Niall Ferguson’s Hegelian aspirations

SquaretowerI have just started reading Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower. This comes after reading some of his other books, and hearing him in interviews. He’s an extraordinarily well-read, well-spoken, and intelligent fellow – and, I gather, viewed with some hostility by academics because he sells a lot of books and is a swaggering conservative. But I’m still looking for a critical engagement with his views that goes beyond disparaging these qualities.

The Square and the Tower is a history of the influence of networks, which means looking not so much at what people try to do and believe so much as at how the connections among people amplify, dampen, exalt, or destroy what people try to do and believe. People can be connected in various ways, in different sorts of hierarchies or in different styles of networks. Ferguson’s question is: to what extent does the structure or form of a social network affect the advance or decay of a culture or civilization?

As I said, I’ve only started the book, but I’ve been struck early on by the Hegelian dimensions of it. (It’s no coincidence that students and I are studying Hegel now, so I’m likely to see Hegel everywhere. Bear with me.) According to Hegel, if we want to make sense of human history, we need to understand the logic of evolving human structures. For history is not just one damn thing after another, but a story that makes sense; and if we want to grasp the plot, we need to understand how the elements of history – ideas, institutions, and the occasional great person – follow from previous elements and give rise to future ones. Once again: there is a logic in history, and historians will always come up short so long as they ignore that logic.

the-square-and-the-tower-by-niall-ferguson-17-638Ferguson’s book is peppered with diagrams of kinds of networks, and how they compare along various dimensions. Some networks are resilient, and some are fragile; some rely critically upon a few hubs, and some are “scale free”, or more equal in terms of how well-connected each node is. The upshot seems to be that, if you want to understand human history, you need to bear in mind the logic of the structure of human networks. (*) For example, Luther’s attempt at reformation would have been forgotten had it not been for the ways in which the printing press extended and amplified the networks of proto-Protestant people; and the plague spread much faster in Europe than in China precisely because of Europe’s (relatively) scale-free networks.

I nearly fell out of my Hegelian armchair when Ferguson at various points characterized ancient China as a rigid hierarchy in which only the emperor was allowed flexibility; ancient Greece as a network of limited flexibility; and early modern Europe as one with such flexibility as to allow for the emergence of science and global trade. Actually, Ferguson’s claims more careful and nuanced than this hasty sketch suggests, but I’m putting it this simplistic way because his conclusions mirror Hegel’s bold claims that in China one man was free, while in Greece some men were free, and in Germany (of course) all men are free. The close parallel between Ferguson and Hegel makes me wonder to what extent the form of an author’s approach determines the conclusions they are likely to draw. Does the structure of the network in an historian’s own head determine the kind of story that gets told?

I doubt that Ferguson is eating the entire Hegelian burrito, and prophesying a grand telos for human history. But he might claim that, given the logic of networks, there is a most-stable sort of social structure which, once we get into, we’re unlikely to get out of. We’ll see.

I’m sure I’ll write about the book again as soon as I finish it, but right now I’m having a grand time thinking through the broad territory Ferguson is taking on.

(*) Sid Meier’s Civilization V provides some modeling of  a society’s formal structure in its “Choose an Ideology” mechanism.

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“Are students snowflakes?” on Access Utah

DQmbemu1Wx7EadWkPC8C4bg6oe2BYEhi1RFHrBctFMhmW2FHost Tom Williams interviewed my colleagues Erica Holberg and Harrison Kleiner and me about the alleged “snowflake” phenomenon on campuses (students who can’t bear to hear any claims that run counter to their own values). Interview here. Certainly there are episodes which sound plenty snowflakey here or there; one question is whether these episodes are indicative of any general trend. A related question is what to do when the cherished ideal of free speech on campus collides with the more sensationalistic and irresponsible speech that seems to be on the rise – white nationalists, xenophobic ranters, and so on. It’s always fun to be on Tom’s show!

