What is a debate? On the kinds of things we study in history of philosophy

Philosophers focus on problems; historians of philosophy also focus on texts. That’s what I sometimes say when I have to explain the difference between doing philosophy and history of philosophy. The point is that historians, in addition to trying and understanding what’s going on in a text or between texts, also deal with the ‘material basis’ on which the problems are handed down to us: the genres, dates, production and dissemination, the language, style and what have you. But what is it that we actually find in the texts? Of course, we are used to offer interpretations, but I think that, before we even start reading, we all tend to have presumptions about what we find. Now these presumptions can be quite different. And it matters greatly what we think we find. In the following, I want to say a few things about this issue, not to offer conclusions, but to get the ball rolling.

An assumption that is both common and rightly contested is that we might find the intention of the author. Wanting to get Aristotle, Cavendish or Fodor right, seems to mean that we look for what the author meant to say. It’s understandable that this matters to us, but apart from the fact that such a search is often in vain, we can understand texts independently from intentions. – Another unit is of course the focus on arguments. We can read a text as an argument for a conclusion and thus analyse its internal structure. Getting into the details of arguments often involves unpacking and explaining claims, concepts, assumptions in the background, and examples. Evaluating the arguments will mean, in turn, to assess how well they support the claims (I like to think of an evaluation as indicating the distance between claim and argument). But while all this is a crucial part in the philosophical analysis, it does not explain what is going on in the text, that is: it does not explain why and on what basis an author might argue for a certain conclusion, reject a certain view, make a certain move, use a certain strategy, use a certain term or concept. In other words, in addition to the internal analysis we need to invoke some of the so-called context.

As I see it, a fruitful approach to providing context, at least in the history of philosophy, is to study texts as elements of debates. One reason I like this is that it immediately opens up the possibility to locate the text (and the claims of an author) in a larger interaction. We hardly ever write just because we want to express a view. Normally we write in response to other texts, no matter whether we reply to a question, reject a claim, highlight a point of interest etc., and no matter whether that other text is a day or thousand years old.

But even if you agree that debates are a helpful focus both for studying a historical or contemporary text (in research as well as in teaching), there might be quite some disagreement as to what a debate actually is or what we are looking for in a debate. I think this matters not only for historians but also for understanding debates more generally. – Currently, for instance, we have a public debate about climate change. What kind of ‘unit’ is this? There are conditions under which the debate arose quite some decennia ago, with claims being put forward in research contexts, schools and the media. These conditions vary greatly: there are political, technological, scientific, educational and many other kinds of conditions. Then there are different participants, many kinds of scientists, citizens, politicians, journalists. Then there are different genres: scientific publications, media outlets, referee reports for politicians, interviews, protests in the streets and online etc. What is it that holds all this together and makes it part of a debate? My hunch is that it is a question. But which one? Here, I think it is important to get the priorities right. There are sub-questions, follow-up questions, all sorts, but is there a main question? This is tricky. But I guess it should be the most common and salient point of contact between all the items constituting the debate. For this debate, it is perhaps the question: How shall we respond to climate change?

Once we determine such a question, we can group the items, especially the texts, accordingly. The debate is one of the crucial factors that makes the text meaningful, that places it in a dialogical space, even if we do not understand very much of what it says (yet). Even if I am not a climate scientist, I understand the role of a paper within the debate and might be able to place it quite well just by reading the abstract. The same is true of a medieval treatise on logic or an early modern text on first philosophy. – So this is a good way in, I guess. But where do we go from here? You probably can already guess that I want to say something critical now. Yes, I do. The point I want to address is this: How is a debate structured?

