Saturday, 6 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy




Philosophers have been talking about their predecessors since before Plato and Aristotle. The history of philosophy as a subdiscipline of philosophy has been recognized since the eighteenth century, when subdivisions beyond the traditional logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy became generally established. Philosophers have addressed the shape of philosophy’s history as a philosophical topic since Kant and Hegel. At the same time, philosophers as diverse as Descartes, Kant, and Russell have made disparaging remarks about the philosophical benefit of studying the history of philosophy, especially, as Russell put it, if done in a manner ‘truly historical’. Here, I take ‘truly historical’ to mean history of philosophy that, in framing its interpretations of past arguments and doctrines, pays considerable attention to the intellectual and cultural context in which past philosophy was produced.

In recent decades, a renewed interest in the history of philosophy has been noted, which implies that interest had previously been in decline. As early as 1970, Michael Ayers could suggest that ‘more philosophers are now taking the history of philosophy seriously than has been the case for some time’. Since then, further claims of renewal have been made, along with more disparagement. In the past twenty years, appointments in the history of philosophy in major graduate departments have risen (in anglophone universities), especially in early modern philosophy. Ancient philosophy had representatives of historical and philological approaches throughout the twentieth century (in most major universities), as did medieval philosophy (in smaller numbers). The primary change in recent attitudes has concerned early modern philosophy (through Kant). I therefore focus initially on that period and, within it, on ‘theoretical’ as opposed to moral and political philosophy—on ‘metaphysics and epistemology’ broadly construed, as we now say.

Although Ayers’s remark accurately captures a feeling that the history of philosophy had been in decline during the 1960s, it is important to recall that contextually oriented history of philosophy was being done throughout the twentieth century. Restricting the discussion to the English-speaking world (it should be generally recognized that the history of philosophy was alive and well in France, Germany, and Italy), instances of such history include E. A. Burtt’s 1925 book on early modern science and metaphysics; A. B. Gibson’s 1932 and S. V. Keeling’s 1934 books on Descartes; N. K. Smith’s studies, editions, and translations of Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant, published between 1902 and 1953; A. O. Lovejoy’s 1936 book on the great chain of being (among other works); John Passmore’s 1951 book on Hume; John Yolton’s 1956 book on Locke; and Richard Popkin’s 1960 book on scepticism. These authors were trained at and held positions at a variety of universities throughout the English-speaking academic world, in Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, the United States, and New Zealand. In the United States, Columbia and Johns Hopkins were prominent centres for research in the history of philosophy, but in fact such research was widespread in doctoral programmes.

The quality of work of the authors listed, and the continuing influence of many of them, leave no doubt that significant Englishlanguage work in history of philosophy was being produced from the turn of the century into the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, Ayers is not alone, or incorrect, in thinking that by 1970 the atmosphere for history was negative, not only in England but also in America. However, this perception needs to be qualified in several ways. First, the negative attitude was not new, especially in England; in addition to Russell, C. D. Broad and H. H. Price suggested that although the great philosophers of the past should certainly be read and studied, little or nothing of philosophical significance was to be gained by adopting historical or contextual methods. Second, it seems likely that any decline in the quality and relative quantity of work in the history of philosophy during the 1960s, especially among new Ph.D.s, was due in part to a decline in the teaching (or learning) of important scholarly skills, including the ability to read Latin, French, and German. Third, there were national differences. The anti-historical attitudes of Russell, Broad, Price, and others had more immediate influence in England (despite the ongoing work of G. H. R. Parkinson, W. von Leyden, and others), while the oft-noted ‘analytic’ antipathy to history in the United States arose somewhat later (peaking in the 1960s and early 1970s). These points do not negate the fact of anti-historical sentiment, but they do restrict its spatio-temporal scope.

The fourth and perhaps most important qualification is that, despite the feeling in 1970 that history had previously been looked down upon, the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s saw a blossoming of work in the historiography of philosophy—or the philosophy of the history of philosophy—especially in the United States. This work was in part fostered by Lovejoy and his colleagues (such as George Boas and Philip Wiener) in the history of ideas movement (a movement that spawned much work in the history of philosophy, as well as influencing intellectual history generally). More widely, the historiography of philosophy was pursued by Maurice Mandelbaum at Johns Hopkins, Paul Oscar Kristeller and John Hermann Randall at Columbia, Lewis White Beck at Rochester, Harold R. Smart at Cornell, Haskell Fain at Wisconsin, and James Collins at St Louis University.9 To this flourishing in the United States may be added Passmore in Australia, von Leyden at Durham, and W. H. Walsh at Edinburgh. These authors took a philosophical attitude to the question of the necessity for and philosophical relevance of historically and contextually oriented history of philosophy. The more recent works in this vein, such as the 1978 book by Jonathan Re´e, Ayers, and Adam Westoby, articles by Yolton (1975a, 1975b, 1985, 1986) and Richard Watson (1980), or the 1992 book by Jorge J. E. Gracia, and the collections edited by Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (1984), A. J. Holland (1985), Peter Hare (1988), and T. Z. Lavine and V. Tejera (1989), continue (and sometimes refer to) a well-established literature.

Against this backdrop, there is little basis for today’s contextually oriented historians to consider themselves lonely revolutionaries. Nor should they bemoan a lack of appreciation from ahistorical colleagues. As in the past, the only remedy for lack of appreciation is to do good work and make its significance accessible to nonspecialists, including not only other philosophers but also the wider audience of humanists, scientists, and readers more generally (there are of course no guarantees). Here I want to consider ways in which the study of past philosophy has been used and is used in philosophy, and to make a case for the philosophical value and necessity of a contextually oriented approach. I shall consider some uses of past texts and of history that reveal limits to non-contextual history, including Strawson’s Kant, Rorty’s grand diagnosis of the Western tradition, and Friedman on Kant’s philosophy of mathematics. I shall then consider ways in which the history of philosophy may become philosophically deeper by becoming more historical, and instances in which history of philosophy of various stripes has or may deliver a philosophical pay-off. Along the way, I shall urge historians of philosophy to attend not only to individual philosophers and their problems and projects, but also to the larger shape of the history of philosophy and its narrative themes.


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

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