Why call it “history of philosophy” anyway?

Stephen Nadler has an interesting and provocative address, “History of Modern Philosophy: What is it Good For?” in the recent Proceedings and Addresses of the APA. Among other things, he argues that history of philosophy is just, well, philosophy.

All philosophy, Nadler argues, is dialogical, even if one’s partner is simply a particular reading of a thinker, purely invented, or oneself in another guise. Distinctively philosophical dialogue concerns analysis of arguments concerning a certain range of topics in metaphysics, value theory, epistemology, etc. As such, that one’s interlocutor is alive or recently deceased is really irrelevant to whether the work one does is philosophy simpliciter.

Understood this way, Nadler distinguishes work in “history of philosophy”  from that of “intellectual historians,” whose concerns are largely about social and personal influences, clarifying who said what, and the development of ideas over time. Clearly, one can do both tasks at the same time, and I have a hunch that perhaps one must, in some way do both, but this is not our concern here. His point, and mine here, is not to disparage intellectual history, but to at least bracket it for the time being. One may, however, consider other posts which argue that such should be on the back burner when advancing Indian Philosophy.

I found Nadler’s remarks pertinent to things I’ve been thinking about lately re: what makes work in philosophy “historical.”

Last week, a friend and I were chatting about David Lewis’ modal realism and whether the temporal counterparts found in four-dimensional theories of time were more palatable philosophically than Lewis’ modal counterparts. Now does the fact that Lewis died in 2001 make this chat an exercise in history of philosophy? Clearly, no. So let’s cross off “must involve living dialogical partners” from the criteria of what makes philosophical work historical.

Is it something more impressionistic, like having a significant emphasis on linguistic, philological, and interpretive elements that makes such work historical? Well, what about work that centrally engages with Frege, Heidegger or Wittgenstein? And of course, what about people who don’t have English as a first or second language, and yet work on contemporary analytic thought through translation and reconstruction of texts in a foreign tongue?

Maybe the interlocutors must be dead for a long time? But, to use but one example, Ernest Sosa has centrally engaged with Descartes in his work lately, and Sosa is, of course, no mere historian.

What if it is devoted to expounding and interpreting a certain thinker in a way that is, with no disparagement intended, parasitical upon their work? This would then make a dissertation on, e.g., Russell’s theory of definite descriptions a work in history of philosophy? No, that won’t work either then.

So, what makes something “history of philosophy’ such that it need be distinguished from some other way of framing it (e.g., simply epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, or the close study of this or that thinker)? Is there a good set of criteria, or at least rough guidelines that work? Or must we simply come to the same conclusion we do with many labels or concepts: they are simply a shorthand that we use, knowing full well that they are sloppy and problematic, but for which there are no easy substitutes or fixes. Or, finally, is this distinction between history of philosophy and philosophy proper pernicious and akin to other sorts of problems that the cosmopolitan impulse seeks to shun?




About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

18 thoughts on “Why call it “history of philosophy” anyway?

  1. Great post and great questions, Matthew.

    For me the most important thing here is hermeneutical distance. Can we simply treat the philosopher we’re discussing as an interlocutor with no problem, as if he or she were sitting in the same room with us, or do we have to “make allowances” for a thinker’s different context, to bridge the distances between us and them? Basically, do we share more or less the same background assumptions? If a philosopher does not take it for granted that women should be given comparable status to men, or believes matter is made of phlogiston, we are dealing with the history of philosophy.

    It’s relevant here that we regularly throw around the phrase “history of philosophy”, but hardly ever encounter what should be its obvious counterpart, geography of philosophy. It seems to me the two are comparable, in that spatial distance can mean as much of a difference in background assumptions as temporal distance; this is less the case in an era of globalization, but does remain so to a significant extent (as I think Kasulis illustrates well in Intimacy or Integrity). (I wonder, would it change anything if instead of “comparative/cross-cultural/intercultural philosophy” we instead spoke of “geography of philosophy”?)

