On The Relevance and Othering of the History of Philosophy
by Martin Lenz
Do you remember talking about music during your school days? There was always someone declaring that they would only listen to the latest hits. Talking to philosophers, I occasionally feel transported back to these days: especially when someone tells me that they have no time for history and will only read the latest papers on a topic. “What do I care what Brentano said about intentionality! I’m interested in current discussions.” Let’s call this view “currentism”. I sometimes experience versions of this currentist attitude in exams. A student might present an intriguing reconstruction of a medieval theory of matter only to be met with the question: “Why would anyone care about that today?” I have to admit that I sometimes find this attitude genuinely puzzling. In what follows I’d like to explain my puzzlement and raise a few worries.
Why only “sometimes”? I say “sometimes”, because there is a version of this attitude that I fully understand. Roughly speaking, there is a descriptive and a normative version of that sentiment. I have no worries about the descriptive version: Some people just mean to say what they focus on or indicate a preference. They are immersed in a current debate. Given the constraints of time, they can’t read or write much else. That’s fine and wholly understandable. In that case, the question of why one would care might well be genuine and certainly deserves an answer.
The normative version is different: People endorsing the normative attitude mean to say that history of philosophy is a waste of time and should be abolished, unless perhaps in first-year survey courses. Now you might say: “Why are you puzzled? Some people are just more enthusiastic in promoting their preferences.” To this I reply that the puzzlement and worries are genuine because I find the normative attitude (1) unintelligible and (2) politically harmful. Here is why:
(1) My first set of worries concerns the intelligibility of this attitude. Why would anyone think that the best philosophy is being produced during our particular time slice? I guess that the main reason for (normatively) restricting the temporal scope of philosophy to the last twenty or fifty years is the idea that the most recent work is indeed the best philosophy. Now why would anyone think that? I see two possible reasons. One might think so because one believes that philosophy is tied to science and that the latest science is the best science. Well, that might be, but progress in science does not automatically carry over to philosophy. The fact that I write in the presence of good science doesn’t make me a good philosopher.
So if there is something to that idea people will ultimately endorse it for another reason: because there might be progress in philosophy itself. Now the question of whether there really is progress in philosophy is of course hotly debated. I certainly don’t want to deny that there have been improvements, and I continue to hope for more of them. But especially if we assume that progress is an argument in favour of doing contemporary philosophy (and what else should we do, even if we do history!), how can someone not informed about history assess this progress? If I have no clue about the history of a certain issue, how would I know that real advancements have been made? In other words, the very notion of progress is inherently historical and requires at least some version of (whig) history. So unless someone holds the belief that recent developments are always better, I think one needs historical knowledge to make that point.
Irrespective of questions concerning progress one might still endorse current over historical philosophy because it is relevant to current concerns. So yes, why bother with medieval theories of justice when we can have theories that invoke current issues? Well, I don’t doubt that we should have philosophers focusing on current issues. But I wonder whether current issues are intelligible without references to the past.
Firstly, there is the fact that our current understanding of justice or whatever is not a mere given. Rather, it is the latest stage of a development over time. Arguably, understanding that development is part of understanding the current issues. Now you might object that we should then confine ourselves to writing genealogies of stuff that is relevant today but not of remote issues (such as medieval theories of, say, matter). To this I reply that we cannot decide what does and doesn’t pertain to a certain genealogy in advance of historical studies. A priori exclusion is impossible, at least in history. Moreover, we cannot know that what we find irrelevant today is still irrelevant tomorrow. In other words, our judgments concerning relevance are subject to change and cannot be used to exclude possible fields of interest. To sum up, ideas of progress and relevance are inherently historical and require historical study.
(2) However, the historicity of relevance doesn’t preclude that it is abused in polemical and political ways. Besides worries about intelligibility, then, I want to raise political and moral worries against the normative attitude of currentism.
Short of sound arguments from progress or relevance, the anti-historical stance reduces to a form of othering. Just like some people suffer exclusion and are labelled as “weird” for reasons regarding stereotypes of race or gender, people are excluded for reasons of historical difference. But we should think twice before calling a historically remote discussion less rational or relevant or whatever. Of course, there is a use of “weird” that is simply a shorthand of “I don’t understand the view”. That’s fine. What I find problematic is the unreflective dismissal of views that don’t fit into one’s preferences. The fact that someone holds a view that does not coincide with today’s ideas about relevance deserves study rather than name-calling. As I see it, we have moral reasons to refrain from such forms of abuse.
If we don’t have reasons showing that a historical view has disadvantages over a current one, why do we call it “weird” or “irrelevant”? Here is my hunch: it’s a simple fight over resources. Divide et impera! But in the long run, it’s a lose-lose situation for all of us. Yet if you’re a politician and you manage to play off different sub-disciplines in philosophy or the humanities against one another, you can simply stand by until they’ve delegitimised each other so much that you can call all camps a farce and close down their departments.
Art: Cai Guo-Qiang, “Sky Ladder”
Related: “Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great?“, “How Philosophy Makes Progress“, “Is this the Golden Age of Philosophy?“, “The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions“, “Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered“, “Progress in Philosophy“