Is history of philosophy bunk?

Makheu asked:

Discuss the claim that what historians of philosophy do is not philosophy, and that contemporary philosophers can learn little if anything from the history of their subject. Philosophers should concern themselves with real problems not with history.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a nice question. From my own experience of study, the heyday for the attitude you describe was the 50s, during the period of so-called ‘ordinary language philosophy’. There may well have been other times when this attitude was prevalent.

Inspired the later work of Wittgenstein in Cambridge, a parallel movement in Oxford headed by J.L. Austin saw the job of the philosopher as untangling the knots (for Wittgenstein, ‘therapy’) which our thinking gets into because we misunderstand our own language. We repeatedly fall victim to illusions generated by idiom and grammar.

On this view, the history of philosophy is the history of error. Undergraduates studied Locke or Berkeley, Descartes or Leibniz in order to learn to identify the points where misunderstanding of language led these thinkers astray. It was not considered important to understand historical context (as Russell had sought, brilliantly, to do in his History of Western Philosophy). Social milieu and history were irrelevant. The value of the study of history was as a source of useful examples for the philosopher to learn from.

This was a philosophy more radical that Marx, who believed in the importance of the history of philosophy, even though according to his ’11th thesis on Feuerbach’ all previous philosophers in his view had erred. The young Marx’s doctoral thesis on the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus was a model of scholarship.

As it happens, I subscribe to the Philos-L e-list for professional philosophy. From the constant stream of posts on the list, one gets the impression that every obscure aspect of the history of philosophy is now an object of intense study. There aren’t enough topics to go round, in contemporary philosophy or history of philosophy, to satisfy academic philosophers labouring to meet publishing requirements for tenure — not to mention the constant flow of new PhD students looking for original thesis topics.

Real problems? Ask a professional philosopher and they will tell you that all the problems they study are real. If some, or most of the problems seem too obscure to the layperson that is only because without the benefit of a doctorate one lacks the discernment necessary to see them. — Of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they?!

After forty plus years of study, I would be hesitant in identifying the ‘real’ problems of philosophy. My supervisor in my Oxford days, John McDowell, once told me that the main source of his motivation to philosophize was the things other philosophers said. (A few decades earlier, G.E. Moore had said something similar.) It’s a view and an approach that I can understand, even though my motivation is different. I find myself gripped by problems: that is the source of my impulse to philosophize.

On either of these two views, McDowell’s or mine, it isn’t necessary to be disrespectful to the history of the subject. For that one needs to be in the grip of an ideology, for example the ideology of ‘ordinary language philosophy’.

As a physicist, you can study the history of physics if that aspect of the subject interests you. There are always lessons to learn from the past. But you don’t do physics by studying what Newton or Rutherford said. You design and perform experiments, put questions to nature.

By contrast, there’s no equivalent in philosophy to the Large Hadron Collider. You have to look into your own mind. What philosophers said in the past is important because you don’t want to repeat their mistakes. On the other hand, any progress they did make with a problem that grips you is something you can build on. It’s not necessary to start from scratch. That’s pretty valuable, provided that you are not blinded by ideology.

As a postscript I would like to insert a plug. Our own Philosophical Connections on the site authored by Dr Anthony Harrison-Barbet gives a very good overview of the interconnections of 100 plus philosophers in the Western tradition, using a unique hyperlinked index. Look up your favourite philosopher and try it out for yourself. I warn you, it’s addictive!


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