Who are we? Myths in the history of philosophy (Part I)

“Instead of assuming that the historical figures we study are motivated by the same philosophical worries that worry us, we need to understand why they care about each issue they raise.” This is part of rule 7 from Peter Adamson’s Rules for the History of Philosophy, and it is very good advice indeed. When reading texts, we should try to be aware of certain traps of anachronism. (See the intriguing debate between Eric Schliesser and Peter Adamson) People don’t always care about the same things, and if they do, they might do so for different reasons.

While I don’t believe that we can avoid anachronism, I think it is important to be aware of it. We can’t sidestep our interests, but it helps to make these interests explicit. What I would like to focus on today are some of the personal pronouns in the quoted passage: “us” and “we”. Saying that there are “worries that worry us”, places the diversity in the past history but seems to presuppose a fair amount of unity amongst us. But who are we? I picked rule 7, but it is safe to say that most historians of philosophy give in to this inclination of presupposing a “we”. I do find that funny. Historians (of philosophy) often like to mock people who indulge in generalised ideas about past periods such as the Middle Ages. “You wouldn’t believe”, they will say, “how diverse they were. The idea that all their philosophy is in fact about God is quite mistaken.” But then they turn around, saying that the medievals were quite different from us, where “us” is indexing some unified idea of a current philosophical state of the art. What I find funny, then, is that historians will chide you for claiming something about the past that they are happy to claim about the present. Last time I checked there was no “current philosophical debate”. At the same time, I should admit that I help myself a lot to these pronouns and generalisations. So if I sound like I’m ridculing that practice, I should be taken as ridiculing myself most of all.

My point is simple. It’s not enough to be aware of diachronic anachronism, we also need to be aware of what I’d like to call synchronic anachronism. Why? Well, for one thing, claims about the “current debate” are supposed to track relevance in some domain. If something is debated currently or by us, it might signal that we have reason to study its history. Wanting to avoid anachronism, historians often use an inversion of this relevance tracker: facts about historical debates might be interesting because they are not relevant today, in this sense they can teach us how the past is intriguingly and instructively different.

The second reason for highlighting synchronic anachronism is that it obscures the heterogeneity of current debates and the fact that we are anachronistic beings. Looking closely, we will find that we are a jumble of things that render us anachronistic: we are part of different generations, have different educational pasts and cling to various fashions; we might be nostalgic or prophetic, we live in different social situations and adhere to different authorities and canons. And sometimes we even have to defer to “the taxpayer” for relevance. So the idea that rationality requires agreement with others (the third “agreement constraint”, mentioned in one of my previous posts) should be seen in connection with the idea that such agreement might involve quite different and even opposing groups. The idealised present tense in which we talk about “us” and “our current interests” is merely a handy illusion. Acknowledging and respecting synchronic anachronism might seem tedious, but at least historians of philosophy should see the fun in it.

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