17 March 2006

A Defense of History

How would I defend the study of the history of philosophy?

First, I would deny that there is any distinction between doing philosophy, and studying the history of philosophy. The reason is that it is impossible to do philosophy by restricting ourselves to things said in the present. We must therefore try to understand and evaluate what was said by those who came before us. But then it seems arbitrary to draw a line somewhere and say that "going back to this point, these people in the past count as contemporaries, whereas before this, it is a matter of 'history'."

When people draw such a line, they do so, not on the basis of time, but rather because someone in the past does or does not belong to the same 'school' as they. Frege is not 'history', but Herbert Spencer, although a contemporary of Frege, is 'history'--Why? Because those who draw such a distinction are in the same school as Frege, but not Spencer.

Again, much of what is called 'problem-solving analytic philosophy' is getting straight about what is claimed by someone like Quine or Davidson--both dead, both in the past, both surely now part of 'history'. And yet getting straight about Quine differs from getting straight about Aquinas only because one counts oneself in the same 'school' as the one but not the other.

It is inevitable that philosophy be done in a 'school'. A philosopher is either a 'founder', or a follower developing the ideas of a founder, or a combination of the two. Since that is so, then that one belongs to one school rather than another needs a justification. It is extremely unphilosophical to be an analytic philosopher simply because the only courses available at one's university were in analytic philosophy. But one cannot give an educated justification of this sort without being able to justify adherence to one's own school over any other--which is 'history of philosophy'.

Thus, there is no distinction between doing philosophy and doing the history of philosophy. Someone who insists on this distinction, is insisting, really, that one attend to only a part of philosophy--which is imprudent and perhaps implies a poor education.

This mention of being well-educated leads to two further reasons for studying the history of philosophy. The first is that it is a mark of being a well-educated person, that barriers between the present and the past are removed. This used to be seen vividly and directly, when old books were accessible only through dead, 'scholarly' languages. Not to know the old books, then, was a sign of a poor education. The same thing holds today, even if those books are translated. Not to be conversant with those books--not to see them as interlocutors and 'contemporaries' in thought--bespeaks a poor education, a lack of intellectual development and power. It is one thing of course to reject the arguments or ideas of an Aristotle or Scotus after having a competent grasp of them; but it is another thing altogether to reject these without knowing them, or, really, not even being in a position to understand them.

A similar point may be made if one considers intellectual virtue--that is, what qualities and traits of the mind are to be valued. Those who place analytic philosophy above all others, generally do so in part because they value only some intellectual virtues, in particular, clarity and order of ideas. Thus training in mathematics and formal logic is regarded as the best background for philosophy. Yet there are other intellectual virtues, which must be acquired in other ways--through the study of history and languages, and through the development of what used to be called 'humanity'. (It is because analytic philosophy fosters only some intellectual virtues that students are rightly dissatisfied with it.) Without a broad study of the history of philosophy, one cannot in practice acquire the full range of intellectual virtues.


Anonymous said...

I am reminded of Callias’ boast in Xenophon’s Symposium. Callias says he believes his liberal studies have given him the power to make men better. Better not in terms of any banausic or money-making art, but in terms of kalokagathia.

Isn’t that why we study Plato and Aristotle and Epictetus? To become better men ourselves and able to make other better?

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Michael! You express exactly the reason why one can't dismiss the history of philosophy without taking on the obligation to study that history. I might add that because so many modern criticisms of earlier philosophers are suspect (as Stern-Gillet argued at last night's BACAP lecture regarding Ryle on introspection), a genuinely philosophical person is obligated to study the originals on their own.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your thoughtful remarks on the importance of history to philosophy. I agree with some of what you say, but not with all. I think of the remarks below as merely the start of a conversation....

It seems to me that it is possible to study philosophy (and to do it well) without studying the history of philosophy. For example, I do not think it is necessary to understand what is wrong with the Aristotelian theory of substantial forms in order to do contemporary metaphysics, and do it well. Similarly, I do not think it is necessary to understand what is wrong with Plato’s theory of Forms in order to talk intelligently about the nature of mathematical entities, and I do not think it is necessary to understand the ins and outs of Frege’s philosophy of language in order to do excellent work in the philosophy of language now.