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Essay on philosophy and the humanities on Aeon

By the title, “Why philosophers should hang out at the humanists’ parties” – here.

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Work in progress

I’m slowly working on a book that tries to integrate what I’m learning about history with what I know (or think I know!) about early modern philosophy, and thought I’d post an excerpt that covers, in a general way, putting the two domains together. Comments welcome!


The interested reader is struck by the sharp differences between the histories of science told by historians and those told by scientists. Historians see their subjects in the same way I have portrayed them: as individuals both insightful and benighted, acting in complicated circumstances with mixed motives. In Shapin and Schaffer’s pivotal work, Leviathan and the Air Pump (Princeton 1985), for example, we encounter figures who are not simply concerned with the most coherent interpretation of experiments conducted with the new air pump. We meet Robert Boyle and the newly-formed Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, and discover their interest in establishing an independent, non-Royal society that can stand apart from religious and political intrigue and provide accounts of nature that are not inflected with political strategy. We also meet Thomas Hobbes, who knew better. There can be no such thing as scientists operating in a political vacuum. A society which tries to establish facts independent of royal pronouncements is by that very fact a challenge to the crown. A society in the 17th century that insulates itself against religious discourse is about as Protestant (specifically, as Nonconformist) as a society can be.

Shapin and Shaffer’s work was revolutionary because it provided a model for historical inquiries into science. To understand the battle between Boyle and Hobbes, we need never appeal to our advanced knowledge of “what is really going on” inside the bell jar. After all, Boyle and Hobbes had no access to that knowledge; it was precisely that knowledge they were trying to establish. We focus on the ideas, tensions and conflicts that were in fact impinging upon them at the time, as revealed in letters and published texts. Historians of science need not attend to the “true” scientific story any more than historians of politics should attend to the “true” conclusions of political science. Scientific truth, in other words, is not an historical agent. We are left with human motivations, politics, religion, etc, which are sufficient on their own to determine human trajectories.

But turn now to Steven Weinberg’s more recent history of science, To Explain the World (Harper 2015). Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics who took an interest in the history of his subject, taught courses about it, and subsequently wrote this book. In the history of science as Weinberg presents it, truth is very much an agent. It runs as a silver thread through his chapters as Kepler, Galileo, and Newton manage to get some things right, and some things wrong. We find, from this perspective, that both Bacon and Descartes are quite overrated, as they did not manage to get much right. Galileo and Newton are lone geniuses who were somehow able to transcend the murky thought of their times and hook some genuine insights onto that silver thread. A footnote reassures us that even though Newton did experiment with alchemy, he was really only trying to do chemistry, and his work “thus did not represent an abandonment of science” (218). Befuddled philosophers criticized Newtonian gravity as an occult force, insisting that scientific theories should be founded on pure reason, but (perhaps by being good students of Newton) “we have learned to give this up” (219). The last third of Weinberg’s book is devoted to technical notes which lay out the truth toward which our heroes aspired. It is a final cause toward which both the book and the history of science itself are drawn, pulling each noteworthy scientist inexorably toward the truth as we know it.

Well. It is no difficult task to show the inadequacies of such a history. Galileo and Newton were geniuses, but far from lone; no scientific advancement has ever emerged Minerva-like from a single Olympian head. The enormous influence of Bacon and Descartes is of course quite distinct from the question of how much they got right – and summing up their influence as “overrated” underestimates the power of ideas, right or wrong, to shape the development of science. No, Newton the alchemist was not merely groping toward modern chemistry; and, no, the criticism of gravity as an occult force did not arise merely from rationalistic philosophers who should have known better (indeed, it troubled Newton himself no end). And, as Weinberg must surely know, final causes rarely provide much in the way of explanation these days.

