Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?

If you are a historian of philosophy, you’ve probably encountered the question whether the stuff you’re working on is of any interest today. It’s the kind of question that awakens all the different souls in your breast at once. Your more enthusiastic self might think, “yes, totally”, while your methodological soul might shout, “anachronism ahead!” And your humbler part might think, “I don’t even understand it myself.” When exposed to this question, I often want to say many things at once, and out comes something garbled. But now I’d like to suggest that there is only one true reply to the main question in the title: “No, that’s the wrong kind of question to ask!” – But of course that’s not all there is to it. So please hear me out.

I’m currently revisiting an intriguing medieval debate between William of Ockham, Gregory of Rimini and Pierre D’Ailly on the question of how thought is structured. While I find the issue quite exciting in itself, it’s particularly interesting to see how they treat their different sources, Aristotle and Augustine. While they clearly all know the texts invoked they emphasise different aspects. Thinking about thought, William harkens back to Aristotle and clearly thinks that it’s structure that matters. By contrast, Gregory goes along with Augustine and emphasises thought as a mental action. – For these authors it was clear that their sources were highly relevant, both as inspiration and authorities. At the same time, they had no qualms to appropriate them for their uses. – In some respects we make similar moves today, when we call ourselves Humeans or Aristotelians. But since we also have professional historians of philosophy and look back at traditions of critical scholarship, both historians and philosophers are more cautious when it comes to the question of whether some particular author would be “relevant today”.

In view of this question, historians are trained to exhibit all kinds of (often dismissive) gut reactions, while philosophers working in contemporary themes don’t really have time for our long-winded answers. And so we started talking past each other, happily ever after. That’s not a good thing. So here is why I think the question of whether any particular author could inform or improve current debates is wrongheaded.

Of course everyone is free to read Ockham. But I wouldn’t recommend doing it, if you’re hoping to enrich the current debates. Yes, Ockham says a lot of interesting things. But you’d need a long time to translate them into contemporary terminology and still more time to find an argument that will look like a right-out improvement of a current argument.* – My point is not that Ockham is not an interesting philosopher. My point is that Ockham (and many other past philosophers) doesn’t straightforwardly speak to any current concerns.

However … Yes, of course there was going to be a “however”! However, while we don’t need to ask whether any particular author is relevant today, we should be asking a different question. That Ockham doesn’t speak to current concerns doesn’t mean that historians of philosophy (studying Ockham or others) have nothing to say about current concerns. So it’s not that Ockham should be twisted to speak to current concerns; rather historians and philosophers should be talking to each other! So the right question to ask is: how can historians speak to current issues?

The point is that historians study, amongst other things, debates on philosophical issues. “You say tomahto, I say tomato”, that sort of thing. Debates happen now as they happened then. What I find crucial is that studying debates reveals features that can be informative for understanding current debates. There are certain conditions that have to be met for a debate to arise. We’re not just moving through the space of reasons. Debates occur or decline because of various factors. What we find conceptually salient can be driven by available texts, literary preferences, other things we hold dear, theological concerns, technological inventions (just think of various computer models), arising political pressures (you know what I mean), linguistic factors (what would happen if most philosophers were to write in Dutch?), and a lot of other factors, be they environmental, sociological, or what have you. Although we like to think that the pursuit of truth is central, it’s by far not the only reason why debates arise and certain concepts are coined and stick around, while others are forgotten. Although contingent, such factors are recurrent. And this is something that affects our understanding of current as well as past debates. The historian can approach current debates as a historian in the same way that she can approach past debates. And this is, I submit, where historians can truly speak to current concerns.

Coming back to the debate I mentioned earlier, there is another issue (besides the treatment of sources) that I find striking. In their emphasis of Augustine, Gregory and Peter show a transition from a representational to an action model of thought. Why does this transition occur? Why do they find it important to emphasise action over representation against William? – Many reasons are possible. I won’t go into them now. But this might be an interesting point of comparison to the current debates over enactivism versus certain sorts of representationalism. Why do we have that debate now? Is it owing to influences like Ryle and Gibson? Certainly, they are points of (sometimes implicit) reference. Are there other factors? Again, while I think that these are intriguing philosophical developments, our understanding of such transitions and debates remains impoverished, if we don’t look for other factors. Studying past transitions can reveal recurrent factors in contemporary debates. One factor might be that construing thoughts as acts rather than mere representations discloses their normative dimensions. Acts are something for which we might be held responsible. There is a lot more to be said. For now suffice it to say that it is in comparing debates and uncovering their conditions, that historians of philosophy qua historians can really contribute.

At the same time, historians might also benefit from paying more attention to current concerns. Not only to stay up to date, but also to sharpen their understanding of historical debates.** As we all know, historical facts don’t just pop up. They have to be seen. But this seeing is of course a kind of seeing as. Thus, if we don’t just want to repeat the historiographical paradigms of, say, the eighties, it certainly doesn’t hurt if our seeing is trained in conversation with current philosophers.


* That said, this is of course an open question. So I’m happy to be shown a counterexample.

** More on the exchange between philosophers and historians of philosophy can be found in my inaugural lecture.

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