  2. I suspect some history of philosophy is more “history” than philosophy but the boundaries are certainly porous or fuzzy:* Stephen Toulmin provides a bit of both (although perhaps more history than philosophy proper) in his Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990), while an exemplary model of mixing the best of history with ample analytic philosophical skill is evidenced in several works of Richard Sorabji, for example, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (2000); on the other hand, I would say Susan James’ provides us with more philosophy than history (however informed the former is by the latter), in Passion and Action: The Emotions in Seventeenth- Century Philosophy (1997). Of course these are arguable judgments…. I’m inclined to believe that those who prefer hard and fast boundaries may sometimes have “scientistic” presuppositions or assumptions lurking in the background as part of their conception of what philosophy is or should aspire to be, namely, like science, or even a proto-science (as once was much that we call ‘natural philosophy). So those doing history of philosophy have insufficient appreciation of philosophical progress (or even lack the ability or talent to ‘do philosophy’ without history) and would better serve the profession were they engaged in contemporary questions and issues (most of which, of course, have clear historical provenance if not a ‘timeless’ quality to them).

    * By way of illustration, please see Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ four recent posts over at New APPS on “conceptual genealogy for analytic philosophy” (Dec. 16-19). Perhaps one of the regular contributors can provide the links for us. In fact, should one want to read more than a few discussions and debates about the role of “history of philosophy” in the profession, one should google that phrase alongside New APPS and you’ll see a fair number of substantive posts on this topic (along with references or links to other treatments as well).

  3. I tend to think of myself as a ethicist, focusing on Buddhist texts, when I think about what these texts say that’s relevant to thinking about more or less current debates in moral philosophy. I think of myself as a historian of philosophy when I focus on a Buddhist text to understand that text, regardless of it’s contemporary relevance. But it’s a pretty thin distinction for me, since I’m usually interested in both aspects at the same time.

  4. One could say (half-seriously) that “the history of philosophy” is just what philosophy is, or used to be, before a bunch of petulant know-it-alls at the beginning of the 20th century thought that they could solve all philosophical problems simply by thinking about them, alone, for months. When these people presumed to be doing “philosophy” (instead of logical-mathematical analysis or something of the sort), then people who actually read texts apart from the latest journals became mere “historians”—a term of disparagement. This results in a division not just between philosophy and history as disciplinary forms, or philosophers and historians, but between philosophical and historical knowledge: the former is concerned with “what is true,” and the latter is concerned merely with what other people thought was true. (I note in passing that A.K. Warder described the mission of the Journal of Indian Philosophy in its first issue as “the description of Indian philosophy.”)

    My own opinion is that this division is silly and baseless, that it comes out of a particular moment of supreme arrogance (the belief that we, as 20th-century Europeans, just are better than everyone else), and that it falsely enshrines as “properly philosophical” only those themes and topics that are interesting and compelling to “proper philosophers”—that is, amnesiac philosophers. You can be a “Kantian” but you can’t, unless as a joke, be a Spinozist or a Leibnizian, much less a Dharmakīrtian or a Kumārilan.

    • Thank you for that, Andrew. I think you have put me in the position of defending analytic philosophers’ approach, which is not one in which I usually find myself!

      Like you I think the distinction is generally handled poorly, but I think there is a very important distinction to be made between what is true and what other people thought was true, and we shouldn’t elide it. I am sensitive to this distinction coming from a formation in religious studies, where only the latter is taken of interest and people react with some embarrassment to any mention that the former even exists. It is still effectively invested in a distinction between the two, but it doesn’t talk about that distinction because it suppresses one term of the distinction.

      And both therefore miss something that should be obvious: the importance of bridging the distinction. We must still distinguish between what’s true and what others believed; obviously, not everything others believed to be true can be true, since they contradict each other on so much. Yet what neither the religionists nor the analytics want to admit is the obvious crossover: maybe, just maybe, there have been people before the twentieth century who have been right about something.

  5. There’s a nice collection of essays on this topic published by OUP: “Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy.” Gary Hatfield has written a piece called “The History of Philosophy as Philosophy” which argues that analytic philosophy has, in actuality, been more “historical” than philosophers with “anti-historical” attitudes would have it. He then sets out a few ways in which we use past texts (and explores them in the context of history of early modern philosophy):

