10 June 2005

Is There a Special Method in the History of Philosophy?

I much enjoyed reading the review in NDPR by Pierre Destrée (Louvain) of the second volume of collected papers of John Cooper, Knowledge, Nature, and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2004 (see http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=2721)--although the review seems marred by Destrée's going on at too great a length, offering his own arguments in favor of an inclusivist view of eudaimonia in Nic. Eth.. (Yes, a review should engage the arguments of a book, if possible, but not so that the book serves as a mere launching pad for arguments of the reviewer which should appear elsewhere, or which perhaps would not even get a hearing, in the form in which they are presented, unless they were included in a review of someone else's work.)

Destrée reports that a major concern of the volume is correct method in the history of philosophy: In the preface, Cooper says that his aim is "to understand and appreciate the ancient philosophers' views in philosophical terms drawn from the ancient philosophical tradition itself (rather than bringing to them, and interpreting them in terms of, contemporary philosophical concepts and debates)". But one might wonder: is the approach that Cooper describes a method for history of philosophy, or simply philosophy (or even, 'good sense')? For instance, if I have been reading Quine (or is he now history?) and then turn to Korsgaard, isn't my goal "to understand and appreciate Korsgaard in philosophical terms drawn from her work"? I don't see that time of composition is important, especially insofar as a philosopher deals with matters which, presumably, either cannot or haven't changed in time. And why ever should one have thought that the best way to understand N. (at least at first) is to read him in terms of M.? (Read Hume in terms of Plato. Read Berkeley in terms of Hegel. Read Bergson in terms of Abelard. Read Carnap in terms of Austin. Clearly, these are all wrongheaded. Likewise, read ...... (fill in the name of an ancient philosopher) in terms of _______ (fill in the name of an analytic philosopher).)

Destrée then says that "The second major concern is [Cooper's] respect of the global context of the doctrine of such and such a philosopher or philosophical movement." But how does this differ from the first methodological point? (Unless perhaps the first one is meant to be negative--don't choose an alien context!--and the second is meant to be positive--choose the proper context!)

Destrée adds that a condition of historical investigation's not being mere antiquarianism, is that it 'engages creatively' (Cooper's term) with the text, which Destrée glosses as "the art of reconstructing arguments by linking concepts or texts which are not explicitly linked by the author himself, but also, and more importantly, the art of interpreting an author by asking him questions he doesn't himself raise, but that are pressing for us, and by trying to answer them with the resources of his own concepts and commitments." Yet, again, I can't see how this marks out some special method for the history of philosophy. One might, similarly, have an 'antiquarian' (that is, sterile, not concerned with the truth) interest in a living philosopher, or, in contrast with this, 'engage creatively' with a living philosopher's thought.

Doesn't it in the end all boil down to truth, and what we can take to be true? As a graduate student I used to hear reported an exchange (did it ever occur? but it could have) between Burt Dreben and Tim Scanlon. Dreben pointed to some recent dissertation on Kant and saidsomething like, "Why don't more philosophers spend their time thinking about this sort of thing?", and Scanlon would reply with, "And what's so shabby, Burt, with being concerned with the truth?" History versus problems (or 'systematics'). But the difference of opinion presupposes, wrongly, that one cannot study Kant as true (now, as much as in the 18th c), and that one must study, say, problems in consequentialism with a view to truth (rather than, 'what I've found others have been thinking about', 'what (I think) others find an interesting problem', or even 'what will position me nicely for a good job', etc.)


David said...

The pull of the present is very strong for all men. We may think we are interpreting the texts with an eye to the truth but frequently we are interpreting the texts in accordance with our biases. I'm reminded of Nussbaum's repeated use of "values" in "The Fragility of Goodness" as a case-in-point. Price does it as well when he imports Freud into his discussions of Plato and Aristotle. It is very difficult to leave one's prejudices by the coat rack when unraveling a text from a different century. Someone once referred to the proper comportment toward a written work as "becoming naive again." It seems to be a herculean effort to achieve this type of naivete.

Anonymous said...

