Monday, November 06, 2006

The Comfort of Strangers

Philosophy written in English is overwhelmingly analytic philosophy, and the techniques and predilections of analytic philosophy are not only unhistorical but anti-historical, and hostile to textual commentary.
This passage appears in the introduction to the book that I discussed last time, and it serves to set the tone. It's us versus them: the antiquarians against the philistines.

Why should analytic philosophers study the history of philosophy? It is alarming that, in a volume about the importance of contextual history, not a single contributor gives serious attention to the meaning of "analytic philosophy", to the development of the tradition, how its origins relate to the present composition of Anglophone philosophy departments, how the alleged hostility to historical study emerged, and why it survives.

The most frequent defence of history in philosophy is independent of the peculiarities of the "analytic" style. According to many, the study of past thinkers can help to upset received opinions, to show them as local or contingent, to demonstrate other ways of conceiving an issue or of conceiving philosophy itself, and so to raise new questions. In short: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It would be a mistake to object that these benefits are merely instrumental, since the question is precisely about the usefulness of history to the practice of philosophy. But they may disappoint the advocate of history. They depict her project as a causal means to philosophical insight – not as partly constitutive of philosophy done well.

Can more than this be said for the history of philosophy? Maybe so. In attempting to say it, or part of it, I'll return to a question left hanging in the previous post, about the employment of anachronism in properly antiquarian accounts of past philosophers.

Consider the mildly Wittgensteinian view that philosophical puzzles sometimes arise through conceptual confusion, as when we conflate two different things, or see two when there is only one. Such confusions, as human phenomena, must have histories. It follows, then, that philosophy can be done historically, at least when certain conditions are met.

What is more, when we undertake to tell the history of confusion, it may be impossible to avoid anachronism, to refuse "criteria of description and classification not available to the agent himself". This fact is familiar in the history of science, where the story of Newton notoriously contends with his failure to distinguish invariant and relativistic mass. There is no way to translate his words without inadequacy, and no way to explain his conflation in terms he would have been willing to accept.

Something similar is true, I think, of practical reason in early modern thought. The British moralists of the eighteenth century were sufficiently muddled that we have to do for them what historians of science do for Newton. Since Wollaston and Clarke did not distinguish practical from theoretical reason, at least not with any clarity, no simple translation of their claims will work. In order to make sense of what they wrote, we have to rely on an array of "distinctions and classifications" that were, precisely, unavailable to them. It is in this context that we should place Hume's infamous refusal to speak of "reason" in ethics: not as a rejection of practical reason in the proper sense, but as an attempt at linguistic hygiene prompted by the confusions of his peers.

If this is right, the history of philosophy cannot be philosophically innocent. Whenever we are obliged to describe and disentangle the confusions of the past, we will be forced to rely on the philosophical equivalent of Einstein's theory of relativity: on theories and distinctions that our subjects knew nothing about. When philosophy is done historically – at least in one way – it answers to a form of history that can only be philosophical.


Anonymous GF-A said...

You write: "Whenever we are obliged to describe and disentangle the confusions of the past, we will be forced to rely on the philosophical equivalent of Einstein's theory of relativity: on theories and distinctions that our subjects knew nothing about."

That is true*, IF our disentangling description must be in OUR language/ conceptual scheme/ paradigm/ whatever. But for at least some people (though I usually don't count myself among them), part of the point of studying the history of ideas is to "go native," i.e., to speak and think in the foreign language. ('Going native' is also the metaphor Kuhn uses for someone who makes the transition from pre-revolutionary to post-revolutionary science.) That is, for these folks (mostly historians and sociologists of science), the aim is to become fluent in the langauge of the foreign country that is the past. We are not stuck speaking the 21st C language, and the aim of history is not merely to translate 17th C language into 21th C langauge as well as possible.

* Oftentimes, the person who is confused actually does see the distinction between the supposedly confused things -- but considers it to be a distinction without a difference. For example, Einstein's principle of equivalence (the first step on his path to general relativity), from the point of view of the classical physicist, 'confuses' two obviously distinct quantities: inertial mass and gravitational mass. Einstein of course recogized that people wanted to draw a conceptual distinction between mass qua power of resisting change and mass qua power of attracting other masses, but he claimed these two things were "essentially identical," i.e., one. Newtonians would call that an obvious confusion. So one person's 'blatant confusion' is another's 'distinction without a difference.' (Of course, I'm not saying that's what Clarke and Wollaston were doing -- I'm completely clueless about them.)

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning may now be clear to philosophers, but most computer scientists still treat the two species as if they were identical. I have lost count of the arguments I have had with my colleagues in CS over the need to treat reasoning or dialogs over action differently from reasoning or dialogs over beliefs. So, here's another instrumental reason for studying the history of philosophy -- to provide a cautionary lesson to other disciplines.

4:56 PM  

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