Rewriting history

Chris Lawn laments our insensitivity to historical context

history200There is an orthodox view in the discipline of philosophy, prevalent in the Anglophone world, and it goes something like this. Philosophy is made up of the systematic ideas of influential individuals, and to understand the nature of the subject is to fully grasp those ideas as they appear in the unfolding history of canonical works. This thought serves a strongly pedagogical function, consequently programmes of instruction have as core components courses with “history of philosophy” in the title. These are generally divided into historical epochs: the Classical, the Medieval, and the Modern periods, leading up to something climactic called “Contemporary Philosophy”. This is often subdivided into Contemporary (Analytic) and Contemporary (Continental), indicating that in the recent past philosophy underwent a decisive split.

The working assumption behind the major divisions is not too difficult to find. It is axiomatic that philosophical ideas and systems are part of a continuous chain. This means that you cannot grasp the thoughts of Hegel, say, without having first studied his predecessors Kant and Aristotle. The philosophical tradition is made up of perennial ideas, it is assumed, but they find themselves constantly subjected to reworking over time, and in the revising process improved upon and refined. There is development in the history of philosophy, on this view, and current philosophers expose the errors and mistakes that even the heroic thinkers of the past failed to notice. All of this further assumes that the history of philosophy is as much history as it is philosophy. Philosophy cannot be studied without appreciating the degree to which ideas, and more specifically philosophical ideas, are intrinsically historical, that is, bound up with their own past.

It is frequently assumed that in the term “the history of philosophy” the “philosophy” part needs further explanation but the “history” bit can take care of itself. This is certainly questionable. For too long, certainly in the analytic tradition, the history part of the term has been ignored. The price paid for neglect is a distorted account of what the history of philosophy is. What passes in its name is not genuinely historical. For example, there are many single and multi- volume works entitled history of philosophy; most popular in this genre are Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Frederick Copleston’s incomplete eleven-volume History of Philosophy. These works treat the history of philosophy as an unfolding narrative. Interwoven within this are the lives and works of the great philosophers. What is offered is a lifeless chronological survey of the ideas of the “great philosophers”, presented as a seamless progression of bodies of doctrine or systems. The ideas of each individual philosopher are generally preceded by a short biographical sketch, working on the assumption that the bare outlines of the life provide sufficient socio-historical background to contextualise the work and aid interpretation. Such “histories” can be useful as a very general guide to the figures of the past. Unfortunately, they perform a disservice as philosophy is viewed as a steady incremental development. The history of philosophy is taken to be a fixed canon of unchanging texts and figures, but a more chaotic and unstructured picture would be more accurate. The history of philosophy is an impossibility: the canon constantly changes with the vagaries of philosophical fashion. I suppose Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant would always make the Premiership but as we get closer to the present day the figures to be included (or excluded!) become more controversial.

What has to be borne in mind is that the history of philosophy itself has a history. Although Plato and Aristotle were also early historians of philosophy, squaring accounts with their predecessors, the real founder of the history of philosophy is Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus. His doxographical Opinions of the Physical Philosophers, now lost, was known to be influential. He was followed by the 3rd century CE chronicler Diogenes Laertius, an innovator in that his work was more anecdotal than straightforwardly philosophical. His ten-volume Lives of the Philosophers is an intriguing blend of hagiography and biography. He seemed to have no great gift for original thought but a real flair for gossip and a good story, working on the assumption that details of the life of the thinker – the more sensational and spicy the better – offer useful insights. Although his work could not be classed as scholarship in a modern sense, it not only is one of the most important, because unique, sources of the lives and biographies of the ancient thinkers, it attempts to be systematic albeit in a rudimentary way. His classification is still used in grouping the doctrines of the thinkers of the classical world. So durable was his schema that it became the model for the much later English language work, Thomas Stanley’s The History of Philosophy (containing the Lives, Opinions Actions and Discourses of the Philosophers of every Sect), 1655-62. Also important in this early modern period was the work of Georg Horn. His 1655 Historiae Philosophicae broke new ground in two ways. It extended history beyond the classical period, taking it up to the present day, and it smoothly grafted philosophy’s pagan past – as it was then seen – onto the more ideologically acceptable Biblical narrative.

It was in the Enlightenment that various histories of philosophy sought to emulate the ways of hard science by adopting systematic methodologies. Pioneering works by Brucker and the Kantian Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann are worthy of mention. With Jacob Brucker’s Critical History of Philosophy (1742-44), according to Jonathan Rée, “histories of philosophy became systematic critical studies of the evolution of philosophical systems rather than treasuries of curious tales about the lives and opinions of dead philosophers”.

