Putting history into history of philosophy

If we wish, however, to arrive at an interpretation of a text, an understanding of why its contents are as they are and not otherwise, we are still left with the further task of recovering what the author may have meant by arguing in the precise way he argued. We need, that is, to be able to give an account of what he was doing in presenting his argument: what set of conclusions, what course of action, he was supporting or defending, attacking or repudiating, ridiculing with irony, scorning with polemical silence, and so on and on through the entire gamut of speech-acts embodied in the vastly complex act of intended communication that any work of discursive reasoning may be said to comprise. – Quentin Skinner

martin-luther-9389283-1-402We are coming up on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther making 95 posts to the Church’s Facebook page, and in recognition my home institution is sponsoring a small symposium on the Reformation. A colleague in History put out a call for abstracts, offering the following list for inspiration:

Topics include but are not limited to:

  • Medieval religious reform movements, heresy, or Inquisition
  • The role of language, art, or material culture in reform
  • Environment and reform (e.g. architecture and landscape)
  • Book and manuscript studies
  • Global Reformation
  • Gender and the Reformation
  • Royal Courts and the Reformation
  • Lived experience of ordinary people
  • Reformation and the family
  • Geography and the Reformation

There is something here for any humanist – historians, obviously, but also art historians, literary scholars, librarians, and the broad array of scholars falling under religious studies, European studies, global studies, and gender studies. It is meant to be a big tent, for we’re a friendly bunch out in the rural west, and we don’t like to leave anyone out.

But as a philosopher, even as a supposed historian of philosophy who covers periods from 1500 forward, I saw in this list no obvious entry point, no topic with my name on it, as it were. This isn’t just reflective of my own narrowness and provincialism, but the narrowness and provincialism and character of my discipline as a whole. Philosophers, basically, rarely play with others; and when they do, they tend to play with scientists, and possibly the occasional social scientist; rarely if ever will they play with a humanist.

This is because philosophers generally conceive philosophy as having everything to do with arguments, and having nothing to do with context. This claim will sound nonsensical to a humanist – for how on earth are we supposed to understand an argument without finding it in some text that was written on some occasion with some audience in mind and some motivation behind it? A philosopher’s response to this question might be, “Of course that is so. But if the argument makes sense only in its historical situation, we’re not interested. On the other hand, if it can be airlifted out of that context and explored with our own arsenal of distinctions and analytical tools, then we are all eyes and ears.”

The most thorough articulation of this attitude has been presented by Jonathan Bennett in what he calls “the collegial approach” to the history of philosophy. In this approach, we treat historical philosophers as colleagues down the hall, whose arguments should be subjected to the same scrutiny as any piece published a day or two ago. After all, we don’t explain away our colleagues’s arguments as products of their time, class, and circumstance; instead, we deal with their claims and arguments directly, and judge whether they have gotten things right. In doing this, Bennett urges, we accord historical philosophers with the greatest respect: as colleagues in the very same effort of discerning truth.

Such an approach presupposes that philosophers from different times and places have equal access to a shared domain of ideas, and in this shared domain there are relations of implication and consistency which hold (or fail to hold) objectively. It is a bit like when historians reading Newton’s alchemical works turn to chemistry to help them figure out what Newton was talking about when he referred to the green dragon or the blood of the whore of Babylon. The chemical elements haven’t changed between then and now; so when we head into the lab and see what happens, we are seeing what Newton himself saw. Philosophers head into the concept lab, and see what implies what and what doesn’t, and when they do, they are seeing just what Locke or Leibniz saw when they were working away in their concept labs. Moreover, if Locke or Leibniz were thinking about free will or the nature of matter, then there is the odd chance that what they saw will help us along in our own thinking about these subjects.