    1. Inspiration – not trying to represent an author’s arguments but just to find something which prompts ideas
    2. Non-contextual fixer-upper – looking for answers to current philosophical problems without attention to historical context (he cites Strawson’s reading of Kant’s Critique as an example)
    3. Historically sensitive fixer-upper – reading past texts with a sensitivity to historical context, still using them to solve present problems
    4. Radically historicist – aiming to understand a text as an expression of the culture without making any further connections, since past standards of evaluation are incommensurable with current ones
    5. Genealogical – understanding past philosophical positions with a careful eye to their historical context will help us not inappropriately import misinterpretations into current debate, and also understand philosophical development (an example is Kant’s notion of analyticity compared to more recent ones)
    6. Assumption-challenging – understanding the past in a historically sensitive manner can reveal hidden assumptions that have not been argued for (an example is Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, though Hatfield criticizes Rorty’s project in the essay)

    I think we would want to reject (1) and (2) as being “history of philosophy”, since the fact that the texts are in the past is non-essential and their historical context is not part of the project.

    (3) is one of the most common approaches to doing history of philosophy, for a number of reasons. I think of Amartya Sen’s description of the “curatorial approach” to studying India here (“Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination”). If past texts (or texts from another philosophical tradition) are too similar—that is, they run into some of the same dialectical dead-ends as contemporary work—then they’re of no use. They need to be different enough that they resolve our problems. “What is the use of finding another Russell or Frege or Descartes?” Etc.

    Of course, while the texts/philosophers need to be different enough to solve our problems, they cannot be so distinct from our concerns as to not be conversational partners. Othewise, all we are doing is history (as in (4)) and not philosophy.

    As Stephen Harris and others have pointed out Catarina Dutilh Novaes’s piece, I don’t need to—but for those of us working in Indian philosophy, this kind of genealogical project (Hatfield’s (5)) is not going to be precisely what we’re doing, at least insofar as we might be wanting to also look at contemporary texts. For some of the work we do, there is no historically grounded conceptual genealogy linking, say, 9th century Sanskrit texts to current work in philosophy of mind (well, this is probably false, strictly speaking, but such genealogies would be different than what she has in mind, perhaps). However, one way to think of historical work in Indian philosophy is that it is exploring counterfactual historical development. As Novaes says, “the historical development of concept X could have taken a rather different turn at some point or another. If this had been the case, then its current instantiations might have become something quite different.” So, then, doing careful work in the history of Indian philosophy can help us to see these different turns actually fleshed out. However, like (3), (5) in this way makes Indian philosophy counterfactual to contemporary philosophy. If the metaphor is of actual v possible worlds, we are still treating historical/non-Western texts as the marked, as the less “real”, etc.

    Hatfield explicitly notes that his list is not exhaustive, and that there are going to be a variety of approaches. I think that even within the same project, a number of methods would be employed. For me, at least (6) is less a method than a goal, one which is extremely difficult to do well, since it involves careful historical reading of two contexts, bridging them, and doing constructive philosophy that identifies assumptions and explores them.

    Last point (sorry, this has gotten long—I’d recommend the book and its articles to anyone interested in this topic) is that there are different units of philosophical analysis. So we might do history of philosophy with regard to a single text, a textual tradition, a philosopher’s textual output, or thematically. This puts us in a position to think carefully about things like the distinctions between “traditions” (here I am especially considering the question of the porousness of the ‘darśana-s’, something I have been thinking about a lot) and more generally, how philosophy proceeds.

    History of philosophy, then, done well, includes meta-philosophy, philosophy “proper”, history, and philosophy of language, insofar as we think about context, interpretation, etc. So, no, I wouldn’t want to distinguish it too strictly from philosophy—and I think making clearer the philosophical robustness of what we do is important to respond to the disparagement that Andrew Ollett quite rightly identifies.

  6. Friends, I am swamped today, else I would write a lengthy reply to each of you. All I can say is thanks for your great contributions so far, and I look forward to looking at your replies and links you’ve provided at length later.

    In passing, Amod, I do have worries about using the fact that we have ” more or less the same background assumptions” to create a basis to distinguish “distant” sorts of work as historical, since even if you are using this for purely descriptive purposes and in a non-normative way, it sure seems easy for it to slip into some perhaps unjustified prioritizing of the current ways of thinking (Andrew’s concern above). Surely you of all people wouldn’t be doing this, I think.

    Again, we go to these thinkers to learn new questions and as a way of rethinking our own assumptions too. Maybe Confucius got something right that Marx got wrong. (I just threw them out there, the two thinkers are basically variables, plug in what you want).

