Defining ‘History of Philosophy’

I’m a bit slow catching up with this, but here is a blog by Brian Weatherson, asking other philosophers the following:

In a typical philosophy curriculum, there are some history courses, and some courses that are not history courses. A course on Plato’s metaphysics is a history course; a course on recent work on causation is not. Some courses have a history component. When I teach scepticism at upper levels (or graduate levels), I start with Descartes and Hume. I’m teaching history at that point; I’m not doing so when I go over the recent debate between Jim Pryor and Crispin Wright.

In that sense of ‘history’, which parts of the curriculum do you think count as part of history of philosophy?

Here are the answers. Notice, especially, Jonathan Ichikawa’s answer:

Here’s an off-the-cuff theory: it’s history when subsequent developments have dramatically changed the way we read it. When I read Quine, I’m struck by the failure to distinguish necessity from apriority — a point that is only obvious in retrospect, for those of us who grew up with Kripke. To understand what’s going on in a historical work, you need to study at least a little bit of historical context — in particular, you need to appreciate the respect in which the philosophical resources of the author were impoverished, relative to our own.

If you’re not an analytic philosopher, you probably need me to tell you that the reason Ichikawa says this is because it’s obvious to analytic philosophers that philosophy has made tremendous progress. Thus Quine’s ‘philosophical resources’ were ‘impoverished relative to our own’, not to mention Plato who was basically flying blind, the poor thing. If you’re not an analytic philosopher you might not have known philosophy has made all this wonderful progress. If you’re impressed by how much medicine has advanced in the last couple of centuries, then prepare to have your mind blown by the philosophical breakthroughs I’m about to report. They come from Timothy Williamson’s book The Philosophy of Philosophy (p.280). Hold onto your hats:

 It is widely known in 2007 and was not widely known in 1957 that contingency is not equivalent to a posteriority, and that claims of contingent or temporary identity involve the rejection of standard logical laws. The principle that every truth is possibly necessary can now be shown to entail that every truth is necessary by a chain of elementary inferences in a perspicuous notation unavailable to Hegel.

I know! And to think they’re cutting funding to philosophy research and supporting  projects like this! Poor Quine, though – he didn’t have our cutting-edge tools. The crumbly old dinosaur couldn’t even distinguish apriority from necessity. That’s what makes him part of the history of philosophy. History? It would almost be better to say ‘prehistory’. Basically, Quine was living in the philosophical Stone Age, smashing rocks against his head to find out whether the mind is located in the body.

Then comes a revelation: Quine did distinguish apriority from necessity, as the next commenter after Ichikawa points out. So this whole exchange leads me to my own definition of history of philosophy. If a philosopher’s work is commented upon with grand confidence by philosophy professors who have not bothered to read it and do not know what is in it, then it belongs to the history of philosophy. For example, here are some gruntings from the philosophical caveman Bertrand Russell that seem to have been overlooked:

Our age is the most parochial since Homer. I speak not of any geographical parish: the inhabitants of Mudcombe-in-the-Meer are more aware than at any former time of what is being done and thought at Praha, at Gorki or at Peiping. It is in the chronological sense that we are parochial: as the new names conceal the historic cities of Prague, Nijni-Novgorod, and Pekin, so new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own. We imagine ourselves at the apex of intelligence, and cannot believe that the quaint clothes and cumbrous phrases of former times can have invested people and thoughts that are still worthy of our attention.

I venture the heresies that there may be more to wisdom than facility in speaking the shibboleths of present-day academia, and that some of this wisdom might be found in the authors of the past. The next time philosophers tell you how far they have come, try asking them where exactly it is that they think they are going. If they are persuaded to admit their ignorance, I have no doubt they will do so in an impressively perspicuous notation, unavailable to Hegel.


10 thoughts on “Defining ‘History of Philosophy’

  1. Pingback: Defining ‘History of Philosophy’ | Watson Weltanschauung

  2. Christoph

    Hear hear!

