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.
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.”
I’m curious what hiring committee members think. How likely would you be to support the hire of an historian who works on an off-the-radar figure?Report
Right as I was beginning to mentally sort this problem into the yet-another-problem-in-philosophy-that-would-likely-go-away-if-hiring-would-increase file, I came across this statement from the author:
“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.”
Maybe it’s not realistic to expect departments to hire significantly more philosophers, but I wonder why the author doesn’t hold the view that they should.Report
Presumably the view Pasnau doesn’t hold is that philosophy departments should have a higher proportion of historians. Nothing he said implies that philosophy departments should not be bigger.Report
Path dependence combined with post-purchase rationalization is very difficult to break.Report
I chuckled at “Moslem world”. Pretty sure the only contemporary American English speakers who use that spelling are alt-righters/white supremacists trying to signal their contempt for Islam and Muslims, which I gather was not Pasnau’s intent. (Also, I think “Islamic world” would be more accurate than “Muslim world”, but I’m no expert here and would be happy to be corrected.)
Personally, I’m skeptical that the solution will be hiring more historians to specialize in these fields. It seems more likely to me that the answer will be philosophers doing more to appeal to and draw on these other traditions. Obvious people who can play that role would be current historians who can do more to situate e.g. medieval European Christian philosophy as being in dialogue with medieval European, African, and Middle Eastern Islamic philosophy. But even non-historians can probably draw on some of the arguments in a non-expert way. This creates a more natural demand for specialized scholars in those traditions.Report
Interesting that the use of a single word can lead to someone being racist, white supremacist, etc… Ghandi used the term Musselman to refer to Muslims in India back in the day. Since this is no longer a term anyone uses and few used then, does this make Ghandi a white supremacist and racist? The focus on every little term, spelling, etc… is getting very old when used to denigrate opposing views. And, just to be clear, you will never find anyone more liberal than me, but, liberal brothers and sisters, your attacks like this one have fed the trend that elected Trump. Offer reasonable arguments and please desist from such nit picking of terms.Report
?? How is the above an attack though? The poster explicitly says that Pasnau wasn’t being racist etc. I don’t see how/why one would read the above as anything more than a side-observation about antiquated spelling.Report
Nice to see someone actually read my comment!Report
I’m not sure how Gandhi using the term “Musselman” is supposed to be a counterexample to my claim about typical use of the term “Moslem” by ***contemporary*** ***American*** English speakers. Never mind the fact that, as Eagle said, I explicitly noted that I didn’t think that this was the author’s intent.
I do agree that people misreading the mildest discussion of racism and then having a kneejerk reaction to it is a big part of why we got Trump. But it’s not clear how many concessions we ought to make to the feelings of people who aren’t holding up their part of the conversation.
And I, personally, am not a liberal. I’ve just paid enough attention to the world around me that I know what it generally means when someone uses antiquated language like “Moslem”. It’s asshole-signaling and it’s done deliberately. In this case, I assume Pasnau is just a bit out of touch. But your average person using the antiquated spelling is doing it performatively, from what I’ve seen. And here’s a WaPo article from three years ago (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/12/why-j-k-rowling-is-so-incensed-about-rupert-murdochs-tweet-about-moslems/?utm_term=.a7c9c2012c9c) noting divergence in usage.