Another key figure is G.W.F. Hegel. His monumental posthumously published Lectures on the History of Philosophy is an ambitious attempt to demonstrate how philosophy is no more than its development through world history. Each philosopher, on this view, is the mouthpiece of spirit- the spirit of the age- and part of a larger narrative attesting to the movement of Geist. Hegel denies any gap between philosophy and its history: in doing the history of philosophy one is simultaneously doing philosophy. Whereas Hegel collapses philosophy into history, the tradition of Brucker and Tennemann laid the foundations for the fundamental approach of analytic history of philosophy. Largely as a result of the Kantian influence, history of philosophy set up epistemology as the paradigm. The history of philosophy tended to focus exclusively upon questions relating to the extent and nature of human knowledge. This focus endures, as much history of philosophy – especially in its reading of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – concentrates almost exclusively upon those philosophers concerned with the foundations of knowledge.

A more “historical” history of philosophy would seek to construct alternative, or at least parallel, histories. Although still somewhat marginal – that is, they have failed to take centre stage – some recent philosophers have sought to construct histories of philosophy around alternative themes. Morality, evil, autonomy, identity, and selfhood are some of the themes that spring to mind here. More radically, feminist historians of philosophy have sought to expose the marginalisation of women philosophers, and have re-written them back into the canon.

Attention has already been drawn to the tension between so-called “continental” and “analytic” philosophy with the suggestion that it derives from differing versions of the historical. The task of the history of philosophy is to interpret, by reconstructing, historical (philosophical) texts. In this light, crudely stated, continental philosophy aligns itself more readily with historical reconstruction and analytic philosophy with rational reconstruction. It is necessary to elaborate on the distinctions here. Historical reconstruction depends upon reviving a lost (because past) context, as a means to enriching a text’s interpretative scope: the assumption is that when the background to a text is brought into view, the meaning of the text itself is understood with greater accuracy and insight. What is reconstructed is the detailed historical context, the cultural ground from which a text sprang. The historical reconstructor is sensitive to the fact that the work is necessarily analysed from a perspective invariably remote from the horizon of the original, and thus seeks to avoid overshadowing it with the distorting conceptual concerns of the present.

On the other hand there is rational reconstruction. Now the tendency is to pull in the opposing direction. This procedure subordinates contextual, that is biographical, sociological, and psychological, in a word, historical, aspects of the work to allegedly more philosophical (because truth-related) concerns. Often – and this is clearly evident in many analytically oriented works – contextual and historical dimensions to a text’s interpretation are played down or even forgotten. The more one focuses on the historical, the analyst claims, the more likely one is to occlude genuinely philosophical concerns. There comes a point, on this view, where too much history pushes a philosophical study into nothing more than dusty antiquarianism. Here there is a largely dismissive attitude to wide historiographical concerns, as though they somehow detract from the more solidly philosophical matters such as the formal aspects of reasoning, the logic of the arguments, and their consistency and coherence. On the strictly philosophical level, it is alleged, there is little more to the study of a text than concern for truth. The extraneous historical stuff may make a contribution to understanding an author’s psychological motivations, it may also give insights into the reception of the text through its history of interpretations, but these are sideshows subordinate to the main attraction, the philosophical worth of the work; which is, it is claimed, intrinsically related to issues of truth – to be assessed by competent philosophers and not amateurish historians and antiquarians.

Instead of occupying an impossible place in the past whilst forgetting the present, the rational reconstructor unapologetically stays in the present. Ancient texts are reconstructed in such a way that they appear to translate seamlessly into the concepts and idioms of the interpreter’s horizon. The ancient text decodes into the present and offers novel ways of expressing old problems. This procedure gives rise to its own difficulties: for example, that the nature of the reconstruction will reflect the interpreter’s fundamental philosophical commitments (and display little more than a self-interrogating ventriloquism).

Motivating historical reconstruction is a concern for “authenticity”; fidelity to the text is of paramount importance. Working on the assumption that there is an alienating distance between the “original” meaning of the text and current linguistic usage, the historical reconstructor labours to retrieve putatively original and possibly lost nuances in the text. The retrieval strategies are usually contextualising, and aim to show a text locked into a nexus of meanings, the overall senses of which have been skewed, distorted, and refracted by lexical sedimentations and semantic accretions over time. Reaching back to the horizon of the text, it is claimed, is surely a necessary part of the investigative process of correctly interpreting a text.

