philosophy, which has its own distinctive kind of methodology. I suspect the answer is no, which means we should stop looking for the right way to do it. Let’s just do it, and see what we learn.

Posted in Items of the academy / learning | 2 Comments