Ugly ducklings and progress in philosophy

Agnes Callard recently gave an entertaining interview at 3:16 AM. Besides her lovely list of views that should count as much less controversial than they do, she made an intriguing remark about her book:

“I had this talk on weakness of will that people kept refuting, and I was torn between recognizing the correctness of their counter-arguments (especially one by Kate Manne, then a grad student at MIT), and the feeling my theory was right. I realized: it was a bad theory of weakness of will, but a good theory of another thing. That other thing was aspiration. So the topic came last in the order of discovery.”

Changing the framing or framework of an idea might resolve seemingly persisting problems and make it shine in a new and favourable light. Reminded of Andersen’s fairy tale in which a duckling is considered ugly until it turns out that the poor animal is actually a swan, I’d like to call this the ugly duckling effect. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a good, if underrated, form of making progress in philosophy.

Callard’s description stirred a number of memories. You write and refine a piece, but something feels decidedly off. Then you change the title or topic or tweak the context ever so slightly and, at last, everything falls into place. It might happen in a conversation or during a run, but you’re lucky if it does happen at all. I know all too well that I abandoned many ideas, before I eventually and accidentally stumbled on a change of framework that restored (the reputation of) the idea. As I argued in my last post, all too often criticism in professional settings provides incentives to tone down or give up on the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many criticisms focus on the idea or argument itself, rather than on the framework in which the idea is to function. My hunch is that we should pay more attention to such frameworks. After all, people might stop complaining about the quality of your hammer, if you tell them that it’s actually a screwdriver.

I doubt that there is a precise recipe to do this. I guess what helps most are activities that help you tweaking the context, topic or terminology. This might be achieved by playful conversations or even by diverting your attention to something else. Perhaps a good start is to think of precedents in which this happened. So let’s just look at some ugly duckling effects in history:

  • In my last post I already pointed to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning. Recontextualising this as a theory of representation and connecting it to a use theory or a teleosemantic account restored the picture theory as a component that makes perfect sense.
  • Another precendent might be seen in the reinterpretations of Cartesian substance dualism. If you’re unhappy with the interaction problem, you might see the light when, following Spinoza, you reinterpret the dualism as a difference of aspects or perspectives rather than of substances. All of a sudden you can move from a dualist framework to monism but retain an intuitively plausible distinction.
  • A less well known case are the reinterpretations of Ockham’s theory of mental language, which was seen as a theory of ideal language, a theory of logical deep structure, a theory of angelic speech etc.

I’m sure the list is endless and I’d be curious to hear more examples. What’s perhaps important to note is that we can also reverse this effect and turn swans into ugly ducklings. This means that we use the strategy of recontextualisation also when we want to debunk an idea or expose it as problematic:

  • An obvious example is Wilfried Sellars’ myth of the given: Arguing that reference to sense data or other supposedly immediate elements of perception cannot serve as a foundation or justification of knowledge, Sellars dismissed a whole strand of epistemology.
  • Similarly, Quine’s myth of the museum serves to dismiss theories of meaning invoking the idea that words serve as labels for (mental) objects.
  • Another interesting move can be seen in Nicholas of Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum, restricting the principle of non-contradiction to the domain of rationality and allowing for the claim that the intellect transcends this domain.

If we want to assess such dismissals in a balanced manner, it might help to look twice at the contexts in which the dismissed accounts used to make sense. I’m not saying that the possibility of recontextualisation restores or relativises all our ideas. Rather I think of this option as a tool for thinking about theories in a playful and constructive manner.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to see that the ugly duckling effect works in both ways, to dismiss and restore ideas. In any case, we should try to consider a framework in which the ideas in question make sense. And sometimes dismissal is the way to go.

At the end of the day, it could be helpful to see that the ugly duckling effect might not be owing to the duck being actually a swan. Rather, we might be confronted with duck-swan or duck-rabbit.

Naturalism as a bedfellow of capitalism? A note on the reception of early modern natural philosophy

Facing the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and pollution, the idea that a certain form of scientific naturalism goes hand in hand with an exploitative form of capitalism might (or might not) have an intuitive plausibility. But does the supposed relation between naturalism and capitalism have something like a historical origin? A set of conditions that tightened it? And that can be traced back to a set of sources? In what follows, I’d like to present a few musings on this kind of question.