Finally, lots of opposing views are stupid, or wicked, or unreasonable. They deserve denigration.Report
I chuckled at the fact that you chuckled.Report
Serious question here: when individuals are interviewed for these things, do they themselves type out their answers, or do they have an actual spoken conversation which is then transcribed by someone else? If the latter, then there are zero grounds for implicating Pasnau in any way at all for the peculiar spelling (unless those who are interviewed are allowed to review the transcript for material errors–but then it’s not clear that an instance of an oddly spelled word would qualify as the sort of material error one would be looking for).Report
When I did an interview w/ Richard Marshall at 3AM, he sent me the questions (which were really good! It’s clearly a lot of work for him to work them up) and I wrote answers. I might have briefly looked over the whole thing before it was published, but I was the one who wrote out my own answers to the questions. My impression was that that was the normal format, but I can’t say for sure if it is the only one. (I don’t know what’s done with the “what is it like to be a philosopher” interviews, but I expect it’s similar. Justin or Daniel Kaufman or someone who has done one of those can say for sure.)Report
Thanks for this peek behind the curtain! There is a pleasant conversational aspect to these interviews that I would have thought comes about through having a spoken conversation. In the Pasnau interview, for example, there’s an interjection about having “surprisingly progressive sentiments.” When read, it’s natural to view this as having occurred in real time. I gather, then, that there’s some back and forth after a first round of responses is submitted. Is that right?Report
There was a little bit of back and forth (some additional questions or modifications), but at least in the interview that I did, most of the questions were written out beforehand and sent to me. I assumed this was normal, but perhaps there’s a greater amount of back and forth with other people. I thought that Marshall did a really a good job of setting up a good series of questions. I assume it really does take a lot of work. (Answering them took more work than I would have guessed, too.)Report
Yes, that’s how it was with my What is it Like to be a Philosopher interview, although we went around several times, as Clifford added new questions, in light of my responses to previous ones.Report
I think it’s funny that one can pursue an entire education in philosophy and end up labeled an historian.
I also think it’s worrisome. One thing philosophy departments must avoid is becoming nothing more than history departments.Report
When I was on the job market, I listed my AOS as History of Ancient Greek Philosophy. I was asked about this during one interview–why add “History of” to what would otherwise be a perfectly good phrase to denote my AOS? I explained that part of the development of philosophical methods, concepts, etc., during the period involved an explicit awareness of the kinds of things predecessors had done–whether others who had taken some kind of naturalistic turn or those whom Plato or Aristotle would include among the muthologoi. For whatever this is worth, my response elicited immediate positive comments, and I ended up with an invitation for an on-campus interview.
More substantively, nothing in this approach suggests that one will (or should) “end up labeled an historian.” I’m a philosopher, and all of my colleagues recognize me as one.Report
I appreciate the story. I’m always interested in committees’ reactions to certain AOSs.
Your conclusion puzzles me, however. Your research expertise is the History of Ancient Greek Philosophy but you resist the label ‘historian’?Report
Thanks for helping me to see that I wasn’t as precise as I should have been. I had in mind what I took to be the extraordinarily narrow use of the term ‘historian’ in your initial comment–a use that I found to be confirmed by the closing phrase to your initial comment (“nothing more than history departments”). It seemed to me that you were using the term ‘historian’ in a way that made it incompatible with conditions under which it would be appropriate to use the term ‘philosopher’: if historians are not philosophers, then it surely is the case that we don’t want philosophy departments to become nothing more than history departments (presumably by hiring historians as opposed to philosophers). But if I’m wrong about that–if you’ll allow that there is a genuinely philosophical practice properly called ‘history of philosophy’–then I’m happy to embrace the label (“historian of philosophy”), and I’d have no problem with philosophy departments hiring historians of that sort (though I’d agree with you that they probably shouldn’t hire historians of that sort exclusively). Historians of that sort are philosophers, after all.Report
I wouldn’t want to say ‘philosopher’ and ‘historian’ can’t apply to one and the same person. (Sorry if I gave that impression). I think they can, even at the same time.
But I think we should maintain a genuine distinction here between operations and disciplines. Historical work can involve doing philosophy; philosophical work can involve having to do historical work; but philosophy and history as such, both as practices and bodies of knowledge, are not the same.
I also think we should keep philosophy departments focused on what philosophy is primarily about. On this matter, I follow Aquinas, who famously remarked that philosophy is not about what others have said but about the truth of things. I think philosophy departments should avoid becoming nothing more than history departments in that they must avoid presenting philosophy to others as but the study of what others have said; it is foremost the study of reality at its highest level.
As long as philosophy students are taught this about philosophy, I don’t have any concern with so-called historians of philosophy occupying, even entirely, our departments of philosophy.Report
Who are the nine historical philosophers that (according to Pasnau) you can specialise in without the risk of marginalising yourself?
Plus who? Hegel? Marx? Nietzsche? Schopenhauer?
Nowadays I would say you were safe with any of the above.
