“Nevermore”. A response to Martin Lenz

Thank you for your thoughts, Martin! As you know, I’ve been teaching Heidegger, I wrote some pieces about Heidegger, 5 years ago I started to follow the advice of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven: nevermore! Here are some reasons. I try to relate them to your argument, in addition I try to push my point in the opposite direction.

I think there is a sort of a priori answer to the question whether someone’s philosophical thought is marked by their political views: If the person expresses in a philosophically relevant and public context an idea expressive of a political idea and if this expression is significantly related to concepts, lines of thoughts or arguments central to the person in question, then his philosophical thought is marked by his political view. If the political view expressed is hideous, then the philosophical thought expressing the hideous idea is also hideous. Heidegger expressed such political ideas in philosophically relevant and public context before, during, and after the Third Reich using concepts etc. central to his thought. I think that Heidegger’s thought is strongly tainted by a hideous political idea (in a way Frege’s or even Nietzsche’s thought isn’t).

My first argument has been about the “logical” notion of thought, not the “psychological” one. However, there is another question beyond that dichotomy: a philosopher is not just a bearer or producer of psychological or logical contents, many philosophers are philosophers by profession, which means that they occupy positions in universities, have certain duties and rights as philosophy professor, deliver certain services to the philosophical community, act as philosophers etc. Heidegger is in this sense very much continuous with us philosophy professors etc. working in universities, in a way Plato, Seneca, Descartes, Spinoza or Kierkegaard aren’t. As professor (and rector) of the University of Freiburg Heidegger acted several times out of a hideous political ideology. The most drastic case is Heidegger’s “Gutachten” about his Munich colleague Richard Hönigswald in 1933. According to Heidegger, Hönigswald’s philosophy has «den Blick abgelenkt vom Menschen in seiner geschichtlichen Verwurzelung und in seiner volkhaften Überlieferung seiner Herkunft aus Boden und Blut. Damit zusammen ging eine bewusste Zurückdrängung jedes metaphysischen Fragens…». While the first part of the quote dismisses Hönigswald’s thought as not being geschichtlich and völkisch, the second part establishes a direct connection to Heidegger’s Antrittsvorlesung “Was ist Metaphyisk?”.

Finally, Heidegger’s thought has been influential for more hideous political ideas. It has been an inspiration for the Ayatollah regime in Iran (mediated by his French translator Henri Corbin), it is an inspiration for the alt right, Donatella di Cesare (author of a book on Heidegger and the Shoa) has been threatened by Italian facists. Honoring Heidegger with seminars at the university gives further force to this kind of reception.

Shall we, thus, not study Heidegger’s thought? Of course. Janek Wasserman’s “Black Vienna. The Radical Right in the Red City 1918-1938” (2014) contains an interesting chapter on Othmar Spann: “For many years, the Spannkreis served as a linchpin of Viennese culture and Central European radical conservative politics. The most influential intellectual group in interwar Vienna was also its most conservative. It was also the most political impactful. Red Vienna was therefore not a Marxist fortress.” (105). We can study Heidegger, his networks, his thought, his influence and reception as part of our history and historically if we study him not as an exceptional philosophical genius (he wasn’t), but as a chapter in the history of ideas, especially the history of hideous political ideas in the 20thCentury.

Markus Wild (University of Basel) and his dog Titus Hunderich

“Heidegger was a Nazi.” What now?

“B was a bigot” is a phrase that raises various questions. We can say it of various figures, both dead and alive. But this kind of phrase is used for various purposes. In what follows, I’d like consider some implications of this phrase and its cognates. – Let me begin with what might seem a bit of a detour. Growing up in Germany, I learned that we are still carrying responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. Although some prominent figures declared otherwise even in the Eighties, I think this is true. Of course, one might think that one cannot have done things before one was born, but that does not mean that one is cut off from one’s past. Thinking historically means, amongst other things, to think of yourself as determined by continuities that run right through you from the past into the options that make your future horizon. The upshot is: we don’t start from scratch. It is with such thoughts that I look at the debates revolving around Heidegger and other bigots. Is their thought tainted by their views? Should we study and teach them? These are important questions that will continue to be asked and answered. Adding to numerous discussions, I’d like to offer three and a half considerations.*