What does it take to write or think about a history of certain ideas? Obviously, what you try to do is to combine certain events and think something like: “This was triggered by that or this thought relies on that assumption.” You might even be more daring and say: “Had it not been for X, Y would (probably) never have occurred.” Such claims are special in that they bind events or ideas together into a narrative, often designed to explain how it was possible that some event or an idea occurred. – The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami makes such a claim when he suggests that naturalism, taken as a certain way of treating nature scientifically and instrumentally, is tied to capitalism. In his “The wider significance of naturalism” (2010), Bilgrami writes:

“[D]issenters argued that it is only because one takes matter to be “brute” and “stupid,” to use Newton’s own term, that one would find it appropriate to conquer it with nothing but profit and material wealth as ends, and thereby destroy it both as a natural and a human environment for one’s habitation.
[…] Newton and Boyle’s metaphysical view of the new science won out over the freethinkers’ and became official only because it was sold to the Anglican establishment and, in an alliance with that establishment, to the powerful mercantile and incipient industrial interests of the period in thoroughly predatory terms that stressed that nature may now be transformed in our conception of it into the kind of thing that is indefinitely available for our economic gain…”

Bilgrami’s overall story is a genealogy of naturalism or rather scientism.* The paper makes itself some intriguing observations regarding narratives and historiography. But let’s look at his claim more closely. By appealing to Newton and the victory of his kind of naturalism, it is designed to explain why we got to scientism and a certain understanding of nature. In doing so, it binds a number of highly complex events and ideas together: There is a (1) debate between “dissenters” and what he calls “naturalists”, whose ideas (2) became official, (3) “only because” they were “sold” to the Anglicans and to industrial stakeholders. Although this kind of claim is problematic for several reasons, it is quite interesting. One could now discuss why ideas about necessary connections between facts (“only because”) presuppose a questionable understanding of history tout court or seem to ignore viable alternatives. But for the time being I would like to focus on what I find interesting. For me, two aspects stand out in particular.

Firstly, Bilgrami’s thesis, and especially (3), seems to suggest a counterfactual causal claim: Had the metaphysical view not been sold to the said stakeholders, it would not have become official. In other words, the scientific revolution or Newton’s success is owing to the rise of capitalism. Both cohere in that they seem to propagate a notion of nature that is value-free, allowing nature to be exploited and manipulated. Even if that notion of nature might not be Newton’s, it is an interesting because it seems to gain new ground today: The widespread indifference to climate change and pollution for capitalist reasons suggests such a conjunction. Thus, a genealogy that traces the origin of that notion seems to ask at least an interesting question: Which historical factors correlate to the rise of the currently fashionable notion of nature?

Secondly, the narrative Bilgrami appeals to has itself a history and is highly contested. But Bilgrami neither argues for the facts he binds together, nor does he appeal to any particular sources. This is striking, for although he is not alone with his thesis, people are not exactly buying into this narrative. If you read Steven Pinker, you’ll rather get a great success story about why science has liberated us. And even proper historians readily dismiss the relation between the rise of capitalism and science as “inadequate”. This raises another interesting question: Why do we accept certain narratives (rather than others)?

This latter question seems to suggest a simple answer: We do or should accept only those narratives that are correct. As I see it, this is problematic. Narratives are plausible or implausible. But the complexity of the tenets they bind together makes it impossible to prove or refute them on ordinary grounds of evidence. Just try to figure out what sort of evidence you need to show that the Newtonian view “won” or was “sold”! You might see who argued against whom; you might have evidence that some merchants expressed certain convictions, but the correlations suggested by these words can be pulled and evidenced in all sorts of ways. Believing a narrative means to believe that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others. It means to believe, for instance, that capitalism was a driving force for scientists to favour certain projects over others. But unless you show that certain supposed events did not occur or certain beliefs were not asserted, it’s very hard to counter the supposed facts, let alone the belief in their correlation.

