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
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
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.