Why Does the History of Philosophy Matter to Philosophy?

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 a part of the 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 most 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, the value of philosophy is internal to the practice of doing philosophy. Socrates says the unexamined life is not worth living and that the best life involves discussing virtue every day. Aristotle argues that contemplation is the highest human activity. These people weren’t just using philosophy as a tool to reflect on a life that is itself independent of the philosophizing. They reached the conclusion that doing philosophy has a central place in living a good life.

If you think about philosophy in this way—that it’s an activity with intrinsic value—I think it’s easier to explain why studying its history is also valuable. In this post, I’ll give three reasons why studying the history of philosophy is inseparable from “doing” philosophy in this way. I don’t mean these reasons to be exhaustive. Together they suggest one way of taking up the history of philosophy. But there are other ways too.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive in what follows. I don’t want to insist that everyone should think about philosophy the way I do. But I would like to defend my right to call the activity I spend a lot of time on “philosophy” and to explain why that activity has an important historical dimension.

Godfrey Kneller, Old Scholar (Vanitas Allegory)

1. Our questions and concepts are historically conditioned

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 clichéd bad undergraduate paper begins by intoning that “Since the dawn of man, philosophers have pondered…” Plato asked what constitutes a just society, so did John Rawls, and so do we today. 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. (And once that cat’s out of the bag, you can worry about free will in a post-theistic society as well.) 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.

One lesson here concerns that familiar philosophical bugbear of reification. Don’t make the mistake of treating the abstractions we use to talk about the world, our values, and our experience as concrete things. The map is not the territory.

That far you can go without any particular interest in the history of philosophy. The further lesson I think history can teach is how much our maps are tied to our interests. 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, not just because it might save us from some undue reification, but also 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 there are 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.

2. Seeing ourselves as inheritors of a history helps us respond more creatively to that inheritance

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.

As Faulkner says, the past is never dead. It isn’t even past. Understanding our past helps us understand ourselves better.

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 with staggering erudition 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 some older source 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.

3. We can learn from the weird stuff philosophers say

The fourth section of Sauer’s paper is titled “Historical authors were probably much worse philosophers.” I want to take him a step further here. It’s not just that some of the arguments from the mighty dead of the past seem worse than what a competent graduate student could produce today (I wrote a blog post that touches on this point last winter). It’s that many of these arguments seem downright bonkers. Descartes thinks animals are exquisitely crafted machines that are no more capable of suffering than clocks?! St. Augustine thinks it’s important to insist that Adam never experienced involuntary erections but could get it up at will?! Aristotle thinks that some people lack the capacity for self-governance and so, really, slavery is what’s best for them?!

Whatever’s going on here, it’s a lot more interesting than some sloppy thinkers committing well-known fallacies.

When someone you have reason to respect says something that sounds totally nuts, that’s not an occasion to wave your hand dismissively. That’s an occasion to perk up. As Wittgenstein writes, “one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth.”

In all of these cases, the truly bonkers claims derive from a philosophical framework that’s no longer credible to us. These thinkers feel moved to provide responses to problems that seemed salient to them. It takes a lot of work just to get that salience into view.

I find I confront this problem in particular on the rare occasions that I try teaching metaphysics that’s older than about three hundred years. Even religious students tend to be totally unmoved by Medieval proofs of the existence of God. They simply don’t relate to their own faith in terms of rational proof. It’s not so much that they (or their more numerous atheist and agnostic peers) find these arguments unconvincing. It’s that it’s simply incredible to almost everyone nowadays that matters of the deepest spiritual importance could be settled through rational proof without any empirical component.

Whatever we might want to say about the quality of the arguments, I don’t think the central issue here is their wrongness. It’s rather that it’s nearly impossible to engage seriously with some of them. We simply occupy a different world and struggle to retrieve why it might have seemed worthwhile to think about these issues in this way in the first place.

But I think that struggle is worthwhile. Getting outside your own way of thinking is a valuable exercise in intellectual flexibility. It also allows you to return to your own way of thinking transformed. How bonkers might the intellectual preoccupations of my own age seem from the perspective of future (or past) generations?

You see something like this approach in Heidegger’s critique of technology. We’re so immersed in a certain way of relating to the world, he says—a way dominated by grasping, controlling, forcing—that we don’t even recognize it as a way of relating to the world at all. Technological “enframing” conditions how we ask questions and what sorts of answers we accept as reasonable. It’s only by getting a bit of distance from this way of relating to the world that we can start to see how destructive it is, and how deeply embedded in our worldview.

The peculiarities of past philosophers can be a kind of canary in our own conceptual coalmine. It can help wake us up to how differently we could be thinking.

Some concluding thoughts

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. 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.

One final note. I really like Wittgenstein. And I really like Wittgenstein in no small part because I think he’s particularly insightful in showing how our own lives are implicated in the concepts we use. And yet Wittgenstein notoriously held the history of philosophy in disdain.

The example of Wittgenstein should discourage any strong claim about how we must take an interest in the history of philosophy in order to be good philosophers, or even good philosophers of the kind I’ve described. But also, Wittgenstein was a genius. He can get places on paths that are uniquely his own. The rest of us could use some help.

In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein found an ingenious way of casting things into relief without studying history. At one point Wittgenstein writes, “we are not doing . . . natural history—since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes.” In effect what he’s saying is, you don’t need to do the history of philosophy—you can just make up one of your own. Fair enough. But for someone like me, who lacks Wittgenstein’s imaginative powers, history is still pretty helpful.

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