So I doubt that we simply chose to believe in certain narratives because we have grounds for believing they are true. My hunch is that they gain or lose plausibility along with larger ideologies or belief systems that we adhere to. In this regard it is striking that Bilgrami goes for his thesis without much argument. While he doesn’t give clear sources, Bilgrami’s assumption bears striking resemblance to the claims of Boris Hessen, who wrote (in 1931):

“The Royal Society brought together the leading and most eminent scientists in England, and in opposition to university scholasticism adopted as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’ (verify nothing on the basis of words). Robert Boyle, Brouncker, Brewster, Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke played an active part in the society. One of its most outstanding members was Newton. We see that the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service, into the service of developing productive forces. … And since … the basic problems were mechanical ones, this encyclopedic survey of the physical problems amounted to creating a consistent structure of theoretical mechanics which would supply general methods for solving the problems of celestial and terrestrial mechanics.”

The claim that “the the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service” is indeed similar to what Bilgrami seems to have in mind. As a new special issue on Boris Hessen’s work makes clear, these claims were widely disseminated.** At the same time, an encyclopedia from 2001 characterises Hessen’s view as “crude and dogmatically Marxist”.

Thus, the reception of Hessen’s claim is itself tied to larger ideological convictions. This might not be surprising, but it puts pressure on the reasons we give for favouring one narrative over another. While believing in certain narratives means believing that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others, our choice and rejection of narratives might be driven by wider ideologies or belief systems. If this is correct, then the dismissal of Hessen’s insights might not be owing to the dismissal of his scholarship but rather to the supposed Marxism. So the question is: are the cold-war convictions still alive, driving the choice of narratives? Or is the renewed interest in Marxism already a reason for a renewed interest in Hessen’s work? In any case, in the history of interpreting Newtonian naturalism Akeel Bilgrami’s paper is striking, because it bears witness to this reception without directly acknowledging it.*** Might this be because there are new reasons for being interested in the (history of the) relation between scientific naturalism and capitalism?

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* It’s important to note that Bilgrami uses the term naturalism in a resticted sense: “I am using the term “naturalism” in a rather restricted way, limiting the term to a scientistic form of the philosophical position. So, the naturalism of Wittgenstein or John McDowell or even P. F. Strawson falls outside of this usage. In fact all three of these philosophers are explicitly opposed to naturalism in the sense that I am using the term. Perhaps “scientism” would be the better word for the philosophical position that is the center of the dispute I want to discuss.” – This problematically restricted use of naturalism is probably owing to Margaret Jacob’s distinction between a “moderate” and “radical enlightenment”. The former movement is associated with writers like Newton and Boyle; the latter with the pantheist “dissenters” for whom nature is inseprable from the divine.

** I am very grateful to Sean Winkler, who not only edited the special issue on Hessen but kindly sent me a number of passages from his writings. I’m also grateful to all the kind people who patiently discussed some questions on Facebook (here with regard to Bilgrami; here with regard to Hessen).

*** The lines of reception are of course much more complex and, in Bilgrami’s case, perhaps more indirect than I have suggested. Bilgrami explicitly references Weber’s recourse to “disentchantment” and also acknowledges the importance of Marx for his view. Given these references, Bilgrami’s personal reception might be owing more to Weber than Hessen. That said, Merton (following Weber) clearly acknowledges his debt to Hessen. A further (unacknowledged but possible) source for this thesis is Edgar Zilsel. For more details on the intricate pathways of reception see Gerardo Ienna’s and Giulia Rispoli’s paper in the special issue referenced above.

Let’s get rid of “medieval” philosophy!

“Your views are medieval.” Let’s face it: we often use the term “medieval” in a pejorative sense; and calling a line of thought “medieval” might be a good way of chasing away students who would otherwise have been interested in that line of thought. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that, in order to keep what we call medieval philosophy, we should stop talking about “medieval” philosophy altogether.

While no way of slicing up periods is arbitrary, they all come with problems, as this blog post by Laura Sangha makes clear. So I don’t think that there ever will be a coherently or neatly justified periodisation of history, let alone of history of philosophy. But while other names of periods are equally problematic, none of them is as degrading. Outside academia, the term “medieval” is mainly used to describe exceptionally cruel actions or backward policies.  Often named “dark ages”, the years from, roughly, 500 to 1500 count as a period of religious indoctrination. This usage also shapes the perception in academic philosophy. Arguably, medieval philosophical thought is still seen as subordinate to theology. Historical surveys of philosophy often jump from ancient to early modern, and even specialists in history often make it sound as if the sole philosopher that existed in these thousand years had been Thomas Aquinas. This deplorable status has real-life consequences. Exceptions aside, there are very few jobs in medieval philosophy and a decreasing number of students interested in studying it.