Having said that, I do think that studying the history of philosophy can help us in various important ways. First, it can help us avoid mistakes that were made in the past. In this, the history of philosophy is no different from the history of war or economic policy. Second, it encourages intellectual humility and modesty, and helps us avoid intellectual arrogance. Instead of brashly taking ourselves to be making original contributions to our discipline, we can use our knowledge of history to recognize when we are repeating a good point already made and when we are making a revolutionary suggestion.

I consider myself a student of philosophy and a student of the history of philosophy. I study both because I am fascinated by both, but for different reasons. Frankly, although (as I’ve said) studying the history of philosophy is instrumentally valuable, that is not why I love it. I love it for its own sake. To me, there is nothing more thrilling than to think that I have (in my own small way) actually understood some aspect of, say, Plato’s metaphysics, to think that I have seen into the man’s mind and can appreciate the true measure of his genius.

I think you are right when you say that it is unfair to treat the study of Spencer, but not the study of Frege or Quine, as part of history. But this should not lead us to deny that it is possible to study any philosopher (even one of our contemporaries) from the standpoint of the historian or from the standpoint of the philosopher. Qua historian, I am interested in getting Frege’s views right. What matters to me is the truth about what Frege really thought, not the truth per se. Qua philosopher, I am interested in the truth per se, and I am not interested in getting Frege’s views right. I think we should keep these standpoints separate, and that we are courting error when we blur them. This is because the love of truth for its own sake (of which I heartily approve) can lead us, out of an excess of charity, to seriously misinterpret the views of our predecessors. Thus, for example, we misinterpret Plato’s views on the Forms when we insist (again out of misplaced charity) that he could not possibly have thought that Justice has the property of being just or Courage the property of being courageous.

best wishes,


Anonymous said...

What you write put me in mind of the following:

From Seneca’s De Brevitatae Vitae:

“Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone before them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men's labors we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters? …

“No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours….”

[Source: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Moral Essays. Translated by John W. Basore. The Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann,1928-1935. 3 vols.: Volume II]

Michael Pakaluk said...


I wonder if you wouldn't allow a third purpose also for the history of philosophy. It seems to me that philosophy is holistic in a way that other disciplines are not. By this I mean both (i) philosophy precisely aims at a unified grasp of the whole, and also (ii) it is not possible to decide one philosophical issue without taking into account all others. But I think it may be plausibly argued that a study of the history of philosophy is the best way of getting a grasp of the 'whole' that is at stake in doing philosophy.

Anonymous III,
Thanks for drawing our attention to that marvelous passage from Seneca. Now, when we read this, do we think, "I wish that I myself had had such a thought. And if I can't now feel this sentiment, in a heartfelt way, as did Seneca, then I am much less of a man!" That, at least, is my reaction. But then I consider that a large part of a good philosophical education is to make us yearn to think and feel certain kinds of things. And this too can't be fostered, I think, except through a study of the history of philosophy.


Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

I think it may be true that, ultimately, it isn't possible to answer any one philosophical question without answering all. In this sense, philosophy may well be a holistic activity. However, I don't think that studying the history of philosophy is the best way to get a grasp on the "whole". If there were no limitations of time or intellect, the best way to get such a grasp would be to study the best contemporary philosophical theories taken together. So I still think that history helps us by helping us avoid mistakes and intellectual arrogance.


Anonymous said...

On the lack of distinctions between doing philosophy and the history of philosophy, I think that someone should at least raise the question of whether the kind of work you're talking about can even rightly be considered 'historical' at all. You are principally defending the study of the history of philosophy against those philosophers who would suggest that the history of philosophy is unimportant or only instrumentally important because it amounts to studying ideas that we can no longer (so the claim might go) take very seriously. Your alternative view, that doing philosophy at all requires attending to the arguments of thinkers who have come before us, seems correct as far as it goes. Yet in wiping away the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy, you fail to give any defense at all of doing history. Instead, you might say that you're defending the study of philosophers who wrote in the past. Yet there is nothing historical about that study as such, unless the mere temporal distance of the subject is taken to make it 'historical.' Your argument shows well that there is no real value in drawing that distinction if that is all that 'historical' means.