The larger question posed by histories like Weinberg’s is to what extent a history of science – and, by extension, a history of philosophy – should concern itself with scientific or philosophical truth. For it is undeniable that, when Boyle and his Royal Society brethren placed a lit candle and a mouse under bell jars and commenced to pump out the air, the candle went out and the mouse died. It is undeniable that bodies do fall with the rate Galileo predicted, and that one can derive Kepler’s laws from Newton’s account of gravity. And it is furthermore undeniable that we can explain these results because – no matter how it may cause an historian to squirm – we know what’s true. We know that vacua exist, and we have an excellent (if still incomplete) grasp of gravity, and we are wizards of mathematics. Pace Shapin and Schaffer, the natural knowledge we have today has always been an historical agent: Newton’s inverse-square law of gravity held (in good approximation) before Newton was born, and indeed even before any humans were born. The political and religious factors described by Shapin and Schaffer may have shaped what the early scientists did and believed, but so too did the very nature of the world – a nature we now know most impressively.

So: what hath Pasadena to do with Athens? In other words, what role does scientific truth play in the history of ideas? Obviously, historians who are trying to uncover the political and religious tensions exerted upon a figure must be concerned with some sort of truth; they would spend far less time in the archives if they didn’t. Is there any principled reason for paying such close attention to social truths while ignoring the truths of nature? The truths of nature may not have been known by the agents, but then again, neither were the agents fully aware of all the social forces acting upon them. Moreover, forces (whether social or natural) need not be known by agents in order for the forces to act upon them. Vacua were every bit as present in the 17th century laboratory as were the religious and political worries of the day, no matter how many people in the room denied their presence. And this we ourselves learn through our fallible estimations of the truth, both historical and natural.

The only sensible approach is to let the requirements of the explanation at hand determine what mode of fact we draw upon. If we want to explain why Hobbes so doggedly attacked Boyle’s accounts, we shall have to draw principally upon his political concerns, and we shall have to proceed in similar fashion if we want to understand Boyle’s political irenicism. If we want to explain why both Hobbes’s accounts and Boyle’s accounts ended up taking on the particular shapes they did, we shall have to appeal to what really happened in those bell jars, and how what really happened figured into the accounts they developed. We know what they were seeing, even apart from what they thought they were seeing. Generally historians of science cannot hope to explain all that they wish to explain without drawing from both history and science. And why should anyone want to traverse the fields of the past without both eyes open?

The same considerations carry over into the history of philosophy, though the value of truth here may be replaced by the value of explanatory adequacy. For my money, Wittgenstein was right when he insisted that philosophy does not have its own facts. Philosophy must outsource the creation of knowledge to the natural and social sciences, as philosophers do not possess any special methods or avenues of insight that surpass those of other empirical inquirers. What philosophers contribute is an exceptionally clear understanding of system mechanics: how a body of general claims might fit together into a systematic unity, and possess both explanatory powers and weak points at which objections and counterexamples can be leveled. To the extent that a science wishes to provide a system of nature, and not just an assemblage of ad hoc explanations, it is helpful to have on hand a “systems engineer” – a philosopher – to assess the integrity of the system, and to locate explanatory gaps in the system.


John Locke, divider of wheat

Thus when we try to understand and explain how John Locke distinguishes between ideas of primary qualities (the ideas that match how things really are) and ideas of secondary qualities (the ideas that don’t), from within our own experience, we must draw upon something more than an understanding of historical context. We need to draw upon our own experience, and our own critical reflections upon the account Locke gives. Locke claims that no matter how we alter an object, we cannot take away the fact that it has some sort of shape and size and state of motion. But isn’t it also true that we cannot take away the fact that it has some sort of color and taste and texture? Locke answers that, if we continually divide a grain of wheat, at some point its taste (at least) disappears. But then he also claims that, if we are very diligent in our dividing, the shape and size of the wheat-parts may become eventually “insensible”. But then why should we not equally conclude that the taste of the wheat is still in the wheat-particle, but is now merely “insensible”? This sort of critical reflection upon Locke’s account in no way relies upon 17th-century accounts of wheat; nor does Locke mean his account to be mired in his own locale. He is trying to discern facts of human experience, which is ours as much as his. The philosopher who reads Locke must take his attempts at explanation not merely as historical artifacts, but as explanations aiming to explain our experience as well as his own.