(1) The question whether someone’s philosophical thought is tainted or even pervaded by their political views should be treated as an open question. There is no a priori consideration in favour of one answer. That said, “someone’s thought” is ambiguous. If we ask whether Heidegger’s or Frege’s (yes, Frege’s!) thought was pervaded by their anti-semitism, the notion is ambiguous between “thought” taken as an item in psychological and logical relations. The psychological aspects that explain why I reason the way I do, often do not show up in the way a thought is presented or received. – Someone’s bigotry might motivate their thinking and yet remain hidden. But even if something remains hidden, it does not mean that it carries no systematic weight. There is an old idea, pervasive in the analytic tradition, that logical and political questions are distinct. But the idea that logic and politics are distinct realms is itself a political idea. All such issues have to be studied philosophically and historically for each individual thinker. How, for instance, can Spinoza say what he says about humans and then say what he says about women? This seems glaringly inconsistent and deserves study rather than brushing off. However, careful study should involve historically crucial ties beyond the question of someone’s thought. There are social, political and institutional continuities (and discontinuities) that stabilise certain views while disqualifying others.

(2) Should we study bigots? If the forgoing is acceptable, then it follows that we shouldn’t discourage the study of bigots. Quite the contrary! This doesn’t mean that I recommend the study of bigots in particular; there are enough understudied figures that you might turn to instead. It just means that their bigotry doesn’t disqualify them as topics of study and that if you’re wondering whether you should, that might in itself be a good reason to get started. This point is of course somewhat delicate, since history of philosophy is not only studied by disinterested antiquarians, but also for reasons of justifying why we endorse certain views or because we hope to find good or true accounts of phenomena. – Do we endorse someone’s political views by showing continuities between their thoughts and ours? Again, that depends and should be treated as an open question. But I don’t think that shunning the past is a helpful strategy. After all, the past provides the premises we work from, whether we like it or not. Rather we should look carefully at possible implications. But the fact that we appropriate certain ideas does not entail that we are committed to such implications. As I said in my last post, we can adopt thoughts, while changing and improving them. That fact that Heidegger was a Nazi does not turn his students or later exegetes into Nazis. However, once we know about the bigotry we should acknowledge as much in research and teaching.

(3) What about ourselves? Part of the reason for making the second remark was that I sometimes hear people say: “A was a bigot; so we shouldn’t teach A. Let’s rather teach B.” While I agree that there are huge numbers of understudied figures that might be taught instead of the same old classics, I don’t think that this line of argument helps. As I see it, it often comes out of the problematic idea that, ideally, we should study and teach only such figures that we consider morally pure. This is a doubtful demand not only because we might end up with very little material. It is also problematic because it suggests that we can change our past at will.** Therefore, attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status; rather we should see that globalisation requires us to eventually acknowledge the impact of various histories and their entanglements. – We don’t teach Heidegger because we chose to ignore his moral status. We teach his and other works because our own thought is related to these works. This has an important consequence for our own moral status. Having the histories we do, our own moral status is tainted. In keeping with my introductory musings, I’d like to say that we are responsible for our past. The historical continuities that we like and wish to embrace are as much our responsibilities as those that we wish to disown. Structurally oppressive features of the past are not disrupted just because we change our teaching schedule.

I guess the general idea behind these considerations is this: The assumption that one can cut off oneself from one’s (philosophical) past is an illusion. As philosophers in institutional contexts we cannot deny that we might be both beneficiaries of dubious heritage as well as suffering from burdens passed down. In other words, some of the bigotry will carry over. Again, this doesn’t mean that we are helpless continuants of past determinants, but it means that it is better to study our past and our involvements with it carefully rather than deny them and pretend to be starting from scratch.

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* See especially the pieces by Peter Adamson and Eric Schliesser.

** Additional comment (25 Nov 2018): However, there is a sense in which we can change our intellectual past, namely reassessing the canon and including neglected figures, on the one hand, while relativising the impact of others. – I have to admit that now doubt the conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

I don’t know what I think. A plea for unclarity and prophecy

Would you begin a research project if there were just one more day left to work on it? I guess I wouldn’t. Why? Well, my assumption is that the point of a research project is that we improve our understanding of a phenomenon. Improvement seems to be inherently future-directed, meaning that we understand x a bit better tomorrow than today. Therefore, I am inclined to think that we would not begin to do research, had we not the hope that it might lead to more knowledge of x in the future. I think this not only true of research but of much thinking and writing in general. We wouldn’t think, talk or write certain things, had we not the hope that this leads to an improved understanding in the future. You might find this point trivial. But a while ago it began to dawn on me that the inherent future-directedness of (some) thinking and writing has a number of important consequences. One of them is that we are not the (sole) authors of our thoughts. If this is correct, it is time to rethink our ways of evaluating thoughts and their modes of expression. Let me explain.

