Contemporary Philosophy Is “Only the Most Recent Part of the History of Philosophy”


Why study the history of philosophy? That’s a question Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) asks Peter Adamson (LMU) in a new interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?

Here’s Adamson’s reply:

To questions like this I am always tempted to give the most provocative possible answer, namely: who cares what today’s analytic philosophers think, in comparison to giants like Plato, Avicenna, or Confucius? (Or indeed non-giants like Theophrastus, Mechthild of Magdeburg, or Uddyotakara: at least their works are still being read many centuries after they died, which is surely more than we’ll be able to say for 99% of contemporary philosophy.)

Just consider that, if you go out on the street and ask people to name some great philosophers or say what “philosophy” means to them, they will certainly not say anything that is reminiscent of analytic philosophy but are pretty likely to mention something about the history of philosophy. So to me it is rather bizarre that historians of philosophy are always put on the defensive in this way. We are the ones doing the part of philosophy that non-philosophers will readily recognize as meaningful and serious, and it is the contemporary philosophers who could more easily be accused by outsiders of wasting their time. Not that I personally think that they are wasting their time! I’m just saying the onus of self-justification should not really be on the historian. The fact that it often is, mostly has to do with the fact that we have to persuade non-historian philosophers to hire us.

Having gotten all that off my chest, I would concede that there is a serious question here too.

There is an obvious rationale for doing history of philosophy which is that it is a kind of history. It’s pretty uncontentious that we want to understand the past, and we can’t understand the past without understanding the ideas of the past, which is where the historian of philosophy comes in. And that is probably why non-specialists will find it immediately obvious that history of philosophy is worthwhile. However we also want to be taken seriously as contributing to philosophy and not just history; so how is it that we do this? A frequent answer is that one can delve back into the past to find answers to problems that modern-day philosophers take seriously. But I am pretty skeptical of that answer. That would lead you to focus on the figures, texts and debates that happen to seem relevant to today’s concerns, to the cost of other topics.

To the contrary, I think one great service we as historians can do is to call attention to philosophical debates and positions that are not liable to arise in our own context. Contemporary philosophy is, as I always like to say, only the most recent part of the history of philosophy, and it’s not easy to be sure whether it is a particularly fruitful part, to say nothing of being the one period of philosophy that just happens to be handling all philosophical questions in all the ways that would be illuminating. That notion strikes me as staggeringly arrogant, especially when you consider that “contemporary philosophy” usually means something like “philosophy being done in English in North America, Australia, and Europe” so that it is a geographically and culturally, as well as chronologically, narrow conception of philosophy.

You can read the rest of the interview here, and catch up on the history of philosophy with Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast and blog.


Related: “Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great?“, “Why Study the History of Philosophy?“, “A Defense of the History of Philosophy“; “Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?

Al-Mubaššir ibn Fatik, depiction of Socrates and students, from “Selected Maxims and Aphorisms”

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Paul
Paul
2 years ago

“However we also want to be taken seriously as contributing to philosophy and not just history; so how is it that we do this?”

What would John Herman Randall, Jr. say?
(He wrote the book on “How Philosophy Uses Its Past” and other relevant works)
One notable exemplar of the manifold possibilities of fruitful **reconciliation between the history of philosophy and engagement with contemporary philosophical concerns** is J. L. Ackrill’s highly informative, blissfully short, and influential “Aristotle the Philosopher” (Oxford UP, 1981)Report

Therese
Therese
2 years ago

“To questions like this I am always tempted to give the most provocative possible answer, namely: who cares what today’s analytic philosophers think, in comparison to giants like Plato, Avicenna, or Confucius? (Or indeed non-giants like Theophrastus, Mechthild of Magdeburg, or Uddyotakara: at least their works are still being read many centuries after they died, which is surely more than we’ll be able to say for 99% of contemporary philosophy.)”

Did any of Plato, Avicenna, Confucius, Theophrastus, Mechthild of Magdeburg, or Uddyotakara do the History of Philosophy?Report

Tim
Tim
Reply to  Therese
2 years ago

Probably the distinction between philosophy and history of philosophy would have been meaningless for most of the thinkers mentioned. But in fact most are characterized by a deep appreciation and engagement with the thought of their predecessors.

Confucius: “I transmit and do not innovate. I trust in and love the ancient ways.” (Analects 7.1) According to the tradition, an editor and compiler of classic texts.

Avicenna: Volumes of commentary of Aristotle. “Avicenna’s philosophical work, as presented in Part One on the basis of his own statements and the inventory of his major philosophical writings, defines itself by constant reference, whether explicit or implicit, to the Aristotelian corpus and tradition, and stands in a manifest dialectical relationship to both of them.” (Gutas 1988: 5)

Theophrastus: Aristotle commentaries as well.

