Why the History of Philosophy Matters to Philosophy (guest post)


“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.)


[Yasumasa Morimura, “Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist” 2013]

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.


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Martin Lenz
1 month ago

“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. … So studying the history of philosophy isn’t simply a way of understanding the past. It’s a way of understanding the present.”

Superb piece.Report

J C Pauw
1 month ago

Two further reasons. Some, not all, philosophical issues are perennial. They are the ones that have not been dealt with yet. 2500 years may not be such along time. Second: Philosophy is a trade and what better mentors than, say, Plato, Hume and Quine can there be to practice your artisanship?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  J C Pauw
1 month ago

“What is the nature of motion” and “where did life come from” are once-perennial questions on which we’ve made so much progress that we no longer include them in philosophy.Report

John Paton
John Paton
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

They will be back!Report

Philip-Neri Reese, OP
1 month ago

This was a really interesting piece, and I think the core point about the implication of the self is spot-on.

One worry I have is that it may go too far in its rejection of the perennial questions view. The propositions (1) “all philosophical questions are perennial questions” and (2) “all philosophical questions are non-perennial questions” are contraries, not contradictories. And both of them strike me as false. Questions like “what is real?”, “what is truth?”, and “what is good for us?” are almost certainly perennial and philosophical (and cross-cultural). Questions like “are there transworld individuals?”, “does the hermeneutic circle preclude objectivity?” and “is regicide justifiable?” are almost certainly NOT perennial, but still philosophical.

If Egan is right, then one of the philosophical values of studying the history of philosophy is that it helps us see that many of our own questions (and answers thereto) are not as perennial as we might otherwise have thought. But I’d also be inclined to argue for the value of studying the history of philosophy from the perennial questions front as well: studying the history of philosophy (like studying non-Western philosophy) doesn’t just expose us to approaches and answers to perennial questions that are different from our own (WEIRD) approaches and answers – it also exposes us to approaches and answers to perennial questions that may we’ll be right.Report

David Egan
David Egan
Reply to  Philip-Neri Reese, OP
1 month ago

Thanks for these thoughts. I’m inclined to say that it’s hard to define a strict criterion of identity for what’s “the same” question as what. I agree that there are quite a number of questions that have been asked across the history of philosophy–and, as you say, across philosophical cultures–although the precise form these questions take, and the broader philosophical context they slot into, still differs. I take that to be a good thing: debates from other times and places can inform our own while also, as you say, exposing us to differences in approach that can be illuminating.Report

Murali
1 month ago

If philosophical questions are a product of our context and time, then people in the past were asking different questions. Why care about what they had to say if their questions are not relevant to us here and now?Report

Philip-Neri Reese, OP
Reply to  Murali
1 month ago

Is this conditional true?

It strikes me as not-insane to hold that (1) philosophical questions are a product of contexts/times, (2) different contexts/times can be more or less similar in a philosophically relevant sense, and (3) the degree of philosophically relevant similarity/difference between context/times determines the degree of similarity/difference between the philosophical questions raised in those contexts/times.

If that’s right, then only an utterly alien context/time would produce utterly alien philosophical questions. And I think we’ve got good reason to suppose that no such contexts/times exist. But I don’t think Egan needs total difference to get his argument off the ground.

Moreover, even if we suppose the conditional were true, it doesn’t strike me as relevant to the question that follows. The question seems to presuppose that if people in the past were asking (completely) different philosophical questions, then those questions would be irrelevant to us here and now.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood Egan, but it seems to me like that’s precisely what he wants to deny. Isn’t his point that considering questions different from our own IS relevant to us here and now, because it teaches us more about ourselves, our practices of question-asking, and perhaps even the answers we give to those questions?Report

Joseph Duvernay
1 month ago

I agree with anyone using what men and women have done to understand what we do now!Report

ESL speaker
1 month ago

In my field there’s this thing called evidence based policy. This naturally leads me to wonder whether we can use this to evaluate the usefulness of the history of philosophy. Here’s a proposal:

There are those who had rigorous training in the history of philosophy. There are also those who don’t. We can then find whatever criteria we like, e.g. getting leiterian jobs, publishing in leiterian journals, H-index, being successful public philosophers, being content with their own lives, whatever. (For those who don’t like anything leiterian, surely we can find some agreeable standards.) We then try to find out whether those who had rigorous training in the history philosophy perform better in a statistically significant way. (For those who don’t like statistics, surely we can find some way to evaluate insofar as the criteria don’t include “enjoying the history of philosophy” or anything like that.)