So why am I not the (sole) author of my thoughts? Well, I hope you all know variations of the following situation: You try to express an idea. Your interlocutor frowns and points out that she doesn’t really understand what you’re saying. You try again. The frowning continues, but this time she offers a different formulation. “Exactly”, you shout, “this is exactly what I meant to say!” Now, who is the author of that thought? I guess it depends. Did she give a good paraphrase or did she also bring out an implication or a consequence? Did she use an illustration that highlights a new aspect? Did she perhaps even rephrase it in such a way that it circumvents a possible objection? And what about you? Did you mean just that? Or do you understand the idea even better than before? Perhaps you are now aware of an important implication. So whose idea is it now? Hers or yours? Perhaps you both should be seen as authors. In any case, the boundaries are not clear.

In this sense, many of my thoughts are not (solely) authored by me. We often try to acknowledge as much in forewords and footnotes. But some consequences of this fact might be more serious. Let me name three: (1) There is an obvious problem for the charge of anachronism in history of philosophy (see my inaugural lecture).  If future explications of thoughts can be seen as improvements of these very thoughts, then anachronistic interpretations should perhaps not merely be tolerated but encouraged. Are Descartes’ Meditations complete without the Objections and Replies? Can Aristotle be understood without the commentary traditions? Think about it! (2) Another issue concerns the identity of thoughts. If you are a semantic holist of sorts you might assume that a thought is individuated by numerous inferential relations. Is your thought that p really what it is without it entailing q? Is your thought that p really intelligible without seeing that it entails q? You might think so, but the referees of your latest paper might think that p doesn’t merit publication without considering q. (3) This leads to the issue of acceptability. Whose inferences or paraphrases count? You might say that p, but perhaps p is not accepted in your own formulation, while the expression of p in your superviser’s form of words is greeted with great enthusiasm. In similar spirit, Tim Crane has recently called for a reconsideration of peer review.  Even if some of these points are controversial, they should at least suggest that authorship has rather unclear boundaries.

Now the fact that thoughts are often future-directed and have multiple authors has, in turn, a number of further consequences. I’d like to highlight two of them by way of calling for some reconsiderations: a due reconsideration of unclarity and what Eric Schliesser calls “philosophic prophecy”.*

  • A plea for reconsidering unclarity. Philosophers in the analytic tradition pride themselves on clarity. But apart from the fact that the recognition of clarity is necessarily context-dependent, clarity ought to be seen as the result of a process rather than a feature of the thought or its present expression. Most texts that are considered original or important, not least in the analytic tradition, are hopelessly unclear when read without guidance. Try Russell’s “On Denoting” or Frege’s “On Sense and Reference” and you know what I mean. Or try some other classics like Aristotle’s “De anima” or Hume’s “Treatise”. Oh, your own papers are exempt from this problem? Of course! Anyway, we all know this: we begin with a glimpse of an idea. And it’s the frowning of others that either makes us commit it to oblivion or try an improvement. But if this is remotely true, there is no principled reason to see unclarity as a downside. Rather it should be seen as a typical if perhaps early stage of an idea that wants to grow.
  • A plea for coining concepts or philosophic prophecy. Simplifying an idea by Eric Schliesser, we should see both philosophy and history of philosophy as involved in the business of coining concepts that “disclose the near or distant past and create a shared horizon for our philosophical future.”* As is well-known some authors (such as Leibniz, Kant or Nietzsche) have sometimes decidedly written rather for future audiences than present ones, trying to pave conceptual paths for future dialogues between religions, metaphysicians or Übermenschen. For historians of philosophy in particular this means that history is never just an antiquarian enterprise. By offering ‘translations’ and explanations we can introduce philosophical traditions to the future or silence them. In this sense, I’d like to stress, for example, that Ryle’s famous critique of Descartes, however flawed historically, should be seen as part of Descartes’ thought. In the same vain, Albert the Great or Hilary Putnam might be said to bring out certain versions of Aristotle. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have any thoughts of their own. But their particular thoughts might not have been possible without Aristotle, who in turn might not be intelligible (to us) without the later developments. In this sense, much if not all philosophy is a prophetic enterprise.