On the other hand, when we turn to the more general explanation of why Locke is trying to establish a distinction between reality and mere appearance on the basis of experience anyone may consult, it is there that we may find ourselves turning to Locke’s own historical circumstance, and possibly his interest in providing a Protestant epistemology. Is it an accident that Locke employs wheat as an example, when it is wheat that makes the bread served in holy communion? Is there anything really in the wheat but size and shape and motion? Can we discern, through experience, any traces of Christ’s body – or is the idea of the host only an idea of a secondary property, existing only in the mind of the communicant? History gives us the answer Locke was angling toward, and a wider view of his motivations.

When Locke or any of these other figures were writing, it is fair to say that history, philosophy, and nature were all guiding their hands. It should come as no surprise then that the historian of ideas must appeal to all these forces, as they are relevant, in explaining why they wrote what they did.

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Philosophy as enchantment?

[What follows is a version of an address recently given at the Mountain-Plains Philosophy Conference, where a good time was had by all.]

39749-004-144CF988In a lecture at the University of Munich in 1919 – the year before he died – Max Weber spoke to an audience of students about “Science as a Vocation”. His remarks are frank and clinical, describing with perfect candor the difficulties and disappointments students will face if they choose the academic life. In particular, they will have to get used to being passed over for promotion, to making only tiny contributions to their disciplines, to pressures of attracting larger and larger enrollments so as to fill up the tuition coffers, and to living generally in poverty and obscurity. Moreover, the great ideas and passion that inspired them to be scientists in the first place won’t find any expression in work they do – at least, not if they are good scientists. For while any science always carries along its own presuppositions – particularly, presuppositions of what is important, valuable, or worthwhile – science itself cannot establish anything about how we should live or what our lives should be about. “No science is absolutely free from presuppositions, and no science can prove its fundamental value to the man who rejects these presuppositions” (153). At the most, one might say, science can provide hypothetical imperatives, or connections that say “if you want this, do that”, or practical advice about the most efficient means to given ends. But it cannot give us those ends.

When it comes to figuring out what ends we should take for our own, Weber turns to philosophy. But here again he does not expect that philosophy will establish what values we should adopt. Rather, philosophy will illuminate and make explicit what the options are, and how they fit in or do not fit in with other presuppositions we might be lugging around with us. In the end, it is up to us to establish our values:

And if you remain faithful to yourself, you will certainly come to certain final conclusions that subjectively make sense. This much, in principle at least, can be accomplished. Philosophy, as a special discipline, and the essentially philosophical discussions of principles in the other sciences attempt to achieve this. Thus, if we are competent in our pursuit (which must be presupposed here) we can force the individual, or at least we can help him, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct. (151-2)

Weber recommends that if his students become teachers, they should not try to push their own values upon their students, but should lay bare the available choices and help their students to choose for themselves. (One cannot avoid hearing in this the great disillusionment stemming from Germany’s loss in WWI.)

The more general backdrop to this discussion of science and values is Weber’s recognition that his world, the modern world, is disenchanted. “One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means” (139). But once we know the world to be disenchanted, we deprive the objects of our knowledge of the magical power required to legislate our life values. No empirical measurement of the world will tell us how things should be, as Hume famously observed. At this point, according to Weber, we are left turning to either “the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations” to find our values. In short: we either make the grounding of value ineffable, or else we base it upon how good it feels to be nice to other people, and we assume there’s some genuine value in that – even if we can’t demonstrate it scientifically.

