“Studying the history of philosophy can help us see ourselves from the outside and that can help us inhabit philosophy from the inside.”
In the following guest post, David Egan, prompted by our discussion last month of Hanno Sauer‘s article, “The End of History“, takes issue with the picture of philosophy it seems to be working with (the “perennial questions” view of philosophy according to which “the questions remain the same, the answers bend toward the truth”), and argues that the history of philosophy allows us to better understand the historical situation in which we, now, are doing philosophy, which in turn helps us “see latent possibilities in the present that a narrower focus might obscure.” (This is an edited version of a post that first appeared at Egan’s blog.)
Why the History of Philosophy Matters to Philosophy
by David Egan
Why study the history of philosophy? Here are two reasons. First, it makes for some good reading. Philosophers have written all sorts of fascinating, beautiful, confounding, edifying, challenging stuff and reading it feels like a grand adventure. Second, reading dead philosophers is a kind of cultural archaeology. Phrases like “Cartesian dualism” or “Platonic form” are part of contemporary discourse. Some bits of philosophy are so embedded in that discourse that most people don’t even realize their origins—did you know Plato gave us “swan song” and Atlantis? If you want to understand the forces and phrases that have shaped the discourse, read the canon.
But how much does the history of philosophy contribute to actually “doing” philosophy? This is the question posed in a recent paper by Hanno Sauer (he offers a summary here, which is where I first encountered his argument). His answer is: not much. The history of philosophy, Sauer argues, has as much relevance to contemporary philosophy as the history of physics has to contemporary physics. We have all sorts of reasons to admire Plato and Kant, Galileo and Newton, but they’re not especially helpful in driving current research. The discipline has progressed since their time and we have much more advanced tools at our disposal, not to mention far more bright minds interacting in a much richer network of intellectual exchange.
Hovering in the background of this argument is a set of assumptions about what “doing” philosophy involves. The analogy with physics is telling: like scientists, philosophers are concerned with a bunch of entities—things like knowledge, justice, the mind, linguistic meaning, and so on—whose properties are pretty much stable over time. When Plato was asking about the nature of knowledge, he was asking the same questions as contemporary epistemologists, just with less sophisticated tools and less accumulated experience to build upon.
This way of thinking about philosophy is common nowadays, and I wrote about how its assumptions shaped the recent PhilPapers survey in a blog post last year (which was subsequently published in slightly modified form in The Point). From that point of view, I can see how studying the history of philosophy might seem like an antiquarian interest. But I think it’s a point of view that risks alienating us from a lot of what’s valuable about philosophy. To put it crudely, philosophy isn’t just about “stuff”—knowledge, justice, minds, etc. It’s about us.
To put it less crudely, there’s a reflexive aspect to philosophy that you don’t find in many other disciplines. The question of why you’re seeking answers to the philosophical questions you’re asking—and why you’re seeking them in this way—is itself a philosophical question. To the extent that my own interest in philosophy is part of what I’m submitting to philosophical scrutiny, it helps to understand how those interests have been shaped by its history.
Hanno offers a sample list of problems that philosophers concern themselves with: “what is knowledge and how do we acquire it? What constitutes a just society? How does the human mind work? What are natural laws? Where does linguistic meaning come from?” He then adds: “Becoming acquainted with the history of philosophy contributes very little to improving our understanding of those problems and their potential solutions, so we would be better off doing much less of it.”
Call this the “perennial questions” view of philosophy: the questions remain the same, the answers bend toward the truth.
This way of thinking belies how much the questions shift over time, and how fluid the concepts are that philosophers use to grapple with them. Plato asked what constitutes a just society but he didn’t ask whether human beings have free will or how consciousness arises in a physical universe. The concept of free will doesn’t enter philosophical discourse until Roman times, starting with Epictetus or St. Augustine, depending on whom you ask and what your criteria are. And philosophers don’t start talking about consciousness until the early modern period.
Were there conscious beings who may or may not have had free will all along and Plato and Aristotle just failed to remark upon this? I think the answer is complicated. It’s obviously not the case that Plato, Aristotle, and co. weren’t conscious. But it’s worth asking why nothing quite like the concept of consciousness featured in the philosophical discourse until fairly recently.
Part of the problem with the “perennial questions” view is that it obscures just how much our web of concepts is indexed to our own sense of salience. The problem of free will becomes especially salient when you’re operating in a theological framework in which you’re a sinful creature who has the opportunity to find redemption by aspiring to know and love God. That framework also makes salient the idea of a conscience, which, both etymologically and conceptually, feeds into a picture of self-aware consciousness. Once you start developing a mechanistic conception of the cosmos, the question of how that immaterial consciousness fits into a physical universe becomes a lot more salient too.
The questions we ask, how we ask them, and what sorts of concepts we deploy in trying to answer them (and how) all reflect our sense of what’s important to us. It’s easier to see this when looking at the past than at the present because the concerns of past generations aren’t our own. We’re inclined to talk about their interests in terms of what seemed important to them whereas we’re inclined to talk about our own interests in terms of what is important. We don’t have the distance from ourselves to see our interests in their historical context.
Getting that context in view can be salutary because it can help us see more clearly that the questions that concern us aren’t perennial. We’re not asking these questions because these are the questions that have been set for us so, darn it, we’d better get down to answering them. We’re asking these questions because they speak to needs and interests that are particular to our situation. Seen in this light, we can see more clearly how and why these questions matter to us in the first place.
