Repressed ideas? For an embedded history of philosophy

Over the weekend I posted a piece of news according to which one of the last representations of academic psychoanalysis in Germany is under threat. What I found particularly interesting were the somewhat heated discussions that ensued on various social media. While some regretted the prospect of seeing psychoanalysis pushed out out of academia, others saw it as an instance of scientific advancement. More than once was it claimed that, after all, we wouldn’t have chairs in astrology either.* Lacking expertise in psychology, I am not the right person to make a case for the current role of psychoanalytic research, but I was struck by the frequent and ready dismissal in favour of a current status quo. Yet, what this insistence on the status quo obscures is the likelihood that future historians will see many of our current ideas as similarly outdated. Our most recent neuroscience will become tomorrow’s astrology. In this post, then, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to imagine that our current theories and even our own beliefs will be deemed outdated. The idea behind such an embedded history** is to historicise the present and pave the way for seeing our very own ideas like a historian of thought, that is: seeing our beliefs in their contingent relations to our (social) world rather than as items in the space of reasons.

Condemning ideas. –  What makes people condemn ideas or approaches? Our study of the mind has a long and complicated history. Many ideas are now outdated. Although Aristotle is held in high esteem, no one will want to maintain his views on the heart-brain system. However, controversial ideas present a different case. Disciplines like psychoanalysis are still evolving and are held in high esteem by many, but their precise status in the academic landscape has become dubious. The reasons for advacing doubts are varied: they might be internal to the discipline but also of a political or moral nature. Despite substantial criticisms, however, certain ideas not least from psychoanalysis pervade much of our current culture and are known, not only by experts, but the public at large. What’s interesting about ideas that are both common and controversial is that they present us with normative questions: They are held, yes, but should they be held (in the future)? Now the normative attitude according to which, for instance, psychoanalysis should be condemned to the past can itself be historicised. This is what a embedded historian would do. Rather than taking a side for or against a particular view, the embedded historian would try and historicise the controversy. For the embedded historian, discussions invoking perceived progress, then, would shed some light on our current normative historical attitudes, that is, attitudes about things that we begin to see as belonging to the past and that we (or some of us) think should no longer be present.

But how can we turn into embedded historians? – Peter Adamson once suggested seeing our current philosophy just as the latest stage of the history of philosophy. Naturally, I agree. As I see it, this approach not only helps us achieving a better understanding of the current philosophical landscape, it also shifts our attitudes in intriguing ways: Being convinced by an argument is quite different from explaining how someone like you (in your day and age) would encounter and be compelled by a certain argument in a certain context and style. This is what Bernard Williams called “making the familiar strange”. But how is it done? Having ideas is one thing. Rejecting ideas as belonging to the past is quite another thing; it carries the force of condemnation. But what if you find yourself on the other side? What I’d like you to imagine is that you hold ideas that future historians will think of as outdated. This, I submit, is how you can become an embedded historian about your own ideas. You can do this in two steps: first, you study a theory that is considered outdated, try to embrace it by looking at the best arguments for it, and then you look at the refutations. Second, you take the most forceful refutations and try to have them carry over such that they attack your own convictions. (The second move is of course much harder, but if you want to see it in action it might help to consider how Wittgenstein attacks some of his own ideas in the Philosophical Investigations.)

How can you attack your own convictions? – Somehow attacking your own convictions seems paradoxical, because they are your convictions. But are they (still) your convictions, if you can attack them? Here is a start: Think of the latest good idea that convinced you and try to give a reason for holding it. But now try to do this, not when you’re clear-headed, but rather when you get up at six in the morning, straight away. What I’m after is the difference between what we say on the fly as opposed to what we think we should be saying (i.e. our best version of our argument). This is the way many historians approach, not their own convictions, but the material they study: they take the explicit (badly formed) reasons, and then say what their author should have said but didn’t. (Historians shunning anachronism will then often go with the explicit badly formed reasons, while others opt for the best reasons because they apply the principle of charity.) Now just allow yourself the (bad) reasons you invoked on the fly. You can then imagine how a future historian will dissect your account easily.

Why should we do it? – Now that you have a beginning, you might still ask why such a thing is worth your time. Well, attacking your own convictions is the only way to create headspace for ideas that seem to be in opposition to your own. There are so many ideas that are out of touch with the current status quo that it would seem ridiculous to believe that we – we of all people – would have the best ideas and the best methods of approaching them or putting them to use. Rather than dismissing ideas quickly in the name of progress (= status quo), we should be triangulating for objectivity.*** And this we can do only with attempting to understand those who we consider controversial, outdated or opposed to what we believe. That said, there is yet another reason: Studying the ideas that we reject might uncover the reasons for rejections which, in turn, might uncover ideas that tacitly underpin our beliefs. After all, condemned ideas might become repressed ideas. But that’s for another day.


* While David Livingstone Smith, for instance, presents substantial criticism against most psychoanalytic traditions, at least a quick browse through the research done at Frankfurt leaves me with the impression that abolishing this kind of work would mean a severe impoverishment of academic psychology.

** The term “embedded history” is reclaimed from the term “embedded journalism” which, though a problematic practice in itself, captures intriguing aspects of the way we are involved when doing history and thinking about ourselves and others.

*** I use “triangulating” as a term of art from Davidson. Here is a lucid passage from his “Rational Animals” (also quoted in Jeff Malpas’ great introduction to the term): “If I were bolted to the earth, I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know that they were on some line drawn from me towards them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures. Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.”

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia (video)

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia

This is the fifth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Anna Tropia who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. Following up on some earlier musings, we focus on issues of writing (philosophy) as they figure in my blogging. Here is a rough table of contents:

  • Introduction and the focus of “Handling Ideas” 0:00
  • How can and why should we avoid the delete button? 2:17
  • Dare to say something wrong! A general tip on writing 6:53