Thursday, February 11, 2010

History of Philosophy

Brandon at Siris recently posted an excerpt from St Thomas on the value of studying the history of philosophy. I reproduce his quote in full:

He shows how men assist each other to know the truth; for one man assists another to consider the truth in two ways--directly and indirectly.

One is assisted directly by those who have discovered the truth; because, as has been pointed out, when each of our predecessors has discovered something about the truth, which is gathered together into one whole, he also introduces his followers to a more extensive knowledge of truth.

One is assisted indirectly insofar as those who have preceded us and who were wrong about the truth have bequeathed to their successors the occasion for exercising their mental powers, so that by diligent discussion the truth might be seen more clearly.

Now it is only fitting that we should be grateful to those who have helped us attain so great a good as knowledge of the truth. Therefore he says that "It is only right that we should be grateful," not merely to those whom we think have found the truth, and with whose views we agree by following them, but also to those who, in the search for truth, have made only superficial statements, even though we do not follow their views, for these men too have given us something because they have shown us instances of actual attempts to discover the truth.

- St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, John P. Rowan, tr. Dumb Ox (Notre Dame: 1961) p. 110 (Book 2, Lesson 1; Section 287).

I am certainly on board with the value of studying the history of philosophy. In fact my own education has been almost entirely from the "historical" perspective. I got my B.A. at St John's College, home of the original Great Books program, in which only primary sources are read, and the closest I ever got in class to a contemporary philosopher was Heidegger and Wittgensein, at the very end. And my graduate program at The Catholic University of America takes a similarly historical approach. And let's not forget my 450-page dissertation on an obscure corner of 13th century metaphysics! That said, history - even the history of philosophy - is not philosophy itself, and I couldn't really be considered a historian. As noted here a little while ago, while I largely study mediaeval philosophy, I'm really not a mediaevalist. Not that I think at all that these are bad things, and I would like to brush up my mediaevalist credentials - for instance, by studying paleography in more detail. But it's important to make distinctions about what you're doing, and scholarship is not the same thing as philosophy.

As with any virtue, there are two opposite vices to be avoided here. The history of philosophy is like a map. Setting out into the metaphysical unknown without it leaves you unable to avoid quicksand, tar pits, pointless detours, and dead ends, and you might never actually see anything of interest. Doing philosophy blind does not make you an intrepid explorer, it just makes you likely to go wrong. On the other hand if you examine the map simply as a set of geographical coordinates (or worse, an art object), and never do any traveling, then you can't be said to be doing philosophy at all. I know at least one eminent historian of philosophy who seems not to have any actual philosophical opinions of his own, despite being able to inform you with great accuracy and textual support of the opinions of others.

Now reading broadly in canonical (or obscure, if they're any good!) authors is certainly a good way to approach a philosophical question. Reading about a question tells me how other have approached and tried to answer it. But learning about how others have approached it is not the same thing as approaching it, any more than reading explorers' accounts is the same as exploring. One ought to do both, but remembering that philosophy is the love of wisdom, and scholarship, though it can bring knowledge, is not wisdom. The difficulty - because of course one would like to read every philosopher who has thought well, or even interestingly - is that if you wait until you've mastered the literature, you will never begin to actually do your own thinking. Mastering the literature can't be done. I can't read all of the good books of the past, and I can't even keep up with my contemporaries: there are too many of them and they write too much. But you have to start somewhere, knowing that you will never see everything you would like, and that you're not guaranteed at the beginning to end up where you would like. When I read one book I'm always choosing a particular dialogue partner and, for now, rejecting all the rest.

Knowing, then, that you can never master all of the thought of the past, at some point you just have to jump in and see if you can reason your way around a question. Do so without consulting a trustworthy road map at your peril, but remember that philosophy does not begin (or end) with footnotes.

Scholarship, however, does. If I do use a map, I'd better make damn sure I'm reading it correctly or it will do me no good. There's nothing more irritating than a philosopher pretending to be a scholar, using another thinker as a jumping-off point and then blithely distorting his position.


onus probandi said...

And so, borrowing from one great philosopher who once governed some spot in Judea, I humbly submit to the respectable "Johnny" (sp?): "Quid es veritas?".

In other words, citing the following snippet:

"One is assisted directly by those who have discovered the truth; because, as has been pointed out, when each of our predecessors has discovered something about the truth, which is gathered together into one whole, he also introduces his followers to a more extensive knowledge of truth."

It would appear to the casual observer, uninitiated in the formal art of philosophical investigation, that this kind of statement would seem quite suspiciously of the petitio principio sort.

On the onset, we are assuming there is such a thing as 'truth', whereas (and although I hate to sound like a modern) we have yet to determine that there is such a thing as 'truth'.

Again, demonstration of this sort would seem left to the best of dialectic reflection; however, whether empirical demonstration, for example, of such a thing as the 'First Cause', Un-caused Cause or the Primum Mobile actually does exist in fact is hardly something that can irrefutably be proved true.

Anonymous said...