Early in his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche launches a scathing attack on what he calls “English psychologists.” It’s not entirely clear who he has in mind, but a likely candidate is his non-English frenemy, Paul Rée. Rée’s The Origins of Moral Sensations (1877) gives a quasi-Darwinian explanation of altruistic behaviour. Altruism proved to be socially useful, Rée argues, and was reinforced over generations through a process of selection to the point that we’ve now come to suppose it’s an objective moral imperative.
Nietzsche had recently completed his Untimely Meditations when Rée’s book was published and his later criticism of Rée focuses on how timely Rée’s thinking is. Influenced by the Darwinian and utilitarian thinking of his own time, he reads that thinking back on to the past. You might say that Rée seeks to domesticate the past by assimilating it to contemporary conceptual frameworks. Nietzsche’s Genealogy tries to do the reverse—to make our contemporary modes of thought seem suddenly strange and alien by tracing their genealogy. Rather than using the present to measure the past, Nietzsche uses the past to sound out the present. Doing this helps us see more clearly what our current values and preoccupations amount to, and allows us to respond to our present predicament with greater clarity and creativity.
I recently finished reading two very different books that both attempt to give big-picture accounts of “how we got to be this way”: Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (a little late to the party on that second one). Taylor’s book is history of philosophy at its finest, tracing the evolution of the modern concept of the self and the competing sets of values that drive us and divide us. Taylor dives deep into texts from ancient Greece to the twentieth century to understand how people have articulated their understanding of the world and their concomitant understanding of what matters and why.
Henrich’s book draws primarily on anthropology, psychology, and history written in the last twenty or thirty years with the odd quotation from older sources thrown in for local colour. He wants to show, first of all, that WEIRD people (people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries) are psychological outliers within the human community by a wide variety of metrics, and then to trace their WEIRDness to a set of mostly accidental institutional innovations in the Western church that broke down traditional kinship networks.
I learned a lot reading both books but I couldn’t help feeling that Henrich’s book was a lot shallower than Taylor’s. This isn’t to knock Henrich’s scholarship—he draws on a vast literature and exhibits all kinds of creativity in ferreting out the answers to his questions. But there’s something weirdly (or WEIRDly) unselfconscious about Henrich’s approach. On one hand, he does a great job of showing how people like himself and me are psychologically unusual compared to the human norm. On the other hand, he seems totally incurious about how his methods and approach might seem from a perspective that isn’t his own. This is particularly evident early on when he gives the kind of breezy account of religion and tribal belief systems that could only be given by someone who doesn’t take them the least bit seriously. Henrich is pretty confident that God and religion can be explained away and doesn’t seem interested in how those beliefs and practices might be experienced from the inside.
Henrich seems like a latter-day Paul Rée, confidently taking his own intellectual framework as the one by which we can see things clearly as they actually are, and then treating other intellectual frameworks diagnostically, as symptomatic of particular folkways and social structures. It’s a common enough attitude but it’s bizarre in a book whose central lesson is that our own ways of thinking are psychologically peculiar.
Taylor thinks it’s important to read the philosophers and other thinkers of past ages because he wants to understand them from the inside. He doesn’t just want to explain that Plato or Descartes or Rousseau thought such-and-such. He wants to understand why those thoughts might have seemed the right ones to them, and why they were moved to articulate those thoughts in the ways that they did.
But his interest in understanding these past thinkers can’t be separated from his interest in understanding our own predicament. He wants to show how their concerns have become our concerns through a tremendously complex series of variations and modifications over time. And tracing this genealogy helps us understand ourselves more clearly. I had epiphany after epiphany while reading the book as my own values and preoccupations came into clearer view and I could see their deep history more clearly.
So studying the history of philosophy isn’t simply a way of understanding the past. It’s a way of understanding the present. Heidegger talks about taking up our history authentically. As I understand him, understanding my history and my place in it helps me respond to the present with greater precision, clarity, and creativity. Understanding my own historical situation helps me see latent possibilities in the present that a narrower focus might obscure.
Here’s one way of putting it. I think studying the history of philosophy can help us see ourselves from the outside and that can help us inhabit philosophy from the inside. By situating my own thinking within a broader historical tradition, I can see more clearly how my particular concerns and preoccupations are mine rather than just the objectively and timelessly important ones that all people with philosophical inclinations might turn themselves to. And that sense of ownership also helps me adopt a stronger sense of responsibility for those concerns and preoccupations.
My argument here is couched in a particular idea of what philosophy is and what it’s for. I’m tempted to say that it’s the idea that philosophy is intimately connected to the project of self-knowledge. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Putting it that way might suggest that philosophy should be concerned with knowing myself rather than the world or at least that it should be primarily concerned with knowing myself. What I want to say instead is that philosophy implicates me in everything I attend to. What I philosophize about and how I do it reveals a lot about my particular concerns and preoccupations. And critically scrutinizing what’s revealed in this activity is itself part of the activity of doing philosophy. (Compare that to physics, where the question of why you’re interested in elementary particles isn’t itself a question to be answered by doing physics.)
History plays an important role in this self-scrutiny. If part of what I’m trying to understand in doing philosophy is why I’m trying to understand things in the way that I am, it helps to see my understanding in its historical context. For one thing, that broader perspective gives me a clearer view of the present. And for another, it helps me better understand how just these concerns and preoccupations have come to seem salient.
Surely this isn’t the only way to think about philosophy, or even about the history of philosophy. But philosophy conceived as a discipline that examines abstracta like knowledge, minds, causation, meaning, and so on without implicating me just strikes me as a far less interesting undertaking.