  7. Well, I’d argue we do prioritize current ways of thinking, whether we want to or not. I’m thinking on Gadamerian grounds here: we are constituted by our tradition, it is a horizon we inhabit which is bigger than us. We can’t suddenly escape it by an act of will. Even if I decide today that I am going to convert to Buddhism and try to make it a Buddhism as close to the Pali texts as possible, I am still an English-speaking North American whose very decision to convert comes out of that context. (It is relevant too that neither “conversion” nor even “Buddhism” are terms with exact equivalents in Pali.)

    I think here of Heidegger’s attempt to translate the Laozi, which he never completed – he found it a text much more congenial to his own worldview than most of Western philosophy, but he couldn’t really think with it until he had un-thought the Western assumptions that were so different from it. I don’t think we have to go that far, but I do think some of his caution is worth taking.

    The point is: yes, I absolutely think that non-Western traditions may be (indeed are) right about many things, and part of the point (maybe the whole point) of studying them is to find those things. If done right, comparative philosophy will help us substitute historical assumptions for contemporary ones. But those newly added historical assumptions will still be situated in a complex of contemporary thought.

    (This holds true even when “we” are non-Western thinkers ourselves; there’s been more than enough work demonstrating just how much contemporary Indian and Chinese philosophers have themselves been shaped by a modern Western context.)

    Nothing I’m saying should be taken as an argument against studying philosophy outside one’s own context, of course. Quite the opposite: if we aspire to understand the truth of the matter, that’s all the more reason to try to understand something beyond our starting points and presuppositions – but we need to recognize we do that from those starting presuppositions. We start where we are.

  8. I hope to remain in good terms with all of you, but while i agree with the general worries about the arbitrary discipline boundaries, I am convinced that a historical approach is not only desirable, but it is the only way to avoid philosophical naiveness.

    1) It is undeniable that we are historical creatures and any failure to focus on this dimension will makes us slaves of our unreflected backgrounds (“Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen!”, Goethe).

    2) Moreover, self-labelled philosophers who neglect the history of philosophy (including, as Amod suggested, the history of geographically remote thinkers) run the risk of writing useless articles about “A new theory of…” which just repeat, in bad style, what had already been thoroughly thought in the past.

    3) Self-labelled philosophers risk to just read, say, the Mūlamadhyamikakārikā in order to derive new ideas for *their* own theories. They risk to be arrogant in the way they approach texts, putting themselves alone in the foreground (in this sense, I agree with the beginning of Andrew’s post). By contrast, historians of philosophy ideally prioritize understanding the texts they work on. They should be humble in their approach and presuppose that seeming “mistakes” in the texts they read are instead due to their limited understanding. They do not exploit texts, but rather integrate them in the general enterprise of doing philosophy.

    4) Last, I agree with Amod: studying ideas remote in time and space helps us to relativise our perspective. A further reason to favour a historical approach.

    • Elisa, these are good points, and I don’t think they are at odds with much here so far; maybe your point is to say that “history of philosophy” need not be burdened with the dismissive associations that it was perhaps given by analytic thinkers; and that indeed, as such it is a good label, identifying a practice that is essential to avoid the very problems most of us are identifying in that tradition.

      And Amod, thanks for the follow up. It’s more clear now.

      Patrick and Stephen, thank you for the many good references and to the great discussion by Catarina Dutilh Novaes. There is much there to ponder. And Patrick, your mention of Richard Sorabji reminded me of this awesome recent event that I was hoping to find a reason to link: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/philosophy/newsrecords/2014/sorabji-CBE.aspx . Thanks also, Stephen for your sense of how you navigate both worlds in your work. This is akin to what I was thinking when I mused that one probably must do both; though you expressed them as two tasks, I agree with the thinness of the line between them; it’s unlikely that they are entirely separable, even when emphasizing one or the other in a particular research investigation.

      Malcolm, really great and helpful stuff here, and I agree about (6); it is a goal, one that requires remarkable familiarity with two separate traditions; one can understand why it is frankly easier to stick with what’s local. Maybe when we’re older and wiser. . .

      Thanks also for the link to your blog post. It seems to me that the use of terms “darshana,” etc. is not unlike “Hinduism”, fitting between the second and third of my three options for problematic labels above, probably slightly closer to the second.