You will rightly object that the problems described are not only owing to the name “medieval” and its cognates. I agree. First of all, the field of history of philosophy has not exactly been pampered in recent decades. Often people working on contemporary issues are asked to do a bit of history on the side or the study programmes are catered for in other fields of humanities (history, theology, languages). Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the dominant research traditions in medieval philosophy often continue to represent the field in an esoteric manner. As a student, the first thing you are likely to hear is that it is almost impossible to study medieval thought unless you read Latin (at least!), learn to read illegible manuscripts, understand outlandish theological questions (angels on a pinhead, anyone?), and know Aristotle by heart. Thirdly, most historical narratives depict medieval thought as a backward counterpoint to what is taken to be the later rise of science, enlightenment and secularisation. While the first of these three problems is beyond the control of medievalists alone, the second and third issue are to some degree in our own hands.

Therefore, we can and should present our field as more accessible. A great part of this will consist in strengthening continuities with other periods. Thus, medieval philosophy should always be seen as continuous with what is called ancient or modern or even contemporary thought. This way, we can rid ourselves not only of this embarrassment of a name (“Middle Ages”) but also of trying to indicate what is typically medieval. I’m inclined to think that, whenever we find something “typical” for that period, it will be also typical of other periods. In other words, there is nothing specifically medieval in medieval philosophy.

While there are already a number of laudable attempts to renew approaches in teaching (see e.g. Robert Pasnau’s survey of surveys), my worry is that the more esoteric strands in our field, both in terms of method and content, will be insinuated whenever we talk about “medieval” philosophy. The term “medieval” is a sticky one and won’t go away, but in combination with “philosophy” it will continue to sound like an oxymoron. What shall we say instead, though? I’d suggest that we talk about what we really do: most of us study a handful of themes or topics in certain periods of time. So why not say that you study the eleventh and twelfth centuries (in the Latin West or wherever) or the history of thought from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century? If a more philosophical specification is needed you might say that you study the history of, say, psychology, especially from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. If you believe in the progress narrative, you might even use “pre-modern”. Or why not “post-ancient”?

By the way, if you are what is called a medievalist and you work on a certain topic, most of your work will be continuous with ancient or (early) modern philosophy. If there are jobs advertised in these areas, it’s not unlikely that they will be in your field. That might become more obvious if you call yourself a specialist in, say, the history of metaphysics from 400 to 500 AD or the history of ethics from 1300 to 1800. If this is the case, it would not seem illegitimate to apply for positions in such areas, too. – “Oh”, you might say, “won’t these periods sound outrageously long?” Then just remind people that the medieval period comprises at least a thousand years.

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PS. I started this blog on 26 July 2018. So the blog is now over a year old. Let me take the opportunity to thank you all for reading, writing, and thinking along.

How is the Western philosophical canon sexist?*

My daughter Hannah clearly begins to realise that she is a female person. Half a year ago she turned two, and by now she has been pointing out that certain people are men and women for quite a while. At the moment she is using these concepts quite playfully: so while she might at one time say that she is a “girl” (certainly not a baby!), at other times she’ll also claim that she is a “good boy”. I don’t know what goes into the mastery of these concepts, but a fresh look at some canonical philosophers like Aristotle, Albert the Great and Hegel made me worry. So far, I mostly tended to think of condescending remarks about women as inconsistencies or aberrations that might be ‘typical of the time or context’. But what if they are not mere inconsistencies? What if they are part and parcel of their philosophical theories?

As is well known, Aristotle conceived of women as defective males. Calling something defective, has normative and teleological implications. Accordingly, the generation of women is not seen as the best or intended outcome. In other words, it seems that if natural processes always were to run perfectly, there wouldn’t be any women. This idea plays out in number of ways, but the upshot is that women count as performing less well in everything that matters in our lives. Moreover, these defects are related to metaphysical notions. Women are seen as connected to the material, while only men are truly capable to indulge in the life of the mind. If you know a little bit about Western philosophy, you’ll probably know that the mind or intellect is pervasively construed as superior to the material. Now if your theory also tells you that women are more bound to the material (and to things related to matter, such as emotion etc) than the intellectual, your theory implies that women are inferior to men. In this context, the idea of women as defective males might sound straightforward. But is sexism restricted to such contexts? I doubt it. As Christia Mercer puts it in an intriguing article: “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence these ancient ideas had on the history of Western thought.”