Your analysis of the difference between history (of philosophy) and philosophy proper seems to overlook the possibility that in studying an historical argument one might find the argument to be true, and not just in a general "map-like" sense. There would then be no need to wander out on one's own, would there? In such a case, any wandering would be wandering away from the truth, which could hardly be called philosophy. Certainly, any philosophical pursuit requires considering the possibility that the argument at hand is false, but it also requires the reverse. It is entirely logically possible that one of the figures of the past had the whole thing right, in which case fully understanding (no small task) and accepting this philosopher's arguments would indeed be sufficient for philosophy, and not merely an historical endeavor.

I am not claiming this to be true of any philosopher as far as know. My point is just that your distinction between philosophy and history wasn't quite accurate, or at least seemed to imply that doing philosophy necessarily required coming up with new arguments, as opposed to evaluating those of the past. This may or may not be the case, and only someone who is familiar with the entire history of philosophy, and has evaluated its truth and falsity, could say for sure.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with developing one's own arguments, by the way, and I completely agree that too often those who study the history of philosophy are academics and historians more than philosophers; but the belief that independence from history is absolutely necessary to philosophy is too common among many academic "philosophers" whose arrogance and dogmatic bias (i.e. that what is original is better than what is old - one of those presuppositions that many people hold, but fail to identify and evaluate) make them incapable of true philosophic pursuits. The result is often that they simply reinvent the wheel, badly. The precarious task is to avoid the two extremes of academic pseudo-philosophy.

Cudos, by the way, on your refutation of scepticism. Perhaps you need to take the next step, as Augustine did, and consider the possibility that there is a weakness of character behind this error of scepticism?

Michael Sullivan said...


I don't think you've completely grasped my position. I agree with all or most of what you say. I don't at all mean to "imply that doing philosophy necessarily requires coming up with new arguments, as opposed to evaluating those of the past." I completely agree with you that if a thinker in the past has discovered the truth about something and has a demonstrative argument to show it, then there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

My point was that philosophy, as opposed to "mere" history or scholarship, required appropriating these truths for oneself in a genuinely philosophical way. You have to understand the arguments, not merely their history, and you have to enquire and accept or reject them because of their proximity to reality, in order to be doing philosophy.

So, for instance, one can study Scotus or St Thomas entirely non-philosophically, by asking these sorts of questions: to what extent does Scotus or Thomas appropriate Avicennian insights? Is Scotus' primary interlocutor in his Sentences commentaries Thomas or Henry? What was his influence on the history of thought? How is Scotus' formal distinction similar to and different from Henry's intentional distinction? Etc.

These are all (to me) interesting and important questions - most of which have been pretty definitively solved by scholars already - and worthy of investigation, but in investigating them one is doing history, not philosophy. You're not doing philosophy while reading Scotus until you begin to ask, is this true? To what extent does this conform to reality? Is there really a formal distinction in things or only either real or rational distinctions? If you're asking yourself how Scotus' proof for God's existence is an advance on Anselm's, but not whether it actually proves that God exists, then you aren't doing philosophy.

Lee Faber said...

Michael, you put the line between philosophy and history in the act of asking whether something is true. Does this mean one can do philosophy without bothering with the history side at all? Or is history a necessary first step or condition for philosophy? History here i take to be somelike like understanding an argument on its own terms, like Scotus' first arg. for univocity. One could explain the minor and major premise, the meaning of the terms, etc., all without asking whether they are true, but could you ask if they are true without first attempting to understand?

Michael Sullivan said...

Faber, I would say that it's definitely possible to do philosophy without bothering with the history side at all, as you put it. Since act implies possibility, and many people actually do this, ergo etc.

A great example is Wittgenstein, who seems to have been totally unaware of any philosophy before Frege. I think it was Adler who said that if W. had bothered to read Aristotle a lot of his "problems" would have cleared up. This suggests that doing philosophy without knowing any of the history is a bad idea - which I would certainly agree with - but I don't think anyone would say that Wittgenstein wasn't doing philosophy, however much they might disagree with him. And the horrible thing is that he himself was so historically influential that a generation of Anglo philosophers didn't bother learning their history at all and wasted their time on a lot of crap (for any anonymous readers out there: yes, this is an outrageous overgeneralization).

As for your example, Faber, it seems obvious to me that a huge number of philosophers do indeed critique arguments by historical philosophers without really attempting to understand them on their own terms. It's a fruitless exercise, since it leaves them with only straw men to fight, but they do it. Even more common is that many contemporaries are just unaware, except in the vaguest and most general sense, of what past generations have thought, and so to examine, as per your example, Scotus' arguments for conceptual univocity just doesn't occur to them.

So yes, I would say that a decent knowledge of the history of philosophy is probably a sine qua non of achieving philosophical truth, in order to avoid the mistakes you would almost inevitably fall into and to avoid wasting your time on predictable rabbit-trails. But it's a necessary, not a sufficient condition for being a good philosopher (even Socrates had to consciously reject the methods of the sophists and physicists), and strictly speaking neither necessary nor sufficient for doing philosophy per se.