Article Spotlight: “The End of History” by Hanno Sauer (Updated)
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The articles featured will tend to be ones judged to be of interest to a wide range of philosophers. An article’s inclusion in this series should not be construed as an endorsement of its argument or agreement with its conclusions, but rather as a way of saying, “this might be interesting to discuss.” We’ll try to make sure that an ungated version of the article is available at the time of the post.
This series will start off with one post per month, and we’ll see how it goes. If you are unfamiliar with the comments policy, please take a look at it.
Initiating the series is a particularly provocative piece by Hanno Sauer, associate professor of philosophy at Utrecht University: “The End of History,” published in Inquiry.
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 (3/21/23): Inquiry publishes a rebuttal to Hanno Sauer’s article. Its author? Hanno Sauer. And yes, it was anonymously peer-reviewed.
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”
Reading old philosophy is useful because I do not have to think of everything on my own.Report
Just a few questions:
1) Isn’t it the case that history in general (whether of philosophy or any other) is an object of deep and abiding human interest (in the same or similar way than any other knowledge, but perhaps even more so as it concerns ourselves)?
2) Isn’t it the case, empirically, that a lot of people find it of such deep interest that they devote their professional (or even personal) lives to it?
3) Isn’t it the case that in philosophy, there is no agreed upon methodology (as it is in sciences) and that there are many ways to do it and that for some people, this involves engaging, for whatever reason, with history of the subject (e.g., Korsgaard, Thompson, to name a few)?
4) Isn’t it the case that, for certain ways of doing philosophy, philosophy is a way of taking a perspective, asking questions and thinking about things in a way that requires experience and one that is best developed by thinking with and through the examplars of doing so (just like in music or painting one studies and emulates as part of developing one’s craft, the great works of the past)?
5) Isn’t it the case that we alway enagage with history of philosophy, just often with the more recent one (e.g., with Sauer’s now published and hence, part of history paper, on how their paper will be in a few days obsolete)?
6) Isn’t it the case that philosophy has rarely solved (to general satisfaction) any problems and so, by extension, has empirically proven, from that point of view, rather useless?
One could go on and on but why engage in this tiresome exercise? The paper is loaded with questionable assumptions (the thought experiment itself presupposes a certain conception of philosophy that I personally find unappealing and even if I imagine it appealing, it remains extremely narrow), all too quick inferences, and overall “brilliance” signalling that I don’t think many people will find worth engaging with. It is also personal – insulting to all historians, so maybe ad hominem arguments are not misplaced.Report
It’s not insulting to claim that someone is wrong about something, and to pusillanimously suggest that, when someone does it, they ought to be insulted in return, is bad behavior. Grow up!Report
It’s an interesting move, to say the least, to complain about “personal attacks” and then answering a list of questions with “Grow up!”Report
I don’t work in the history of philosophy. However, as a philosopher I have, on several occasions, been confronted with arguments about why philosophy is useless, a waste of time, an inferior academic discipline, etc. Most of these arguments are poorly formulated and contain obvious non-sequiturs. A few are a little more challenging. But in responding to these arguments I have never felt personally insulted. It is not an article of faith for me that philosophy is a highly valuable activity. Therefore, I am happy to consider arguments for and against its value and let opponents make their best case before giving my best response.
One thing that I have learnt from this thread (and the few others places where I have seen this issue discussed) is that many of my colleagues working in the history of philosophy are apparently quite different from me in this respect. They appear to take skepticism about the value of history of philosophy as a personal insult. The open-mindedness and quite confidence that I think many philosophers have in response to skepticism about the value of philosophy is absent here. Instead, what I see is an angry push back which suggests to me some degree of closed-mindedness and lack of confidence. This is a shame as I think that there are good places to push back against Sauer’s argument, but I am not seeing a productive debate here.Report
As I replied above, I didn’t say anyone, myself included, is actually insulted. But yes, I agree, historians of philosophy are, as a kind, uniformly emotional, overreacting and lacking in confidence about their rational abilities, whereas philosophers (who are an entirely different set of people) are rational, calm, deliberative, and overall just genuine, friendly folks. Basically Klingons vs Vulcans. One can easily see it play out everytime historians of philosophy publicly denounce the value of philosophy as a discipline and never defend it against vicious scientists (screaming like emotional babies) – this is something philosophers would never do to history of philosophy. If anything, they only denounce other disciplines as a whole on purely rational grounds and in situations when such denouncements are appropriate. One could go on, but I am starting to run out of well-grounded generalizations and becoming too emotional and cowardly.Report
The main reason I like to read historical philosophy is because I find it to be full of excellent ideas. Philosophy is unlike science in that as science progresses, it tends to resolve questions over time, rendering old theories irrelevant. Philosophy rarely, if ever does that. We can still disagree over fundamental questions that philosophers have been debating for centuries.
Another reason why I like to read historical philosophy is that it gives context to present debates. It helps me to understand how the debates got to where they are now.
Yet another reason is that when I deal with non-philosophers, the views of ancient philosophers are often more accessible to them than the views of modern philosophers.