Scientists who go ahead and believe that there is a supernatural order, or supernatural values, will have to pay for this extravagance with an intellectual sacrifice, according to Weber: they will have to kill off their scientific presupposition that the world is disenchanted. If they do not disown this presupposition – if intellectuals want to have the world both ways, both enchanted and disenchanted, they will be living a lie:

For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. (155)

In other words, any scientist or intellectual of the modern age who wants to hold on to overarching values needs to come clean: either admit to having an enchanted view of the world, or sacrifice intellectual integrity.

I am interested in asking about the situation of philosophy in the dialectic that Weber proposed. I will be proposing a trilemma. Is philosophy in the same boat as science, as Weber saw it – meaning that philosophy, thoroughly applied, is an engine for thorough and complete disenchantment? Or can philosophy provide some sort of grounding for value, which Weber thought was not possible? Or, going in the opposite direction: should philosophy possibly be in the business of providing enchantment, and thereby providing overarching values? In exploring this terrain, I’ll first look at the problem of disenchantment in general terms, and then turn to two philosophers: Daniel Dennett, as a voice of disenchantment, and Peter Sloterdijk, as a voice of enchantment.

Continue reading

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Philosophy and its history

Philosophy and its History: aims and methods in the study of early modern philosophy, edited by Mogens Laerke, Justin E. H. Smith, and Eric Schliesser (Oxford UP, 2013).

For the longest time, philosophers were interested in their own history only to the extent that nuggets from the past might help us with this or that problem in the present. This led to numerous “rational reconstructions” of the past – ways in which long-dead philosopher X anticipated live-and-kicking theory Y – which were, needless to say, not so much history as a form of fan fiction.


Duveneck, The Philosopher in Meditation

This volume celebrates the fact that philosophers are beginning to see the errors of their ways, and treat their own history more responsibly. One rallying cry that the editors and contributors keep circling around to comes from Quentin Skinner: “No agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done.” (Though, curiously, Gadamer makes no appearance in the volume, despite his account of understanding a text as readers merging horizons with authors.) Skinner’s claim is pinned to “contextualism”, which is put at odds with “appropriationism”, which was the old nugget-mining style. It is difficult to see how anyone might pursue both strategies at once: “historians of philosophy are caught between their own Scylla and Charybdis, between either being untrue to the aims and intentions of the historical figures or abandoning the project of philosophy altogether in order to engage in social and cultural history, paleography, or the minute forensic work of the archival researcher” (2).

I’ll offer a jumbled set of reflections, not on all the essays, but on a few that just happened to strike my fancy.

Mogens Laerke argues for history of philosophy that is unapologetically contextualist – as an independent sub-discipline, accountable to no other, concerned with correct historical interpretations, and getting to the real philosophical thoughts of the authors. He offers a terrific example of Toland’s interpretation of Spinoza, which must be grasped in the context of a debate among himself, Leibniz, and Johann Georg Wachter regarding pantheism, mechanism, and substantial forms (16-17): “Determining the meaning of some text is then nothing but determining the role the text plays as a concrete intervention in some historical debate and situating the text in a complex network of intellectual positions actually in play at the time” (17). One might sum this up as: re-discovering the original conversation. But Laerke argues this does not fit Skinner’s criterion, as authors may not be fully aware of their contexts, and the various roles their own texts might play in the conversations around them.

Justin E.H. Smith offers several nifty names for the sort of Platonic realm that must be presupposed by those of the appropriationist school: “immediately accessible storehouse of ideas” (30), “timeless repository” (31), and “context-independent ideal thread that spans the ages and unites philosophers across the centuries” (33). (He missed out on my favorite: Spinoza’s “fixed and eternal things”.) He instead thinks of history of philosophy as a kind of archeology of texts (or other artifacts), taking shards of this and that in order to try to guess what thinkers of the past were in fact trying to do. One presupposition we must drop is the one saying that the term “philosophy” itself has existed in a timeless repository: “what we call ‘philosophy’ today is really a mixed bag of leftover questions from various historical legacies” (39). Smith argues for a much more expansive and eclectic view of what historians of philosophy – or better, historians of all sorts of heady stuff – should be up to, which I summarize as at play in the fields of the past. He offers four very different case studies on Leibniz’s view of organic bodies and the origins of microscopy, substantial forms and corpuscularianism in early chemistry, Locke’s collection of botanical specimens, and the connection between Kantian forms of intuition and the reform of calendars. The real conclusion of Smith’s essay, I think, is that immersing yourself in the actual controversies of the past is so damn fun and interesting that one has no need of any further motivation to make old ideas relevant to today’s conversations. Smith follows contemporary archeologists in calling his view “processualism”, but – well, eww. That’s the sort of term one should scrape off one’s shoe at the earliest convenience.