  9. Given Amod and Elisa’s comments, I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on how more people doing history of philosophy would impact the discipline. Given that (1) we all start situated in some philosophical culture/tradition and everyone here is in agreement that (2) engaging with other traditions (which are to varying degrees hermeneutically distant) is philosophically important, then what is the practical import for philosophers?

    It is a difficult task to become acquainted well with one’s own context, let alone adding one or perhaps two others into conversation. So there are going to be limits on what a single philosopher can accomplish in a lifetime. She would need to choose carefully where to spend her time. But what should determine which texts she works with? And is the implication that everyone’s work should be in conversation with hermeneutically distant texts (and if so, how distant?).

    Finally, I wonder what kind of standards these are which are being suggested–is it a requirement unique to our historical position (having access to so many texts?). Do we judge Indian philosophers as having failed in their responsibilities where they do not have the same approach to texts as we do (and if no, why not?)

  10. I enjoyed Nadler’s piece, but let’s assume that history of philosophy includes history of Indian philosophy (Nadler seems to be Eurocentric by default, but I’ll give him a pass because he has interesting interpretations of Spinoza). I agree with Amod that there’s some point in drawing a distinction between what’s true and what people say is true. Could that be the demarcation between philosophy proper and history of philosophy?

    As an undergrad, almost all my philosophy courses were history of philosophy courses, but I didn’t know that at the time. For me, reading Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, or early Buddhist texts was an activity involving both interpretation of the texts’ contextual meanings and critical thinking about whether the conclusions of those texts were true (or at least why they’re interesting, or why a smart person would think they’re true or useful). It was only well into grad school that I understood that others made a distinction between philosophy and history of philosophy, which became pronounced when I spent time in a department with a split between historians of philosophy and analytic philosophers, some of whom were gleefully ignorant of history of philosophy.

    Here’s an example of how this plays out. Many analytic philosophers talk about a “Humean” theory of causation, which as far as I can tell has more to do with people like Ayer and Lewis than Hume. I care about what Hume actually said; many analytic philosophers do not. For them, it doesn’t matter whether Hume was really a Humean, since “Humean” might mean “Hume-like” (“Hume-vat” in Sanskrit!) or even “inspired by Hume.” Does caring about this make me a historian of philosophy? Maybe. But I think Hume might actually be right (a conclusion that resonates with Nāgārjuna and the Cārvākas), so maybe not? But then I see how there can be reasonable disagreements on Hume (or Nāgārjuna) interpretation, so that puts me more on the historical side…

    For me the distinction is fuzzy or at least I frequently jump back and forth; nonetheless, there is some sense in seeing it as a matter of emphasis. You can’t do much interpretation without asking why someone would think what they’re saying is true (or at least interesting or useful). I also find it crazy to assume that you have nothing to learn about the truth from 3,000 years of global philosophy.

    Maybe history of philosophy is an activity in which the interpretation side requires more work, especially with temporally and geographically remote thought. Getting clear about what Dharmakīrti said, for instance, is a huge project in itself and, it seems to me, necessary to some degree if you’re going to have anything worthwhile to say about whether his views are interesting or right. I personally also have to do a lot of work to understand a contemporary modal realist or a contemporary Christian fundamentalist, and we shouldn’t assume that we have some automatic understanding of Plato or Seneca just because they’re Western.

    So, to me philosophy is an activity that ALWAYS involves interpretation and critical thinking (that is, some concern for truth, coherence, being interesting, being useful, a way of life, or whatever). This is true whether I’m having a beer with someone at the APA or reading Dignāga. There’s always some hermeneutic distance between you and an interlocutor (it’s just a question of how much), but you can ask, “Is this true?” Whether you’re doing history of philosophy or plain philosophy is perhaps a pragmatic matter of emphasis, but I suspect the distinction ultimately breaks down under analysis.