By the way, number 5, that past moral philosophers held abhorrent views, looks like ad hominem. Also, shouldn’t we be looking for diverse ideas and for challenges to our own views?Report
It’s not problematically ad hominem to suggest that you shouldn’t trust people with very unreliable judgment in a given domain when trying to form beliefs about said domain. Some ad hominem arguments are fine!Report
Newton may have meant his shoulders of giants comment ironically but in the case of philosophy it can be stated sincerely.Report
Btw. the author cites an unpublished paper – hope he got the permission…Report
“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?”
Wow. File this under ‘things that, if I were to think them, I would not put in print with my name on them’. Report
EJ, you aren’t even brave enough to put your actual name on the denial of those things.Report
Some things are too frightening but for the most daring.Report
This summary left out the argument in the paper that I found most interesting. Given the stated motivations for doing history of philosophy, especially to do with getting out of potential ruts we might be stuck in, we should make sure that whatever history we do covers as wide a field as possible. I think that’s an interesting argument not against the stated motivations, which seem like reasonable ones, but against history of philosophy as it’s often been practiced.
In the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed like about 80% of our historical attention (at least as measured in publications) was focussed on about 8 figures. Things have been getting better recently, because of more attention to non-European figures, to women, and to the rather long period between Aristotle and Descartes. But it could get better still, and should if you want to do what history of philosophy promises. If you want to think outside the box, develop familiarity with the non-familiar, understand different ways of looking at the world, etc, reading some Vedanta epistemologists, or medieval mystics, or 19th century economists, is probably more useful than a yet closer reading of the second meditation.Report
Great point, Brian. Just some added context: this phenomenon is caused in part by the perverse incentives generated by journal publishing and the job market. Historians of philosophy want to read and work on and teach philosophers from outside the Great Eight (believe me, we really really want to). But many students and pre-tenure people have been advised not to do so in their dissertations because of job-market worries. This sets them up to not publish, or not publish as much, on philosophers outside the Great Eight pre-tenure, even though the history journals are very enthusiastic about publishing in this area and are, to put it mildly, fatigued by the number of submission on the Great Eight. It’s a real problem, we’re aware of it, and we like it even less than the non-historians do. Not disagreeing with you at all Brian — just a dispatch from the land of useless and unjustifiable historians of philosophy.Report
Yeah, the structural problems here are immense. Another problem I see is that if you get far enough from the Great Eight, there aren’t any interpretative debates to enter into, or in some cases any exegesis to conduct. The historical figure you’re looking at says what they have to say, and while what they say is very interesting, it’s not that hard to interpret. So while there might be interesting stories to tell about this person, it’s hard to get something that looks like a journal article.
Put another way, I’ve learned a ton from the capsule summaries Peter Adamson has done of any number of figures miles outside the standard canon. But a lot of his episodes/chapters look nothing like journal articles – at least for the kinds of journals that are typically given high weight in tenure. So it isn’t surprising that fewer people are writing things like that. We can’t all be podcasting superstars with 10 book deals. I don’t know what could be done to make it worthwhile for other folks to write these introductions to historical figures. But without the introduction, the debate doesn’t get started, and we’re lucky if the Great Eight becomes the Big Ten.Report
Yes. I’m going to plug here: Chris Shields, Mark Timmons, and myself edit a series for Oxford called the Oxford Guides — don’t worry, they are not handbooks! They are short guides to a specific text by a specific thinker, designed to do just what you’ve said, thus providing the ground to begin to philosophize with and about their work. Check out Jon Schwenkler’s Guide to Anscombe’s Intention, for example, or keep your eye out for Deborah Boyle’s forthcoming guide to Mary Shepherd’s texts from 1824-1827! My own experience reading, writing, and thinking about Thomas Reid has been very profitable about perception, direct realism, memory, acquaintance, consciousness, etc. Sometimes it works, thank goodness.Report
FWIW there is a ton of work being done right now to change the way history of philosophy is done. This is taking many forms. In addition to Becko’s series, there is the Cambridge Elements series, including a great one on women philosophers, which has a great multi-tradition list, Oxford New Histories of Philosophy, and Oxford Philosophical Concepts volumes. There are an increasing number of historians of philosophy who are engaging in historiography of philosophy to get a better understanding of how we came to have the histories of philosophy we do (see, for instance, Ebbersmeyer, Antoine-Mahut, Laerke, Catana and others). And there is new work on how the canon of early analytic philosophy is being formed before our very eyes.Report
This is reinforced by the fact that Anglophone historians of philosophy tend to not to read a lot of other modern languages. If they did, they would have access to much more wide-ranging literatures. It’s not either discuss philosophers who no one has ever written on, or Leibniz. There’s a pretty big literature on Condillac in French.Report
Forgive my ignorance, but any chance you could list the Great Eight? I’ve never come across this designation before and am curious.Report
See “The Parochialism of Mainstream History of Philosophy” and “The Most Popular Philosophers in the ‘Absurdly Narrow Canon’ of Philosophy“.Report
It’s gotta be G.E. Moore, Frege, Russell, Ramsey, Godel, Wittgenstein, Quine, and Kripke, right?Report
Ridiculous. It’s G.E. Moore, Frege, Russell, Tarski, Wittgenstein, Quine, Kripke, and Lewis. It’s embarrasing that someone so ignorant of history could have a job.Report
Thank you for the feedback! I agree: one could make the “the way we currently do history of philosophy is problematically hagiographical” objection stick without accepting any of the island-analogy and the more ridiculous claims of the paper. Even if doing history were *tremendously* valuable, we could be doing it the wrong way. If we want some benefit X, let’s find a specific, keyhole-way of getting there.Report
The third paragraph on page 5 (starting “moreover”) concedes, explicitly, a pedagogical case for including historical figures in philosophy, and suggests that it is not at issue in the focus of the paper. This suggests that the article’s author is aware of such an aspect to the discussion, which makes the criticism of Rachel Barney’s remarks (p.7 beginning “Why should undergraduates be encouraged to read and think about…”) especially perplexing.