Did I marginalise myself as a much younger man by specialising in Bertrand Russell’s Ethics?Report
My guess: Plato and Aristotle are probably on the list.Report
Definitely need to add Plato and Aristotle, and probably subtract Hobbes. I suspect that’s Pasnau’s list: Plato + Aristotle + the canonical early modern 7.Report
But no Aquinas? Surely on every medievalist’s list of philosophers. Perhaps even Augustine also.Report
I think the idea was supposed to be that doing a dissertation on someone outside of this list of 9 people is very risky for students – it makes getting a job very hard – and that it’s hard to get “mainstream” attention working on other figures . I think that’s probably a bit over-put, but not too far off. (It would be especially risky if you couldn’t say, plausibly, that you could also teach or write on some of these figures, I’d guess.) For good or ill, there are not that many jobs in medieval philosophy on offer, so being a specialist on Aquinas or Augustine is therefore more risky than being a specialist on Plato or Aristotle or Hume or whatever. At least, that’s what I took Pasnau to be getting at.Report
That’s right. Practically every department in the country, whether tiny or huge, whether research- or teaching-focused, thinks they need someone to teach Plato & Aristotle and needs someone to teach the canonical early modern course. Apart from (most?) Catholic institutions, there aren’t all that many places that would think of medieval philosophy as a “must offer” course in their department.Report
I think Matt sums it up below. Aquinas easily constitutes a canonical figure, but an AOS in Aquinas’s thought also easily marginalizes you. Modern philosophy rules the day in higher ed (American at least).Report
Well erjd and Eric you are probably right about Pasnau’s list. But in that case what he says seems simply silly to me. You are not going to do yourself any damage as an historian of philosophy by specializing in Hobbes, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche or Adam Smith. Thomas Reid would be a fairly safe bet too. I’ve known reasonably successful academics who have specialized in Mandeville, and Hutcheson. I suppose that a person who specialized in Gassendi, Richard Price or Samuel Pufendorf might be at a slight disadvantage as compared with a Kantian, but only if they COULD NOT teach courses on more prominent figures, which they usually can. So perhaps the claim is this: If you specialize in Kant but don’t know all that much about anybody else you will be less disadvantaged than if you specialize in Pufendorf but don’t know much about anybody else. I guess that’s true, but I don’t see it as a major cause for concern.
Perhaps there is something else, that Pasnau might be saying. It often seems to me that if we look at historical controversies, , it is the charismatic big-name philosophers who are in the wrong and their relatively plodding opponents who are in the right. (Price and Reid are mostly correct in their criticisms of Hume and Ewing is mostly correct in his criticisms of Wittgenstein.) So what Pasnau may be saying is that we pay too much attention to the philosophical superstars of the past and not enough to their dull dog critics. If that’s what he’s saying then I think he is right, but in that case the problem is not so much provincialism as a superstar fixation. And since it is provincialism that worries him, perhaps that is not what he is saying after all.
Finally there is one one argument that Pasanu puts forward that seems to me absurd.
‘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*’.
There is an obvious reason why (in many cases) the latest journal article is more likely to be illuminating than a recently discovered fourteenth century text. *There have been massive advances in our knowledge of the both the natural and the social worlds since the fourteenth century.* And in so far as the development of philosophy is conditioned by developments in the natural, the social and the mathematical sciences, an article written in the knowledge of those developments is less likely to be wrong than a text written by somebody who (however smart) was necessarily ignorant of what we would collectively discover over the next five centuries. To take an obvious example, people who write about human nature in ignorance of the modern Darwinian synthesis are more likely to make mistakes than those with an up-to-date understanding of human evolution. I teach a course on Hobbes, Hume and their critics and I constantly ask both myself and my students what difference it makes to the theories of human nature and human society that we discuss if we take evolution into account. It is not that Hobbes, Hume and their critics are not worth discussing or do not have interesting things to say. If I thought that I would not bother to teach them. It is just that what they have to say has to be reassessed and updated in the light of recent history and recent discoveries. It is no doubt true that philosophy advances rather fitfully. (The logical positivists thought of themselves as in the vanguard of philosophy though almost every major tenet of logical positivism is now regarded as a mistake.) But this is a lot less true of the various sciences on which philosophy partially depends. This is not to say of course that there is nothing to be learned from the fourteenth century friar. But we are much more likely to learn from that friar if the topic of his enquiries is relatively unaffected by recent scientific developments. Thus he is more likely to be illuminating if he writing about logic (or the philosophy of logic) than if he is writing about the nature of matter or about the nature of scientific enquiry.