Not surprisingly, then, there was and is a lively debate among feminist historians of philosophy as to whether the Aristotelian notions of matter and form are inherently related to the notions of female and male respectively.  Thus, the question is whether the concepts of matter and form depend on the concepts of being female and male. If yes, Aristotelian hylomorphism would be inherently or intrinsically sexist. And what if not? Would Aristotle’s philosophy be absolved? – While this question seems important, I think it is too strongly put and might distract us from the issue at hand. The notion of an inherent relation strikes me as a red herring. As I see it, the relation between materiality and being female cannot be shown to be an inherent one, unless you have a very special metaphysical theory. But that doesn’t mean that the concepts are not intimately related in the actual historical theories. In other words, Aristotelian metaphysics is still sexist through and through, even if matter is not identified as inherently female.

As I said in the beginning, it might be tempting to just push the sexism aside as an inconsistent aberration. Corrected by contemporary insights, you might say that Aristotelian philosophy is great as long as you ignore some factual errors about women. Yet, I doubt we can separate the sexism that easily from Aristotelianism or other philosophies. I began to realise this when considering Albert the Great’s defense of the Aristotelian view of women. Albert the Great and other Aristotelian thinkers clearly defend the idea of women as defective males. What is striking is that they continue to maintain the idea even in the light of fairly obvious objections. One such objection is this: If women are defective males, then every women born is to be seen as going against the perfection of natural processes. If this is correct, then why are there so many women in the first place? As Evelina Miteva pointed out in a recent paper (at the IMC 2019), Albert explains the abundance of women by claiming that the generation of nobler and more complex beings (= men) requires the concurrence of many external conditions. In other words, the more perfect the intended product, the more can go wrong in the production. And since natural processes are often obstructed by a lack of required conditions, we can explain that so many women are born, even if their generation goes against natural design. Put simply, the reason that there are so many women is that so many things go wrong. If this is correct, then one might say that Albert is adamant to maintain the sexist ideas in Aristotle’s philosophy and show why they are consistent. Put more drastically, Aristotelianism can be defended by rendering women as subhuman.

While Albert the Great’s defence of Aristotelianism is clearly sexist, not everyone who endorses Aristotle can be justly taken as explicitly endorsing sexist beliefs. But sexism has not to be explicitly endorsed in order to gain ground. This is what makes sexism and other ideologies structural. Given the prominence of Aristotle, the sexist ideology might be sufficiently served already by not renouncing the doctrine of the defective male. The point is this: A canonical doctrine retains its sexist impact as long as the sexist elements are not explicitly excluded. Arguably, this kind of implicit sexism might be said to be even more pervasive. Basically, it resides in the conjunction of two claims: (1) that the intellect is more dignified than the material and (2) that women are more tied to the material (or emotional etc.) than to the intellectual realm. I honestly wonder when these claims have been explicitly challenged or renounced for the first time.

If it is true that these claims largely went unchallenged, then much of the history of Western philosophy coincides with a history of sexism. Arguably, this does not mean that all Western philosophers are sexists. Firstly, the positions of the philosophers I alluded to (and others) can be said to be much more subtle, and not reducible to the claims I ascribed to them. Secondly, some philosophers, when pressed, might expressly have rejected or do reject sexist beliefs. What can we say in the light of these facts? The point is perhaps not so much that all these philosophers endorse sexist beliefs. The point is rather that they continue to endorse ideas that come out of sexist convictions. As Crispin Sartwell recently claimed, the history of Western philosophy might even be seen as justifying white supremacy. While I am quite hesitant about a number of Sartwell’s historical claims, I still think his piece suggests an important lesson.** If one accepts the general line of argument in his piece, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the philosophers in question are all white supremacists. It just means that they build on ideas that might have served and can continue to serve as a pertinent justification. But even if they aren’t supremacists, this doesn’t mean that the justifying function of their ideas can be cast aside as a mere inconsistency (at least not without scrutiny).

