Is ‘History of Philosophy’ still Philosophy?

A couple of months ago, I sat in a café with a friend discussing an often-reiterated complaint against the broadly hegemonic ‘analytic’ tradition of contemporary philosophy. So this objection goes, the value of analytic philosophy is severely hampered by its inability to engage satisfactorily with its historical existence. The analytic tradition’s failure in this respect is partly the case for perfectly sensible reasons: questions about the history of an intellectual tradition are not generally the same thing as philosophical questions. So, when I conceded that my interest is mainly in the history of philosophy (mainly Spinoza and Marx), the friend, vindicated, declared that they, a philosopher, and I, a historian of philosophy, were simply doing different things.

I can sympathise with some of the motivation behind this distinction. The kinds of questions we ask in the history of philosophy are barely recognisable as philosophical questions by academics working in a more synchronic fashion. While debate rages on about whether or not intuitions should feature in philosophical arguments, another debate of a seemingly totally different sort continues as to whether Spinoza was a naturalist. In the first case, the content of the debate lies in its attempt to ascertain what should count as good evidence when making a reasoned argument. In the second however, it is about whether a historical author’s philosophical doctrine deserves to be categorised according to one tradition or the other. Between historians of philosopy and philosophers themselves, when understood in this way at least, there is clearly little common ground.

I still object to the distinction however. To get to my objection, it will be useful to think about what a philosopher actually is and does. Certainly, a large part of the vocation involves assessing arguments by testing their premises and the relation that holds between the premises and the conclusion. Philosophy so understood is argumentative in nature, and is primarily populated by the offering of objections to certain ways of conceptualising the world. But what about these initial conceptions themselves, are they not also philosophical in nature? If they are, if Spinoza is a philosopher, it is not because they object to their predecessors, like Descartes, but because philosophy isn’t just argumentative. In large part, it is also both descriptive and creative.

Philosophy understood in this way is a motley exercise which involves all of i) our most abstract attempts to describe the world, ii) the creative effort involved in devising such descriptions, and iii) critical, argumentative engagement with rival descriptions. Provided that this is not an uninformative definition of philosophy, the role of the history of philosophy to philosophy itself must be an internal one. This is so, because efforts at interpretation are not external to attempts to engage with rival descriptions, or to describe the world if our descriptions are particularly inspired by a previous author.

When understood in this way, there is still a clear way of maintaining the distinction between philosophy and the history of philosophy. It is not exactly rare for experts in one field to rely on the judgements and research of experts in other fields – or even to possess expertise in a number of fields which can inform their practice in the first case. It can therefore be objected that close interaction between fields does not allow us to infer the identification of those two fields. Metaphysicians are frequently informed by contemporary research in physics; but physics is not therefore an area of philosophy. It looks, on a first glance, like it’s just the same kind of relation between philosophers in general and historians of philosophy as between metaphysicians and physicists. If this is so, then just as physics isn’t philosophy, history of philosophy isn’t philosophy either.

In response to this, I want to stress that the history of philosophy has a special relation to philosophy which is not mirrored by any other fields or subfields. The philosopher, by writing using the findings of physics, is not in that process involved in the progress of physics. Philosophers engaging with physics might even be detrimental to the progress of physics, insofar as misinterpretations abound historically between the two disciplines, usually at the cost of instilling time-consuming consternation in researchers on both sides. Not so for the history of philosophy. I believe that progress in the history of philosophy amounts to philosophical progress, and therefore deserves to be called philosophy.

Before trying to motivate this argument, a first objection should be dealt with, relating to the very idea of philosophical progress. Whether or not philosophy as a field is subject to any kind of progress is a deeply contentious question. Philosophers seem more in the business of shutting down bad arguments than providing rationally compelling models on their own – and this is not because of any lack of such models, but because there are very many of them! I subscribe to a pluralist metaphilosophy best summarised by one of my philosophy professors: ‘in philosophy there are many right answers, but there are wrong answers too’. The idea is that we can engage in reasonable disagreement over certain positions, like whether objects endure or perdure, while disagreement over other positions seems simply unreasonable, like whether or not the external world exists.

If philosophical progress can only really be measured by the positions which are gradually eliminated, this hardly looks like a form of progress at all. Rather, philosophy would seem more like a field in which its experts practice little else than repeatedly shooting themselves in the feet. From the perspective of eliminating and producing representations of the world, this assessment certainly seems apt. But, once more, I insist that there are other things philosophy is in the business of. Namely, philosophers don’t just eliminate and produce representations, they seek to understand certain representations as well. Although it is less common to find papers which attempt merely to extrapolate the findings of another author’s work than it is those offering or responding to objections, papers of the former sort are by no means nonexistent, nor are they non-philosophical.

In a sense, works in the history of philosophy frequently fall into both of the categories I have just outlined. A paper dealing with the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence will presumably extrapolate either Leibniz’s or Newton’s natural philosophies, and this just to the extent that it attempts to deal with objections offered in the correspondence which either Leibniz or Clarke failed to satisfactorily address. The reasons for their failure to satisfactorily address pertinent objections can also vary: they might simply have missed the point their interlocutor was making, or they might have made a move which we can see, in retrospect, that they needn’t have. Lastly, the objection itself might be unfounded. In some cases, this is because the authors being discussed are actually in agreement, but something is preventing them from realising this. Identification of this ‘something’ is a worthy philosophical exercise which can help us to think more seriously about the limits on our own ways of thinking. (On this way of thinking, there is also a possibly internal relation between philosophy and psychoanalysis).

Drawing out the consequences and nuances of a discussion or philosophical doctrine constitutes philosophical activity when philosophers do it just as much as when historians of philosophy do it. A salient difference, of course, is that the historian of philosophy is oftentimes interested in examining a debate which has since concluded, or a doctrine which is no longer widely espoused. It isn’t clear, however, that philosophical practice deserves to be called philosophy only when it applies to argument from the last 10-20 years. That would be a difficult perspective to motivate.

There are two additional points I want to make here before concluding. Firstly, although historians of philosophy are often concerned with very old authors, these authors’ ideas are occasionally still circulated in modern debates. For instance, Spinoza’s ideas are used as a key tool of analysis in numerous contemporary works of political philosophy. Secondly, historians of philosophy occasionally work to reconstruct the doctrines of very recent philosophers. People specialising in ‘late modern philosophy’ often include Heidegger in their timeline, and he only died in 1976. To the extent that ‘post-modern philosophy’ is an field of study in the history of philosophy (I believe it is), it includes Derrida who died as recently as 2004. This is also to say nothing about the reconstruction of the contexts in which still living authors presented certain arguments. For this, I have in mind the tradition which has sprung up around the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who was strongly influenced by Wittgenstein and the poststructuralist turn in the humanities from the 1960s.

So, as to whether the history of philosophy is still philosophy: I really think it is. Maybe the practices it involves cannot be obviously applied to all of philosophy, but these practices can be applied to a number of things which we can unproblemmatically call philosophy. This is to say nothing about the value to philosophy which the history of philosophy at large offers – such as, I believe, to show our situatedness as historical actors emerging from traditions which are as much intellectual as they are political.

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