Against history of philosophy: shunning vs ignoring history in the analytic traditions

Does history matter to philosophy? Some time ago I claimed that, since certain facts about concepts are historical, all philosophy involves history to some degree (see here and here). But this kind of view has been and is attacked by many. The relation to history is a kind of philosophical Gretchenfrage. If you think that philosophy is a historical endeavour, you’ll be counted among the so-called continental philosophers. If you think that philosophy can be done independently of (its) history, you’ll be counted among the analytic philosophers. Today, I’ll focus on the latter, that is, on analytic philosophy. What is rarely noted is that the reasons against history are rather different and to some extent even contradictory. Roughly put, some think that history is irrelevant, while others think that it is so influential that it should be shunned. In keeping with this distinction, I would like to argue that the former group tends to ignore history, while the latter group tends to shun history. I believe that ignoring history is a relatively recent trend, while shunning history is foundational for what we call analytic philosophy. But how do these trends relate? Let’s begin with the current ignorance.

A few years ago, Mogens Laerke told me that he once encountered a philosopher who claimed that it wasn’t really worth going back any further in history than “to the early Ted Sider”. Indeed, it is quite common among current analytic philosophers to claim that history of philosophy is wholly irrelevant for doing philosophy. Some educational exposure might count as good for preventing us from reinventing the wheel or finding the odd interesting argument, but on the whole the real philosophical action takes place today. Various reasons are given for this attitude. Some claim that philosophy aims at finding the truth and that truth is non-historical. Others claim that you don’t need any historical understanding to do, say, biology or mathematics, and that, since philosophy is a similar endeavour, it‘s equally exempt from its history. I’ll look at these arguments some other day. But they have to rely on the separability of historical factors from what is called philosophy. As a result of this, this position denies any substantial impact of history on philosophy. Whatever the merit of this denial, it has enormous political consequences. While the reasons given are often dressed as a-political, they have serious repercussions on the shape of philosophy in academic institutions. In Germany, for instance, you’ll hardly find a department that has a unit or chair devoted to history of philosophy. Given the success of analytic practitioners through journal capture etc., history is a marginalised and merely instrumental part of philosophy.

Yet, despite the supposed irrelevance of history, many analytic philosophers do see themselves as continuous with a tradition that is taken to begin with Frege or Russell. To portray contemporary philosophical work as relevant, it is apparently not enough to trust in the truth-conduciveness of the current philosophical tools on display. Justifying current endeavours has to rely on some bits and bobs of history. For some colleagues, grant agencies and students it’s not sufficient to point to the early Ted Sider to highlight the relevance of a project. While pointing to early analytic philosophy is certainly not enough, at least some continuity in terminology, arguments and claims is required. But do early analytic philosophers share the current understanding of history? As I said in the beginning, I think that many early figures in that tradition endorse a rather different view. As late as 1947, Ryle writes in a review of Popper in Mind, the top journal of analytic philosophy:

“Nor is it news to philosophers that Nazi, Fascist and Communist doctrines are descendants of the Hegelian gospel. … Dr Popper is clearly right in saying that even if philosophers are at long last immunized, historians, sociologists, political propagandists and voters are still unconscious victims of this virus …”*

Let me single out two claims from this passage: (1) Hegelian philosophy shaped pervasive political ideologies. (2) Philosophy has become immune against such ideologies. The first claim endorses the idea that historical positions of the past are not only influential for adherent philosophers, but shape political ideologies. This is quite different from the assumption that history is irrelevant. But what about the second claim? The immunity claim seems to deny the influence of history. So on the face of it, the second claim seems to be similar to the idea that history is irrelevant. This would render the statements incongruent. But there is another reading: Only a certain kind of philosophy is immune from the philosophical past and the related ideologies. And this is non-Hegelian philosophy. The idea is, then, not that history is irrelevant, but, to the contrary, that history is quite relevant that thus certain portions of the past should be shunned. Analytic philosophy is construed as the safe haven, exempt from historical influences that still haunt other disciplines.