If the complaint is that Barney never gives any justification other than the pedagogical context, please make that case. If the complaint is that you disagree with the justification offered for the pedagogical context, that seems irrelevant to the case that you are trying to make in that section of the paper. Either way, it seems clear that the paragraph you quote is simply not addressing the issue that you are taking up, and so to criticize it for failing to do so is confusing.Report
Reading this was so affirming. I was frustrated in undergrad that the philosophy course offerings were >80% history of philosophy, while biology majors didn’t need to take any history of biology classes! If we haven’t made enough progress in 2400 years to move on from Plato, I’m not sure why I would want to keep trying to do philosophy.Report
I find the argument from what other sciences do or do not do perplexing. One might think, indeed I do, that science students would do well to study the history of their discipline. Many philosophers of physics and philosophers of biology, as focused on the current state of their target science they may be, engage with history of science. It makes current science so much more intelligible.Report
I think this is accurate. It also helps to resurface neglected knowledge or ideas. I’ve spoken to several biologists, particularly ethologists, who have expressed frustration at their departments not requiring any instruction in the history of the field. This negatively affects both student understanding and leads to them flailing when they run into limitations with their current approach, unaware of that limitation being a key point of contention in the past, with alternative approaches developed as a result that have been obscured in various ways.Report
That second sentence you mention wasn’t an argument, just an observation! And I don’t think that biologists should never do history — just that finding out answers to current questions using the best current knowledge is how they should spend most of their time.Report
It’s part of Sauer’s argument and since you wrote it was “so affirming” I took it to endorse it. Sorry if I misattributed it to you.Report
“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? […] Why care about what [the island people] have to say?”
Those really aren’t arguments, though. They are just rhetorical questions.
I don’t really think it is necessary to offer positive reasons for studying historical philosophy. I don’t pretend I can justify doing it. Nevertheless, most of the criticisms are really unconvincing.
For example, the majority of the claims in the article are totally vitiated by the concession that contemporary philosophy is probably all wrong too, since all of the standards used to judge past philosophers are based on the state of contemporary knowledge. From the article: “Historical authors were probably wrong about almost everything,” but it then concedes that “Contemporary philosophers today also have insufficient information and are thus also likely to be wrong about everything.” The thesis of the paper was to argue against the idea that “one good method of thinking about knowledge or justice is to study what historical authors have written about knowledge and justice a long time ago.” The idea that the past thinkers were wrong about everything was supposed to support this thesis, but the author concedes it overgeneralizes. There is the vague hope that future philosophy will get it all right, but by pessimistic induction we can ignore that hope too. There is then a pivot to pragmatic justification for studying present philosophical work, but this is not consistent with what was said earlier in section 3, namely that “we want to arrive at the truth about various matters.” This applies to what the article says about ethical claims as well.
The “statistical” arguments used by many critics of historical philosophy are also uncompelling because they never provide satisfactory justification for comparing two things as radically different as the past and the present. They naively assume things like, If philosophical greatness were a matter of natural lottery…” and “Modern society seems to be replete with advantages compared to Plato’s time which should make it better able to nurture the naturally gifted into great philosophers.” They never follow up with reasons for thinking things are so simple, or that the luxuries of convenience, technology, etc. aren’t also attended by various disincentives for doing philosophy well. The article says, for example, “the world is now richer and safer, budding philosophers have a much greater chance of being able to devote their time to philosophical training and understanding, instead of being trapped in subsistence farming or political intrigue,” but provides no justification for the claim. True, you can do philosophy instead of dying young. You could also work at McDonald’s until you’re 60, obsessively scroll through and post on social media, endlessly consume Netflix, have parasocial relationships with Twitch streamers, spend all of your time speed-running old video games, pornography and other online addictions, etc. etc. Technology also provides many disincentives for doing philosophy well, so maybe it is worse for philosophy to live with luxury and plenty. The article also says, “technology allows us to have much wider and easier access to our peers and philosophical work.” It seems self-evident, but what’s the rationale here? Here are some other things that might happen: you are overwhelmed with information and write less and think about less subjects, you are even more constrained by a discipline you are trying to fit into thus reducing your creativity and the dynamicity of your thought, most of your peers are similarly pressured / encumbered, your aspirations are professionalized and are less connected with philosophy and the search after truth.