  11. Very interesting post and comments, a lot of which I agree with. I’m not sure I follow the train of thought in the penultimate paragraph of the post – why is a dissertation on Russell’s theory of definite descriptions not a work in the history of philosophy? Why doesn’t that work? Also, I’d say that Andrew’s cartoon sketch, if only half-serious, is problematic to say the least. It’s simply not true that history of philosophy is what philosophy was before the 20th century, and that these were not recognised, prior to the 20th century, as being distinguishable practices. For instance Kant very clearly distinguished what he was doing from what historians of philosophy were doing, Schopenhauer was very critical of history of philosophy in general, and boasted (like Wittgenstein would later) of his ignorance of the subject, even Nietzsche warned against studying the past and attacked historicism (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie…) H.J. Glock is well worth reading on all of this (and for a defence of an opposing position to Glock’s, Bernard Williams’ ‘Why philosophy needs History’). I’d also echo Amod Lele’s important point on Andrew’s comments about truth – are you seriously suggesting, Andrew, that there is or should be no basic division between what is true and what people mistakenly believe / have believed to be true? That the distinction between accurate and inaccurate science, for example, is silly and baseless? In which case I’d suggest you’re wrong, and you’d be defending a position which would make it hard for you to disagree with me. However, I also think Andrew’s post raises an important philosophical question, since his baddies, if you ignore the reference to the 20th century, could quite easily be all adherents of some form of rationalism, including Kant, for whom philosophy, being a priori, has no more need of history, at least in principle, than it does of, say, the results of neuroscience.

  12. Robert, your mention of Bernard Williams in this context is very welcome, since he was an exception to the picture I sketched (and he was very aware of being an exception). And I’ll also take your criticism regarding the history of the history of philosophy, although I wouldn’t exactly say that “philosophy” and “the history of philosophy” were separate disciplines, but rather that “philosophy” as a discipline had a tendency (which reached a fever pitch in the 20th c.) to be anti-historical. This tendency may be pretty deeply ingrained into philosophy itself, with its concern for “what is (universally) true.”

    But I think my sketch is basically right. For a long time, the price of entry into philosophical debate was that you had read some philosophical texts, and at the very least, the texts you’d like to criticize. But for a moment, it became possible to say, publicly and from a position of high authority, that absolutely everyone who came before you was not just wrong (philosophers have a tendency to say this, too), but not even worth reading, simply because they came before you. Granted, few philosophers, even few analytic philosophers, would accept this proposition as stated. But it defined the way philosophy was practiced—whatever it was, it was not the history of philosophy—and in any case it represented the longstanding ideal of reason reasoning itself.

    The question is not whether a certain type of philosophy is “historical,” whatever that might mean. The question is about the disciplinary separation between “philosophy” and “history of philosophy,” about the history, conceptual underpinnings, and contemporary reproduction of this separation. With very few exceptions, if you work on Indian philosophy, you don’t actually work on philosophy—you work on the history of philosophy. I even wonder about the exceptions: what is the status of a Matilal in the contemporary philosophical pantheon, compared to say Davidson? All of us, I think, know that Indian texts do not have “merely historical” interest, as if we were studying phlogiston. But if we wanted people who aren’t already interested in Indian philosophy to care about these texts—not to speak of people, let’s not forget that they are still around, who believe that “Indian philosophy” is a contradiction in terms—we would have to pass their ideas off as our own. Well, that’s an exaggeration. But I do believe that the separation is closely related to the almost total absence of anything non-Western in the academic discipline of philosophy.

    Now about “what is true” versus “what is believed to be true.” Sure, it’s a useful distinction. (I think Amod and Robert thought that I meant to collapse this distinction—I didn’t.) The question is whether we can define philosophy exclusively in terms of “what is true,” and leave “what is believed to be true” for some lesser beings (historians of philosophy, or religious studies people, or scholars of South Asia, or philologists). To do so, I think (and Nietzsche thought), would be tremendously immodest, not to say philosophically bogus. Now that I think of it, there’s two kinds of “what’s believed to be true”—ideas that are worth engaging with, and possibly eliciting some kind of truth from, and ideas that aren’t even on the table. I think people who study Indian philosophy might be content to leave it “off the table,” to say that what Madhva thought (for example) was interesting but only from the perspective of the history of philosophy (or of ideas, or of religion). That’s fine too, although I have some vague misgivings about it.

  13. Thanks Ethan and Robert for your contributions!

    Robert, I didn’t really like that example I gave of Russell, and you are right to call it out. It came to mind because it was the thesis of one brilliant paradigm analytic philosopher who was one of my teachers. Other examples of work directed toward more recent thinkers would suffice and do a better job. Supporting your point, here’s an interesting journal in which one of my departmental colleagues has published: https://jhaponline.org/jhap/index

    Even if it was aggressively stated, I think that there is much to Andrew’s point. As Nadler put it, when on the market in the beginning of his career, people would commonly ask him if he had any pure philosophical interests besides his work in history of philosophy. I think it illustrates the presupposition of a divide where it need not be the case.

