Thursday, 11 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (7). Shapes Of History



The positions and arguments of major philosophers are understood within a framework of assumptions, often tacit, about the larger shape of philosophy’s past. These assumptions concern the motivating problems, aims, and also the achievements of past philosophers or ‘schools’ of philosophers. Evaluation of achievements may be expected to vary as the present philosophical climate varies. None the less, historians of philosophy, in pursuing contextual methodology, should seek as much as possible to work upward from past philosophers’ own statements in establishing the aims or philosophical motives of individuals or schools. They might also seek, in the first instance, to gauge their evaluations by contextually appropriate standards.

Often, philosophical history has been given shape by dividing philosophers into competing schools, characterized as responding to one or more central problems. Kant divided the philosophers before himself into ‘intellectualists’ (like Plato) and ‘sensualists’ (like Epicurus) with regard to the primary object of knowledge, and, with respect to the origin of knowledge, into ‘empiricists’ (Aristotle and Locke) and ‘noologists’ (those who follow nous, or the intellect: Plato and Leibniz). These dichotomies were to be overcome by, or synthesized in, his own critical philosophy. Others in Kant’s time added a ‘sceptical’ school. In late-nineteenthcentury histories, the period from Descartes to Kant was variously categorized, in terms of nationality; metaphysical versus critical approaches (with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume among the latter); systematic, empirical, and critical approaches; and rationalist, empiricist, sceptical, and critical ones.

In more recent historical narratives, the theme of scepticism has been used to characterize the development of early modern philosophy within a framework of rationalism, empiricism, and critical philosophy. In this shaping of history, Descartes raised a sceptical challenge that he was unable to answer adequately; Locke, Berkeley, and Hume pursued it further, in successive steps; and Kant sought to answer Hume’s sceptical challenge with his first Critique. As an organizing theme for early modern philosophy, scepticism has obvious limits, since Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke paid scant attention to it, Descartes used scepticism as a tool but was not seriously threatened by it, and Kant had little interest in discussing scepticism about the external world until he was accused of it in early reviews of his first Critique. Further, Berkeley’s classification as an empiricist, proto-Humean sceptic can be challenged, notwithstanding his use of certain Lockean principles and Hume’s subsequent use of Berkeleyan arguments. Berkeley affirmed a ‘notion’ of spirit as an active substance, upon which he sought to establish an immaterialist metaphysics—not a particularly ‘empiricist’ project.

Given the renewed interest in history of philosophy, there has in fact been surprisingly little explicit discussion of periodization, classification, and narrative themes. If the sceptical master narrative for early modern philosophy is abandoned (as it should be, while acknowledging various sceptical traditions), new themes and shapes will need to be developed. These should take into account the early modern penchant for investigating the power and scope of human understanding (which doesn’t require sceptical motivation), the relations between philosophy and the sciences, and developments in value theory.

The shape of philosophy’s history from the late nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century has yet to be formed. In anglophone scholarship, efforts toward creating this history include work in the history of ‘analytic’ philosophy and the history of the philosophy of science. The task is large, and the surface has barely been scratched. In the history of analytic philosophy, beyond the emphasis on logic
and language as pursued by Michael Dummett and others, further themes need investigating. These should address the widespread philosophical interest, in the first half of the twentieth century, in sense perception, knowledge, and mind. Perhaps as a result of the ensconcement of behaviourist attitudes within later analytic philosophy, little attention has been paid to early-twentieth-century theories of mind and the mind–body relation. One context for these topics is the writings of the neo-Kantians on the distinction between the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. Thus far, work on the history of the philosophy of science in the twentieth century has focused mainly on the Vienna Circle and its surroundings. The topic might be widened to include American approaches initiated before 1930 and carried on afterward, French work in history and philosophy of science, and the ongoing relation between science and metaphysics. Sufficient critical distance from the reflexive charge of ‘psychologism’ may have been attained by now to permit the extensive turn-of-the-century relations between philosophy and psychology to be studied on their own terms, and in a way that recognizes the many influences of the new psychology on philosophy at this time.

As philosophers, historians of philosophy should be prepared to examine their enterprise philosophically. Discussions in the earlier historiographical literature on the methodology of interpreting particular texts have continued in recent work. However, larger questions about periodization and narrative themes, also raised in
the earlier literature, have not been vigorously pursued. The recent bounty of work in the history of philosophy should provide the materials needed to support explicit reflection on the shapes of philosophical history.

As philosophers, historians of philosophy should also be prepared to relate the positions of the past (contextually understood) to the positions of the present, and to offer to present-day philosophy insights gleaned from history on both the structures of and solutions to philosophical problems.


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

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