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?