10 January 2007

Invention versus Discovery in Philosophical Historiography

Happy New Year, 2007!

I resume Dissoi Blogoi in the new year by taking up once again the question of the origin of the concept of natural law.

Here's a puzzle. Gisela Striker has an essay, "Origins of the Concept of Natural Law", where she takes herself to be arguing that the Stoics, and not anyone before them (e.g. Heracleitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), originated the concept. Yet Mark Murphy, in his article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, cites Striker's article as evidence that the Stoics did not advance a theory of natural law!

Answer to the puzzle: Murphy thinks that a 'natural law theorist' must hold that 'the good is prior to the right'; but he interprets Striker as claiming that, for the Stoics, the right is prior to the good: "Arguably the Stoics were natural law thinkers," he says, "but they seem to deny... [that the] right [is] prior to the good (see Striker 1986)."

The puzzle shows, of course, the importance of defining terms at the start. What does one mean by 'natural law' or 'theory of natural law'?

But for today I wish to consider a slightly different question as regards historiography in philosophy, namely: Does it matter whether one believes that something is true (correct, real) when doing history of philosophy? Will this make a difference to how one understands history?

Suppose that an historian of science is writing about the Copernican revolution. He believes that the sun is in the center of the solar system; the orbits of the planets are elliptical; and that these orbits are the expression of matter as following Newton's general law of gravity. He writes history accordingly, as a series of imperfect attempts to get clear about the actual physical structure of the solar system. (Yes, he keeps in the back of his mind the idea that classical mechanics is itself imperfect: there is no need to say this, since, for small velocities and masses, space-time will be Euclidean.)

Now would he write this history differently if he somehow prescinded from the truth? Suppose he suspended his judgment, or 'bracketed' his belief in classical mechanics: would he write the same history? And, if his history were different, would it be better or worse for the difference?

That is, I am asking whether, when doing history, to prescind from judging whether a philosophical view is true is indeed already to take a position of sorts. Suspension of judgment might seem to be a neutral position (neither committing nor not), yet perhaps it is not neutral.

For instance, someone who thought that there is (really, in fact) a natural law, when writing a history of the concept of natural law, would aim to give an account of how something real came to be understood. But someone who thought that there is not (really, in fact) a 'natural law', or who, as a methodological principle, prescinded from any judgment as to whether there was such a thing, would be constrained, it seems, to give an account simply of what people came to believe--or something like that.

My mind was turned to these thoughts by Striker's use of the words 'invention' and 'authorship' in her essay, when she sets up her problem. Someone who thought that there was a natural law, or who was writing on such a presumption, would prefer terms such as 'discovery' or 'account' instead. And 'invention' hardly seems a suitable term for someone who aims to prescind from any judgment. (It won't do to say that one means only that the theory was invented, not what is being theorized about, since we normally do not talk in that way. Einstein is not the inventor of the theory of General Relativity.) Anyway, this is what Striker writes:

Philosophical concepts and theories are not usually invented or made up like fairy tales; we may expect them to be intended to help solve some specific problem or problems.
(Isn't this a false alternative? The proper contrast with invention is discovery. Yet Striker contrasts invention with fecklessness.)
Which problems? Like most parts of the Western philosophical tradition, the notion of natural law goes back to the Greeks. But surprisingly enough, scholars seem to disagree about who first introduced it. Some say that the concept was there from the start, that is to say, from the fifth century on, when Socrates and the Sophists introduced the subject of ethics into philosophical debates. Others, like Watson [G. Watson, "The Natural Law and Stoicism", in Problems in Stoicism, A. A. Long, ed., London, 1971], tell us that the concept of natural law was invented by the Stoics, but that in fact--so Watson goes on--it only gained importance and influence through Cicero, who introduced it into legal theory by claiming that the natural law sets the standards by which human legislation should be guided and evaluated. (Given Cicero's self-proclaimed dependence on Greek authors, this would be strange indeed, though it may be true that the Stoic doctrine got into the medieval tradition via Cicero.)
Striker then begins to sketch her own view:
One might have thought that a simple question of authorship could be settled more easily. I think indeed that it can be settled, in favour of the Stoics. The reason for the dispute seems to me to lie in the lack of a distinction between the thesis that there is such a thing as natural justice on the one hand, and the thesis that there is a natural law on the other.
And I'll leave it at that for today.


Anonymous said...

welcome back Michael,

we are all very interested to hear your reaction to the comments section on the post about instrumental goods, as it seemed to generate some provocative thoughts.

best wishes,

a loyal reader

Michael Pakaluk said...

I will respond to those interesting comments, thanks. MP