Friday, December 30, 2011

Marilyn Adams on History of Philosophy

From the Dewey lecture, "God and Evil among the Philosophers", in the APA proceedings and Addresses vol. 85 issue 2. Emphases are in the original

Certainly, medieval scholastics were analytic philosophers: they were distinction-drawers and argument-inventers par excellence. But they were not only generalists (ranging over all of the major sub-fields of philosophy) in the way Pike recommended; they were systematic philosophers. To get a grip on what they were saying about omniscience or omnipotence or perfect goodness required a wider understanding of their metaphysics and epistemology, their conceptions of agency and normative grounds, and of how they fitted these together.

Working on my Ockham book, I became convinced that their theological disagreements were rooted in philosophical differences, which were at bottom contentious. Most of their arguments for their own and against their opponent's positions involved premises to which the other would not consent. Although they were as interested as Pike was in analyzing whether Divine foreknowledge is incompatible with free will, they did not see themselves engaged in a meta-discipline, but in theory construction. They were beginning with doctrinal givens and philosophical commitments and working in different ways to integrate these into a philosophically coherent system. Their debates forced refinements in their own theories. Together they furnished detailed maps of theoretical alternatives.

Throughout my studies of medieval philosophical theology, I have remained a metaphysical realist about philosophical claims: there is such a thing as Reality with a capital "R" and well-formed theories either do or do not correspond with it. But refereeing their philosophical disputes, I became a sceptical realist, holding that it is impossible for us to prove in a  way convincing to every rational person, which theory is true and which false. The philosophical task ought to concentrate on theoretical development and understanding.

It also struck me that scholastic method was an antidote for dogmatism. True, there were theological givens that medieval scholastics had to number among the phenomena to be saved. But questioning and disputing required each to get inside the other's theory enough to understand its strengths and weaknesses, the better to appreciate the plusses and minuses of their own. Such exercises foster intellectual flexibility and imagination that is able to do comparative anatomy and cost-benefit analyses on philosophical competitors and to recognize that the same problem can be solved in different ways. When, over the years, colleagues and graduate students have murmured that history of philosophy isn't really philosophy, my contrary reply has become that history of philosophy is a way of doing philosophy and wholesome medicine against the dogmatism that sometimes plagues our field.

In my generation, we by and large changed the way history of philosophy is done by philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. There is a spectrum of practice. Some do philology and edit texts. More spend time on the institutional settings and wider intellectual milieu in which past philosophers worked. There are those who focus more on the interpretive and philosophical problems found in the texts themselves, while others move on from this to build bridges to contemporary thought. All of these are important. Whatever one's specialty, one has to learn from them all. My own work on Ockham benefitted enormously from the generosity of the editorial team at the Franciscan Institute, where critical texts of Ockham's works, discoveries and perspectives, and hospitality were shared. Anachronism and mis-readings are to some extent inevitable. My own advice is to resist attempts to take the weirdness out of great past philosophers. Letting them be as weird as they are is the way to guarantee that we learn something that we didn't know before.

Anglo-American analytic philosophy borrowed its sense of the philosophical canon from Oxbridge: ancient and modern classical, at least Plato and Aristotle, at least Descartes, maybe Leibniz, certainly Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. During the seventies and eighties, Kant was re-entering the mainstream. Medieval philosophy has been central to the canon of philosophy in Roman Catholic schools since 1880 when Pope Leo XIII declared Aquinas the patron of the Catholic schools. Fortunately for me, a tradition of covering medieval philosophy had begun at UCLA when Ernest Moody, the famous pioneer in the study of medieval logic, joined the philosophy faculty in the late fifties and helped launch the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. In leading analytic graduate departments, however, medievalists were and still are rare.

My generation failed to secure a place for medieval philosophy within the canon of analytic philosophy, but not for want of trying. In the late seventies, the quality of medieval sessions at the APA had sunk so low, that we specialists formed the Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, which has since mounted its own double sessions (one on the Latin west and the other on Jewish and Arabic philosophy) at divisional meetings. This was good advertising: the Middle Ages was too a period during which real philosophy was done! The Society also built bridges between secular non-catholic and Roman Catholic schools and widened the circle around which work was shared. These were significant fruits. Certainly, I have learned a lot about Aquinas from Catholic Neo-Thomists, who have spent their adult lives steeping themselves in his works. Over the course of my career, more and more works have been edited and translated with the result that most professionals now know: Augustine and Aquinas were not the only philosophers between Aristotle and Descartes! But medieval philosophy is every bit as technical as contemporary metaphysics is. I suspect many think it would be too much trouble to master it. More's the pity, because medieval philosophy is full of distinctive insights and theories in metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophical theology, overall a  fascinating diet of contrasting ideas.

Analytic Philosophy Reconceived: Studying medieval philosophy not only acquainted me with content to analyze; it gradually brought about an imitative shift in my own method. Medieval philosophical theologians were not practicing a meta-discipline; they were involved in theory-construction. By the early to mid-seventies, however, analytic philosophy was recovering its sense of vocation to theorize as well. Hilary Putnam revived talk of natural kinds. Saul Kripke made de re necessities and mind-body dualism respectable. David Lewis' clear and penetrating discussions lent further credibility to the enterprise of metaphysics. Philosophy of mind went inter-disciplinary with the rise of cognitive psychology, and diversified with many and various materialist theories of the mind. Philosophy of language forged ties with linguistics. Enriched conceptual machinery from the present and retrievals from the past made it increasingly natural for me to see the project of philosophy of religion in terms of theory-construction, of articulating theological claims using philosophical conceptuality, of arguing for them--at least in part--on philosophical grounds, of adjusting concepts and theses to achieve theoretical coherence. Such a shift blurs the boundaries between philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. In fact, my own methodological turns were part of a trend that spawned a significant movement: the Society of Christian Philosophers.


Anonymous said...

Insightful, though the cheer leading of analytic philosophy was a bit much.

Lee Faber said...

Typo's fixed, sorry.