Maybe the adversity and limitations historical philosophers had helped make them better philosophers, rather than worse philosophers. Maybe part of their achievement was to think well when there were fewer or no models for how to do that, when original thought can also be extremely terrible in the absence of a model. But I don’t pretend this amounts to an argument, it’s just a thought.
There usually aren’t good reasons given for thinking philosophy is analogous with other disciplines that don’t study past figures in the discipline.Report
I think I agree more with OP than I might publicly admit (my department is very history heavy). I work in an interdiscplinary area so it’s always been really hard for me to find the work that most philosophers do on, say, Kant’s philosophy of mind, relevant to my work even though cognitive psychology (controversially) is one of the outgrowths of the Kantian project. In my view, I don’t care whether or not Kant said x, y, or z even if x, y, and z were both really instrumental in getting us to where we are today.
What I care about is how to make progress on our thinking about the mind, broadly speaking, including moral psychology, mental illness, emotion, etc etc etc. There’s just no way that Kant himself is relevant to these questions even if he (and other figures in the history) proposed the causal antecedents of modern views. I prefer to just read a modern view of something and could care less whether it’s a “Kantian” or “Husserlian” view (attaching the name seems to add very little to the ultimate worth of whatever it is that’s being argued for to address a specific problem we’re facing today).
All that being said, I can definitely see how normative theorizing can be more productively historically informed (to give one example) than philosophy of physics. Aside from folks who do x-Phi (especially neuroimaging), the tools we use to create arguments in normative ethics haven’t changed in literal millenia though even here, we might pay more attention to Aristotle (or Confucius) as a starting point for virtue theoretic understandings of virtues, it’s not at all clear to me that I need to care all that much about these historical progrenitors actually said or thought. When John Doris came out with “Lack of Character,” to give another example, it mattered not whether Aristote had been refuted (who cares?!) but whether contemporary, empirically informed, concepts of virtue could respond to his challenge.
So there are some fields where historically informed philosophy might have some place and others where it seems like it can be comfortably ignored. I guess that makes me mostly team Hanno.Report
If this is the way you find historical philosophy useful, that’s great, and we’ll keep working to make those resources available to you. I do the history of philosophy of mind. I read Locke or Reid to help me make progress on my thinking about the mind — my thinking about the very same problems current philosophers of mind are thinking about. My reading of the history of the philosophy of mind reveals hidden built-in assumptions about mind that we take to be obvious and continue to rely on despite supporting empirical evidence, for example. And thinking of certain positions in logical space as roughly Humean, or roughly Kantian helps me understand the structure of the problem and how it does or does not hang on other local and distal problems. I guess my point is that what you do and do not find useful about historical philosophy may not be reflective of what is actually valuable about historical philosophy. It’s find to take your history where you find it. But that doesn’t necessary capture what historians of philosophy do and why they do it. I think you would agree but I wanted to be explicit.Report
One thing I find fascinating is that, while the fact that something was said by one of the originators of the field is in itself not especially interesting, going back and studying the texts written by the originators of a field is often a useful way to come up with new revolutionary developments. A lot of good contemporary ideas in artificial intelligence are in a sense footnotes to throwaway remarks of Turing. Progress in statistical thermodynamics often comes from reinterpreting ideas of Gibbs and Boltzmann. Developments in evolutionary biology can come from going back to Darwin’s texts. New ideas in formal epistemology can be found in Ramsey and de Finetti.
I think that part of what’s going on is that the originator of a field is often grasping around at a bunch of interesting ideas, and then their successors tend to work with one set of ideas that makes the most sense. This can lead to a very productive field, but also a field that gets stuck in a rut. While new ideas can come from anywhere, often reading the people who were writing just before the field crystallized in a particular way can be a particularly fruitful source of alternative pathways.Report
I find reading certain philosophers from the relatively distant past valuable for precisely the same reason that I find reading certain philosophers from the relatively recent past valuable: they are good interlocutors on some (philosophical, not empirical) questions that I care about. I don’t read Aristotle or Kant or Avicenna or Shepherd in the hope that somewhere in their works I might come upon some absolutely, ultimately, timelessly true statements about nature, knowledge, justice, or what have you. I read them because I find them especially stimulating partners in my own thinking about those topics. And that is exactly why I might read Donald Davidson, Miranda Fricker, or Kwame Appiah.
Philosophy is a dialogical practice, as everyone agrees. It also deals with perennial questions, as some of us at least still think. Why limit our conversation partners to those who happen to be around today, in our narrow cultural-historical context? As others have pointed out, the article seems to make some large and contentious assumptions about what philosophy is and how it is supposed to be done. Many probably share those assumptions, but many others don’t.Report
I totally agree with this. The irony shouldn’t be lost on us that this article seems rooted in a kind of overconfidence concerning the superiority of intellectual work in the present, while combating this kind of overconfidence is precisely one of the most important functions of historical study.Report
Put me down for an incredulous stare. It is obviously good to read keen thinkers who approach philosophical issues from starting points that differ from those common in one’s own place and time. Some of those thinkers are obviously dead. Hence, the stare.Report
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?