    Wilfrid Sellars could be added to the list of leading thinkers who had great respect for history. When I was at Texas, I asked Alex Mourelatos if he ever felt challenged to defend history of philosophy as a discipline. He mentioned that Sellars (his dissertation adviser) would claim that the data upon which we work as philosophers are the notes of our predecessors. This is a paraphrase. The idea is that we can’t help but start from various starts, musings, and loose ends which the collective philosophical world embarked upon and entertained in the past.

    While on subject, Mourelatos was remarkably supportive to Indian philosophy. I don’t know if he’d remember this, but in our first serious conversation, he told me he’d love someone to do a work on comparative themes in the Upanishads and the Presocratics; he encouraged me to consider it as a dissertation idea. In a seminar on the Presocratics, I did a paper for him on Parmenides and the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, where I argued what is happening in both is a rejection of what I called “temporal chauvinism”; the prioritizing of this or that expression of some underlying matter at this current time, while ignoring the various phases it has taken and will take (he liked that idea and I was delighted by that!).

    And, I guess that with “temporal chauvinism” we’ve come full circle.

  14. Thanks a lot for your quick responses Matthew and Andrew, and for the linked article Matthew. I agree that the boundaries between doing philosophy and studying its history are fuzzy and that the latter, if done well, will inevitably involve a certain amount of philosophical engagement, but I don’t see why all distinctions between the two are arbitrary and groundless, or that maintaining that there are distinctions is arrogant or naive, or will inevitably entail the belief that doing philosophy is somehow a superior practice.
    Surely we can agree that not everyone who tries to make sense of a philosophical text is thereby a philosopher who is ‘doing philosophy’? Is Johannes Bronkhorst a philosopher? I ‘d say not. I’d say the primary aims of his published work on Indian philosophy are the retrieval and description of philosophical claims and arguments and of inter-textual philosophical influences (i.e. what is broadly understood as ‘history of philosophy’) as well as the extra-philosophical reasons why the thinkers concerned may have been inclined to think in these ways or to prioritise these ideas over others (i.e. what is broadly understood as ‘history of ideas’). His work is not principally concerned with the truth or falsity of the claims being made by the philosophers in question, or by the philosophical strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and conclusions they advanced (by coincidence i’m currently reading Stephen Nadler’s book on Spinoza’s ‘Theological-Political Treatise’ (‘A Book Forged in Hell’) and on the basis of the first 3rd of this book, I ‘d say the same of it). This assessment has nothing whatsoever to do with my opinion of the quality of Bronkhorst’s (or Nailer’s) work – I think Bronkhorst is a brilliant thinker, and I’ve a lot of sympathy for Gadamer’s position [The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, p.38], at least when applied to, say, Plato or Kumārila:

    “One can win a certain clarity by analysing the argumentation of a platonic dialogue with logical means, showing up incoherence, filling in jumps in logic, unmasking false conclusions, and so forth. But is this the way to read Plato, to make his questions one’s own? Can one learn from him in this way, or does one simply confirm one’s own superiority? What holds for Plato holds mutatis mutandis for all philosophy.”

    When applied to a much more recent thinker, say Gadamer himself, this attitude strikes me as deeply conservative (which is probably true of Gadamer in general) and needlessly deferential, but in any case, I don’t see why a thoroughgoing rejection of this position could not be a respectable philosophical position (would Nāgārjuna agree with Gadamer’s general point? I doubt it). I’m guessing that the anti-historical current in 20th century philosophy was itself (on the part of the Vienna circle at least, if that’s who you were referring to Andrew) a reaction against the influence of Hegel though i may be wrong. Andrew is probably right that Bernard Williams was something of an exception, but only insofar as he took a genealogical (as described above in Malcolm Keating’s post) approach – many of his contemporaries in England – e.g. Anscombe, Ryle, Strawson, Russell a generation earlier – took history of philosophy very seriously and devoted time and work to it.

  15. Thanks for this, Robert. Yes, according to Nadler’s own way of putting it in his address, Bronkhorst would be more of an intellectual historian, and there is no shame in this. Your speculations about the reaction to Hegel make sense to me too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>