Ryle is not entirely clear about the factors that would allow for such immunity. But if claim (2) is to be coherent with (1), then this might mean that we are to focus on certain aspects of philosophy and that we should see ourselves in the tradition of past philosophers working on these aspects. If this correct, Ryle is not claiming that philosophy is separate from history and politics, but that it can be exempt from certain kinds of history and politics. As Akehurst argues**, this tradition was adamant to shun German and Britisch idealism as well as many figures that seemed to run counter to certain ideas. Whatever these precise ideas are, the assumption that (early) analytic philosophy is simply a-historical or a-political is a myth.

Whatever one thinks of Ryle’s claims, they are certainly expressive of a core belief in the tradition. At it’s heart we see a process of shunning with the goal of reshaping the canon. The idea of being selective about what one considers as the canon is of course no prerogative of analytic philosophy. However, what seems to stand out is the assumption of immunity. While the attempt to immunise oneself or to counter one’s biases is a process that includes the idea that one might be in the grip of ideologies, the idea that one is already immune seems to be an ideology itself.

Now how does this shunning relate to what I called today’s ignorance? For better or worse, I doubt that these stances are easily compatible. At the same time, it seems likely that the professed ignorance is an unreflected outcome of the shunning in earlier times. If this is correct, then the idea of non-historicity has been canonised. In any case, it is time reconsider the relation between analytic philosophy and the history of philosophy.***


* Thanks to Richard Creek, Nick Denyer, Stefan Hessbrüggen, Michael Kremer, and Eric Schliesser for some amusing online discussion of this passage.

** See T. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe, London: Continuum 2010, esp. 58-60. I am grateful to Catarina Dutilh-Novaes for bringing this book to my attention. See also his brief blog post focussing on Russell.

*** Currently, Laura Georgescu and I are preparing a special issue on the Uses and Abuses of History in Analytic Philosophy for JHAP. Please contact us if you are interested in contributing!

7 thoughts on “Against history of philosophy: shunning vs ignoring history in the analytic traditions

  1. I have too many reactions to this. First off, there is a subtradition within analytic philosophy that takes history of philosophy very seriously. This is the subtradition of Sellars (“The history of philosophy is the lingua franca which makes communication between philosophers, at least of different points of view, possible. Philosophy without the history of philosophy, if not empty or blind, is at least dumb” — Science and Metaphysics), Brandom, McDowell,… a subtradition often associated with Hegelianism. But Ryle himself fits in here to some extent, even though he was no Hegelian (see your post!). (Also many other Oxford-Cambridge connected analytic philosophers — Strawson, Williams, Anscombe, Geach, Dummett etc…)

    Back to Ryle: he did not think analytic philosophy was immune from history, but only (at least in 1947, a particular historical moment just after the defeat of fascism and at the beginning of the Cold War) that it had *become* immune to what he thought of as a particularly bad bit of the history of philosophy. And note that this did not include in any simple fashion shunning of all of “British Idealism.” In the 1956 book “The Revolution in Philosophy,” to which Ryle contributed the Introduction, he starts the story of the “revolution” with Bradley who is not just a target but contributes important ideas (in Ryle’s telling).

    More generally, Ryle himself contributed to history of philosophy, and even his systematic philosophy contains references to that history (not all at the caricature level of his treatment of Descartes in The Concept of Mind). His essay “Categories,” for instance, begins with discussions of Aristotle and Kant. Ryle’s Collected Papers is in two volumes and the first volume, “Critical Essays,” contains six papers on Ancient Philosophy, two on Locke, and one on Hume. HIs last book was a work of historical scholarship, “Plato’s Progress.” In the Introduction to Critical Essays, Ryle makes some interesting remarks about the history of philosophy and its relation to philosophy:

    “A Kant, a Hume or an Aristotle seeks to eradicate one briar-patch— which necessarily consists of a multiplicity of briars. To elucidate the thoughts of a philosopher we need to find the answer not only to the question ‘What were his intellectual worries?’ but, before that question and after that question, the answer to the question ‘What was his overriding Worry?’

    Naturally the fact that this is the question to ask does not ensure success for the attempts to answer it. There are two pieces here about John Locke, of which the second, I now think, gets nearer to the right answer than did the first. I think, too, that my latest critical examination of Phenomenology yields a more radical diagnosis than did my earlier examinations.

