16 March 2006

What Use is History of Philosophy?

Perhaps you noticed J. Schneewind's review yesterday in NDPR of a rather lackluster defense of the value of the study of the history of philosophy, in Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (OUP 2005, edited by Tom Sorrell and J.A.G. Rogers).

Schneewind complains that the contributors, including some very distinguished historians, instrumentalize the study of the history of philosophy. They fail to go beyond asking how the study of the history of philosophy might be helpful to analytic 'problem-solving' types, thus leaving unchallenged a presumption of the superior worth of the latter. And, in conclusion, he suggests a cynical explanation:

We hear much about what analytic philosophers miss if they ignore history, but nothing of damage to historical work from being oriented to problem-solvers' uses of it. No one here asks why, and even whether, historians of philosophy should care about the response of problem-solvers to their work. Is it only because the problem-solvers largely control hiring, promotions, and raises?
I was struck by the absence, apparently, of any contribution to the volume by an historian of medieval or ancient philosophy.

But then the review led me to consider: What is the best defense of the history of philosophy? If one were taking a principled approach, and claiming the high-ground, what should one say?

I have my ideas, which I'll share tomorrow.