The central problem with this form of reconstruction is this. The more one seeks to retrieve or reconstruct ancient meanings, the more one loses sight of the particular problematic in the text as it presented itself from the interpreter’s initial perspective. The more one attempts a comprehensive historical reconstruction by locating the interpreter in the past, the more one loses sight of those questions that initially inspired the interpreter from the site of the present. Historical texts, unavoidably read in the present, create interpretive difficulties that it is assumed contextualisation mitigates. Yet as one gets closer to the historical text one loses track of the questions and concerns that drew one to the text in the first place.

When the opposing forms of reconstruction are kept separate they produce caricatures of genuine history of philosophy. The question then is: how can they be brought together to work productively, or are they mutually excusive? A move in the direction of hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation, makes some sort of resolution possible. In an important essay on the historiography of philosophy the American philosopher Richard Rorty claims: “the two genres (i.e. rational and historical reconstruction) can never be that independent”. It is for this reason, Rorty continues: “because you will not know much about what the dead meant prior to figuring out how much truth they knew. These two topics should be seen as moments in a continuing movement around the hermeneutic circle”. Rational and historical reconstructions work together when viewed as dimensions of the constantly turning circle of interpretation. Rationality is not a fixed point but actually part of a historical continuum; the rational will always be embedded within a historical context. “Reason exists for us only in concrete, historical terms,” says the hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method, “it is not its own master but remains constantly dependent upon the given circumstances in which it operates.”

One of the advantages of the more hermeneutical form of reconstruction is the avoidance of a certain kind of history of philosophy, which starts from a fixed (ahistorical) position and then seeks to locate a philosopher or a text exclusively within its framework. I have in mind the multiple “-isms” and “-ists” that bedevil much modern history of philosophy. To see philosophy’s history as no more than a limited range of basic timeless positions –and the genuinely philosophical task is to figure out where a particular philosopher sits within the framework – is to efface any concern for the genuinely historical.

An approach, typical in many Anglophone history of philosophy courses, proceeds as follows. Once Descartes, for example, has been pinned down as a “dualist”, the next task is to figure out what variety of the same best fits the bill: is he a substance, a predicate, or a property dualist? The real philosophical questions, it is claimed here, surround the logical connections between the various types of dualism, and address questions about relative differences. The problems raised by Descartes’ form of dualism may be less important than the abstract notion of dualism (divorced from any historical context). This kind of reduction of the history of philosophy to a war of fixed positions turns it into a process of taxonomy and logical classification, and militates against the kind of contextualist reconstruction that a more genuinely historical understanding of a text demands. To simply label a work dualist suggests that it conforms to some essential description of duality, for which the appropriate “-ism” is convenient shorthand. To do real historical justice to a text there needs to be an appreciation of its specificity: awareness that its significance stems from its uniqueness. The reduction of texts to competing “-isms” works against any possible particularity.

An appreciation of philosophy’s past as a tentative body of contested texts, to be historically interpreted, would make for more interesting history of philosophy. The approach of much analytic philosophy to its own past needs to be radically overhauled in the light of postmodern theory, especially hermeneutics. There are signs of a renewed interest in the philosophy and theory of the history of philosophy, with analytic philosophers reflecting upon their own history; linked to this is the burgeoning number of new biographies of the great philosophers. These are promising signs but there is a great more work to be done in this area.

Chris Lawn is lecturer of philosophy at Mary Immaculate College, Ireland, and the author of The Philosophy of the History of Philosophy (Acumen, forthcoming)

  1. That was a strong article tacking the ignorance of modern rational overcomplexity due to a misguided understanding of wisdom. What is truth? I ask, if only you would answer me. I ask, because I believe in the religion of truth, and I must know what it is, in order to be firm in my religious committment. The religion of truth I call Academia because it takes after the tradition of Socrates and Plato. If you asked me, “Do you go to school?” I would say no. School is against my religion. School is not the religion of education, religion of truth. School is not Academia. School is an unholy place. Only by avoiding school as it were the plague is it possible to philosophize and fully love wisdom as a whole. When you philosophize long enough, you reach a high zen state of nirvana, or Acadaemia, and the heavens open up within your soul all alight.

  2. “The approach of much analytic philosophy to its own past needs to be radically overhauled in the light of postmodern theory, especially hermeneutics.”

    Suggesting that analytic philosophers change their approach to one that makes use of POSTMODERN THEORY seems kind of futile.

    Hey analysts! Don’t be so analytic!

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