Analogously, one might argue that not all Western philosophers are sexist. But this doesn’t mean that our canon is off the hook by declaring that the sexist parts can simply be cancelled out. Certain ideas continue to justify sexist assumptions, even if no one expressly were to endorse sexist ideas. Once you notice how authors such as Albert twist and turn the ideas to justify the sexism of Aristotle, you can’t unsee the connections that hold these ideas together. If we don’t expose and disown these connections, we continue to carry these assumptions along as canonical. Saying that they are merely inconsistent outliers (that can be ignored while the rest of the theory might be retained) just seems to ingrain them more deeply. – Why? – Because then the justifying connections between sexist and other claims remain unchallenged and continue to pervade our canon.

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* Earlier, the post was called “Is the Western philosophical canon sexist?” Désirée Weber convinced me to change the title to its current form.

** Addendum: Speaking as a historian of philosophy, I find Sartwell’s piece wanting. Why do I find it interesting? I think it makes (but partly also exemplifies) crucial points about the use and abuse of ideas, and more generally I’m wondering whether there are limits to what we can do with an idea. — Currently, much of the so-called Enlightenment ideas are used on a newly populated battlefield: On the one hand, there are whig ‘historians’ like S. Pinker who argue that the Enlightenment is all about progress. On the other hand, there is someone like Sartwell making the contrary claim. – Professional historians like to discard both appropriations, for good reasons. But the appropriations won’t go away. On the contrary, they are very powerful.  –– Moreover, I also think we should be careful when assessing a piece of “public philosophy” by means of regular academic standards. Sartwell explicitly acknowledges the limits and polemical nature of his piece.

 

Diversifying scholarship. Or how the paper model kills history

Once upon a time a BA student handed in a proposal for a paper on Hume’s account of substance. The student proposed to show that Hume’s account was wrong, and that Aristotle’s account was superior to Hume’s. If memory serves, I talked the student out of this idea and suggested that he build his paper around an analysis of a brief passage in Hume’s Treatise. – The proposal was problematic for several reasons. But what I want to write about is not the student or his proposal. Rather I want to zoom in on our way of approaching historical texts (in philosophy). The anecdote about the proposal can help to show what the problem is. As I see it, the standard journal article has severe repercussions on the way we teach and practise scholarship in the history of philosophy. It narrows our way of reading texts and counters attempts at diversification of the canon. If we want to overcome these repercussions, it will help to reinstate other forms of writing, especially the form of the commentary.

So what’s wrong with journal articles? Let me begin by saying that there is nothing wrong with articles themselves. The problem is that articles are the decisive and almost only form of disseminating scholarship. The typical structure of a paper is governed by two elements: the claim, and arguments for that claim. So a historian typically articulates a claim about a text (or more often about claims in the secondary literature about a text) and provides arguments for embracing that claim. This way we produce a lot of fine scholarship and discussion. But if we make it the leading format, a number of things fall through the cracks.

An immediate consequence is that that the historical text has the status of evidence for the claim. So the focus is not on the historical material but the claim of the historian. If we teach students to write papers of this sort, we teach them to focus on their claims rather than on the material. You can see this in the student’s approach to Hume: the point was to evaluate Hume’s account. Rather than figuring out what was going on in Hume’s text and what it might be responding to, the focus is on making a claim about what is the supposed doctrine. The latter approach immediately abstracts away from the text and thus from the material of discussion. What’s wrong with that? Of course, such an abstract approach is fine if you’re already immersed in an on-going discussion or perhaps even a tradition of discussions about the text. In that case you’re mainly engaging with the secondary literature. But this abstract approach does not work for beginners. Why? Arguably, the text itself sets constraints that have to observed if the discussion is to make sense. What are these constraints? I’m not saying they are fixed once and for all. Quite the contrary! But they have to be established in relation to the text. So before you can say anything about substance in Hume, you have to see where and how the term is used and whether it makes sense to evaluate it in relation to Aristotle. (My hunch is that, in Treatise 1.1.6.1-2, Hume rejects the Aristotelian idea of substance altogether; thus saying that Aristotle’s notion is superior is like saying that apples are superior to bananas). The upshot is: before you can digest the secondary literature, you have to understand how the textual constraints are established that guide the discussions in the secondary literature.