Plato: Our most important source for the first philosopher in the Western tradition, and inspired discussion of many other predecessors (Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaxagoras). Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Tim
2 years ago

Plato was engaging with the then current state of the art in order to solve current problems, when he wrote about such figures, not engaging in historical work for it’s own sake. (‘A Reconsideration of Kripke’s Einstein Argument Against Descriptivism’ or whatever isn’t really *history* necessarily right now, although obviously there is no *clear* line here.) Much analytic philosophy is characterized by deep engagement with recent, analytic, predecessors.

Plenty of the greats did little history of philosophy, even if they did make occasional remarks about distant as well as nearby predecessors (which isn’t very different form say, Quine saying in passing that the sort of essentialism he doesn’t like is probably attributable to Aristotle.) Where’s the serious history of philosophy in the now-read works of any of the Early Moderns, rationalist or empiricist, for example? There have certainly been periods where commentaries were very important, but that’s not true of all periods where what’s know considered ‘great’ work was doneReport

Matt Kostelecky
Matt Kostelecky
Reply to  David Mathers
2 years ago

As you say, different periods differently value commentaries. Aquinas, often construed as some sort of ‘great’, did a lot of commentaries and his ‘original’ work was deeply informed by the previous tradition(s). However, he also engages in something that looks like very much like ‘history of philosophy’ as it is currently practiced (i.e., not in terms of a foundation for his own creative work or as a commentary): In his day/context and in the Islamic tradition that preceded and influenced Aquinas, the Liber de causis was generally thought to have been authored by Aristotle. Once Aquinas had a new translation of Proclus, he saw the obvious overlaps between Proclus and the Liber de causis and saw, moreover, that the Liber de causis borrowed heavily from Proclus. Proclus was much later than Aristotle, and as such, Aquinas demonstrated that Aristotle could not have written it. Sounds similar to ‘history of philosophy’ as it is often practiced today. Just an example of a ‘great’ doing history in order to understand the textual tradition itself better and more truthfully.Report

Malcolm Keating
Malcolm Keating
Reply to  Therese
2 years ago

Uddyotakara was writing commentary on sūtra texts dating some hundred years previous to himself, and interpreting them (and previous commentaries) in light of philosophical challenges from, in particular, the Buddhists of his day. While not “history of philosophy” perhaps as we might conceive of it, as Jonardon Ganeri has argued in his “Lost Age of Reason,” Indian philosophers working in commentarial genres are mediating between earlier tradition and the concerns of their present moment. I would submit that this is in the spirit of much contemporary history of philosophy.Report

Spencer
Spencer
2 years ago

There’s something a bit circular about what Adamson says about the minor figures. At least they’re still being read. Yes, but only because historians of philosophy read them. So it’s weird to cite that as a reason for doing history of philosophy.Report

Malcolm Keating
Malcolm Keating
Reply to  Spencer
2 years ago

Just for what it’s worth, Uddyotakara is hardly a minor figure, although he’s not well known to people who don’t do Indian philosophy. He was influential for the next thousand-some-odd years of Sanskritic philosophy which followed him. He’s still being read by anyone who does Indian philosophy today because of that influence as well as the content of his work. I think Adamson’s parenthetical “non-giants” is unfortunate language, but perhaps meant to suggest that these are thinkers unlike Confucius who aren’t well-known by the Anglophone world. Report

Peter Adamson
Peter Adamson
Reply to  Malcolm Keating
2 years ago

Right, that’s what I meant!Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

“Just consider that, if you go out on the street and ask people to name some great philosophers or say what “philosophy” means to them, they will certainly not say anything that is reminiscent of analytic philosophy but are pretty likely to mention something about the history of philosophy.”

I’m deeply skeptical of self-serving empirically-testable (but untested) intuitions like this. My own gut tells me that what you’ll get “on the street” is a mix of the Western philosophy and theological canon (remember that George W.’s favorite philosopher was Jesus) and that your answers will vary dramatically depending on where you are and who you ask. In a way, that’s all besides the point though, this is a really bad way of arguing in favor of the relevance of the history of philosophy to contemporary philosophy.

If you go on the street and ask people to name great physicists you won’t get contemporary people either, you’ll get Einstein, probably Hawking, and maybe Degrasse Tyson (i.e., famous people). They also certainly won’t say anything reminiscent of contemporary analytic physics. Long story short, why in the world should I care about what the people on the street think about philosophy? Don’t get me wrong, I actually want them to care and I even agree that translating philosophy’s relevance for the non-expert is an important and neglected job in our profession, but as an argument in favor of studying the history of philosophy? It’s terrible!Report

Peter Adamson
Peter Adamson
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Sure, I did not mean it as a knock down argument, just wanted to point out that the burden of proof lies on the history of philosophy skeptic, since it is the skeptic who is challenging the widespread understanding of what counts as “philosophy.” Whereas I think a lot of analytic philosophers assume it is the historian who has the burden of proof to show that what they are doing would count as part of the discipline. Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Peter Adamson
2 years ago