I think this proposal, if feasible, would complement a priori arguments for or against the significance of the history of philosophy.Report

Charles Pigden
Reply to  ESL speaker
1 month ago

Surely you don’t have to have had a rigorous *training* in the history of philosophy either to *do* the history of philosophy or to derive some intellectual benefit from having engaged with it.Report

JTD
JTD
1 month ago

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. 

This strikes me a bad approach to philosophy, one that is full of personal hubris. It is, of course, interesting to ask why philosophers pursue the philosophical questions that they do, using the methods they do, and what bias or preoccupations may be in the background. However, these are empirical questions best pursued by empirical disciplines like psychology and sociology, or by X-Phil. The idea that these questions should be approached as personal questions that each philosopher answers for themselves from the armchair is rather silly and will lead to self-serving answers infected various kinds of bias. Approaching these questions at a more general level with rigorous empirical methods designed to minimize the influence of bias is a far better approach. But the history of philosophy would presumably only play a minor role in such a research programme.Report

Fellow Hermeneut
Fellow Hermeneut
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

You just might find that a study of the history of philosophy will reveal some of the ways that your smug view of bias-free empirical research is infected with various kinds of bias. Give it a try!Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Fellow Hermeneut
1 month ago

I guess I am supposed to respond to this with a similarly narky, rhetorical quip. But this kind of thing is pointless isn’t it? So, instead I will hold out hope that a constructive discussion is possible here. The argument I offer above would indeed be fundamental flawed if one of its premises were “empirical research is can be conducted in bias free way”. However, I was relying on no such premise. The premise relied on is actually “empirical research, when conducted correctly, does significantly better at minimizing the influence of bias (but does not eliminate it entirely) than armchair self-reflection on ourselves”. So, a relevant objection would be a reason for thinking that this claim is false. Do you have such a reason to offer?Report

Fellow Hermeneut
Fellow Hermeneut
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

I apologize for not giving you as thoughtful a response as you deserve, but I have little time. I will only say this: Many of the questions that philosophers ask “How should we live?” “What is justice?” “What do we mean by human flourishing?” “What is beauty and art” aren’t best answered through empirical research alone. One of the author’s points (as I understand it) is that the biases (to use your term) of past philosophers provide us with a rich horizon of different perspectives on the human condition, ethics, aesthetics, etc. Engaging with past philosophical works not only serves to illuminate the degree to which our own biases, questions, problems are historically conditioned, but it can also enrich our biases, questions, problems and inform our understanding of ourselves and our world. Take out these biases (which is never fully possible) and you hollow out the subject matter itself. I am not saying that empirical research has no place in philosophy — it most certainly does — but I think your easy dismissal of the history of philosophy is misplaced and frankly shows a lack of humility and wonder — which are qualities that attracted me to philosophy in the first place.Report

David Egan
David Egan
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

I wonder if it helps to draw an analogy to ethics here, which is treated both by philosophers and by psychologists. Psychologists are interested in the descriptive question of how people reason ethically, what influences their thinking and actions, and so on. Philosophers are interested in the normative question of how people *should* behave (well, and lots of other things besides). Similarly, there’s a psychological or sociological question about why I’m so constituted as to be interested in the things I’m interested in. But I take it to be part of philosophy that I should ask myself why the problems that matter to me *should* matter to me–why they’re important. This isn’t about self-indulgence or personal hubris. It’s about asking why the issues at hand matter. But I also think it’s important in asking that question to recognize how I’m implicated in the answer.Report

JTD
JTD
1 month ago

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.

But some questions are objectively more important. For example, theism is either true or false. If it were true that would be an important fact about the world, so its truth is an important question. Someone who says “I don’t care whether theism is true or false” is ignoring a philosophically important question and hence is philosophical limited in that respect. Now, consider the set of questions that only seem relevant if theism is true (e.g., what intentions does God have for the world?). If theism is true then these are also important philosophical questions. If theism is false then they are not important philosophical questions. So, if theism is indeed actually false then philosophers who have preoccupied themselves with these questions were asking questions that were not philosophically very important. In other words, it seems that the ultimate nature of our world does make some philosophical questions objectively more important and others objectively less important. The trouble for philosophers is that we are always just giving our best guesses about what the ultimate nature of things is and when we are wrong we may become preoccupied with the wrong questions.

