Why don’t we mine contemporary philosophy for tools to do history?

Philosophers often turn to the history of philosophy for instrumental reasons. The aim is not to ‘do’ history but to prevent reinventing the wheel or to mine historical texts for interesting arguments or ideas. This approach is common both in teaching and research. Undergraduates are often taught surveys in order to develop some ‘vocabulary’, and philosophical discussions are often prefaced with some big names when introducing, for instance, a “Humean account of whatever”. To my surprise, I rarely find any appeal to the converse approach, that is: historians of philosophy instrumentalising contemporary philosophical arguments or ideas to capture historial ideas or debates. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a fruitful approach both for teachers and researchers.

Let me start with a simple example. I’m currently running a course on Condemned Philosophy where I discuss attempts at condemning or censoring philosophy. While focussing on a particular medieval case (the condemnation of 1277) I also introduced modern examples (such as the letter against Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge). The topic of this course is certainly interesting for a number of reasons. But when thinking about such motions and trying to capture what’s going on more generally I find it helpful to turn to terms coined in argumentation theory and social epistemology. An obvious feature of both condemnations is that certain standards of rationality or evidence are said to be protected against the opponents in question (against pagan or continental philosophers). So why not discuss these cases as instances of what contemporary philosophers call deep disagreement or epistemic injustice? Arguably, such classifications give us a way of capturing what is at stake in condemnations and what sort of reasons we should be looking for when exclusionary moves are being justified. What’s more, the notions of deep disagreement or epistemic injustice are of course controversial in themselves. But their controversial status actually helps in thinking about historical sources in pluralistic ways and helps in trying to get a nuanced understanding of what it is we’re looking at when poring over different cases of condemnation.

In a way, historians do this all the time. Interpreting historical ideas or debates involves taking them as something. Taking Ockham’s account of mental propositions or Locke’s theory of ideas as accounts of mental representation, for instance, is a common move amongst historians. But usually such interpretations are seen as historical accounts of the material, that is, they are either taken as historically well defended or as anachronistic failures that miss the mark. In other words, such interpretations are not taken as merely instrumental, but as proper or improper readings of the pertinent texts. By contrast, my take on the condemnations as cases of deep disagreements or cases of epistemic injustice does not involve the claim that the historical agents themselves would have accepted such descriptions as a valid reading of their disagreements. Rather, it is a tool to decidedly enrich our means of understanding, classifying and evaluating what is going on.

The point I’m trying to make is, then, that we historians should approach texts not just by trying to find historically adequate interpretations, but approach the material with various instruments and make good use of the ample conceptual resources provided in contemporary philosophy. Just like a contemporary philosopher engaging Aristotelian accounts of ethics doesn’t need to care about Aristotle, historians don’t always need to care about the question whether there is a real historical relation between projects or authors of different periods when using current conceptual tools. We don’t need to connect historical dots between the shunning of Aristotelianism in Paris in 1277 and the shunning of continental philosophy in 1992 in Cambridge to see that these events share more features than might meet the eye.

But why, you might ask, should historians bother to use such merely instrumental devices? Well, first of all they allow us to update our grasp of the material. Whether we like it or not, when we refrain from employing contemporary terms it doesn’t mean we’re closer to the actors’ categories, but most likely just closer to the 19th-century surveys that still dominate our historical approaches. Moreover, it allows philosophy students to connect the dots between historical texts and their courses in contemporary philosophy. So rather than arguing over adequate approaches to history, I’d suggest we make ample instrumental use of all the devices at hand.

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