This expresses the main paradigm for Anglophone scholars in the history of philosophy over the years 1960 to 2000. It is still very strong today, though now there are more historians of philosophy turning their attention to historical contexts, if only to gain better interpretations of the texts they’re reading. They are still not delving into the economics, politics, and culture of earlier times, but they are heading into the archives and gaining firmer knowledge of the biographies of the philosophers, and so to that extent they are more historically attuned. But Bennett’s collegial approach, or something near to it, still holds sway over the subdiscipline – at least for now, so far as I can see, judging from relevant conferences and journals.

I regard this as unfortunate. I’m not ready to dismiss the notion of relations of implication and consistency among ideas holding objectively across time and space; for if we abandon that, then we really have no hope of understanding the texts we confront. But, obviously, philosophical thought is shaped by historical circumstance, and what we learn by understanding those circumstances is more valuable than what we might glean from the more austere collegial approach. We learn that philosophy involves not just human minds, but human lives. The quote from Quentin Skinner at the beginning of the post gets things just right: there are many ways to read a text, and ignoring context is a needless handicap philosophers place upon themselves.

Historians of philosophy – like me – should be able to look at calls for abstracts like the one given above and see good entry points. But to put ourselves in a position to do so, we need to start playing with the humanists. In my experience, they’re a fun bunch of people, and they have a lot to teach us. And philosophers – once we catch up on a dialogue we have ignored for too many years – may have a lot to offer in return.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Putting history into history of philosophy

  1. John says:

    I’m of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I’m largely sympathetic to your idea that it would be good for philosophers, especially historians of philosophy, to hang out with other humanists. It *seems* right that we should understand a historical figure better by understanding the larger context in which they were writing, and anyway I have noticed in myself an increasing interest in non-philosophical history for its own sake. I simply want to know what was going on in the world when a philosopher was writing. On the other hand, I am hard-pressed to come up with particular examples of arguments that seem to require knowledge of non-philosophical history in order to better understand them. Suppose I want to better understand Aquinas’s Five Ways. How will understanding the politics and culture of the 13th century help with this? Certainly knowing various bits of *philosophical* history will help. A keen understanding of Aristotle, obviously, will make my reading of the Ways easier to appreciate. But I cannot see how understanding the political arrangements of 13th century England or Italy could help. Likewise for many other famous pieces of philosophical history, which inclines me to think that while it sounds nice to say that historians of philosophy would do well to understand the non-philosophical context in which an argument is presented, it just isn’t true. Perhaps knowledge of non-philosophical history can augment our understanding of certain pieces of philosophical history, but I am not sure it is essential. Perhaps I just haven’t seen anyone follow through on this project sufficiently, which may say more about me and what I read than what sort of valuable work is being done in the area.


    • Huenemann says:

      Hi, John – it might depend in part on what you consider to be understanding the Five Ways. Part of the task has to be internal – reading carefully, working out the validity of the inferences, and so on. But another part can also be asking why Aquinas is putting forward these arguments, and what work they are meant to do in his context. I certainly don’t know much about the 13th century, but it seems to have been a time when the Church was centralizing its power, and especially anxious to develop a clear orthodoxy and persecute/correct/convert heretics. (One relevant study I’ve come across just by googling around is R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950 – 1250 (2007).) Were I to pursue this further, I guess I’d start looking at competing attempts to articulate orthodox positions, and see where Aquinas’s efforts fit in. For all I know (and it can be measured with a teaspoon), there may have been interesting controversy about the best ways to establish God’s existence to nonbelievers, and Aquinas’s argument may have been shaped with that controversy in mind.


  2. thonyc says:

    An area that is missing from your list is education. The Reformation and Couter-Reformation changed the shape and form of both school and university education in Europe massively.


  3. Dear Charlie, sure philosophers should play nice with others and not be only focused on argument (and engage with context). But Isn’t it a little bit odd that your colleagues seem to lack interest in Luther’s theology? Once the theology is allowed in, philosophers would have plenty to say (reformed epistemology and metaphysics is a huge area in philosophy today).–Eric


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