Let me stress that I am not against the history of philosophy as a sub-discipline or against philosophizing in dialogue with the mighty (and the not-so-mighty) dead. A lot of what I do, both as a teacher and a researcher, fits the latter description. What gets my goat are the smug and facile arguments advanced by some historians of philosophy to justify their existenceReport
Subtract Hobbes, add Plato and Aristotle.
I’m not quite sure how Spinoza ended up as one of the titans of modern philosophy. Was he more influential than, say, Malebranche? Maybe he was, but he just seems like the odd man out to me.Report
Merely taking into account the influence that Spinoza has had in the development of post-Kantian German Idealism should put him above Malebranche rconferning their being influential.Report
I can see that, although post-Kantian German Idealism is most definitely not part of the parochial history of philosophy. We jump from Kant to Frege, unless for some reason or another Mill is included.Report
I have two unconnected thoughts here. First, any early career philosopher who focuses on a figure that’s outside the canon is taking a risk, and I don’t just mean a career risk. If you spend a year researching Kant or Aristotle you know that’s likely to pay off, though given how mined out those guys are the payoff might not be that big. If you study a figure that’s less central to the canon or even outside it then there’s more chance you might come up with something truly original. But there’s also a larger chance you’ll come away with not much at all. I speak from some experience here. When I was working on my dissertation I spent some time studying Schelling’s work thinking he might have something interesting to say about how Kant tries to handle moral evil and the problem of moral evil more generally. I pretty much decided he didn’t though. I would like to see a world where young philosophers can get away with taking risks like that, but it’s not the world we live in, and I don’t know how to create that world.
Second, I wish articles like this would give us more concrete advice about how to do what they recommend. How does someone go about researching less central figures? How do you come up with a project? How can you get good guidance when no one in your department might be an expert on the figure you’re interested in? What are the hurdles to publishing and how might you get over them? How might you pitch yourself for a job? (On this one I can actually see some advantages since if you study say Herman Cohen or Suarez you might stand out from the 100 people piling on epicycles to some worn out debate about Aristotle or Kant). Anyway, I’m all for “We can do better” but it would also be good to hear more “And here’s how we can do better.”Report
I actually tried to offer an initial idea on taking a crack at this in my comment above: try to use one’s current specialization in X and draw a bit on Y, showing that Y has light to shed on X. (This strikes me as a standard strategy for anyone working on niche topics: sell yourself as a philosopher of science not just a philosopher of biology, as a metaphysician not just a philosopher of religion, etc.) In the case of underdiscussed historical figures, it might involve just taking some arguments they appear to make and showing that their arguments may give us an interesting approach to a well-known problem. If enough people are doing that with, say, al-Ghazali, then eventually people will need to know al-Ghazali a bit, which will incentivize hiring al-Ghazali (or at least medieval Islamic) specialists.Report
I think that the piece by Christina Van Dyke (below, and linked in the Pasnau interview) has some pretty good tips regarding this (mainly aimed at scholars wanting to incorporate more medieval women, but it seems to me that her strategies could also be applicable more widely).
Sam Duncan writes: I wish articles like this would give us more concrete advice about how to do what they recommend. How does someone go about researching less central figures?
I’ll assume that Sam is interested in the history of philosophy for philosophy’s sake rather than the history of philosophy for history’s sake (though clearly the two are not mutually exclusive). The history of philosophy for philosophy’s sake is a necromantic art in which the object of the exercise is to resurrect the mighty (and sometimes the not-so-mighty) dead in order to get into an argument with them, the reason being that we suspect that they might have something to say that is either importantly right or interestingly wrong. So the question becomes: how do you resurrect a philosopher who has been hitherto neglected by the other necromancers? I will answer Sam’s more detailed questions seriatim
1) How does someone go about researching less central figures?
2) How do you come up with a project?
3) How can you get good guidance when no one in your department might be an expert on the figure you’re interested in?