If my thoughts are future-directed and multi-authored in such ways, this also means that I often couldn’t know at all what I actually think, if it were not for your improvements or refinements. This is of course one of the lessons learned from Wittgenstein’s so-called private language argument. But it does not only concern the possibility of understanding and knowing. A fortiori it also concerns understanding our own public language and thought. As I said earlier, I take it to be a rationality constraint that I must agree to some degree with others in order to understand myself. This means that I need others to see the point I am trying to make. If this generalises, you cannot know thyself without listening to others.

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* See Eric Schliesser, “Philosophic Prophecy”, in Philosophy and It’s History, 209.

 

 

History without narratives? A response to Alex Rosenberg

Recently, Martin Kusch gave an intriguing keynote lecture on the development of the sociology of knowledge. I was particularly interested in Steinthal’s role, whose name I recognised from my studies in linguistics and its history. But what was striking was that the lecture combined several levels of explanation. In addition to reconstructing philosophical arguments, Martin Kusch gave detailed insights into the institutional and political events that shaped the development. In other words, the lecture provided a nuanced combination of what is sometimes called historical and rational reconstruction. During the discussion I asked whether he thought that there was one particular level which decided the course of events. “Where do you think the real action took place, in politics or philosophy?” The answer was a succinct lesson in historical methodology: The quest for one decisive level of explanation is deceptive in itself. It suggests mono-causality. In fact, all the different factors have to be seen in conjunction. Real action takes place at every level. (By the way, I think this line of argument offers one of the best reasons why philosophy is inseparable from history.) A few days ago, I was reminded of this idea when reading an interview with Alex Rosenberg who thinks that certain levels of explanation should be discarded and argues for a history without narratives, because “narrative history is always, always wrong.”

According to Rosenberg, narratives are ways of making sense of events by referring to people’s beliefs and desires. “Had she not wanted x, she would not have done y. Erroneously, she believed that y would help her in getting x.” We engage in this sort of reasoning all the time. It presupposes a certain amount of folk psychology: ascribing beliefs and desires seems to require that these items really figure in a proper chain of events. But do they even exist, one might ask. – Now we also help ourselves to such explanations in history. Stuff happens. Explaining it sometimes requires us to assume minds, especially when humans are involved. Let’s call this approach folk history. (Note that Rosenberg is targeting “theory of mind” approaches in particular, but for the application to history the specifics of these approaches don’t matter.) Now Rosenberg gave an interview detailing why we should do away with folk history:

“The problem is, these historical narratives seduce you into thinking you really understand what’s going on and why things happened, but most of it is guessing people’s motives and their inner thoughts. […] [P]eople use narratives because of their tremendous emotional impact to drive human actions, movements, political parties, religions, ideologies. And many movements, like nationalism and intolerant religions, are driven by narrative and are harmful and dangerous for humanity. […] If narrative history gets things wrong because it relies on projection and things we can’t know for sure, how should we be trying to understand history? – There are a lot of powerful explanations in history and social sciences that don’t involve narrative. They involve models and hypotheses that are familiar in structure to the kind that convey explanation in the natural sciences. For example, take Guns, Germs, and Steel, which gives you an explanation of a huge chunk of human history, and that explanation does not rely on theory of mind at all.”

Alex Rosenberg makes a number of good points: (1) Relying on inner states is guesswork. (2) We use it to feed (bad) ideologies. (3) There are other means of writing history, not involving folk history. (4) Given the choice, we should confine ourselves to the latter approach. Let’s call this latter approach naturalistic history. I think there is a lot that speaks in favour of such an approach. If you read some Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche or Freud, you’ll find similar ideas. We assume our thinking follows all these noble patterns of inference when in fact we are driven by motives and associations unknown to us. That said, the way Alex Rosenberg presents this naturalistic approach raises a number of concerns two of which I would like to address now.