What we might forget, then, if we teach on the basis of secondary literature, is how these constraints were established in the long tradition of textual scholarship. When we open an edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, we see the text through the lens of thick layers of scholarship. When we say that certain passages are “dark”, “difficult” or “important”, we don’t just speak our mind. Rather we echo many generations of diligent scholarship. We might hear that a certain passage is tricky before we even open the book. But rather than having students parrot that Kant writes “difficult prose”, we should teach them to find their way through that prose. That requires engagement with the text: line by line, word by word, translation by mistranslation. Let’s call this mode of reading linear reading as opposed to abstract reading. It is one thing to say what “synthetic apperception” is. It’s quite another thing to figure out how Kant moves from one sentence to the next. The close and often despair-inducing attention to the details of the text are necessary for establishing an interpretation. Of course, it is fine to resort to guidance, but we have to see the often tenuous connection between the text and the interpretation, let a lone the claim about a text. In other words, we have to see how abstract reading emerges from linear reading.

My point is not that we shouldn’t read (or teach what’s in the) secondary literature. My point is that secondary literature or abstract reading is based on a linear engagement with the text that is obscured by the paper model. The paper model suggests that you read a bit and then make a fairly abstract claim (about the text or, more often, about an interpretation of the text). But the paper model obscures hundreds of years or at least decennia of linear reading. What students have to learn (and what perhaps even we, as teachers, need to remind ourselves of) is how one sentence leads to the next. Only then does the abstract reading presented in the secondary literature become visible for what it is: as an outcome of a particular linear reading.

But how can we teach linear reading? My suggestion is quite simple: Rather than essay writing, students in the history of philosophy should begin by learning to write commentaries to texts. As I argued earlier, there is a fair amount of philosophical genres beyond the paper model. At least part of our education should consist in being confronted with a piece of text (no more than half a page) and learning to comment on that piece, perhaps translating it first, going through it line by line, pointing out claims as well as obscurities and raising questions that point to desirable explanations. This way, students will learn to approach the texts independently. While it might be easy to parrot that “Hegel is difficult to read”, it takes courage to say that a concrete piece of text is difficult to understand. In the latter case, the remark is not a judgment but the starting point of an analysis that might allow for a first tentative explanation (e.g. of why the difficulty arises).

Ultimately, my hope is that this approach, i.e. the linear commentary to concrete pieces of text, will lead (back) to a diversification of scholarship. Of course, it’s nice to read, for instance, the next paper on Hume claiming that he is an idealist or whatever. But it would help if that scholarship would (again) be complemented by commentaries to the texts. Nota bene: such scholarship is available even today. But we don’t teach it very much.

Apart from learning how to read linearly and closely, such training is the precondition of what is often called the diversification of the canon. If we really want to expand the boundaries of the canon, the paper model will restrain us (too much) in what we find acceptable. Before we even open a page of Kant, our lens is shaped through layers of linear reading. But when we open the books of authors that are still fairly new to us, we have hardly any traditions of reading to fall back on. If we start writing the typical papers in advance of establishing constraints through careful linear reading, we are prone to just carry over the claims and habits familiar from familiar scholarship. I’m not saying that this is bound to happen, but diligent textual commentaries would provide a firmer grasp of the texts on their own terms. In this sense, diversification of the canon requires diversification of scholarship.

The conventional signification of Lockean complex ideas*

In the course of writing up a paper on Locke’s theory of ideas for a volume on The Lockean Mind, it dawned on me that all complex ideas are conventional signs. So in what follows, I’d like to suggest that, while simple ideas are natural signs of their causes, complex ideas, even complex ideas of substances, are conventional signs that depend on linguistic consolidation.