4) What are the hurdles to publishing and how might you get over them?
5)How might you pitch yourself for a job?
1) ‘How does someone go about researching less central figures?’ Pick a less central figure who you have some reason to think might have something interesting say about a range of philosophical issues. Read their stuff. Do enough reading around to ensure that you have a least a preliminary idea of the problem-situation to which their work is addressed.
2) ‘How do you come up with a project?’ Do a rational reconstruction of (some of) the key arguments getting them as close to being logically valid as you can make them. Then ask yourself the following question: Is your author either a) importantly right or b) interestingly wrong about some reasonably-sized philosophical issue? If the answer to either a) or b) is ‘yes’ then not only have you got yourself a project but it is already half-completed. You simply write up the results. If the author is neither importantly right nor interestingly wrong about something worth discussing, then cut your losses and move on. (Sam did the right thing with Schelling.)
3) ‘How can you get good guidance when no one in your department might be an expert on the figure you’re interested in?’ What makes you think that you need this kind of guidance? I’ve done a lot of work on two historical figures, Hume and Russell. Though neither of these is exactly obscure, I have focused on aspects of their work that were relatively neglected , Russell’s ethics (on which topic his writings were widely dismissed as derivative and uninteresting) and Hume on is and Ought (a much-discussed topic in the fifties and sixties which fell into abeyance during the seventies and eighties). Throughout my entire career (and that includes my time as a postgraduate) I have known more about these topics than anyone else in the departments in which I have worked. Though I have sometimes sought help wrt specific technical issues (usually on logic) I neither needed nor sought guidance of the kind of the kind that you seem to have in mind, which anyway would not have been forthcoming. I am inclined to say that if you have not got the chops to go it alone then you are in the wrong line of business.
4) If you have followed my advice you will have one or more papers with abstracts of the following form: Hitherto neglected philosopher X has something interesting to say about topic Y. I analyse his/her arguments and explain why he/she is importantly right/ instructively wrong. Such a paper (if well done) would be a safe bet for an historical journal and a good bet for a more general philosophical journal.
5) How might you pitch yourself for a job? On this issue Sam answers his own question. ‘I can actually see some advantages since if you study say Herman Cohen or Suarez you might stand out from the 100 people piling on epicycles to some worn out debate about Aristotle or Kant.’ However, if you have abstracts of the kind I have suggested (and the actual or forthcoming papers to match) you simply incorporate them into your CV or the statement of your research interests, and you will have something that will hopefully catch the eyes of competent search committees. Of course, if you are selling yourself as a historian of philosophy you will need to make it clear that you are competent to teach courses on the Big Names.
PS Just to forestall an idiotic objection which I sometimes get when I develop these ideas: ONE of the things you may discover in dialogue with that dead is that the issues that interest us are in some sense the wrong issues; that they were onto something that we have collectively missed or that we have misconceived a philosophical question/range of issues that the philosopher in question conceives in a radically different way. So although you may *start* your enquiry with a specific range of issues in mind it does not follow that that is where you end up. Of course a paper of the form ‘Hitherto neglected philosopher X suggests we have radically misconceived the question/issue Y. I analyse his/her arguments and explain why as he/she points out we should REALLY be discussing question/issue Y*’ is also likely to be of interestReport
Charles Pigden, This is good advice for an associate or full professor but I don’t think it works as well for grad students and I’m not so sure it’s great for the assistant professor either. If you’re trying to break into studying some figure as a grad student you absolutely need some guidance. If the advice is well if you need help you shouldn’t be in the field then we might as well abolish grad schools as such and turn clever students with philosophy BAs loose on their own for 5-7 years. How might a grad student who’s say interested in Jonathan Edwards or al-Ghazali know if she should pursue that or not? And if so how is she to know where to start? Also Hume and Russell aren’t exactly fair comparisons since they wrote in English and there are good critical editions of their works. That’s not true for say Salomon Ben Maimon, Crusius, or even al-Ghazali . Or is branching out to more obscure philosophers something can only do mid-career or later? I suspect it might be but I hope I’m wrong. I guess maybe the lesson should be that one reason mid-career and later people should familiarize themselves with less central figures is precisely so they can guide such grad students. (Also random unrelated thing: I think it’s pretty cool you wrote a philosophical paper on Martin Luther. It’s in my giant to read stack though it may be a a while).Report
I think the situation is different in ancient philosophy, where for some time now (at least 30 years) it’s been acceptable for young scholars to write dissertations on, e.g., important pre-Socratic figures like Parmenides, or Hellenistic philosophers like some of the Stoics, Skeptics/Sextus, or Plotinus. Usually in such cases, it’s still true, they have good job possibilities because they’d be likely to be prepared to teach the standard figures too (Plato and Aristotle).Report
That’s certainly true when it comes to the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophy. I’m less confident that there’s a similar green light for late antique philosophy — though anyone writing a PhD thesis on Iamblichus, Syrianus, Proclus, Hermias, Damascius, Olympiodorus, Philoponus and so on will VERY CERTAINLY know his or her Plato and Aristotle as well, and thus could teach courses on mainstream ancient. Over the past couple of decades I’ve found this a puzzling feature of North American philosophy. While work on late antiquity has taken off in Europe, in the USA it is still largely foreign territory. I can see this in citations of my own work and the work of others in the field. It’s being read in Europe. But America? Not so much.