Ursula Goldenbaum navigates her first-rate Ship of the Line alongside the appropriationists’ little caravel and lets fly with a detailed and fascinating unpacking of Kant’s famous claim that enlightenment is man’s escape from his “self-incurred tutelage”.  In short: if one does not understand the connection between selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit and the sermons of Johann Joachim Spalding, the German translation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Lutherans’ views of Jews who did not convert to Christianity, and the link German theologians made between being enlightened and accepting Jesus Christ as savior – as evidenced in Christian Wilhelm Dohm’s book, On Civil Improvement of the Jews and Johann Salomo Sempler’s widely influential philosophy of history – well then, one does not really know what one is talking about. Goldenbaum observes that “ideas are found or created by human beings when they are needed, just as tools are invented or produced when needed” (72), and she sees her work as like that of a detective, examining those tools for fingerprints and reasoning her way to the best account of the evidence available from the scene of the crime.

Joanne Waugh and Roger Ariew neatly turn around Plato’s elevation of philosophy over myth. Plato – at least on a surface reading – did not regard myth and poetry as secure pipelines to the truth, and believed that the exercise of philosophical reason did grasp the timeless truths. But analytic philosophers have in effect mythologized philosophy’s past; and in keeping with Plato the Platonist, we ought to resist that mythology of more recent vintage, and see for ourselves what the past really does contain, through careful attention paid to contexts and texts that are known less well now than they were then.

Leo Catana traces the history of the view of philosophy as “problem based”, which means philosophy as the effort to figure out what properties really do belong to what objects. The history is complicated, but the view was cemented into place by Johann Jacob Brucker and Christian August Brandis in their histories of philosophical systems and their distinctions between “internal” and “external” questions raised by those systems. But Catana’s own effort to remind us of the historicity of seeing philosophy as problem-based is enough to encourage us to know a bit more about the genealogy of our presuppositions, and to prompt us to gain some training in historiography (133).

Eric Schliesser offers a spacious playground of ideas containing a locomotive (a notion of philosophical prophecy), a steamroller (Nagel), a winsome yacht (Russell), a lawnmower (Boole), and a weed wacker (Schlick), and my mind just isn’t sufficiently capacious to take it all in and see what it means, but along the way he remarks that “our problems may well be deliberately caused, in part, by past philosophers, even if the way we articulate our problems would be unfamiliar to them” (220). This introduces an extremely valuable consideration, that our problems are mutated flies that were shoved into the bottle long ago, and shewing them the way out might require some knowledge of how they got there in the first place. A similar theme is presented by Mary Domski, who follows Margaret Wilson in arguing that studying the history of philosophy can help us to mark out the presuppositions we may not know we are carrying with us, as well as identify “new” ways of thinking about our current problems that were in fact thought up a long time ago.

Tad Schmaltz carefully thinks through the relation of history of science to science, and any lessons that might be learned regarding the relation of history of philosophy to philosophy. He thinks there is a big difference of emphasis: history of science is history of science, whereas history of philosophy is history of philosophy (315). Historians of philosophy, that is to say, focus more upon the intellectual contexts of their subjects, and not as much upon socioeconomic and political pressures. That’s not to say anyone should be ignorant of the latter, but it is to say that their activities, as historians, are ordered with respect ideas and arguments, not events. And there is of course value in this.

