Monday, October 30, 2006

Making History

"History of philosophy" is the name of an intellectual discipline and of its object. I am interested in both, but this post is about the former. Searching for ways to avoid ambiguity, I thought of using "historiography" – except that this term, too, stands for a discipline and its object: for the writing of history, and the study of such writing. Henceforth, I'll use "history" to mean the discipline whose object is the past.

What is the relationship between philosophy and its history? Or, as a recent book demands: why should analytic philosophers care about the history of philosophy? Why shouldn't they simply ignore it, as – allegedly – they tend to do?

In laying the groundwork for an answer to these questions – to which I'll return next time – several authors make a distinction between two modes in which the history of philosophy can be pursued. In what Daniel Garber nicely calls "antiquarian" history, the dead are invited to speak in their own tongue, as they did to their contemporaries. In "collegial" history, they are compelled to speak about questions that occupy us. In an earlier paper, "Does History Have a Future?", Garber gives the example of Jonathan Bennett, who insists, at he beginning of his book on Spinoza, that he is concerned "not with Spinoza's mental biography but with getting his help in discovering philosophical truth."

What puzzles me here is why Garber is willing to speak of both projects as "historical". He does not object to collegial history; he merely contrasts it with something else. On the face of it, though, Bennett's claim is barely coherent. If you want Spinoza's help in discovering the truth, his "mental biography" is something you cannot avoid. And if all you mean is that you are reading the Ethics for inspiration, not doing history at all, why labour under any constraint of fidelity to the text? Why aim for something that makes sense of most of what Spinoza wrote – but not all of it, and not in context? Why not simply present the arguments that interest you, and mention, as a matter of your own "mental biography", that they popped into your head while reading a certain book?

A different distinction is made by Richard Rorty in "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres". He contrasts "historical" with "rational" reconstruction, but sees no conflict between them: "We should do both of these things, but do them separately." Historical reconstruction is marked by obedience to a constraint devised by Quentin Skinner:

no agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done.

According to Rorty:

If we want an account of Aristotle's or Locke's behaviour which obeys this constraint […] we shall have to confine ourselves to one which, at its ideal limit, tells us what they might have said in response to all the criticisms or questions which would have been aimed at them by their contemporaries.

The difficulty is that, on this reading, Skinner turns out to be a behaviourist: we can do history only by putting words in people's mouths – not thoughts in their heads. This is nominally apt, but a substantive travesty: Skinner's essay is a plea for intention in the history of ideas; and he repeatedly insists that we cannot make the past intelligible without applying to it our "own familiar criteria of classification and discrimination." His point is not to compare two legitimate activities, but to engage in a polemic against anachronism that will destroy the pretensions of "collegial history" and "rational reconstruction" once and for all.

The residual question is what to make of his proposed constraint on interpretation. It certainly does not prohibit the ascription of propositional attitudes, but, for Skinner,

it does exclude the possibility that an acceptable account of an agent's behavior could ever survive the demonstration that it was itself dependent on the use of criteria of description and classification not available to the agent himself.

For reasons I will try to explain in the following post, this seems to me too strong a condition to place even on the most rigorously antiquarian history of thought.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

20th century philosophers certainly didn't neglect their predecessors, they simply wanted to avoid what they saw as fatal methodological problems in their work.

I read Ryle's "Taking Sides In Philosophy" last week, and what shines through is how much he had read and learned from all the big names, and also the more recent influences like Bradley and the like. He did actually write the review in Mind for Heidigger's Being And Time in 1927, though I believe it had an exasperated tone and admitted to not understanding much of it.

The week before, I saw this recent book about Nelson Goodman, and the biographical chapter was fascinating in revealing that Bergson was a defining influence (though negatively), and also for the list of the lecturers that he would have seen in Harvard in the 1920s.

What both Ryle and Goodman wanted to avoid, in different ways, was any kind of deference toward old names and old ideas for no genuinely philosophical reason. They never wanted anyone to stop reading them.