In principle, yes, but it all depends on what the respective group’s epistemic limitations are. I don’t rely on billions of people’s cosmological views because they have no idea about cosmology. We should just apply this standard impartially — some people’s standing will then improve, some people’s will worsen.Report
Hanno, you say that “it is very hard to be philosophically competent whilst being grossly wrong about how nature, society, and the human mind work.” I take it Aristotle was grossly wrong to defend slavery and to think that women were inferior to men. But I also take it that there is a good deal of wisdom in Aristotle (e.g., in the Nicomachean Ethics). For instance, he is really good at expressing (1) the idea that human actions aim at ends and that our ends are nested such that it is at least plausible to view our lives as having an ultimate end, (2) the idea that repetitive actions ingrain patterns on our psychology and that these patterns in turn become character traits, and (3) the idea that good character traits dispose one to hit a mean between extremes. Could someone else come up with these claims without reading Aristotle? Yes. But it’s far more efficient simply to go through Aristotle. And, besides, Aristotle expresses these things very well. Why cut ourselves off from reading Aristotle then? It seems unwise to do so.
Also, without a canon, philosophers taken as a group lose common points of reference. And that is a real loss. One of the good things about our field — and in this way we differ from much of academia — is that, even though our sub-fields all differ so much that it is hard for us to communicate across them, we do have the canon of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, Sidgwick, etc., in common, which allows for all of us to have a background language in common. This is important not only for building friendships and for making conversations easier, but also for spurring ideas. We often generate ideas in conversations with others where we think out loud together to figure out what we really think about such-and-such. But conversations with others are hard to have without a shared background language.
Furthermore, I’m not sure you’re right that today’s philosophers can always come up with ideas on their own, that is, without having read the history of philosophy. Could Nussbaum have generated all of her ideas without relying heavily on the history of philosophy? What about MacIntyre? What about Rawls? And so on.
I’m a nobody in philosophy and have never had any great ideas. With that qualification in place, let me now say that the best idea I ever had was taken from a long-dead philosopher. I took what he said and applied it to a contemporary debate. And, frankly, I don’t think I would have thought of the idea without having read this long-dead philosopher. I suspect this happens a lot with today’s philosophers: We often generate our ideas by taking them from someone in the history of philosophy and then fitting them to a present-day debate. Some of these ideas can be thought of anyway (i.e., without reading past philosophers). But lots of them seem to require the reading of past philosophers.
As a final comment, if people stop reading the history of philosophy, then Jason Stanley will have to consider himself an abject failure in 200 years. And we shouldn’t want that.Report
I don’t think the following defense of the study of the history of philosophy falls under responses 1 – 6 above. For the thesis and the considered responses presume a too-narrow conception of what philosophy is – the comparison with physics in point 4 is illustrative – and we should reject that conception.
Ours is a two-and-a-half-millennia tradition of engagement with one another over notions like the beautiful, the true, and the good, or of the activities of perception, judgment, and volition. This collective reflective activity can be understood as an effort to better understand ourselves as the sensing, thinking, and acting things we are. That activity proceeds, in large part, by striving for a more thorough awareness of the cognitive states and processes associated with our grasp of these transcendental ideas, as well as by investigation into specific topics, and by conversation with likeminded others.
I read Locke’s Essay, for instance, not because his ideas can be transplanted into 21st century cognitive science, but rather because I want to think along with him. That effort is rewarding in my own work in much the same way a conversation with the man, were it possible, would be. And just as I’d bring up developments in cognitive science if he and I could talk, so does my reading his Essay involve entertaining both what he says and what I have reason to believe myself.
Given the impact that philosophers have had on reframing the conceptual groundwork of different inquiries, those of us attempting to do the same have something to gain from studying the history of philosophy. To suggest that we’d do just as well without reading the history of philosophy, or that we can make do with summaries, is like trying to write a novel without reading any literature, or making do with CliffsNotes.
To be clear, this analogy does not entail that philosophy is, like literature, to be measured principally against the idea of the beautiful. Plenty of good philosophy has not only been true, but also helped researchers across the sciences and humanities frame new views on what we might so much as conceive as true (or beautiful, or good). In that sense, a general practice of philosophy that neglects the history of philosophy is more akin to a practice of selective breeding that neglects a study of hereditary lineages. You may come up with all sorts of novel breeds, but you’re missing out on a lot of what’s there to be learned if you ignore heredity.
I’ll finish by responding to the “central parity-argument” that Sauer claims is rarely addressed:
This illustrates my point quite nicely. The relationship between the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy is not like the relationship between contemporary science and whatever is believed on some island we judge to be 50, 200, or 500 years behind us in “intellectual developments”. The history of philosophy is our history, not some disconnected system of belief that developed on distant shores, and it has had a more-or-less direct impact on all sorts of ideas that are, even now, worthy of considered attention. Thinking along with the reflective efforts of the millennia-spanning tradition that precedes us, we help one another more fruitfully take part in that activity.Report
“The history of philosophy is our history, not some disconnected system of belief that developed on distant shores, and it has had a more-or-less direct impact on all sorts of ideas that are, even now, worthy of considered attention.”
Hanno Sauer writes: “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.”