The methodological point stressed by more historically minded approaches is that people do in fact read texts in terms that are alien to them, and they do it all the time. It's pretty natural to consider new ideas in light of ideas we've already considered. Reading loads of Quine and then failing to read Korsgaard in light of that would bespeak either incredible discipline or something close to attention deficit disorder. Especially with ancient philosophy, it's extraordinarily difficult for us to vanquish certain distinctions that we hold which are alien to the texts we study.

David's example of 'values' in Nussbaum's work is a perfect example. I, for one, am not sure that it is ever possible to read a foreign text in its own terms apart from our own, nor that it is always what we're out to do. I don't think that Nussbaum's talk of 'values' vitiates her work. It makes it rather more accessible and allows the texts to speak to contemporary concerns. She could pay far more attention to the consequences of her choice, but in general I do not think that her mistakes lie in her choice to use it. The question that her choice raises is whether, when we choose to make use of concepts that the texts do not share with us, we can successfully negotiate the difference. Similar issues arise in talking about the concept of 'persons' in ancient philosophy. Lloyd Gerson and Christopher Gill have both written books which make prominent use of the concept (Gerson's Knowing Persons and Gill's Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy), and both of them defend their use of alien concepts in engaging ancient texts. At the same time, acknowledging the difference is essential; is not the absence of a hard fact-value distinction in ancient ethics one of its most salient features for us?

Or take studies of 'friendship.' We certainly can just translate philia as friendship and pretend that the two are equivalent; the two are close enough to be readily identifiable. But philia extends quite a bit further than 'friendship' tends to. The same issue arises, perhaps more dramatically, with Latin amicitia, because amicitia among Roman aristocrats was often something more like what we recognize as a business relationship than 'friendship' of an intimate kind. Of course, there's nothing particularly difficult about bridging the conceptual gap between philia, amicitia, and 'friendship.' But if we open our eyes to it, we can see that Greek and Roman philosophical discussions of 'friendship' were a part of a wider social reality in which the kind of relationships that formed the subject of discussion were different than ours. Of course, ancient discussions of friendship are extremely interesting even if one pretends that no relevant differences exist between the concepts that form the starting points of the discussions. But a fuller understanding of the philosophy will take account of philosophy's embodiment in a wider set of contexts.

That, of course, is how the history of philosophy properly differs from simply reading philosophy. One might conceive of the history of philosophy as the history of pure arguments, but to make the word 'history' mean anything there, attention needs to be paid to how those arguments relate to eachother through time (and not merely conceptually). Already one has ceased to be simply reading philosophy as one might read Korsgaard and think about how Quine's thought might come to bear on it. But of course, doing history might involve more than simply analyzing some arguments and discussing their inter-relationships. It also involves paying attention to their relationships to more than just other philosophical arguments.

I, at least, am not making the claim that everyone must treat ancient philosophical texts in this way, and that it is simply illegitimate to consider arguments in abstraction. Rather, the point is that a more complete understanding of those arguments involves placing them in their contexts, not simply in their individual texts, but in their many and varied intellectual, political, and historical contexts. That said, I doubt that Cooper's work can really be said to be strongly historical. He does in fact make sure to treat arguments in their intellectual contexts, but he does not give much attention to other, wider contexts. That is not necessarily a criticism of his work, because nobody has claimed that his work aims to present us with everything important that can be said on a given subject.

I'd agree that there is no special method in the history of philosophy, but rather that there are numerous methods which we can take to the texts. But some of those methods are in fact historical, while others are not historical at all, and amount instead to the analysis of arguments put forth in texts, with the historicity of the texts remaining marginal at best. Those approaches should probably not be called history at all. And aside from evaluating methodologies for internal coherence, how could we possibly decide which ones are better a priori? If one tries to wiggle out of the argument that philosophy is always historically embodied by making some distinction between allegedly autonomous activities of 'doing philosophy' simpliciter and some other thing called 'doing history,' it would amount to an admission that philosophy's relationship to its historical contexts makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. That is patently false. Of course, one need not take an interest in anything beyond the barest bones of the arguments we find in ancient or other historical texts. But a lack of interest does not entail a lack of relevance.

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