  • The first worry concerns (4), i.e. the conclusion that folk history and naturalistic history should be played off against one another. Just like we need the “intentional stance” in the philosophy of mind, we also need it in history. But that’s not the whole story. Our reference to beliefs and desires does not only figure in historical explanations. It is also the very stuff we are interested in qua being human amongst other humans, and thus it shapes the events we want to explain. I concur in causing events because I ascribe mental states to others: I don’t sing in the library because I assume that it will annoy my fellow readers. Of course you can explain much of my actions by reference to biological and other factors. But at some point such explanations would have to invoke my ascriptions. Doing away with that level would mean doing away with a crucial part of the explanans. Playing off these levels against one another is like thinking that there is ultimately just one relevant explanatory level.
  • The second worry concerns (2), i.e. the tenet that narratives are the stuff of ideologies (and thus erroneous and to be avoided). While it is true that ideologies are fed by certain narratives, I know of no way to refer to (historical) data without a narrative. The naturalistic approach is not avoiding narratives tout court; it merely avoids a certain kind of narrative. It replaces the folk historical approach with a naturalistic narrative. Pretending that this is tantamount to avoiding all narratives is to suggest that the raw data of history are just there, waiting to be picked up by the disenchanted historian. In other words, I think that Rosenberg’s suggestion falls prey to a variant of the myth of the given. To say that narratives are “always wrong”, then, seems to be a category mistake. As I see it, narratives as such are neither right nor wrong. Rather, they provide frameworks that enable us to call individual statements right or wrong.

But since I have not read the book that is advertised in the interview, I don’t yet know whether this is the whole story. But who am I to try and tell this story by referring to beliefs and other mental states expressed in that book by Alex Rosenberg?

Should we stop talking about “minor figures”?

Every now and then, I hear someone mentioning that they work on “minor figures” in the history of philosophy. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the very term “minor figures” makes me cringe. Perhaps it is the brutally belittling way of picking out the authors in question. Let’s face it, when we’re speaking of “minor figures” we don’t necessarily mean “unduly underrated” or “neglected”. At the same time, the reasons are not clear to me indeed, since I know perfectly well that especially people who work on them do anything but belittle them. Nevertheless, the use of the term indicates that there is something wrong with our historiographical and linguistic practice. In what follows, I want to have a stab at what’s wrong, first with “minor”, then with “figures”.

Let me begin by saying that I deem most of the work done on “minor figures” very important and instructive. Projects such as Peter Adamson’s “History of Philosophy without any Gaps” or Lisa Shapiro’s and Karen Detlefsen’s “New Narratives” constantly challenge our canon by providing great resources. What’s wrong with the talk of “minor figures” then? I guess the use of the term “minor” confirms the canonical figures in their role as “major figures” or even geniuses. Even if I shift the focus to some hardly known or even entirely anonymous person, the reference to them is mostly justified by being an “interlocutor” of a “major” figure. Who begins to study Walter Chatton not because of William Ockham or Burthogge not because of Locke? The context that these minors are supposed to provide is still built around an “absurdly narrow” set of canonical figures. But even if researchers might eventually study such figures “in their own right”, the gatekeeping practice among book and journal editors doesn’t seem to change anytime soon. In other words, attempts at diversification or challenging of the canon paradoxically stabilize it.

Now you might argue that there is good reason to focus on major figures. Presumably they are singled out because they write indeed the best texts, raise the most intriguing issues, present the best arguments or have the greatest impact on others. Although I don’t want to downplay the fact that most canonical authors are truly worth reading, we simply aren’t in a position to know. And you don’t even need to pick hardly known people such as Adam Wodeham or Giovanni Battista Giattini. Why not prefer Albert the Great over the notorious Aquinas? Why not read Burthogge or Zabarella in the first-year course? Really, there is nothing that would justify the relatively minor status irrespective of existing preferences.

But perhaps the central worry is not the talk of “minor”. What seems worse is the fact that we focus so much on figures rather than debates, questions or topics. Why not work on debates about intentionality or social justice rather than Plato or Sartre? Of course you might indeed have an interest in studying a figure, minor or major. But unless you have a particular biographical interest, you might, even as a dedicated historian of philosophy, be more likely to actually focus on a topic in a figure or on the debate that that person is participating in. I see two main reasons for shifting the focus from figures to debates. Firstly, philosophy does not really happen within people but between them. Secondly, the focus on a person suggests that we try to figure out the intention of an author, but unless you take such a way of speaking as a shorthand for textual analysis, your object of study is not easily available.