This is puzzling to me, especially when it comes to topics for PhD theses. The thesis should make some (suitably modest) original contribution. But the intersection of the marginally plausible with the slightly original in relation to Parmenides or even Sextus Empiricus is now looking pretty thin. However, there are big fat books from late antiquity that have barely been explored; let alone mined out. I am interested in speculations about why what my own supervisor called “The Plotinus Wall” still stands in the US. (Like Hadrian’s wall, it marks the boundary of respectable history of ancient philosophy. “Beyond here be nut-jobs — painted blue with woad and frothing about theurgy!”)
Some initial hypotheses:
1) Because the late antique commentary tradition presupposes pretty synoptic knowledge of Classical philosophy as well as mathematics, astronomy, astrology, rhetoric, etc PhD students are warned off because they are thought to lack enough background knowledge.
2) Too few of the texts are available in modern language translations and the Greek is a bit weird sometimes.
3) Good work in the area requires that you see the commentaries in the context of the broader intellectual and cultural life of the late Roman Empire (and that’s too much history for many American folk’s notion of the history of philosophy).
4) Late antique Neoplatonism is insane in its conclusions, and invokes the authority of Plato in its arguments. Therefore it is valueless drivel and studying it would be a waste of time. (But of course the enthusiastic adherent of Parmendes’ monism looks a lot like a candidate for the psych ward too and Aristotle doesn’t even bother to tell us who ‘the wise’ are whose endoxa we should treat as pretty authoritative.)
I do find this situation genuinely puzzling and i would be interested in the thoughts of others about why the canon of ancient philosophy seems so seriously truncated in North America when it is so clearly not truncated in this way in Europe or indeed in Australia — to the extent that we’ve got people working in Ancient down here.Report
I wonder if maybe it’s due to the “Neo”. People haven’t read Plotinus, Iamblachus, etc. They assume that the “Neo” means it’s derivative — even though generations of scholars in the area stress it’s not. And so they assume it’s a footnote to Plato, or a bad combo of Plato and Aristotle, and it might be better to hire a Plato scholar. Something similar might happen with Neo-Kantianism.
As there is more and more high quality Plotinus scholarship this may change. Or Plotinus might be permitted and the rest viewed as Neo-Plotinians.
I think 4) is likely a reason why Neoplatonism might become, and should become, less of a wall.Report
I’m sure that terminological point is right. The Neoplatonists (sic) don’t think that there’s anything too terribly new in what they’re saying. They think they are just Platonists — pure and simple. The term ‘Neoplatonism’ was coined as a (prejudicial) way of describing Platonism after Plotinus.Report
Maybe philosophy is too parochial. But the best way to demonstrate that would be to have clear papers of the form, “Here is some philosopher you’ll ignore; here’s what he or she said, and here’s why it’s valuable for you to hear it.”
Unfortunately, we rarely get that last part.