This way of seeing things is more faithful to how most philosophers have actually conducted philosophy than the radical relativism that Egan proposes. A typical medieval philosopher was not thinking “relative to my interests, these are the questions I find interesting, so I will ask them even though they are no more objectively important than different questions that may have preoccupied a philosopher in another epoch”. Rather, they were thinking “to my best judgment, these are the objectively important questions to ask, so I will ask them”. When we do philosophy in the 21st century we should take the same attitude. We should ask the questions that are, to our best judgment, the objectively important questions to ask. When we look back on the medieval philosopher, we will see that some of the questions that he or she asked were not objectively important according to our current judgment, while others were. It is reasonable to make these judgments. However, we should also have the humility to recognize that we are only making our best judgments and that some or even many of those judgments may turn out to be wrong. Perhaps future philosophers will think that we are preoccupied with the wrong questions to the same degree that we think medieval philosophers were. But radical relativism is the wrong conclusion to draw from this.

Indeed, Egan’s radial relativism is self-defeating. If questions are only important relative to a set of interests then the question:

(1) Are there any objectively important questions

Is only important relative to certain interest and is unimportant and can be ignored relative to other interests. But Egan does not treat it like this. He does not express the appropriate humility that seeing the question this way requires. Rather he acts as if it is an objectively important question that is pertinent to how we understand philosophy as conducted in every epoch and then offers his own answer–radical relativism–which he apparently takes to be objectively correct. In other words, he denies his thesis in order to prove it.Report

Lu Chen
1 month ago

I feel that we can learn diverse questions and methodologies even within the contemporary time that can make us reflect the peculiar nature of our own interests, as long as we do not just hang out with a somewhat fixed circle of philosophers. Historical studies strengthen this, but don’t seem indispensable for this purpose. Nonetheless I do find historical readings valuable and fun. However, for many of us, spending a lot of time interpreting obscure historical texts is not worth it philosophically.Report

Hanno
Hanno
1 month ago

Great post, thank you, David! A couple of questions, if you have time:

  1. One can do philosophy with different aims — truth, self-understanding, entertainment, etc. You rightly point out that the reflexive aim is important as well. Do you (dis)agree that the arguments in my EoH-paper apply to the truth-seeking variety?
  2. How much of philosophy is reflexive and how much is about the “stuff”? I think a substantial amount is about the stuff. What do you think?
  3. Why does the fact that not all philosophical questions are perennial support the historical approach? Other discplines have shifting questions as well — “what is the right mix of the humors” used to be a medical question but no longer is one. The fact that medicine knows such questions doesn’t mean we should do it historically. Why is philosophy different?
  4. Does philosophy improve our self-understanding? Sometimes, maybe, but sometimes it does the opposite, right?

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Billy
Billy
Reply to  Hanno
1 month ago

Philosophy is primarily about the “stuff.” But, when we try mentally to access the “stuff” and understand it, what do we find? We find it confusing and difficult. Why do we find it confusing and difficult? One reason, though perhaps not the only one, is that there is an enormous amount of cultural overlay that acts as a medium between the “stuff” and our minds, making the access complicated. I think part of the point of historical-genealogy philosophy of the sort that Charles Taylor does is to make sense of the complications of the cultural overlay. Where did all this cultural overlay come from? How did our own cultural overlay get to be the way it is? What is the history that led up to our own cultural overlay forming as it did? Once we have a better sense of our own cultural overlay, our mental access to the “stuff” will be better.

I think this is also part of the point of what Alasdair MacIntyre has done for many years. Historically-informed philosophy is not simply studying the past. It’s an attempt to sort out the complicated cultural overlay that we now face, with the ultimate aim being to improve our mental access to the “stuff.”Report

Hanno
Hanno
Reply to  Billy
1 month ago

Right, thanks. How much do you worry that relying on works that are based on lots of empirical falsehoods and conceptual confusions will make that access worse, not better?Report

Billy
Billy
Reply to  Hanno
1 month ago

I do worry about this some (though I vacillate on just how much). I’ll think about it more.Report

David Egan
David Egan
Reply to  Hanno
1 month ago

Thanks, Hanno. And thanks for the post/paper that prompted me to reflect more about these things. Let me see if I can offer some concise answers to your questions.