But in all this there is some humdrum history and institutionalizing in our discipline that goes unremarked. For a couple of generations in the mid-twentieth century, history of philosophy was seen as irrelevant to philosophy. (Quine’s remark, quoted by Schmaltz quoting MacIntyre, reflects this attitude: “There are two kinds of philosophers – those interested in philosophy, and those interested in the history of philosophy”.) Gregory Vlastos and Jonathan Bennett managed to get some philosophers interested in history by trying to show that the Great Dead could be regarded as competent colleagues, when read in the right way. So there arose in universities just the sort of anachronistic, appropriationist history of philosophy decried by the contributors to this volume. But at the same time, the college courses taught by these appropriationist historians became part of the core courses in the undergraduate curriculum: at the bare minimum, philosophy majors are expected to study logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and courses in ancient and modern philosophy – taught most frequently in the appropriationist style. In these history courses, majors learn the basic schools of thought, basic objections and replies to those schools, and what might be called “system mechanics”: the dynamics of putting forward a comprehensive view, criticizing it, and defending it against assault.

These history courses play the same “methods” role to this day. When I put together a course in early modern philosophy, part of me wants to go “off reservation” and insist that students read More, Erasmus, Montaigne, Comenius, Bacon, Toland, and so on. But another part of me cries out, “What?! A philosophy major who has not studied Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume???” (And this is not even to consider the importance of reading neglected philosophers who weren’t white males.) But since there are only 15 weeks to play with, a decision needs to be made – though inventive compromises are always possible – and usually the methodological interest wins out.

So our students, from the beginning, are adopted into the appropriationist school, and if they go on to graduate school, they may very well not be argued out of it – though it is steadily becoming more probable that they will at some point, given the gradual change overtaking the sub-discipline, represented by the contributions to this volume. But those who focus on philosophy, and not history of philosophy, will probably make do with the appropriationist history they learned as undergraduates, and they are likely to regard the work of their historically-minded colleagues as not properly philosophical unless they are in tune with the appropriationist theme.

Well, anyway. Revolutions take time, and maybe there will come a day when philosophers are trained up in the history of ideas, and concern themselves with integrating their logical skills with larger currents of themes and ideas across the humanities and the sciences. This volume is a welcomed nudge in that wholesome direction.

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The making of the humanities

I just returned from a multidisciplinary conference on “meta” issues in the humanities: how various humanistic disciplines have shifted over time, various assumptions made or discarded by academic practitioners, and basically any of the stuff you’d come to find if you took humanists and their work as your object of study. The conference featured historians, literature scholars, art historians, and even a few philosophers. It was held on the gracious grounds of Somerville College in Oxford.

It was a welcome chance for people from different disciplines to see what one another is up to. Many of the comments or questions had the form, “I see you’re talking a lot about X. But have you thought about Y as well?” It really was a model of people trying to help round out each other’s perspectives.

My own presentation was the drum I’ve been banging on lately: that philosophers need to read more widely and make use of insights from history and the philological disciplines. But I added that philosophers also have something valuable to contribute to everyone else, with their focus on the logic of arguments and “the problem space of problems” – in other words, getting a sense for what is and isn’t possible in trying to grapple with a contentious philosophical issue.  Philosophers need to think more about historical context, and the other humanists need to be less skittish about seeing the same idea popping up in different contexts.

Of course, there was also the requisite field work of sampling cask ales in charming pubs. Cask ales, to the American palate, are generally warm and flat, but one nods appreciatively over each pint, acknowledging that for all one knows, this really is a good beer, temperature and taste notwithstanding. (Truth be told, one must sometimes adopt the same attitude at some conference sessions: warm and flat, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.)

I tacked on a day in London at the end, visiting with a friend/student, and walking all over the place, with respites at the British Library and (naturally) more pubs. One must be diligent in one’s research.

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