This retelling sounds like an ad-hoc just so-story itself, and this argument could ironically be made stronger by doing some history of philosophy of the type that many historians of philosophy do. Where did so-and-so’s idea come from? Can we identify its formulation in her notes before she read historical philosopher X? Now, let’s say we don’t have that kind of evidence and we can’t evaluate the claim based on historical work. How should we weigh Sauer’s retelling of the counter-examples as post-hoc justifications that attempt to borrow credibility by relating their ideas to historical philosophy? Well at least the first version of the story, if told by the philosopher who discovered the idea, has the merit of being based on personal experience. That may not be a strong standard of evidence, but it has more evidential weight than Sauer’s interpretation that isn’t motivated by anything about the actual case, and is instead solely motivated by an attempt debunk the value of the history of philosophy.
I have to say, if history of philosophy does not have value, then I don’t know how to do my own brand of contemporary philosophy. Almost all my ideas come from asking myself: what would Frege, Kant, or Zhaungzi have to say about this contemporary problem? Often these philosophers’ ideas are difficult, so I have been greatly helped by the elucidating work of historians of philosophy when developing these ideas. Sauer can say that I would have thought of the idea anyway, but I literally do not know how I would have. At least, here I have a methodology for generating ideas and then working my way through them. A methodology that relies on the work of historical philosophers and historians of philosophy but is aimed at contemporary conversations. Sauer hasn’t really proposed an alternative methodology. Instead, he’s just implied that I, and others who work similarly to me, are misrepresenting how we came up with and develop our philosophical ideas. But as I pointed out above, this claim is based on nothing other than a desire to remove a counter-example, whereas at least our version is based on personal testimony (which has a greater evidential value than nothing).Report
I guess a more general question is what proportion of an academic community does one need to have engaging in depth with primary sources for a particular set of ideas as opposed to relying on (hundreds of years of) subsequent refinements of those ideas? “Need” here might be progress (!?), maintenance of the body of knowledge that seems to have been perennially interesting, quickly dealing with reinvention of the wheel (?).Report
Rawls always focused on the “classic” texts in political philosophy in his classes. Here is my best colloquial paraphrase of his defense of the practice.
If I pick out a selection of recent articles (let alone whole books), I don’t know whether they represent work that will stand the test of time or not. But when I assign material that people have been reading for hundreds of years, I feel like there must be something there worth discussing.
I get the counterargument. I understand that philosophy has always been elitist, racist, sexist etc. There would be a lot of more great stuff to read were it not so. But of the material that did get written and then read, the stuff that has stood the “test of time” in a narrower sense, might have something in its favor, no?
All of these “great” philosophers had many false and offensive beliefs that did real harm. But so do current philosophers. We just don’t know what they are yet.
I don’t see why every paper has to engage with history, either. But then again I agree with Korsgaard in her recent Dewey lecture that every paper shouldn’t have to engage with all the current literature either.
In any case, when you use the ideas of someone, you are supposed to credit them. Even if they are dead and not someone you approve of. Hume comes up all over in political philosophy still: Rawls, David Lewis’ great book on conventions, Charles Mills’ critique of early contract theory, and recent feminist literature on care and the circumstances of justice. Good philosophers who refer to Hume need not care about history per se or like Hume at all. They might just have got something from Hume that they have an obligation to properly credit.Report
This looks more like a defense of why we sometimes might want to use a historical text as a course reading. But isn’t the argument here about whether the history of philosophy is a valuable field of philosophical research?Report
The first part is. I guess. Though it seems to me that arguments for reading certain things in philosophy courses must connect up, at some point, to doing philosophy. Or why are we reading this? It’s not a history course. (Unless it’s a history course. lol)
But I suppose I didn’t make the second part clear enough, which is more directly responsive. Plenty of people seem to, often profess to, have said here, that they are influenced in their work in philosophy by historical texts. The authors main counter argument seems to be a slightly more sophisticated version of, No. They haven’t.
Hence, the best response, it seems to me, is well here are some claimant’s. Why should we disbelieve care theorists who say in rethinking Hume’s circumstances of justice they now believe that we need to add material dependency care. That may be false. Maybe, those who made the argument didn’t read much, or any, primary Hume texts. But it seems perverse and willfully contrarian to suggest they weren’t really influenced by history. In my area, political philosophy, this happens all over the place.
When I was an undergraduate there was a popular slogan among many of my professors. They use to say, “I do philosophy not the history of philosophy.” I think that quote comes from Quine. Not sure. But I don’t think it’s aged well.Report
Also, when the author says, that people who go on about the historical sources of their view are “grandstand[ing] about their humanistic erudition,” like most people who complain about grandstanding, she’s just being insulting.
Caring about something that she does not care about, cultural and historical context, does not make someone a self-aggrandizing hypocrite. Suppose I am not much of a philosopher (opinions differ!), but I am in fact quite good on the cultural and historical background of philosophy (I’m not. Hypothetical.) Is there no place for me in the field? Or is there a place as long as I defer obsequiously to the “real philosophers”?Report
One of the many things here I can’t help but wonder if Prof. Sauer should debate with me is exactly how often I hear a view presented in ahistoric argumentative fashion only to say “Hey, actually that view has been defended elsewhere in philosophical history.” This mistake has been quite common when people take the view that history doesn’t matter or only a partial view matters (as my recent debate with Paul Taylor attests). I don’t think this is necessarily an analytic problem, but when I see it happen it is from that tradition (it’s possible that a dogmatic phenomenologists might also think that essences are just as ahistoric as people who do conceptual analysis). Let’s call this the ahistorical philosophical methodological commitment (APMC hereafter).
