01 May 2008

Scholarship in Logical Empiricism

It's always interesting to see how scholarship in ancient philosophy looks from the outside. Consider this paragraph from the review today in NDPR of the Cambridge Companion to (of all things) Logical Empiricism:

Another feature of much recent work on logical empiricism on display in this Companion is that comparatively less attention is paid to detailed argument reconstruction and assessment, and comparatively more to uncovering the causes -- both 'internal' and 'external'/socio-historical -- of the logical empiricists' beliefs. This follows the wider trend in history of philosophy more generally, but logical empiricist scholarship, unlike other subfields such as ancient and early modern philosophy, lacks the argument reconstructions and evaluations of earlier generations of scholars. Of course, there are very able philosophers, like Scott Soames, who have engaged in detailed argument reconstruction and assessment of logical empiricists' views (Soames 2003). However, readers hoping for work like Soames' in this Companion will likely be disappointed.
There are all kinds of interesting questions here.

Is it really the case that scholars in ancient philosophy, as the reviewer suggests, now have greater license in speculating about 'internal' and 'external' causes of philosophical views, because a previous generation of scholars spent lots of time giving logical paraphrases of arguments in classical texts? Does anyone now see things in that way, or isn't it rather that efforts of the earlier generation are viewed as flawed because limited and distorting?--whereas the minority of scholars who do regard the earlier analyses as valuable continue still to read texts in that way.

Also, I wonder about the comparison of 'logical empiricism scholarship' with 'ancient philosophy scholarship', in this sense. That is, I wonder if, quite counterintuitively, scholars in ancient philosophy as a whole have the same interests in mere history as does 'logical empiricism scholarship'. I once heard Warren Goldfarb say that he studied Wittgenstein's Tractatus because he wished it were true (although he knew it wasn't); but I don't think that generally 'logical empiricism scholars' think that, say, Carnap's Aufbau just might be true. Yet I wouldn't be surprised to find that a common motive among scholars of Plato, Aristotle, or (say) the Stoics, is that they indeed suspect (and not merely wish) that what they are studying is true--and they engage in the historical scholarship with a view to the truth. So ironically it might be the case that scholarship in ancient philosophy ends up being, in intention, less a matter of history than scholarship in logical empiricism.

Also consider this. That logical empiricism is being studied historically, by 'scholars of logical empiricism', shows that it is now part of the history of philosophy. But if Quine (say) is part of 'history', then which philosopher --even those alive today--isn't a part of 'history', and why isn't 'history' completely on a par with what is written by philosophers active today? That is, 'scholarship in logical empiricism' tends to break down the supposed difference between philosophy and history of philosophy.

Also consider: if logical empiricism is a matter of 'history', then it is one philosophical movement among others in 'history', in which case, surely, it needs to be argued for that it deserves special prominence of influence over any other school or movement in the history of philosophy, and yet, demonstrably, the landscape of philosophy in the U.S. is a direct result of logical empiricism. (The landscape is not that which one would see if, for instance, the most dominant members of a previous generation were unreconstructed Kantians or Thomists.) So isn't the profession, then, captive to arbitrary accidents of power and influence?


Anonymous said...

I think a good indication that a particular study of a philosophical author is 'historical' rather than simply philosophical is the extent to which that study takes understanding the author's ideas and why he held them as an end in itself distinct from questions about the truth of the ideas. That is not to say that questions of truth, plausibility, coherence, and the strength of arguments more generally are not a part of work in the history of philosophy (they obviously are). Rather, it is to say that a study is less genuinely historical in character to the extent that it focuses its attention only on those questions. Even purely philosophical studies will often need to ask historical questions (e.g., one might need to know something about the history of empiricism in order to understand Quine's Two Dogmas), but a more purely philosophical study will treat the answers to those questions as strictly instrumental to finding out whether or not the particular ideas in question are true.

On the other hand, I don't understand your reasoning in the final paragraph. You seem to say that since contemporary American philosophy has been decisively influenced by one movement among others in history, it must be 'captive to arbitrary accidents of power and influence.' But surely that doesn't follow, since logical empiricism has exerted its influence in large part by persuading people that they need to pay serious attention to its arguments and positions. No doubt arbitrary accidents (or at least extra-philosophical factors) contribute greatly to the ascendancy of any intellectual paradigm, but that doesn't seem to justify the claim about captivity.

Dirk Baltzly said...

I think that it depends on the ancient philosophy that I'm reading. For instance, for the past few years I've been working on Proclus' Timaeus Commentary. We are precluded from too much speculation on the "external causes" of late antique neoplatonism because we lack sufficient data. And in any event, there's been far too much of that anyway -- Age of Anxiety and all that.

Reconstructing the arguments in these texts in the best possible light is bloody hard work. They are complex and difficult. But I don't have the sense that I sometimes get when I'm writing on Aristotle that this, or something rather like this, might actually be true. But I do get the sense that unlocking Proclus will help us to better understand subsequent philosophy, and lots of it.

Fun, but a different kind of fun.

Greg said...

Thanks for the free advertisement of my review, and for the thought-provoking questions. I am an occasional reader of dissoi blogoi, but I never thought I would see anything I did discussed here!

I won't attempt a comprehensive reply, but a couple of points occur to me immediately:

1. I think most people working on logical empiricism stuff today would not go so far as to say that the Aufbau (or whatever) is true, but I DO think many (though not all) current folks would say that Carnap, Neurath, et al. got a lot more stuff right than they are given credit for. (This holds especially in the case of the Neurath people.) So the attitude is not 'Carnap is exactly right' but rather 'Let's figure out what Carnap had right, and give him credit for that, but let's also figure out where he came off the rails.' Michael Friedman's Dynamics of Reason is perhaps the most prominent example of a current philosopher trying to rehabilitate at least part of Carnap's views. (I'm willing to be wrong about this; this is just my impression of the field from personal experience/ anecdote.)

2. I may have expressed myself poorly in the review, but I did NOT mean to say that ancient scholars "now have greater license in speculating about 'internal' and 'external' causes of philosophical views, because a previous generation of scholars spent lots of time giving logical paraphrases of arguments in classical texts". All I meant to say was that people working in logical empiricism are focusing on etiological history of philosophy, and this may frustrate someone who wants to study detailed argument reconstructions of various logical empiricist views. I meant to be (and am in real life) ambivalent/ agnostic about the whether the argument reconstruction school is "flawed", "limited and distorting" as you say.

thanks again,

Anonymous said...

oh, well, mixing ''ancient scholars'' with ''ancient philosophy scholars'' leave me quite at a loss. there is no comparison between trained classical philologists and the dilettantish piss-poor hacks that have appeared in recent decades as ''ancient philosophy especialists'' to fill some more useless posts at philosophy departments.