By the way, if we shift the focus from people to debates, we don’t need the distinction between minor and major any longer. When I studied Locke, it became natural to study figures such as Burthogge. When I studied Ockham, it became natural to study figures such as Adam Wodeham or various anonymi. But perhaps, you might argue, our reason for focussing on figures is more human: we’re interested in what people think rather than in the arguments in texts alone. When we make assumptions, we think along with people and try to account for their ideas as well as their shortcomings and inconsistencies. But even if that is true, we shouldn’t forget that people are not really ever geniuses. Their thoughts mature in dialogue, not least in dialogue with minor figures such as ourselves.

On relevance and othering

Do you remember talking about music during your school days? There was always someone declaring that they would only listen to the latest hits. Talking to philosophers, I occasionally feel transported back to these days: especially when someone tells me that they have no time for history and will only read the latest papers on a topic. “What do I care what Brentano said about intentionality! I’m interested in current discussions.” Let’s call this view “currentism”. I sometimes experience versions of this currentist attitude in exams. A student might present an intriguing reconstruction of a medieval theory of matter only to be met with the question: “Why would anyone care about that today?” I have to admit that I sometimes find this attitude genuinely puzzling. In what follows I’d like to explain my puzzlement and raise a few worries.

Why only “sometimes”? I say “sometimes”, because there is a version of this attitude that I fully understand. Roughly speaking, there is a descriptive and a normative version of that sentiment. I have no worries about the descriptive version: Some people just mean to say what they focus on or indicate a preference. They are immersed in a current debate. Given the constraints of time, they can’t read or write much else. That’s fine and wholly understandable. In that case, the question of why one would care might well be genuine and certainly deserves an answer. – The normative version is different: People endorsing the normative attitude mean to say that history of philosophy is a waste of time and should be abolished, unless perhaps in first-year survey courses. Now you might say: “Why are you puzzled? Some people are just more enthusiastic in promoting their preferences.” To this I reply that the puzzlement and worries are genuine because I find the normative attitude (1) unintelligible and (2) politically harmful. Here is why:

(1) My first set of worries concerns the intelligibility of this attitude. Why would anyone think that the best philosophy is being produced during our particular time slice? I guess that the main reason for (normatively) restricting the temporal scope of philosophy to the last twenty or fifty years is the idea that the most recent work is indeed the best philosophy. Now why would anyone think that? I see two possible reasons. One might think so because one believes that philosophy is tied to science and that the latest science is the best science. Well, that might be, but progress in science does not automatically carry over to philosophy. The fact that I write in the presence of good science doesn’t make me a good philosopher.

So if there is something to that idea people will ultimately endorse it for another reason: because there might be progress in philosophy itself. Now the question whether there really is progress in philosophy is of course hotly debated. I certainly don’t want to deny that there have been improvements, and I continue to hope for more of them. But especially if we assume that progress is an argument in favour of doing contemporary philosophy (and what else should we do, even if we do history!), how can someone not informed about history assess this progress? If I have no clue about the history of a certain issue, how would I know that real advancements have been made? In other words, the very notion of progress is inherently historical and requires at least some version of (whig) history. So unless someone holds the belief that recent developments are always better, I think one needs historical knowledge to make that point.

Irrespective of questions concerning progress one might still endorse current over historical philosophy because it is relevant to current concerns. So yes, why bother with medieval theories of justice when we can have theories that invoke current issues? Well, I don’t doubt that we should have philosophers focussing on current issues. But I wonder whether current issues are intelligible without references to the past. Firstly, there is the fact that our current understanding of justice or whatever is not a mere given. Rather, it is the latest stage of a development over time. Arguably, understanding that development is part of understanding the current issues. Now you might object that we should then confine ourselves to writing genealogies of stuff that is relevant today but not of remote issues (such as medieval theories of, say, matter). To this I reply that we cannot decide what does and doesn’t pertain to a certain genealogy in advance of historical studies. A priori exclusion is impossible, at least in history. Moreover, we cannot know that what we find irrelevant today is still irrelevant tomorrow. In other words, our judgments concerning relevance are subject to change and cannot be used to exclude possible fields of interest. To sum up, ideas of progress and relevance are inherently historical and require historical study.

