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The End of History
by Hanno Sauer
Certain ideas seem obviously true to some and obviously false to others. “In order to do good philosophy now, we should largely ignore the history of philosophy” is one of those ideas. Here is a recent paper of mine (open access) in which I make this claim and defend it against various objections. I also speculate about why engaging with dead (people’s) views would seem like a good idea even if it were, in fact, a bad one.
The responses to this argument I encounter most frequently are this:
- Personal attack. “If you knew anything about the history of philosophy, you wouldn’t say this.” But I do know some things about the history of philosophy—I studied philosophy in Germany, after all—and yet I am saying it. So this seems untrue. More generally, the point here seems to be that, if one were truly acquainted with the blessings ancient or not-so-ancient philosophical works have to offer, one could not help but agree that they contain many marvelous insights which—and this is important—one cannot gain access to except by reading said works. But this is not an argument as much as gatekeeping; it’s like defending your unfunny story that made no one laugh by claiming that one had to be there.
- Admission of defeat disguised as declaration of victory (aka tu quoque, aka whataboutism): “Your argument that old philosophy is probably bad doesn’t work because contemporary philosophy is also probably bad”. This is a concession I am happy to make, but it doesn’t address the main point, which is that old philosophy is probably bad, and the older it is, the worse. How satisfied would Ted Cruz’ wife be if her husband defended her by pointing out that Melania is also ugly?
- Incredulous stare.
- Counterexample. “Here is an example of some good philosophy that wouldn’t have been possible without deep historical engagement.” This is often interesting, but also usually irrelevant. Firstly, the counterfactual will often feel truthy, but is actually hard to evaluate. In many cases, the people who came up with an argument and then go on to claim exalted ancestry for their view just tell a just so-story. They probably would have come up with their argument either way, but then discovered that, unsurprisingly, it had some forebears; they then establish the connection after the fact to borrow credibility from the great minds they allege to think alike to or to grandstand about their humanistic erudition. Second, the counterexample strategy fails to engage the crucial point, which is not that no good ever came from engaging with past philosophy, but that it is very hard to be philosophically competent whilst being grossly wrong about how nature, society, and the human mind work. Imagine if physics were done the way philosophy is done, namely by paying a lot of attention to its own history. Surely, in that case, whatever modest successes physicists would have accomplished would be due to their historical engagement. But this doesn’t vindicate the eulogical approach at all, because what matters is what they could have accomplished without their historical preoccupation, not what they did accomplish with it.
- Flagrant double standards: “Granted, here are 50 outrageous things philosopher X has said, but let’s not be hasty and prematurely dismiss X’s works in their entirety just yet; maybe s/he has some other good things to say?” Maybe indeed; we never know—but time and attention are scarce, so why devote it to X rather than someone else? This question is particularly relevant when it comes to the moral philosophers of the past, most of which held despicable views. Personally, I have made a habit of not accepting life advice from Adolf Eichmann, Ted Bundy, and various of my family members. Why should I listen to the ethical views of people who think that slavery is good and right, that the death penalty is a gesture of respect, or that women are inferior? This invokes precisely the kind of epistemic double standards we should reject.
- Skill-building. “Reading old philosophical texts is really good training, because it teaches people to think outside the box, to challenge implicit assumptions, to critically analyze difficult writings, etc.”. Maybe. But first, this admits that reading the greats is like Wittgenstein’s ladder: once you are trained, you can toss it away. Second, it fails to show that when it comes to acquiring said skills, reading old philosophical texts is the best way of going about. Why not read contemporary philosophy to learn how do think outside the box? Why not read Finnegans Wake to learn how to decipher cryptic texts? It is never explained what specifically recommends engaging with past philosophy in order to obtain those alleged benefits. It’s like saying that, if one wanted to become a world class chef, one should throw some ingredients into a pan and then make them very hot. It’s probably better than nothing, I guess.
What I almost never see is people offering a reply to the one central parity-argument of the paper: why is it that contemporary people with no familiarity with contemporary science or philosophy would be universally ignored and/or laughed off the stage, but old philosophers aren’t? Imagine a tiny island far away, where its inhabitants are behind on 500 years of intellectual developments, or 200, or even just 50. Why care about what they have to say? What breaks the tie?
This is especially pressing because there are so many rather plausible debunking explanations for our hagiographical obsession. Prestige bias makes us think that revered people should be deferred to; psychological inertia makes us dread sinking our costs after years of reading the wrong things; nostalgia makes us chase the feeling we have when we first came into contact with philosophy, which was often in the form of older works; status signaling makes it beneficial to be conversant about the classics; and so on.
What is the cut-off for obsoleteness? The heuristic I personally favor is, if it has page numbers in a journal volume, you can consider me skeptical. But I am not here to pick nits. For in a way, all of this is irrelevant. The central point of the paper is arguably a big part of many, many contemporary philosophers’ metaphilosophical commitments, but it is hard to find it defended in print, where it can be properly debated, revised, or rejected. It was a bit of a beast to get this one published—perhaps because of the dubious quality of the arguments, perhaps because of its slovenly tone—but now it is, and if at least some people find it entertaining, challenging or enraging, I will be content.
De mortuis nihil nisi bene is a well-known maxim. But not everyone agrees, as the recent demise of Her Majesty The Queen or Professor Saul Kripke have once again shown. Let’s not, I would like to suggest, reserve our irreverence for the demonstrably useless or the allegedly unsavory. Do yourself a favor and check out the paper. It is fun to read and maybe true. How many philosophical papers, old or new, would you feel comfortable saying this about?
UPDATE: Some related posts previously published here:
“Contemporary Philosophy Is ‘Only the Most Recent Part of the History of Philosophy’”
“On The Relevance and Othering of the History of Philosophy”
“A Lesson of the Global History of Philosophy: Humility”
“Why Study the History of Philosophy?”
“Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?”
“Are History’s ‘Greatest Philosophers’ All That Great?”
“The Great Philosophers, Now With Smiles”