05 February 2007

What is Philosophy?

John Marenbon's Early Medieval Philosophy, which I've been reading after encountering his SEP article on Boethius, in its second edition Preface offers some provocative comments on the history of philosophy.

Marenbon describes how he changed his view of philosophy, and therefore of the history of philosophy, between writing Early Medieval Philosophy and Later Medieval Philosophy.

When I wrote Early Medieval Philosophy ... I thought of philosophy as a single, identifiable subject. Although I tried in passing to provide a definition of it ('rational argument based on premises self-evident from observation, experience and thought'), in practice I assumed that any thinker who appeared to share the methods and interests of modern British philosophers was a philosopher, and that all other thinkers were theologians, mystics, poets, scientists or whatever, but not philosophers.
One would think that ancient Greek philosophy is presupposed for the study of medieval philosophy; and yet few would be tempted to define 'philosophy' in that way for the ancients, or to distinguish it thus from theology, science, and other fields of inquiry. Acknowledging this, Marenbon continues:
I knew that early medieval thinkers themselves did not make any such distinction between philosophy and non-philosophy. Indeed, I prefaced the book by noting that 'philosophical speculation was one--often minor--part of their activity, which they rarely separated from other types of thought, logical, grammatical, scientific or theological'. But it was part of my duty as an historian of philosophy, I thought, to distinguish the texts and passages of the period which were philosophical from those which were not. In this way I would show that 'it is possible to speak of early medieval philosophy, just as it is possible to speak of antique, later medieval or modern philosophy'.
Yet this is not entirely satisfactory, as it supposes that the main difference between medieval thinkers and ourselves, is that we are more fastidious in flagging and observing boundaries between disciplines than they, and that they were more often polymaths.

It is not surprising, then, that Marenbon, as he composed Later Medieval Philosophy, rejected this view :
I began--gradually but firmly--to consider that my earlier approach was misleading. ... I suggest that there is no single, identifiable subject -- 'philosophy' -- which has been studied by thinkers from Plato's time to the present day. Although some of the problems discussed by thinkers in the past are similar to those discussed by philosophers today, each belongs to a context shaped by the disciplines recognized at the time. The historian who isolates 'philosophical' arguments of the past from their contexts, studying them without reference to the presuppositions and aims of their proponents, will not understand them.
But there are three things going on here. Marenbon claims: (i) philosophy is not a definable, integral field of study; (ii) there are no enduring philosophical 'problems', which are addressed by philosophers at different times and in different contexts; (iii) even what is called 'philosophy' at a particular time cannot be understood except in its relation to other disciplines, not regarded as 'philosophy'.

Marenbon next gives the following example, ostensibly as an example of (iii):
For instance, the treatment of human knowledge by Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Ockham should be seen in the context of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century theology, where investigation of the human intellect was conducted, not for its own sake, but as a way of exploring the nature and cognitive powers of disembodied souls, angels and God.
Surely that is too strong: he should say, 'not merely for its own sake'.
The historian of philosophy is indeed entitled to select which problems he examines, and he may, if he wishes, explicitly choose those which seem closest to modern philosophical concerns; but he must then be able to relate past discussion of them to its context, otherwise he will misunderstand the arguments he is trying to interpret.
But this looks like a much weaker claim than (ii) or (iii) above. We can grant that, in coming to understand a problem, we need to pay attention to the context, without however also holding that the problem, even as formulated then, cannot be fruitfully investigated apart from that context. Yet Marenbon's phrase, 'seem closest', suggests that, in his view, the problem is always affected by its context.

This suggestion is confirmed by Marenbon summary of the development of his view:
The earlier book offers a history of how thinkers in its period discussed some of the supposedly perennial problems of philosophy. The later book describes the organization, presuppositions and aims of studies in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century universities. It goes on to consider how some thinkers of the time treated one important question, the nature of intellectual knowledge. This question has similarities to some which modern philosophers try to answer, but it is not identical to any of them.
But then is the later book is misnamed? Should it be called, rather, 'A History of the University in the Late Middle Ages'? It would be a history of the university which (a common approach in history) illustrates historical trends by looking at one particular theme.

No doubt both of the earlier and later positions are mistaken. British philosophy in the late 20th century is not the standard for philosophy. Philosophy is not well-defined as "deductions from self-evident premises". But also: it is false that there is no such thing as philosophy; that the history of philosophy must be the history of institutions and contexts.

Yet then: How do we characterize the correct view?


John said...

Why look at the second edition of 'Early Medieval Philosophy', which was published nearly 20 years ago, rather than the book I have just written and was published this autumn, and is designed to replace those two old Introductions? I'm not saying that what I say there is right, but I do at least to some extent avoid the narrowness of my earlier book. Blogs are supposed to permit a liveliness and up-to-dateness in debate, and it's depressing to see one's self of nearly two decades ago, who is surely entirely dead and no subject for conversation, addressed as if he were living.

John Marenbon

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear John,

The simple answer is that I went to Amazon to look for books by you, and your latest book was selling for over $100, but Early Medieval in contrast was for a price I could afford!

Who is it who said that any book one hasn't read is as if it has just been published? Your remarks from your early book do, for most of us, set up a dilemma--a true concern--very well.


Anonymous said...


The hardcover is selling for over $100, but you can get the softcover for $32. (Just FYI.)