    Come to think of it, isn’t there something strange about Weatherson’s original post? He says ‘When I teach scepticism at upper levels (or graduate levels), I start with Descartes and Hume. I’m teaching history at that point.’ I strongly suspect that he isn’t so much teaching history at that point – scepticism just isn’t one of Descartes’ main topics – but a contemporary debate that has anachronistically projected this back into the history of philosophy. So maybe we should instead be talking about how to do *good* history of philosophy. Ichikawa interestingly suggests that what makes something a historical study may have to do with needing to penetrate the dense thicket that has overgrown past conceptual distinctions, and so sort out what belongs to the past context and what to our own. So it’s a shame when he falls back on the usual prejudices prevalent in much philosophy today that the context of the past should be assumed to be ‘impoverished’ relative to our own rather than – dare I say it – quite possibly richer.

    But it seems there are some deeper underlying confusions here. First of all, why try to distinguish ‘history of philosophy’ from ‘philosophy’ using chronological criteria at all? Surely if it’s philosophy done in the past, studying it is doing the history of philosophy? This problem doesn’t seem to exist in the history of art – your subject matter can be as recent as you want, so long as you’re sure it’s art. And this approach is obviously pretty widely accepted elsewhere, including the teaching of history itself. Even the Thatcher years are history now.

    What, then, is the fuss about? The analogy in the back of Weatherson’s mind seems to be not the history of art but an area where the history of a discipline and the discipline itself are clearly two different things: science. Now, the assumption seems to be that there should be an analogous division between philosophy and history of philosophy. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Philosophy has never developed into a research programme – it has never attained the status of ‘normal science’. Hence some of the oldest debates of philosophy are still up for grabs, and deserve to be studied along with those going on now – with the only significant difference being that sensitivity to context is going is going to be more difficult (although let’s not forget that misunderstanding the contexts of present-day debates is possible too). We can debate as to whether it makes sense to describe the very most recent debates as ‘history of philosophy’ – but who cares? We should only start to care once philosophy lays down some groundwork that can make it into a mature research programme – and there’s little sign of that happening.

    In the meantime, let’s try not to assume that all debates apart from our own are bound to be ‘impoverished’.

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Thanks, Christoph. I agree with pretty much everything you say, as usual. But I think many analytic philosophers would disagree with your claim that philosophy hasn’t developed into a research program. I’m sure Weatherson’s idea, for example, is that there is a now an instutionally accepted way to do epistemology, which wasn’t there when Descartes and Hume were writing. That’s why they belong to the history of the discipline rather than to the discipline itself. In fact, up to a point, I think this is right. But unlike Weatherson I don’t think it’s a good thing. To my mind the jury is still in concerning the best way to do philosophy, even just out of all the ways that have been tried. But I haven’t really looked carefully to see whether there is a solid research programme in analytic philosophy, or at least in parts of it. You might be right that there isn’t one. My point is that at any rate there shouldn’t be one.

      Here I see a parallel with economics. Macroeconomists had substantially converged on a set of standard approaches leading up to the financial crisis. Now that events have shown the limitations of these approaches, Keynes, Marx, Hayek, and Minsky are all up for grabs again, being eagerly mined for insights into how else the central questions might have been tackled. Unfortunately there is unlikely to be an equivalent crisis in philosophy. But I can’t see anything but good coming out of a relaxing of disciplinary constraints. An exposure to other ways of doing philosophy might help to rekindle some creativity, which is why it’s a shame that so little history of philosophy is taught, or if it is, as you say, it’s taught in an anachronistic way that drains out all the interesting foreign elements.

      Natural scientists have an excuse for focusing, predominantly, on standard approaches; these have bodied forth an unprecedented track record of valuable discoveries. Philosophers have no such excuse, or at any rate that’s what I was trying to argue. That’s not to say I think philosophy should be making valuable discoveries. I don’t think the point is to make discoveries at all. But, regardless of what it should be doing, it isn’t making valuable discoveries, which is enough to show that it if philosophers have instituted a research programme then they haven’t done so for the same good reason that natural scientists have.

      Definitely the chronological criterion for demarcating history of philosophy from philosophy is completely arbitrary. Only a philosopher would even raise it for discussion, and only a philosophy professor would actually discuss it.

