Monday, 8 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (3). Diagnosing Past Errors



In the past two decades, the most ambitious attempt to use contextually oriented history for philosophical ends is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which attempts to diagnose the central error of Western philosophy (as regards metaphysics and epistemology) from Plato onwards, focusing on Descartes, Locke, and Kant. According to Rorty, these philosophers developed a notion of knowledge as a mental ‘mirroring’ of reality. Philosophy’s task was to assess the ‘accuracy of representation’ of this mirroring, both in general and in the various domains of knowledge. Locke allegedly rendered this task as a natural-scientific project, while Kant helped set up philosophy as a ‘tribunal of pure reason’ before which other disciplines were to submit their credentials in order to receive their licences.

The accuracy of Rorty’s picture of the history of ancient and early modern philosophy has frequently been challenged. His rendering of the philosophers named is at best an outdated caricature, at worst a ‘just so’ story fabricated to portray the ‘authority’ of past philosophy as resting on a rhetorical ploy that would fail in the sophisticated present. The moral of his tale is that philosophy today can make no direct contribution to intellectual discussion. Its role can only be to ‘edify’, by describing the results of one (nonphilosophical) area of discourse to the participants of another (non-philosophical) area.

Here is an example of Rorty’s history. In a section on ‘Epistemology and Philosophy’s Self-Image’, he uses Descartes and Hobbes to exemplify the aims of early modern epistemology. According to Rorty, Descartes and Hobbes were out to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’. When these philosophers rejected the (Aristotelian) philosophy of the schools, ‘they did not think of themselves as substituting a new and better kind of philosophy—a better theory of knowledge, or a better metaphysics, or a better ethics’; nor did they think of themselves as offering ‘ ‘‘philosophical systems’’, but as contributing to the efflorescence of research in mathematics and mechanics’. In Rorty’s view, neither Descartes nor Hobbes distinguished ‘philosophy’ from ‘science’; they aimed mainly at effecting a separation between ‘ecclesiastical institutions’, on the one hand, and ‘science and scholarship’, on the other.

Rorty’s statements reveal his awareness that seventeenth-century philosophers were deeply involved in developing a new science, and that both Descartes and Hobbes addressed ecclesiastical authority. But his general characterization of their work badly misses the mark. Hobbes wrote works on optics, but made no significant contributions to science and was not much of a mathematician; he was complimentary toward Galileo, but offered his own arguments for a corpuscular conception of matter. Although Descartes was an original mathematician and did some work in mechanics, he did not think much of Galileo’s law for falling bodies, and had already formulated his own laws of motion when Galileo’s work was published. Moreover, each of their approaches is nothing if not systematic. It is true that they used the term ‘philosophy’ to mean systematic knowledge in general, as indeed the word was then commonly defined. But it is not true that they, or their century, did not recognize distinctions among ‘philosophical’ disciplines—that is, among the various theoretical bodies of knowledge. Descartes explicitly differentiated the disciplines listed in his famous tree of knowledge: metaphysics as the roots, physics as the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals as the branches. Although he held that metaphysics could provide principles for physics, he distinguished the two subject areas. Metaphysics was more general,
encompassing the ‘first elements’ of everything, including questions about the essences and existence of God and the soul. Descartes explicitly sought to place the new science on a new and better metaphysical foundation, in order (as he revealed in correspondence) to replace the Aristotelian scheme.

Examples could be multiplied of Rorty’s lack of immersion in the work of the philosophers about whom he writes. Instead, I want to highlight two ironies concerning his work.

First, he intends to divert philosophy from its alleged role of imperious judge to that of conversational participant. Had he examined the work of early modern philosophy more fully, he would have found that the specifically philosophical portions of their work did engage their times. Descartes’s metaphysics was aimed toward founding a new science of nature—not by engaging in rhetorical battle with the Roman Church, but by establishing, in a systematic philosophical manner, the fundamental principles of the new physics. Today we may doubt that Descartes accomplished his aim in the intended manner; for instance, we might question whether he actually could derive his specific laws of motion from metaphysical principles, as he said. But we should not doubt that Descartes provides (as do Locke, Kant, and others) a model of the philosopher as an intellectually engaged participant, not an aloof certifier of mirrors seeking to dupe the rest of culture into buying a mirror metaphor. A deeper pursuit of contextual history might have revealed a model from the past to aid Rorty in his effort to encourage philosophers to engage the intellectual and cultural work of their own times.

Second, although Rorty’s historiography is avowedly historicist, his historical narrative portrays a near perennial task for philosophy in its first 2,500 years: the assessment of knower as mirrorer. Rorty reports that he found teachers as diverse as Richard McKeon, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles Hartshorne to be ‘saying the same thing: that a ‘‘philosophical problem’’ was a product of the unconscious adoption of the assumptions built into the vocabulary in which the problem was stated—assumptions which were to be questioned before the problem itself was taken seriously’. Accordingly, ‘philosophical problems’ appear or disappear, and change their shapes ‘as a result of new assumptions or vocabularies’. Rorty endorses a conception of philosophy’s history ‘as a series, not of alternative solutions to the same problems, but of quite different sets of problems’. He adopts the ‘historicism’ I described in section 1.

Yet Rorty’s book seeks to trace the single image or idea of the ‘glassy essence’ of the mind from Plato through Descartes, Locke, and Kant, into its linguistic transformation in the twentieth century. In this story, the vocabulary changes, but the problems (and many of the solutions) remain the same: the problems pertain to the epistemology of mirroring. In the name of historicism, Rorty has flattened out the history of philosophy. He has failed to see how it could be true both that philosophy had been concerned since the time of Plato with questions about the knower’s relation to the known, and also that the theories and purposes of philosophers had changed from epoch to epoch, or even from writer to writer. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant each had a relationship to the new science, but the relationships differed. Descartes, for instance, thought that metaphysics could provide a priori foundations for the new science, discernible through pure intellect. Locke, by contrast, cast philosophy as an ‘under-laborer’ to the sciences, and he denied that the source of knowledge allegedly used by Descartes, the pure intellect operating independently of the senses, even exists. But he shared with Descartes an interest in the implications of a corpuscular view of matter—which he introduced as the best hypothesis available for the description of sensory perception.

Rorty’s failure to capture the aims or diagnose the ills of Western philosophy does not show that history cannot provide diagnostic results, or that works of ambitious historical sweep should be avoided. But it does suggest that such efforts should draw on the extant work in history of philosophy. That type of work was in a comparative slump during the late 1960s to mid-1970s, when Rorty wrote his book, and in any case he chose to wave off its recent results. A final irony is that Rorty’s image of the philosophy of the past is remarkably similar to the actual practice of the detached and imperious analytic philosophers of the 1960s, the very time when he framed his project.

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

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