The Parochialism of Mainstream History of Philosophy

Our histories of philosophy are astonishingly parochial. Across two and half millennia and a whole planet, there are basically only 9 historical figures you can write about without running the risk of marginalizing yourself as a young philosopher.

That’s Robert Pasnau, professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Western Civilization, Thought, and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in an interview at 3:AM Magazine. He continues:

And although we haven’t yet run out of fascinating things to say about any of these canonical 9, those of us who work in the history of philosophy know that there’s an enormous amount out there that is much more in need of study, and where younger scholars are much more likely to be able to do valuable work. The situation in philosophy is like what it would be in biology if we knew there were whole other unstudied phyla of living things and yet we just didn’t get around to studying them because we worried no one could get a job in that area.

Why is this the case?

In part, of course, we historians must take a good part of the blame, since we’re the ones with the training and proclivities to rectify the situation. But in part the problem arises because decisions in philosophy are made by a non-historical majority who have no idea how parochial our standard histories are, and who often don’t care much about that history anyway. Imagine if philosophy were folded into science departments and hiring decisions were made by a bunch of physicists, drawing on their undergraduate memories of what the central questions are.

The problem is not just the focus on a few great figures, but on the “provincialism” they represent:

An equally pressing need is that we find a way to globalize the history of philosophy. Indeed, here lies the field’s most scandalous sort of parochialism. For even though it is perfectly well known to everyone that there are rich and sophisticated philosophical traditions that span the globe—most obviously in China and India and across the Moslem world—this work has been almost entirely ignored by Anglo-American philosophy departments. That we do this is so commonplace as to rarely attract attention, but if one takes a step back and looks at our curricula with this issue in mind, our field is really just breathtakingly provincial. (That’s the most polite word I can think of. Other words come to mind.) Where philosophy is today is something like where literature departments were in the 1950s, but somehow the explosions of the canon that took place there, nearly half a century ago, simply passed right over philosophy departments. We’re the only place in the university where the West really is thought to be the Best.

Pasnau’s suggestion for how to fix this situation might seem radical:

It’s not realistic to expect that departments are going to hire significantly more historians, and it’s not even my view that they should. But we need to let go of the idea that every major department needs an Aristotle scholar, a Plato scholar, a Kant scholar, and so on. Of course, every department needs to be teaching these things. But we need to start encouraging younger scholars to branch out, in their research, into understudied areas. This is exactly what happens in most parts of philosophy, where folk work in an area for a decade or two and then move on to fresh subjects, and where those who find new topics to work on are the ones who get rewarded. In continental Europe, this is also what the history of philosophy looks like. There, our focus on a handful of Great Man is considered weirdly obsessive, and research projects tend to focus on enlarging the boundaries of the discipline. In the Anglo-American world, in contrast, historians of philosophy have been penned into the same field for a very long time, and we are grazing it down to the roots.

Why should we think the history of philosophy—let alone its parochialism and provincialism—is important?

It seems obvious to me that there is lots and lots of historical work that is just as worth reading. Really, how could it be otherwise? Given the up-and-down trajectory of the whole history of philosophy up to this point, how likely is it that we inhabit the one unique era when philosophy has managed so to transcend its past as to make all that past irrelevant?…

I know that some people won’t be much moved by any of this, because they just don’t buy the idea that there are these great neglected masterpieces that, when uncovered, will illuminate the current state of the field. But we’re not necessarily looking for more Great Men who have been lost to history. Just as any given issue of a journal may contain an article by some hitherto unsung figure who advances the field in some notable way, so too an otherwise undistinguished fourteenth-century friar might have had similarly worthy ideas about some particular topic. And given how fitfully philosophy advances, I don’t see much reason to think the next great advance in the field will come from a new journal article as opposed to a newly discovered text from the fourteenth century. If the latter is unlikely, that only because we put so few resources into this sort of historical excavation. 

The whole interview is here.

Jennifer Brial, “Le monde épinglé”

Some related posts: “Rules for History of Philosophy“, “Why Study the History of Philosophy?“, “A Defense of the History of Philosophy“, “The Lost Women of Modern Philosophy“, “Philosophical Diversity in U.S. Philosophy Departments“, “When Someone Suggests Expanding the Canon“, “Graphing the History of Philosophical Influences“, “A Visualization of Influence in the History of Philosophy.”

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