Hi Peter,

Thanks for engaging. I guess I’m not personally interested in policing the boundaries of what “counts” as philosophy. I’m happy to let just about everything count as philosophy (If Nietzsche and Sartre’s novels count as philosophy – which they ought to – then I think it’s a fool’s errand to try and draw sharp boundaries around the discipline). However, I didn’t take your guest post to be an argument for inclusive boundaries on the discipline. Were that the case, then we already agree. Instead, I took you to be arguing for these claims (all taken from the final paragraph in this post):

1. it’s not easy to be sure whether contemporary philosophy is a particularly fruitful philosophy

2. Contemporary philosophers believe that they are handling all philosophical questions in all the ways that would be illuminating

3. Contemporary philosophers are thus staggeringly arrogant

4. Contemporary philosophy does not include philosophy being done in languages other than English or in places outside of North America, Australia, and Europe

I don’t see an argument for *any* of those claims, some of which seem to be grounded, in the sense that they’re grounded at all, on bad anecdotal experiences. This is the kind of stuff that I think makes our disciplinary problems worse rather than better. Departments all over the country are hiring more and more people who do a wider and wider range of themes and styles of philosophy. The world really is getting better for us in terms not only of our disciplines racial, ethnic, and gender diversity but in the diversity of ideas taken seriously as philosophical. It sounds like strange alarmism to claim, without evidence, otherwise. Report

docf retired
docf retired
2 years ago

We cannot understand current philosophy without knowing the past and the issues. Most issues today are outcomes and continuations of age-old debates and controversies. The old saw, “isn’t it all a footnote to Plato?” is overblown, of course, but not off the mark. History of philosophy is essential for current philosophical discussions, if only to rule out wrong, but brilliant, answers to questions – brilliant failures (such as monads) are nonetheless openiongs to new insights.

BTW: What’s with the anti-analytic tone of this original post? Could we also add anti-continental to the anti-list? I am kind of sick of the analytic-continental divide that has infested philosophy since the 70’s.Report

Peter Adamson
Peter Adamson
Reply to  docf retired
2 years ago

The reason I focused on analytically inclined critics of history of philosophy is just that continentally trained people are already, in my experience, committed to doing history and in general have a much stronger sense of their own philosophical tradition as growing out of earlier texts and figures. So it is really only the analytic viewpoint that needs to be challenged. Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

The generalized contempt for public opinion that academics trained in analytic philosophy show for the general public that Caligula’s Goat’s comment illustrates really irritates me and I think it’s hugely mistaken and destructive to our discipline. At any rate I’ve a few thoughts about the comment: First, what is even the point of writing philosophy? If it has no effect on the world and doesn’t speak to the concerns of the average person then in what possible way is contemporary philosophy relevant? Relevant for whom and for what? And on this same point: Practically all employed philosophers depend on some kind of tax dollars and tuition for our paychecks. Just who do you think pays tuition and taxes? Do you think they’ll indefinitely continue doing so if what we do is completely irrelevant and unimportant to them? Unlike physics or biology we don’t produce things like better gadgets or medical treatments, which benefit the public whether they understand them or not, so that’s one way the physics comparison is misleading.
Second, there simply isn’t the agreement about what philosophy or who even is a philosopher that there is about physics. So the fact that the average member of the public is much more likely to answer this question with “Jesus” than “W.V.O. Quine” or “David Lewis” is not clearly a reductio. After all, if you take Socrates as your model of what a philosopher then Jesus is a much better match than is Quine or Lewis. (And Jesus has certainly done more to influence the direction of Western philosophy than Quine or Lewis). My larger point here is that the fact that the public wouldn’t give us the “right” answers (that is people in the analytic canon) doesn’t show the public is stupid or even that they should be ignored. As Justin Smith’s wonderful recent book argued there are a lot of different things that one can mean by philosophy and a lot of different types of philosophers. And the types that are prevalent in academic philosophy (which seem to be what Smith classes as the Mandarins and the Courtiers in his taxonomy) are not the only options and almost certainly not the best ones either. The public’s conception of a philosopher probably isn’t ours, but that could just as well be evidence that our conception is wrong than that theirs is.
And to Mather’s comment: It’s correct that many of the early modern greats didn’t engage with history in any real way. But I actually think this gives some examples of the value of history. Look at how the early moderns treat the emotions in contrast with their predecessors in the Scholastic and Ancient periods. There’s a huge step back there and it really hamstrings a lot of their claims. Take Hume and Kant’s incredibly crude talk of “desires,” “passions,” and “inclinations” and compare it with Aristotle and Plato’s discussion of these issues or better yet the incredibly subtle discussions of the emotions one finds in the Stoics. If either of those guys had engaged with that history we might not get the sort of simple minded dualism of reason vs. passion that both of them fall for in their own ways.Report