    None the less, it needs to be realized and remembered that my exegeses are exercises of a fairly definite theory about the nature of philosophy, one according to which it is always proper to look, whether in Plato or in Locke or in Mill, for dialectical moves of the same sorts as those which we, in the same quandary, would be tempted or proud to make.

    It will be fairly objected that in expositions that are governed by this, or by any other, controlling theory of philosophy, the author must necessarily have an axe to grind. The risk is a real one. But the alternative policy of expounding a thinker’s thoughts without reference to his puzzles and difficulties is what has given us our standard histories of philosophy, and that is calamity itself, and not the mere risk of it.” (this is from 1971)

    Another interesting end-of-career reflection is in his “Autobiographical Essay” of 1970:

    “The conviction that the Viennese dichotomy “Either Science or Nonsense” had too few “ors” in it led some of us, including myself, to harbor and to work on a derivative suspicion. If, after all, logicians and even philosophers can say significant things, then perhaps some logIcians and philosophers of the past, even the remote past, had despite their unenlightenment, sometimes said significant things. “Conceptual analysis” seems to denote a permissible, even meritorious exercise, so maybe some of our forefathers had had their Cantabrigian moments. If we are careful to winnow off their vacuously speculative tares from their analytical “wheat, we may find that some of them sometimes did quite promising work in our own line of business.”

    He adds this: “Naturally we began, in a patronising mood, by looking for and finding in the Stoics, say, or
    Locke, primitive adumbrations of our own most prized thoughts. But before long some of them seemed to move
    more like pioneers than like toddlers, and to talk to us across the ages more like colleagues than like pupils; and
    then we forgot our pails of whitewash.”

    That is not an approach that all historians of philosophy would love, of course, but it it not the view that analytic philosophy is immune to history, or should desire to be immune.

    I could say more but I think I will stop here. I am not intending all of this as simple criticism, but I think the story is more complex than you tell here.

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    1. Many thanks for your instructive comment and these passages! You’re right that a lot of nuance is missing; this is only a first stab at the topic. My point regarding Ryle and earlier analytic philosophers was not that they were ignorant or dismissive of history tout court. As your examples show, quite the opposite is true. My point was rather that they wanted to shun certain aspects in the hope to establish a revised canon.

      Disclaimer: I truly like Ryle’s work and I’m quite a fan of Sellars and his “pupils”, Brandom and Millikan in particular. That said, I wonder about the catorisation of Sellars and Brandom as analytic philosophers. Would you say they are unanimously accepted in that camp?


      1. I find it fascinating that you might question the categorization of Sellars and Brandom as analytic philosophers. I think this shows a remarkable narrowing of the scope of “analytic philosophy” to what was always only one side of that tradition. I am not sure what your criterion for an analytic philosopher is: we can go methodological, or historical for example. But here are some historical facts.

        Sellars founded the journal Philosophical Studies. He co-edited the book Readings in Philosophical Analysis with Herbert Feigl. Probably the most important of his contemporaries to read to understand Sellars are Ryle and Carnap (and also C.I. Lewis) (OK, that’s my opinion). Paul Churchland was one of his PhD students. For many years he was the dominant figure at the University of Pittsburgh Philosophy Department. It’s true that he read and wrote about the history of philosophy and even knew Hegel and Marx. But if “analytic philosophy” had any meaning during his lifetime he was certainly a member of that tradition.

        Brandom has ventured into more “continental” realms with his interest in Hegel, Heidegger and others. But he was trained at Princeton under Richard Rorty and David Lewis. If you look at the bibliography of Making it Explicit, his first major book, it is full of the names of the major analytic philosophers of language of the 20th century. Among his students are Lynne Tirrell, Mark Lance, Kevin Scharp, Marc Lange, and John MacFarlane. He’s on the editorial board of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research and Philosophers’ Imprint. His first book, before Making It Explicit, was The Logic of Inconsistency, co-authored with Nicholas Rescher.

        I could go on piling up this sort of evidence but I won’t do so.