The question then is should we endorse APMC if on occasion we may take the position of someone in the history of philosophy and claim it as our own? I’d hope not. If we abandon doing our own intellectual history for no history, then the only scholars who could police philosophical discourse for plagiarism would be historians.
What makes APMC possible is to assume that the goal of philosophy is to form true beliefs about X and history is a deposit of failed arguments to form true beliefs about X. With this thinking, it makes sense to disregard the history of philosophy. However, the goal of philosophy is not only to form true beliefs about some concept/subject X, but also wisdom and understanding as to how it was that past thinkers understood the world in order to conclude erroneous beliefs, especially if I am concerned with not repeating the same mistake. Why did the Catholic Church adopt Aristotelian substance ontology and how did that develop from the middle ages to the present day? What benefits were there to Christianity by the Hellenization of Christian thought? Now, there are a handful of religious philosophers who may weigh in on these questions. They seem relevant as they seek to justify their faith within a certain philosophical tradition.
According to Sauer, there should be no traditions. I do not know how to parse the fact that there are people who do Continental philosophy far insulated and intentionally removed from analytic departments. This truth is empirically relevant if one selects to go to graduate school at either Duquesne or Pitt.
One argument to not endorse APMC would be as follows. First, all insight, discovery, and invention in philosophy about any concept or subject occurs by people within history. There are no underived arguments, but a context in which even if we practice argument-centered methods emerges clearly within space and time. The farther removed we are from those contexts, the more we should know about them in order to fully understand why past philosophers made the arguments they did. For that reason, we should employ the principle of hermeneutic charity and argumentative charity. We should seek to both understand the context, language, and relevant history that shapes a philosopher as well as the central argument/insight we are engaging. Why does it seem that Emerson’s metaphysics has an influence from Plotinus and Hinduism all at the same time? Well, he was an editor of a New England Journal, Dial, that published translations of these ideas from the East.
Here’s maybe a better example of why we should seek to understand the context, language, and relevant history that shapes a philosopher. I think process philosophy is arguably a better orientation than any substance-based metaphysics. In fact, Whitehead and William James have similar things to say about why endorsing a substance conception of metaphysics is false. I agree with them, and I am engaged with both the classical pragmatists and Whiteheadians on this topic versus contemporary representations of the past mistake. So for me to disagree with a Thomist, we articulate a charitable reconstruction of the other’s tradition (the sets of assumptions and interpretive moves), but the hope is that I remain historically accurate to the Thomist to disagree with him/her. The Thomist who writes back to defend their view likewise must engage with me, someone coming from a process/pragmatic orientation. In order to have the argument, we both must mediate our views and attempts at understanding each other from the point of view of history. History is not something that can be transcended with pure logical argumentation–I think this is at bottom the real disagreement.
That brings me to a final point. If we get ride of the idea of history is necessary for philosophy, then we stop trying to understand entire traditions on a general level such that we get rid of a level of metaphilosophy that could call into question the entire tradition. Examples of this metaphilosophy might be Whitehead, Heidegger, or James. Maybe you think that claims should be more precise than Heidegger calling into question what he means by “the metaphysics of presence” or by what James calls “vicious intellectualism”. Whitehead calls into question the entire philosophical tradition shaped by the linguistic and historic assumption that there is a difference between subjects and the objects of the world? Overcoming that dichotomy is a hard problem when everyone implicitly adopts linguistic phrases that reinscribe that same mistake over and over again. What’s more, history can shape the proper understanding of an author. How many times have analytic interpretations of James simply called him a subjectivist without paying attention to how his metaphysics of experience show otherwise?