Further, reading a bunch of dead philosophers comes at the expense of reading work outside philosophy. I suspect (though I won’t argue it here) that most philosophers would benefit far more from learning more about the sciences and social sciences than they would from reading the forgotten history of philosophy.Report
I would suspect (though I won’t argue it here) that it might benefit contemporary scientists and social scientists (as well as philosophers) to read a bit more of the forgotten history of philosophy (which often overlaps with history of sciences and social sciences). What is so great about the present anyway?Report
“What is so great about the present anyway?”
Well, as was mentioned above, contemporary science has given us a more extensive and accurate picture of the natural world (which I take to include the social world) than our predecessors had. Therefore, other things being equal, someone doing philosophy now will do it better than someone doing it in the past because the person doing it now is better informed on these matters and being well informed on them is often of great importance to answering philosophical questions.
Secondly, in the past only a very small number of people were able to devote a significant part of their lives to working on philosophical questions and they were mostly upper-class men from the small number of advanced civilizations that supported such pursuits. In the present we have several thousand more people working on these questions and their backgrounds as far more diverse when it comes to gender, ethnicity, culture, and class. In general, greater numbers of scholars and with more diversity will lead to better work and more breakthroughs.
Finally, philosophers of the past were far more isolated than philosophers of today. For our predecessors it was much hard to obtain the latest work from their contemporaries, or works from the past. Furthermore, barriers between countries, continents, and civilizations were harder to cross. Today a philosopher in one part of the world can have a novel idea and within days (or months if we are talking about publication) it can be accessible to any philosopher virtually anywhere else in the world.Report
“What’s so great about the present anyway?”
… she types, inputting it onto a device small enough to fit in her pocket, that makes her comment visible in real time to several billion people spread across the planet.Report
”What is so great about the present anyway?”
We know more stuff than people did in the past?Report
Forgive me for sounding harsh Sam, but I can’t help thinking that your feeling that you can’t embark on the study of some lesser known philosopher without ‘guidance’ is due that unadventurous and unduly deferent attitude that is sometimes induced by the North American system of taught PhDs. Let’s start with an obvious point. In many cases the kind of guidance that you think necessary simply won’t be available. If the person or the topic that you are interested in is really under-investigated, then there may not be anyone anywhere who is qualified to be a guide. Conversely, if you are afraid to tackle an historical topic without the right kind of guidance you will be condemned to topics or philosophers who have already been worked over, which means that it will tougher to say anything original. If you are boldly going where no contemporary scholar has gone before, it follows automatically that qualified guides will be unavailable. If qualified guidance is available then you won’t be boldly going where no contemporary scholar has gone before.
You write: ‘If the advice is well if you need help you shouldn’t be in the field, then we might as well abolish grad schools as such and turn clever students with philosophy BAs loose on their own for 5-7 years’. What you forget is that is pretty much what is currently DONE in the UK and Australasia where the norm is a dissertation-only PhD which you begin after only three or four years of formal instruction, And it not at all clear that those free-ranging UK or Australasian PhDs end up as worse scholars than their North American counterparts. So abolishing those graduate schools might not be as catastrophic as you seem to think. I was one of those clever BAs, let loose on my own with nothing more in the way of formal teaching than a fortnightly or monthly session with my supervisor, and I managed to get by largely without the guidance the you think is so important. Yours is not the only post that I have read over the last five or six years (and I am not trying to get at you but to make general point) which makes me wonder whether the North American system of ‘taught’ PhDs sometimes has the effect of infantilizing students and retarding their development as independent thinkers.Report
When you need someone to throw a bomb or put the cat among the pigeons, Charles, you’re obviously the Go To guy. Pity none of our American colleagues will rise to the bait!Report
To Jason Brennan: the person who started this conversation, Pasnau, wrote a big fat and very clear book, Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671, that does exactly what you say should be done. I know a lot of analytic metaphysicians who admire that book and have said so. And Pasnau ‘s case is not an isolated example.Report
Thanks for the suggestion. I will take a look.Report
Let me know what you think!Report
Even remaining within the European-American tradition, there’s a lot of overlap between figures that are of significant philosophical interest and figures that are considered important in the sciences or social sciences. Newton, Boyle, Smith, James are considered foundational figures in physics, chemistry, economics, and psychology, but are also recognized to be of great philosophical significance (both for their era, and for contemporary issues). Surely there is significant philosophical insight to be gathered from similar figures like Galileo, Lavoisier (both Antoine and Marie), Walras, and so on. Studying historical figures that are marginalized within the history of philosophy is quite compatible with learning more about the sciences and social sciences, and is likely to be very helpful for drawing connections.Report
I couldn’t agree with Pasnau more, both in what he says and his philosophical practice of concentrating on themes and problems more than figure. I hope to emulate it more.