In recent years, work on representation in Locke has reached some sort of consensus. Most scholars agree that simple ideas represent their causes. But it’s not at all clear what complex ideas represent. If substances are not given in experience, what do complex ideas represent? Do they have corresponding objects? Given Locke’s metaphysics, it seems safe to say that there are no apples, dogs, cats, trees or stones in the world, at least not properly speaking. Let’s unpack this a bit: While the ingredients of complex ideas, i.e. simple ideas, represent the qualities (= properties) that cause them, the resulting complex idea might be said to represent its cause insofar as the simple ideas represent their causes. So the complex idea of an apple might be said to be a natural sign of its cause insofar as the simple ideas (of which it consists), say the ideas of round, green, sweet and firm, are natural signs of qualities. Yet, this cannot be the last word, because complex substance ideas seem to have no direct correlate that they represent. Arguably, we cannot say that the things we think of in virtue of complex ideas are given in experience. My idea of an apple is not simply caused by an apple. Rather the complex idea of apple is made up of ideas of qualities, while the apple as a substantial bearer of the perceived qualities is not itself given in experience but presupposed. Looking at the causal explanation of such ideas, we cannot simply invoke extramental qualities. We also need to take into account the tacit mental operations that form the complex idea out of simple ideas (Essay II, xxiii, 1).

What, then, do complex ideas represent? As I have just said, the idea of an apple can of course be analysed into ideas of qualities. But if the apple idea as such is not taken as a sign of the causes (qualities), what does it represent? To answer this question, it is important to note that Locke appeals to an old distinction between two kinds of ideas, archetypes and copies or ektypes. Traditionally, archetypes would be taken to be ideas in the mind of God, where they serve as blueprints of things to be created. Locke doesn’t appeal to divine ideas, but he still makes use of this distinction when discussing adequate and inadequate ideas (see Essay II, xxxi). Arguably, Locke assumes that our mind forms, stores and names such archetypes when we encounter things or invent moral categories. The archetypes are what Locke calls nominal essences in book III. What does this mean? When we have an occurrent idea of an apple, this idea can be seen as a copy of the archetype through which we recognise the thing as an apple. So when we see an apple, we have in fact an idea that matches to some extent the archetype of apples in our mind.

This archetype-copy relation also forms the foundation for Locke’s famous criticism of our assumption that we have cognitive access to real essences of things. According to Locke, we tend to assume that a present idea of an apple matches the real essence of an apple. But this is a mistake, argues Locke. In fact, we refer it to the nominal essence, which is nothing but an abstract idea with a name annexed to it (see Essay III, iii, 15).

An immediate worry arising from this account is that such archetypes would be highly subjective or instable. After all, nominal essences (or archetypes) of substances are formed in our various accidental encounters with things. But if we invoke Locke’s discussion of language, we can see that he meets this worry. Briefly put, the fact that nominal essences are annexed to names means that these essence ideas are socially consolidated. The linguistic community a speaker is part of will sanction some uses and confirm other uses. This way, the abstract ideas are stabilised and even rectifiable in the light of new discoveries. So if I happen to call apples tomatoes, other users will correct and amend my use of the term, and thus make me adapt the conventional nominal essence.

The upshot is that complex ideas of substances (and mixed modes) are conventional signs to some degree. Although complex ideas consist of simple ideas that can be seen as natural signs of their causes, the complex ideas ultimately function as conventional signs for us. What they present to our mind is not solely determined by what causes their ingredients but also by the patterns that are consolidated within a linguistic community. This means that my occurent idea of an apple, while caused by certain qualities, presents to my mind an apple that I can recognise as an instance of what we call apple, because it has to match the socially consolidated criteria of the nominal essence of apple. Were it not for the historically grown categories salient in my speech community, for instance those for certain kinds of fruit, it is possible that my mind would register the recurrent ideas of certain qualities without ever recognising them as pertaining to a certain kind of thing.

Locke makes this point clear when he writes that ideas without names annexed to them would resemble a library with unbound books in which we could access pages without it being determined to which books the pages belong: ‘He that has complex Ideas, without particular names for them, would be in no better Case than a Bookseller, who had in his Ware-house Volumes, that lay there unbound, and without Titles …’ (Essay III, x, 26-27). The point is that the precise ingredients of our complex ideas, the structure and amount of simple ideas belonging to them, are determined by the naming practice in a given speech community. Thus, although the ingredients themselves have a causal origin, the way the ingredients are bound into bundles and used in thinking is a matter of convention.

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* This piece is now kindly featured by Locke Studies 19 (2019).

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.***

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* 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!