(2) However, the historicity of relevance doesn’t preclude that it is abused in polemical and political ways. Besides worries about intelligibility, then, I want to raise political and moral worries against the normative attitude of currentism. Short of sound arguments from progress or relevance, the anti-historical stance reduces to a form of othering. Just like some people suffer exclusion and are labelled as “weird” for reasons regarding stereotypes of race or gender, people are excluded for reasons of historical difference. But we should think twice before calling a historically remote discussion less rational or relevant or whatever. Of course, there is a use of “weird” that is simply a shorthand of “I don’t understand the view”. That’s fine. What I find problematic is the unreflected dismissal of views that don’t fit into one’s preferences. But the fact that someone holds a view that does not coincide with today’s ideas about relevance deserves study rather than name-calling. As I see it, we have moral reasons to refrain from such forms of abuse.

If we don’t have reasons showing that a historical view has disadvantages over a current one, why do we call it “weird” or “irrelevant”? Here is my hunch: it’s a simple fight over resources. Divide et impera! But in the long run, it’s a lose-lose situation for all of us. Yet if you’re a politician and you manage to play off different sub-disciplines in philosophy or the humanities against one another, you can simply stand by until they’ve delegitimised each other so much that you can call all camps a farce and close down their departments.

All interpretations of ideas in Locke are mistaken – really? A response to Kenny Pearce

I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Earlier this year, Kenny Pearce* wrote a fine post on “Locke’s Experimental Philosophy of Ideas”, highlighting what is often forgotten: that Locke’s Essay ties in with Baconian natural history. He then goes on to argue that we should also see Locke’s account of ideas as part of that project and concludes:

“This line of interpretation has consequences for how we must understand Locke’s account of ideas. If Locke is following this kind of Baconian methodology then, although he does at various points seek to explain various phenomena, his ‘ideas’ cannot be understood as theoretical posits aiming to explain how we perceive external objects.”

If this is correct, almost all interpretations of Locke’s theory of ideas are mistaken. Locke’s account amounts to nothing more than an unsystematic catalogue of the “ideas of which we are aware”. Indeed, the whole Essay is to be seen as an “intentionally unsystematic work”. Or so Kenny Pearce claims.

I think this is a challenging approach and certainly deserves more attention. At this point, however, I would like to address just one issue, i.e. the claim that ideas are to be seen in a “natural historical” sense. Given the evidence, I think this is correct and has been overlooked too often in attempts at making sense of book II of the Essay. But I would like to add two observations that might put a wholly different spin on Locke’s account.

(1) Natural history is not simply an account of what we “are aware” of. Locke sees his natural history of ideas as one that proceeds from simple ideas to the more complex. Starting from the simple ingredients, however, is not meant to imply that we are aware of simple ideas as givens. Locke doesn’t think that our awareness starts with simple ideas. Rather, Locke starts with simple ideas for two reasons: firstly, he wants to account for the origin of ideas; secondly, he starts with simple ideas for what one might call didactical reasons: “Because observing the faculties of the Mind, how they operate about simple Ideas …, we may the better examine them and learn how the Mind abstracts, denominates, compares, and exercises its other Operations, about those which are complex …” (II, xi, 14)

(2) Perhaps more importantly, Locke explicitly finishes this natural historical account early on and begins an entirely new discussion of ideas: here, he is interested in relations between different kinds of ideas and in what I’d call their epistemic content: “Though in the foregoing part, I have often mentioned simple Ideas, which are truly the Materials of all our knowledge; yet having treated them there, rather in the way that they come into the Mind, than as distinguished from others more compounded, it will not be, perhaps amiss to take a view of some of them again under this Consideration …” (II, xiii, 1) Thus, a great part of book II is not owing to the natural historical perspective.

The upshot is that Locke introduces two different perspectives on ideas: the natural historical one, accounting for the origin, and the epistemic one, accounting for representational content. As I elaborate in a paper of mine, I think that the former perspective focuses on the causal history of ideas, while the latter is intended as a consideration of the different kinds of representational content in our episodes of thought. In other words, the former explains how ideas originate in experience, while the latter explains how we end up taking things as something, e.g. as substances, modes or relations.

If this is correct, we should indeed acknowledge Locke’s reliance on Baconian natural history. But we should also carefully consider where Locke introduces different ways of treating ideas. After all, in conjunction with the considerations on language, Locke took his account of ideas as something that would “afford us another sort of Logick and Critick, than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.” (IV, xxi, 4)

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* Kenny Pearce regularly blogs on early modern philosophy.