When we think about debates in philosophy, we obviously start out from what we perceive debates to be nowadays. As pointed out earlier, much philosophical exchange is based on criticising others. Therefore, it seems fair to assume that debates are structured by opposition. There is a question and opposing answers to it. Indeed, many categories in philosophical historiography are ordered in oppositions and it helps to understand one term through thinking in relation to its opposite. Just think of empiricism versus rationalism, realism versus nominalism etc. That’s all fine. But it only gets you so far. Understanding the content, motivation and addressees of a text as a response in an actual debate requires going far beyond such oppositions. Of course, we can place someone by saying he’s a climate change denier; but that doesn’t help us in understanding the motivations and contents of the text. It’s just a heuristic device to get started.

Today I had the pleasure of listening in on a meeting of Andrea Sangiacomo’s ERC project team working on a large database to study trends in early modern natural philosophy.* It’s a very exciting project, not least in that they are trying to analyse the social and semantic networks in which some of the teaching took place. Not being well-versed in digital humanities myself, I was mainly in awe of the meticulous attention to details of working with the data. But then it struck me: They are tracking teaching practices and yet they were making their first steps by tracing opposing views (on occasionalism). Why would you look for oppositions, I wondered half aloud. Of course, it is a heuristic way of structuring the field. It was then that I began to wonder how we should analyse debates, going beyond oppositions.

Now you might ask why one should go beyond. My answer is that debates, even though the term might suggest critical opposition over a question, might be structured by opposition. But the actual moves that explain what’s going on in a text on a more detailed level, that is: from one passage or even one sentence to the next, are way more fine-grained. Again, as in the case of the straightforward opposition, these moves should be thought of as (implicit) responses to other texts.** Here is a list of moves I think of ad hoc:

  • reformulating a claim
  • quoting a claim (with or without acknowledgement)
  • paraphrasing a claim
  • translating a claim (into a different language, terminology)
  • formalising a claim
  • simplifying a claim
  • embedding a claim into a more complex one
  • ascribing a claim (to someone)
  • (intentionally) misacscribing a claim
  • making up a claim (as a view of someone)
  • commenting on a claim
  • elaborating or developing an idea
  • locating a view in a context
  • deriving (someone’s) claim from another claim
  • deriving (someone’s) claim from the Bible
  • asserting that a claim, actually, is another claim
  • asserting that a claim is ambiguous
  • asserting that a claim is self-evident
  • asserting that a claim is true, false, paradoxical, contradictory, opposing another one, an axiom, demonstrable, not demonstrable
  • asserting that a claim is confirmed by experience
  • asserting that a claim is intuitive, plausible, implausible, unbelievable
  • raising (new) questions
  • answering a question raised by a claim
  • doubting and questioning a result
  • revising a claim
  • revising one’s own claim in view of another claim
  • understanding a view
  • failing to understand a view
  • misrepresenting a view
  • distorting a view
  • evaluating a view
  • dismissing a view
  • re-interpreting a (well-known) view
  • undermining a claim, one’s own claim
  • exposing assumptions
  • explaining an idea in view of its premises or implications
  • illustrating a view
  • finding (further) evidence for or against a view
  • transforming or applying a concept or view to a new issue, in philosophy or elsewhere
  • recontextualising a view
  • repairing a view or argument
  • popularising a view
  • trying to conserve a view
  • trying to advance a view
  • juxtaposing views
  • comparing views
  • resolving a tension between views
  • highlighting a tension between views
  • associating a view with another one
  • appropriating a view
  • pretending to merely repeat a traditional view, while presenting a bold re-interpretation of it [yes, what Ockham does to Aristotle]
  • explicitly accepting a view
  • pretending to accept a view
  • accepting a view, while condemning the proponent
  • rejecting a view, while praising the proponent
  • pretending to reject a view, while actually appropriating (part of) it [yes, I’m thinking of Reid]
  • pretending to accept a view, while rejecting its premises
  • highlighting relations between views (analogies etc.)
  • ridiculing a view
  • belittling a view
  • shunning a view
  • showing societal consequences of a view
  • suppressing or hiding a claim
  • disavowing a claim
  • retracting a claim
  • putting a view in euphemistic terms
  • showing that a claim is outrageous, heretical, controversial, complacent
  • polemicising against a view
  • etc.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. And “view” or “claim” might concern the whole or a part, an argument, a term or concept. Even if we have some more positive or negative forms of responses, we have to see that all of these ways go beyond mere opposition, counterargument or criticism. Sometimes the listed moves are made explicitly; sometimes a move in a text might be explicable as result of such a move. What is perhaps most salient is that they often say as much about the commitments of the respondent as they are intended to say about the other text that is being responded to. While mere criticism of an opponent does not require us to expose our commitments, much of what we find in (historical) texts is owing to commitments. (In other words, adversarial communication in current professional settings, such as the Q&A after talks, might often be taken as people merely showing off their chops, without invoking their own commitments and vulnerabilities. But this is not what we should expect to find in historical texts.)*** So if we look at Spinoza as criticising Descartes, for instance, we should not overlook that the agreements between the commitments and interests of these authors are just as important as the tensions and explicit disagreement. Looking again at the issue of climate change, it is clear that most moves probably consist in understanding claims and their implications, establishing agreement and noting tensions, corroborating ideas, assessing consequences, providing evidence, trying to confirm results etc. So the focus on opposition might be said to give us a wrong idea of the real moves within a historical debate and of the moves that stabilise a debate or make it stick.