        The point here is that both Sellars and Brandom are thoroughly entrenched in the analytic tradition. If they don’t count as analytic philosophers neither do I, I guess. Brandom and Sellars were my two most important influences in graduate school at Pittsburgh, where I wrote a dissertation on Kripke’s theory of truth under Nuel Belnap!

        I don’t mean to be critical here, I am really just astounded by the question, and I wonder how you conceive of analytic philosophy! To my mind the boundaries between continental and analytic philosophy have been breaking down for several decades and that shows with someone like Brandom; but perhaps a counter-effect is a retrenchment of some analytic philosophers into a narrower and narrower sphere that cuts off some of the most profound work analytic philosophy has produced and labels it “other”!

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        1. Many thanks for your answer! Some years ago, I would have had the same reaction to the question. But I sense that the past is changing – that is, despite the facts that you list, the tradition a majority of philosophers calling themselves analytic wish to identify with is being altered. That’s why I asked whether you thought “they are unanimously accepted” as analytic philosophers.

          We know that analytic philosophy has no clear boundaries. There are different phases and traditions, and some even think that the label is merely about style. Recently some practitioners began to wonder whether the later Wittgenstein shouldn’t count as continental. (See Eric Schliesser nice post on this!) So I am not saying that Sellars and Brandom are not analytic philosophers. My suggestion would be to distinguish between *classical analytic* philosophers (where Sellars belongs) and *neo-analytic* philosophers (where Sellars has a questionable status). What is the criterion? That is tricky, but I guess one item could be precisely the relation to the history of philosophy.

          I guess Sellars is an intriguing figure in this because of his pragmatist leanings, and the fact that pragmatism had been shunned by mainstream analytic philosophers for a long time. Perhaps one day Sellars will just be treated as a Neo-Kantian. In some ways, this debate might mirror earlier debates about R.G. Collingwood, and whether he was a pragmatist. But Sellars and Brandom are not the only figures. Besides the later Wittgenstein, Davidson’s work seems to be reconsidered. While I would still count him in the analytic tradition, some seem to be doubting that he should belong there.

          Of course, you might say that this is a pseudo-question. But now that the history of analytic philosophy is studied really seriously, while the divide from continental remains a political item (often for monetary reasons, it seems), these questions might become even more salient.

          Why, for instance, does Husserl not (yet) belong to the analytic traditions? Yes, he was the teacher of Heidegger, but I doubt that we can fully grasp much of Frege’s philosophy without having Husserl in mind.

          So, yes, what you say at the end strikes me as exactly right: “the boundaries between continental and analytic philosophy have been breaking down for several decades and that shows with someone like Brandom; but perhaps a counter-effect is a retrenchment of some analytic philosophers into a narrower and narrower sphere that cuts off some of the most profound work analytic philosophy has produced and labels it “other”!”


  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Martin. On the idea of shunning certain portions of the past: let me add my suspicion that there may have been another kind of shunning at work in the relatively recent tradition of philosophy that you refer to, and that is, a kind of shunning that takes place within the actual practice of interpreting historical texts and past philosophers (pre-Sellars and co., to make matters simpler, for the moment). To put it in paradoxical terms, the additional thought supplements your idea that “shunning history is foundational for what we call analytic philosophy” with the hypothesis that “shunning history” also functions as part of the way that so-called “analytic philosophy” (or, perhaps, a subspecies or outgrowth of analytical philosophy) commonly practices the history of philosophy. To assume immunization against Hegelian philosophy, presumably one might also have thought to shun a certain Hegelian way of doing the history of philosophy, of reading e.g. Plato’s dialogues in isolation from the history of Geist or the history of religion and myth; or interpreting Cicero’s Academic books as a serious of arguments for and against the possibility of knowledge, rather than as a work of Roman republicans arguing about Greek philosophy, or as a dialogue that reflects a certain understanding of the development and history of Academic or Platonic philosophy. Let it be the shunning of history within a certain mode of doing the history of philosophy?

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    1. Many thanks for your intriguing point, Charles! Yes, I think there are many strands of shunning, some of them concerning (hermeneutic) *method* rather than content (although methods have repercussions on our study and selection of content). Reminds me of what I think is a brilliant coinage by Charlie Huenemann who once called the analytic way of doing history of philosophy “fan fiction”:


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