What should go into a history of contemporary ideas or philosophy? Of course this is a question that is tricky to answer for all sorts of reasons. What makes it difficult is that we then tend to think of mostly canonical figures and begin to wonder which of those will be remembered in hundred years. I think we can put an interesting spin on that question if we approach it in a more historical way. How did our current thoughts evolve? Who are the people who really influenced us? There will not only be people whose work we happen to read, but those who directly interact and interacted with us. Our teachers, fellow students, friends and opponents. You might not think of them as geniuses, but we should drop that category anyway. These are likely people who really made a difference to the way you think. So let’s scratch our heads a bit and wonder who gave us ideas directly. In any case, they should figure in the history of our thought.
You might object that these figures would not necessarily be recognised as influential at large. However, I doubt that this is a good criterion: our history is not chiefly determined by who we take to be generally influential, but more often than not by those people we speak to. If not, why would historians bother to figure out real interlocutors in letters etc.? This means that encounters between a few people might make quite a difference. You might also object that a history of contemporary philosophy is not about you. But why not? Why should it not include you at least? What I like about this approach is that it also serves as a helpful corrective to outworn assumptions about who is canonical. Because even if certain figures are canonical, our interpretations of canonical figures are strongly shaped by our direct interlocutors.
Thinking about my own ideas in this way is a humbling experience. There is quite a number of people inside and outside my department to whom I owe many of my ideas. But this approach also reveals some of the conditions, political and other, that allow for such influence. One such condition I am painfully reminded of when observing the current political changes in Europe. No, I do not mean Brexit! Although I find these developments very sad and threatening indeed, most of the work done by friends and colleagues in Britain will reach me independently of those developments.
But Central and Eastern Europe is a different case. As it happens, the work that affected my own research most in the recent years is on the history of natural philosophy. It’s more than a guess when I say that I am not alone in this. Amongst other things, it made me rethink our current and historical ideas of the self. Given that quite a number of researchers who work on this happen to come from Central and Eastern Europe, much of this work probably wouldn’t have reached me, had it not been for the revolutions in 1989. This means that my thinking (and most likely that of others, too) would have been entirely different in many respects, had we not seen the Wall come down and communist regimes overthrown.
Why do I bring this up now? A brief exchange following up on an interesting post by Eric Schliesser* made it obvious that many Western Europeans, by and large, seem to assume that the revolutions from 1989 have had no influence on their thought. As he puts it, “the intellectual class kind of was conceptually unaffected” by them. And indeed, if we look at the way we cite and acknowledge the work of others, we regularly forget to credit many, if not most, of our interlocutors from less prestigious places. In this sense, people in what we call the Western world might be inclined to think that 1989 was not of significance in the history of thought. I think this is a mistake. A mistake arising from the canonical way of thinking about the work that influences us. Instead of acknowledging the work of individuals who actually influence us, we continue citing the next big shot whom we take to be influential in general. By excluding the direct impact of our actual interlocutors, we make real impact largely invisible. Intellectually, the West behaves as if it were still living in the Cold War times. But the fact that we continue to ignore or shun the larger patterns of real impact since 1989 does not entail that it is not there. Any claim to the contrary would, without further evidence at least, amount to an argument from ignorance.
The point I want to make is simple: we depend on other people for our thought. We need to acknowledge this if we want to understand how we come to think what we think. The fact that universities are currently set up like businesses might make us believe that the work people do can (almost) equally be done by other people. But this is simply not true. People influencing our thought are always particular people; they cannot be exchanged salva veritate. If we care about what we think, we should naturally care about the origin of our thought. We owe it to particular people, even if we sometimes forget the particular conversations in which our ideas were triggered, encouraged or refuted.
Now if this is correct, then it’s all the more surprising that we let go of the conditions enabling much of this exchange in Europe so easily. How is it possible, for instance, that most European academics remain quiet in the face of recent developments in Hungary? We witnessed how the CEU was being forced to move to Vienna in an unprecedented manner, and now the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is targeted.**
While the international press reports every single remark (no matter how silly) that is made in relation to Brexit, and while I see many academics comment on this or that aspect (often for very good reasons), the silence after the recent events in Hungary is almost deafening. Of course, Hungary is not alone in this. Academic freedom is now targeted in many places inside and outside Europe. If we continue to let it happen, the academic community in Europe and elsewhere will disintegrate very soon. But of course we can continue to praise our entrepreneurial spirit in the business park of academia and believe that people’s work is interchangeable salva veritate; we can continue talking to ourselves, listen diligently to our echoes, and make soliloquies a great genre again.
* See also this earlier and very pertinent post by Eric Schliesser.