Saturday, 6 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (1). Philosophical Uses Of Past Philosophical Texts

More than any other discipline, philosophy uses the main texts of past philosophy as an introduction, at both the bachelor’s and doctoral levels. It would be odd for someone to achieve a Ph.D. in philosophy without having studied in some depth one or more of the great philosophers of the past, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, or Kant. Moreover, the texts and (presumed) positions of past philosophers are often used to locate or frame present contributions to philosophy, and perhaps even to supply candidate solutions to today’s philosophical problems.

Philosophers make many uses of past texts, and so they should. Leaving aside non-essential uses, such as using a thick text for a doorstop or using editions in various colours as shelf decoration, properly philosophical uses can vary widely. A philosopher might simply skip and skim through some great work, using it as a sort of muse, without seeing herself as interpreting the text or assessing its arguments; her sole interest would be to prompt some ideas of The History of Philosophy as Philosophy 89 her own. A different use would be to read through a past text without paying close attention to its historical context or its author’s aims, in order to find potential answers to present philosophical problems and to assess them for their strength or weakness. In this approach, it is common to ‘fix up’ past positions by ignoring parts thought to be weak, such as the ‘psychological’ portions of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (in Strawson’s reading), or to downplay some aspects, such as Berkeley’s concern with spirit as an active substance (in Pappas’s work on Berkeley’s Thought). Such approaches may pay close attention to the entire text, and attempt to give it a coherent reading using concepts and terminology from the interpreter’s own time, as in Price’s ‘fixing up’ of Hume as a sense-data philosopher. Because neither the museful nor the fixer-upper use finds it necessary or desirable to attend to historical context, I classify them as non-contextual and non-historical uses (excluding them from the ‘history of philosophy’ proper).

Other philosophical users of past texts consider it essential to attend to historical context. These readers believe that the philosophical benefit of studying such texts is likely to increase through such attention.

Those who hold this view need not agree on the ultimate aim of reading historically, or on the extent of the relevant historical context. Some may simply realize that, because language changes over time and because philosophers in different periods have different background knowledge or beliefs, even to read the words on the page with comprehension necessitates some degree of immersion in the literature surrounding a given text. Thus, to understand Descartes’s use of the term ‘a priori’, it helps to be acquainted with a standard Aristotelian usage, meaning ‘reasoning from cause to effect’, by contrast with ‘a posteriori’ reasoning from effect to cause. Similarly, Kant’s use of the term ‘physiology’ in its root sense (stemming from Greek physis, or nature) to mean ‘science or doctrine concerning nature in general’ would be badly misread if taken as referring to bodily physiology, or, in his phrase about Locke’s ‘physiology of the human understanding’, to brain physiology. One might, of course, be well aware of the need for historical context to gain better access to past texts while still wanting to use those texts primarily as a source of raw material for solutions or answers to present philosophical problems. This would be historically sensitive reading in the service of fixer-upper ends.

Beyond this sort of aim, there are historically sensitive practices of reading that are also historically oriented in their philosophical methodology. By ‘historically oriented philosophical methodology’ I mean taking past texts seriously on their own terms, seeking to understand the problems and projects of past philosophy as they were, instead of only seeking a reading that solves a current philosophical problem. Such approaches need not be uncritical or nonevaluative, but their evaluations and criticisms will, in the first instance, be rendered according to standards implicit or explicit at the time the work was written. Discerning and employing such standards is itself no small task, requiring considerable philosophical work. Moreover, such approaches need not be without contemporary philosophical pay-off. But such pay-off occurs precisely because one has achieved an acquaintance with past, philosophy on its own terms (as far as is possible).

Some historically oriented methodologies do repudiate criticism. Their aim is simply to understand. This attitude is often accompanied by a historicist outlook—the belief that the philosophy of each age is (or should be seen as) simply an expression of the culture of the time, having no significance except as evidence about past thought. Such an outlook is more common among intellectual historians than historians of philosophy. Even so, such an attitude does not rule out all philosophical uses for history of philosophy, for even if past problems showed no real continuity with those of the present, we might still trace the previous evolution of our problems in order to isolate aspects that are vestiges of the past.

Although I wouldn’t want to rule out a radically historicist historiography of philosophy by fiat, I doubt the plausibility of the view that no philosophical topics or problems persist across long stretches of time, and I doubt that all past standards of evaluation are totally foreign to current standards. I would instead make the relation of past and present problems and standards into an object of investigation in its own right. A narrowly historicist approach would preclude that. So I will leave aside the historicist approach, and consider historically oriented approaches that aim for a present-day pay-off to be gained from historical understanding.

Several sorts of pay-off may be envisioned. One is simply to gain a genuine understanding of the landmark positions that frame contemporary discussions. Here, the idea is that, in making use of past philosophy, discovering Kant’s actual position (e.g.) on the nature of analytic judgements will be of more use than simply translating his position into a recent idiom. Accordingly, one would see Kantian analyticity as applying to concepts and judgements (taken as cognitive acts) and would be wary of interpretations in terms of sentences or word meanings. We can thereby come to appreciate both the similarities and the differences between Kant’s and more recent notions of analyticity. Seeing the differences enables us to ask what changed and why. We gain not only a more accurate fix on a landmark but also the potential of greater selfunderstanding through history.

Better understanding of the structure and development of past philosophy can yield further benefits. A thorough investigation of individual texts or philosophers may reveal assumptions that are deeply embedded, unargued, and even unavowed. Examination of the historical progression of such assumptions may allow us to gain new perspective on current assumptions, or to question general platitudes. Here, the unit of analysis extends beyond the individual text or philosopher to the historical development of philosophical traditions. One use of such an examination would be to diagnose current philosophical ills, as Richard Rorty aimed to do in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. More generally, examination of the shape of the history of philosophy, relating project to project, trend to trend, tradition to tradition, involves a search for philosophical structure in that history. Finding such structure would certainly add to our knowledge of what philosophy is and can be.

This taxonomy of uses of historically oriented methods is not exhaustive, but it captures some main instances of recent practice, as examples will illustrate.

Source : Sorell, Tom and G. A. J. Rogers.(2005), Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press).



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