There's an article by Quine from the 70s, lamenting changes in academia during his lifetime (it was collected in Theories And Things) and one of his complaints is that Harvard had dropped the requirement that grad students study the history of philosophy.


4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skinner's requirement is ridiculous, since it would exclude explaining an agent's behaviour in terms of a medical condition he was unaware of, or had no inkling of (eg. a brain tumour). Yet we perfectly well do use such explanations in contemporary life, and there would no infelicity in using them about past events.

What he wants to exclude is the use of abstractions or theoretical reasoning that is clearly anachronistic - eg. attributing knowledge of Marxism or Freudianism to medieval writers. But even a restriction like that is not so obvious. Can we not say that a past writer was close to understanding, or had a version of, some later worked-out theory? In the same way that we actually do know that Galileo was the first astronomer to observe Neptune (he saw it in his telescope and marked it in his notebook) but he thought it was just another star and had no idea he had seen a planet?

It's because he didn't realise he'd seen anything unknown that he isn't classed as discoverer, whereas Sir William Herschel gets credited for discovering Uranus, even though he didn't think it was a planet either - he thought it was a comet. You have to spot something new and draw attention to its novelty, even if you don't quite understand what that consists in.

In the case of philosophical ideas, it's not so much that earlier writers pre-discovered modern theories, rather that modern theories are just newer versions of old ideas.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I take your point. Though in partial defence of Skinner, he was thinking of explanations that say what someone is doing intentionally, and give their reasons for doing it. Here it is more plausible to suppose that a true account must correspond to the agent's. Part of the background to Skinner's article is Anscombe's pioneering book about intention, which defends something like this view.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then the point is just about substituting into intentional contexts, not specifically an issue about history.

"Galileo intended to record the position of the star" cannot be replaced with "Galileo intended to record the position of Neptune", even though it happens to be true that "the star" in the first case denoted Neptune.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I agree that Skinner's claim is not just about history; it is supposed to apply to any description of what people think, what they mean, and how they reason. Still, the proposed constraint is not a mere consequence of the point about substitution. Someone could agree that substitutions in propositional attitude contexts are not automatically valid, but insist that true accounts of what people think, and mean, can go beyond anything they could articulate or recognize themselves. The question is about the extent to which that's true, and if it is, about the place of such descriptions in the history of ideas.

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The further question is inextricable from how well-established the attributed theory happens to be. I mentioned Freudianism and Marxism earlier: in their heyday, the fans of both those theories were quite keen on discovering intimations of their truth throughout history (since Marxism is centrally a theory about history, it would be hard to be avoid that). And there is nothing particularly outrageous about that: the modern interpreters were simply thinking through the consequences of accepting their theory as a collection of objective truths about human nature.

If you suppose that all the cogs and wheels of your particular theory are real, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that (like Galileo and Neptune) the people of the past may have encountered them without having an eye for them. You only need to attribute an awareness of particular phenomena rather than a fully-fledged theoretical understanding that matches the modern version.

We say that Copernicus was like us in believing in a heliocentric model. But why? Copernicus' theory was nothing like the modern theory, in dozens of key details. His actual theory was no better than the Ptolemaic competitor at the time. But he perceived the central issue between his model and the Ptolemaic one, and that puts him on our side of the line. Is it anachronistic to say he saw the issue the way we do?

10:10 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Like you, I am sceptical of Skinner's constraint. But I wonder whether the cases you mention really conflict with it. (This is a genuine uncertainty, not one of those philosophical-objections-in-the-form-of-a-question.) The examples are bound to be complicated. But there might be room to describe a subject's thoughts in terms they would accept, and to note their similarity to later ideas, without saying (according to Skinner, anachronistically) that the subject was "thinking about" natural selection, or the unconscious, or whatever.

You might wonder whether there is anything wrong with that locution, and others like it. But Skinner could at least propose that they are never essential: that an adequate account of what someone meant can always be given in terms that they would recognize and accept, for which claims like "He had a crude version of Darwin's theory" are merely short-hand.

I still don't accept Skinner's view, even in this qualified form; but I'm not sure it entirely rules out the sort of history you have in mind.

11:26 AM  

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