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.

About Huenemann

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