Most historians, however, would see things a bit differently. From a truly historical perspective, doing the history of philosophy involves a much greater deal of contextualization than the vast majority of 'historians' of philosophy trained in the analytic mode are typically willing to embrace. Doing the history of philosophy historically would involve attempts to understand texts and ideas as events that occured (and, in the case of texts, re-occured) in particular historical contexts. Some analytic historians of philosophy delve into this territory when they insist upon reading ancient philosophical texts within the context of a dialectic between different ancient thinkers. That is a sort of 'historical' study, but it is not quite so holistic as it could be. Rather, historical inquiry would seek, at its most expansive and inclusive, to relate philosophical ideas to the whole spectrum of relevant historical-cultural contexts. That sort of truly historical history of philosophy is not something that you have defended, and it may be something that you don't want to defend. But you should, I think, confess that the 'history' that you defend is, well, ahistorical.

Fido the Yak said...

Anonymous, it's not properly ahistorical either. The schools thesis is about how philosophy is done and how it develops over time.

Would you ask "What kind of event is a school of thought?" That looks to me like a historical question whether or not one chooses to answer it "holistically," however we come to define the term. (Does one need a disjuncture to do history? I don't think we're far enough along to say. At the outset asking about the nature of an event should be enough of an invitation to do history.) If you would accept that as an historical inquiry, then I think you should be inclined to accept as historical a more basic question like "What kind of event is philosophy?"

Michael Pakaluk said...

Latest anonymous,

I think Fido the Yak is correct in observing that the view I've so far defended is not ahistorical, although I think that you are right that I have not, so far, defended much of what might appropriately be called 'history'.

The original question was: Can we defend the history of philosophy other than on instrumental grounds? It would be easy enough to defend studying texts and ideas in their historical context on instrumental grounds: I for one would be quick to agree that a good grasp of the context of a text or idea (in the recent past or more distant past) is invaluable for achieving a reliable understanding.

I would also agree that history, generally, is inherently worth studying; and clearly the history of philosophical texts and ideas would fall under this.

But then, to take that approach would be to defend the inherent worth of history, not the inherent worth of philosophy. We can admit that departmental boundaries are not absolute, but still it would seem unreasonable to complain that a different discipline (history) lacks the prestige of philosophy within philosophy departments.


Brad Fults said...

I am inclined to agree with Prof. Rickless with regard to the dichotomy between the "study of philosophy" and "studying the history of philosophy," yet I think there is a better terminology to make the distinction clear.

Taken entirely from Robert Pirsig and his book, Lila, the study of previous philosophies and philosophers is to be termed "philosophology," which, in the spirit of the English language, is a more accurate description. Creative philosophy, however, which can be identified with Rickless' "study of philosophy" should be termed "philosophy" and be treated separately.

Pirsig goes as far to advise others to forego philosophology, at least at first, before one's creative philosophical potential is stunted by the limited reaches of previous philosophers' thought. I am not entirely sure that this is sound advice for all students of philosophy, especially those lacking creative genius, but it nevertheless illustrates the dichotomy quite well in my opinion.

There have been other writings  since then commenting more on the difference. I think this is one area of academic philosophy that is very poorly illuminated. It seems to be the modus operandi  of American universities at least to teach that the only subject within philosophy worth studying is philosophology.

I think this stems largely from the same line of reasoning that you follow, linking a holistic understanding of philosophy qua creative activity with a prior complete understanding of philosophy qua analytical science.

That said, I agree with Prof. Rickless that there is definite value to be gained in philosophology, but that it mostly helps us "avoid mistakes and intellectual arrogance." This assertion too, I think, distinguishes philosophy (and the corresponding philosophology) from other "humanities" such as sociology or anthropology, which are already the analytical forms of study in their respective fields. This leads us to conclude that philosophy is a creative activity (rather than an analytical theory study), an understanding much more on par with "the love of knowledge." 

Posted by Brad Fults