      1. Christoph

        Agreed – what I said about research programmes was overhasty. There is clearly great scope for disagreement as to what might count as a research programme and what criteria we’re going to employ for determining this. As I gestured at by mentioning ‘normal science’, I guess what I had in mind was a well-entrenched framework which incorporates a clear distinction between agreed doctrines and outstanding problems. I very much doubt that there has ever been such a regime established in any part of philosophy – I can’t see that we have progressed, in metaphysics or anywhere else, beyond what Kant lamented as ‘merely random groping’. Fundamentals are still being contested in subdisciplines like epistemology such that – even if we can isolate individual research programmes operating here – we can’t identify a body of theory that we can put down in a textbook as the currently accepted ‘normal science’ of this area. So my point about research programmes then really becomes a query about their success and tenacity, rather than their existence.

        In any case I think we are in fundamental agreement here about the undesirability of the attempt to establish such ‘normal science’ in philosophy. But given the scientism that is prevalent in so much of the self-image of analytic philosophy, in its procedures and its body language, it seems worth pointing out just how disanalogous the state of affairs is.

        All this, I take it, opens onto a wider point concerning philosophy’s quest for its own soul. In the absence of agreement about the fundamentals of its (alleged) subdisciplines, why think that there is even a unitary discipline here? How are criteria for membership in this umbrella discipline determined if we don’t even know what the members are doing? It might be tempting, in the face of these difficulties, to suggest that philosophy has a sui generis role of commentary in relation to other disciplines – that the ‘chief proposition of philosophy is that philosophy is nonsense’. Or, more elegantly still, we might want to characterize it as a transparent medium for seeing our way through to what we ought to realize we already know. But is it not more likely that philosophy does not have the qualities of a singular substance, but that it is an inchoate jumble of elements assembled by the whirlwinds that have swept through the intellectual scrapyards of the past?

  3. hypocrisykiller (Thomas Hazard MIT 1973)

    History of science is part of any course of science. History of philosophy is part of any course in philosophy. There is a good reason to understand and recognize the history as you DO science and/or DO philosophy. Only ignorant,arrogant idiots tend to think that they and their current ideas have no roots in history. We humans build on the past in the present as we advance science and philosophy and the arts,etal. going forward! .Yes,Making discoveries is the creative goal in any field. One way to do that is to learn, to know and understand and avoid the errors/dead ends of past efforts by studying the history of ideas and events from the historical and.diachronic point of view in all fields of knowledge..

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Christoph – True about normal science. Sometimes in philosophy of economics they say the test of whether something is a science is whether you can read one textbook on it and then solve the problems in the back of another textbook based on what you learned. Economics pretty much fails, but I wonder how that test would work for philosophy. As for philosophy being a jumble, I suspect you might be right, despite what I say in the next post, which after all gives a revisionary rather than a descriptive account. Still, random groping and whirlwinds through intellectual scrapyards sounds extreme. Surely philosophers are a bit more orderly than that; they’d probably be less boring if they weren’t.

      Hypocrisykiller – agreed, except for the part about making discoveries being the goal of every field. See my next post.

      1. hypocrisykiller

        Setting aside the issue or your hinted unexplained distinction between normal and non-normal science or philosophy given that we know science and philososphy strives to be based in part on science which is acultural in an ahistorical / anachronic sense, my personal empasis is on doing science and philosophy creatively where the evolution and dicovery of ideas happens within an inescapable historical framework. The continuities and discontinuities I encounter in my studies are helpful to me as I try to solve problems by framing better questions. I have difficulty trying to keep the history of ideas discussed in writings going back to the early Greeks and the Chinese. You might be a better man than me gungadin keeping the record straight! LOL

      2. Christoph

        @hypocrisykiller – two points. (1) I should have made it clear that I intended to use ‘normal science’ in roughly the sense that Thomas Kuhn uses it. Kuhn’s own gloss is as follows: ‘”normal science” means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.’ (2) Of course, if one takes Kuhn’s account of the history of science seriously, then there is never such a thing as an ahistorically valid regime of normal science. It is of course highly contentious whether Kuhn is right (and how precisely to read him) – but potentially this account might show simultaneously why science appears to be progressing cumulatively toward ahistorically valid truths and yet is subject to the kind of historicist considerations you outline.

      3. hypocrisykiller

        yes I agree with your comments about Kuhn which I think reached his conclusions studying the evolution of the sciences looking for patterns of repetition in human history

  4. Pingback: Defining Philosophy | Origin of Specious

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