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.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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