  1. I think we’d need a finer-grained taxonomy (I’m also interested in truth) but I think you characterize the aims of philosophy in a way that’s widely held, and by a lot of people who have done interesting and valuable work. I’m inclined to be a methodological pluralist, partly out of intellectual humility (I sometimes wonder whether the work I do has any worth) and partly out respect for how much valuable work I’ve encountered in so many diverse forms. My concern with what you wrote was that it seemed to want to rule out approaches that draw significantly on history. And I mean approaches in the plural–my post really only focused on one.
  2. I’m not sure you can separate the two so easily–it’s not like I can say philosophy is 61% reflexive and 39% “stuff.” The thought is rather that the way I approach the “stuff” is through a reflexive and historical lens. This is true of some of the authors I mentioned in the post–Nietzsche, Heidegger, Taylor. They’re all interested in coming to grips with stuff, but they all think of that stuff as historically conditioned in a way that means that they can’t look at the stuff without looking at the history.
  3. This is a fascinating question and it got me wondering about what philosophical questions are obsolete and why. A lot of early modern philosophers were interested in substance in a way that we aren’t so much now, but there are successors to those concerns in contemporary metaphysics. I’d be interested what you think might be a philosophical analogue to the humours–something that philosophers generally agree is just a moot issue now. I was rather pointing in the opposite direction–that the tradition seems to have picked up new questions and concerns, e.g. free will or consciousness. And I’m not sure the ancient Greeks were *missing* something in not talking about these things.
  4. Oh sure. But that’s the risk we run in any intellectual inquiry–do it badly and you’ll end up going down a blind alley.

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Hanno
Hanno
Reply to  David Egan
1 month ago

Thank you! So this is really important to me: I think my EoH-paper gave a lot of people the impression — probably due to the douchey way it is written — that I want to “rule out approaches that draw significantly on history” , or somehow declare them illegitimate. But I absolutely don’t want to do that!

I am merely trying to point out that there is is this one fairly specific thing (address certain systematic problems in a certain way) you cannot accomplish by engaging with old views. Otherwise it’s totally fine, though it may be healthy to do history somewhat less hagiographically, i. e. by revising and diversifying he canon either way, but I think many historians already see it this wayReport

David Egan
David Egan
Reply to  Hanno
1 month ago

Ah, I see! If your point is that there are ways of doing good philosophy that don’t draw on history–and that wouldn’t be helped by drawing on history–I think we agree.Report

Devin
1 month ago

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.

While this is true, I’m not sure that it’s true in the way you need it to be in order to distinguish philosophy from other disciples. It’s true that the question of why I’m asking a certain metaphysical question, for example, is itself a philosophical question, but it doesn’t follow that it is itself a metaphysical question. This seems analogous to how the question of why I’m asking a certain question in physics is a question in philosophy/history of science but not itself a question in physics. The difference seems to be that when it comes to questions classed as philosophical we treat the first-order and reflexive questions as belonging to the same discipline. And I don’t really see anything you point to that shows that there’s something intrinsic to the questions classed as philosophical that explains why we should approach them this way when we don’t with regards to, e.g., physics. (Of course, one way to take that is to say that physicists should be more self-reflective!)Report

David Egan
David Egan
Reply to  Devin
1 month ago

I think what’s peculiar about philosophy–and what keeps it from being a science–is that it takes the biggest scope possible: it’s interested in a general way in “what it’s all about.” Almost all philosophy narrows in on more particular questions but I don’t think we can delimit a particular domain to the subject the way we could with the sciences. And I think along with the “what’s it all about” question is a question about “what’s the meaning of it all.” That question about meaning is more explicit in some forms of philosophy than others (e.g. phenomenology or ancient Greek philosophy) but I think it’s at least implicit in (almost?) all the philosophy we do. And when we start asking about meaning, I think we’re at least partially asking about what matters to us and why.Report

Devin
Reply to  David Egan
1 month ago

Thanks! So I think the difference I have is I think both that inquiry in general is more unified and that philosophy is less unified. For the first, I think broader human concerns & historical factors are both implicated in and affected by physics, for example, as evidenced by the existence of a robust program in history & philosophy of science. For the second, I think the questions & approaches that get called “philosophy” are at least as different from each other as what you see *between* fields, and it’s more-or-less an historical accident that they get classed together.Report

Fadhili Deche
29 days ago

With respect to your reflection on philosophy’s reflexivity and the ways in which philosophical questions “implicate” us, I’m reminded of Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between problems and mysteries. The former being issues that are external to us and can in principle be “solved” through the correct application of some generalizable technique. The latter being issues that we cannot similarly extricate ourselves from and are thereby meta-problematic – or, in the man’s own words, are “problems which encroach on their own data”. I can’t claim to have a great command over Marcel’s ideas, but as far as I can tell, the reason he would recommend approaching philosophical questions as mysteries would be due to the way that such an approach necessarily collapses the distinction between question and questioner. That the quest for self-knowledge/-consciousness cannot be detached from philosophy’s more “disinterested” epistemic aims; and that therein lies the philosophical value of studying the history of philosophy.

I’d be interested in knowing whether you had Marcel’s distinction in mind during your reflections; or, if not, whether you think it might help elucidate something about it.Report