Relative unknown X may have had a terrific argument extremely relevant to a whole interesting set of issues. Or how X approaches an issue may make one rethink what is at stake with an issue and what it means. Or X’s approach may cast light on distinctions that we take for granted but which also seem so natural to us that it’s difficult for us to see how contingent they are. But X is not a Great. It seems to me X’s argument or approach might be far more interesting than some aside by one of the 9 on the same problem. Sometimes it’s far more interesting than a Deep Thought by one of the 9. Maybe by all of them. By focusing on figures all this is missed.
As an example one of my all-time favorite papers, by Mark Schroeder, on an argument from Cudworth: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55505fc8e4b032b4451e4a90/t/55c98bc9e4b0d0102709e140/1439271881657/Schroeder_Cudworth.pdfReport
Further thoughts on the Fourteenth Century Friar
Pasnau claims that he does ‘not 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. As JTD and I have both pointed out, there IS a reason to think that the next big advance is more likely to be due to a recent journal article rather than the text by a fourteenth century friar, namely that the recent article is likely to be informed by five centuries of science which the friar could not possibly have known about. So that’s a reason why MOST of philosophy’s attention should be devoted to recent work, especially in areas where recent scientific developments are likely to be salient . But there is still an outside chance that the friar might have something important to say. And is worth devoting SOME of philosophy’s resources to that outside chance especially with respect to areas in which recent scientific advances are less likely to be relevant such as the logic and the philosophy of logic. More generally, there is a chance that all sorts historical figures *might* have something useful to say, which means that it is worthwhile for *some* philosophers to devote themselves to the history of the subject. And right there you have a justification for Pasnau’s existence as scholar (or for that matter for *my* existence as a scholar) which isn’t obviously a piece of self-serving nonsense. There is sometimes something to be learned from the history of philosophy which means that the history of philosophy for philosophy’s sake is (or at least can be) a worthwhile intellectual enterprise, though it certainly would not do if we never did anything else. If Pasnau had contented himself with this modest and sensible claim there would not have been anything to argue about. But alas …Report
I find the mention of logic and philosophy of logic as fields which remain closer to the history to be somewhat curious. I would have thought of logic as another area which has made such great advances that historical figures are unlikely to have anything worthwhile to say, outside of whatever worth we assign to history as such. A Friar writing about truth, logic, proof and provability, etc. without a glimmer of the work done by Frege, Tarksi, Godel, Church, Cantor etc. could be the most brilliant Friar ever to have lived, but would his work would be of interest to anyone writing in the contemporary field? My assumption would have been a hard “no,” though it would be interesting to hear if this is a mistake.Report
It’s a complete mistake. There are plenty of recent and contemporary logicians who have found it profitable to engage with medieval and especially late medieval logic. Names to conjure with: include Arthur Prior, Stephen Read, Catarina Duthil Novaes, Richard Routley/Sylvan, George Hughes, Peter Geach, Greg Restall, and Graham Priest. (There are probably a lot more that I don’t know about.) A partial explanation for your mistake is this. Logic reached a high level of sophistication in the late medieval period but much of this knowledge was lost during the Renaissance and the Early Modern Era during which formal logic fell into disrepute. Modal logic was a major casualty. When logic revived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was fair bit of catch-up to be done. Moreover, late Medieval logicians were much preoccupied with the Liar and related paradoxes, which have recently come into prominence with the rise of relevant and para-consistent logics. So there are plenty of modern logicians who think that medieval logicians may have much to teach us. Of course, modern logic is mathematical in a way that medieval logic was not, but that does not mean the medieval logic is irrelevant to current concerns. (I would add that you don’t need to know much about the material and social worlds to be an ace at logic. Hence a relative ignorance about these things is no bar to logical achievement. )Report