My only point is I could not have half the conversations I am having if the goal of philosophy was merely the search for the right argument devoid of any history, language or context. I cannot transcend reality, nor space and time. I am subjected to the historical world as it is handed down to me and how that history mediates my engagement with it. As I navigate the 19th century and do little in relation to Kant, I still must know about Kant since so much of the vocabulary of philosophers have been transformed by him. I need to know a few details about him. And history also delivers me some insight. When James is arguing against vicious intellectualism and Hegel, I often wonder if he is arguing against F. H. Bradley? I can’t prove it one way or the other, but it has opened up recent possibilities that Bradley’s arguments against radical empiricism should be addressed if I am to understand James better. I do not think anyone currently writing engaged James as well as Bradley on this point. So again, history is needed.Report
Hanno Sauer’s recent article cited my blog post on history of philosophy, where I respond to Michael Huemer’s “Against History”, but the page is moved! Here it is:
Being cited means I legally must read the paper, so I look forward to thinking through it.Report
The most astonishing fault of this argument is that its elision of the fact that the “historical ” is a condition of deep interdependence in which existence includes a hermeneutic connection to the thoughts of others. This is true even for the Sauerian philosopher. Engagement with the “historical” is an explicit, conscious, systematic, sincere, and self-reflective practice of this unavoidable relationship.Report
Cool, so we don’t need to bother read the old stuff ’cause it’ll happen anyway? Or we’ll get it filtered through the new stuff?Report
That’s not what I said. We are historical beings no matter how we avoid it or do not think about it. But thanking without a practice that recognizes our intergenerational moral commitments to past as well as to future persons or refusing our dialogical relationship with those who formed our world and our work is inadequate thanking.Report
The claim that we are ‘historical beings’ is an odd one I’ve seen before. It’s too vague to be useful, and assumes too much. Yes, we belong to a primate speices that has a past about which we’ve told ourselves lots of stories, or histories. That information means that the world as it’s historically turned out through human action has been created, more or less, by people whose views were strongly, and often perversely, influenced by what other, dead, people had done or thought in the past. But we are not ourselves historical. I’m a finite, biological organism literally bound to the body I am, existing in relationship to an environment on which I depend. I exist due to happenstance. So the dialogic relationship you mention is fictive. I am only connected to other people or to history to the extent I think myself connected through the concepts and categories that I use. That these concepts and categories already existed prior to my emergence in the world, and that I might use them for certain purposes, doesn’t make me a historical being – it makes me an organism that uses the tools – concepts, categories – I find available. My present experience trumps history every time, because it matters most. I have no real relationship to history at all: there’s no actual connection between me, as the organism I am, and what has historically happened, or the people who once lived as I do now. Anyone who claims such a connection exists or that we are historical beings no matter what, is claiming more than they have a right to claim.Report
I realize the thread is exhausted, but I’ll add a last note anyway.
The phrase “historical being” is, iy is true, a short-hand, suited for this super-short format. It can be read differently. Even the modifier “hisorical” in all of this is polysemous. Sauer and I, for intance, use it in distinct ways.
I fail to see that there is any contradicton between Leskanich’s view of a person as a finite organism availjng herself of cognitive tools and my concept of historical-hermeneitic existence. One simply does not cancel out the other. The fact that both can be true derives from the “impossible” onology of the past. The past is just that circumstance (or part of existence) in which the utterly dead & gone remains connected to the utterly here & now. For example, finitude both separates us from past people and things; and yet finitude is a universal existential condition in which we communicate across this boundary. All that is left to Leskanich’s position is the trivial truth of presentist theory of time,
Furthermore, the issues we are discussing bear on the nature of personhood. Here whether we are or are not finite, and what finitude is or is not, cannot be adequately understood within Leskanich’s terms.
Finally, if by “fictive” he means that a hermeneutic/dialogical relationship of present and past persons is non-existent, the claim is clearly and obviously false.Report
There’s a lot that’s just too incoherent here to even attempt to respond to, but I would remark that none of this proves any ‘connection’ whatsoever between history and an individual person, bounded within their own, discrete body. Knowing a lot about history doesn’t magically mean any connection exists either. Your claim that the ‘utterly dead and gone remains connected to the utterly here and now’ is contradictory, and false: there is no connection (though maybe you have some extremely loose definition of connection you’re assuming here) to what no longer exists, nor can there be. I am not ‘connected’ to dead people, though I can see the fruits of their labour in the environment I inhabit, and, in the case of people I’ve known who are now dead, hold memories of them. I don’t know why you attribute to me a presentist theory of time when I used no such theory, and nor is one even required to elucidate the very simple point I was making, which is so self-evident I’m at a loss as to why you’re struggling with it.Report
It seems that the background assumption of the paper is that philosophy has made some kind of progress, and that today we stand in a better position than Plato with respect to fundamental questions (and that part of this progress is because we have better scientific knowledge today about the world). I’m sympathetic in some respect since I think, for example, that the Darwinian revolution should entirely reframe our approach to metaphysics. But the argument that we should discard history would be more convincing if the person presenting this thesis could offer, say, two or three non-trivial philosophical results in moral philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics, respectively which are today generally accepted without serious objection by nearly everyone in the field. Can it be done? Do philosophers know anything? (Gary Gutting’s attempt to do this, I almost called it recent, but it’s more than a decade old, in “What Philosophers Know” is instructive, the answer is: not much). Now I am just a foolish philosophical hagiographer, exhausting my energy in the pointless endeavour of reading very old books in funny languages, but I really cannot think of anything in philosophy that is not still contested.
What’s in question here, really, is philosophy’s own conception of its project. Are we piling up philosophical knowledge, and building upon it in order to ascend to the peaks of absolute knowing? Or is philosophy the struggle to reflect the present to itself (a project that cannot be done without highlighting the persistence of the past in the present).
I think it’s only a small leap from the argument in the paper to asking why we should do philosophy at all. Maybe that’s the right answer, maybe philosophy lives on in the present like a ghost, hanging on only because it was never able to accomplish its aims, not realizing it has been replaced entirely by the knowledge-production assembly lines of the modern, corporation-university. I rather prefer to think it lives on because there is an aspect of it, some remnant of the human spirit, that cannot be reduced to knowledge accumulation, that has to do with a kind of understanding that is useful precisely because it is always historical, contingent, and inseparable from the social context in which occurs (human self-understanding).Report