Anyway, the main idea of beginning such a list is to see the variety of moves we might find in a text responding to someone else. To analyse a text merely as an opposing move with pertinent counterarguments or as presenting a contrary theory makes us overlook the richness of the philosophical interactions.

____

*Here is a recent blog post by Raluca Tanasescu, Andrea Sangiacomo, Silvia Donker, and Hugo Hogenbirk on their work. I’m only beginning to learn about the methods and considerations in digital humanities. But I have to say that this field strikes me as holding a lot of (methodological) inspiration (for history of philosophy and science etc.) even if you continue to work mostly in more traditional ways.

** Besides texts of different authors, this might of course also concern other texts of oneself or parts or temporal stages (drafts) of the same text.

*** I’m grateful to Laura Georgescu for pointing out this difference between criticism in current professional settings as opposed to many historical texts.

6 thoughts on “What is a debate? On the kinds of things we study in history of philosophy

      1. Thanks for this reply, and I appreciate your previous posts on this. I think I agree with you on Skinner’s weird anxiety about anachronism, which I find especially odd because he was one of the most prolific writers on figures from earlier eras, and clearly thinks that people ought to read his stuff and alter their beliefs and perhaps behavior accordingly. (In other words, and in a way in HIS own words, an attempt to contextualize his own thought seems to suggest that his use of “anachronism” is a speech act that, to be intelligible, doesn’t carry the meaning that we normally ascribe to our uses of “anachronism”…) So maybe like you I’d endorse his contextualism but not his policing of our uses of the past.

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  1. Thanks much Martin for this. I’ve been thinking more about your point and I totally agree. It’s also very important to appreciate how the adversarial setting of today’s philosophical practice shapes our way of looking at the past. Now that you’re honorary member of our ERC team, I’ll take the liberty of using your idea in this post as a working hypothesis to develop the research mentioned yesterday. Stay in tune!

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    1. Thanks again! The meeting left me with a lot of ideas. One thing I noticed is that adherents of the adversarial model often invoke history as a means of justification: “Since Plato … etc.” But I think there is reason to doubt this. Many dialogues, for instance, end aporetically, leaving no winners or losers, as the adversarial narrative has it. If you look at the scholastic quaestio form, you also find much variety. Yes, there is pro and contra, as an opening, but then much depends on distinctions, mediating between views, not to speak of deference to authority. The tricky thing is that opposition does work as heuristic device, but it’s crucial to see how things move on fro there. I think your methodology, distant reading, is ideal to track the masses that shape *actual* debates. Perhaps we can appreciate this more once we move away from the case study model. So, yes, do keep me in the loop!

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