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 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 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.***


* 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!

The competition fallacy

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.” Max Frisch


Imagine that you want to buy an album by the composer and singer Caroline Shaw, but they sell you one by Luciano Pavarotti instead, arguing that Pavarotti is clearly the more successful and better singer. Well, philosophers often make similar moves. They will say things like “Lewis was a better philosopher than Arendt” and even make polls to see how the majority sees the matter. Perhaps you agree with me in thinking that something has gone severely wrong in such cases. But what exactly is it? In the following I’d like to suggest that competitive rankings are not applicable when we compare individuals in certain respects. This should have serious repercussions on thinking about the job market in academia.

Ranking two individual philosophers who work in fairly different fields and contexts strikes me as pointless. Of course, you can compare them, see differences and agreements, ask about their respective popularity and so forth. But what would Lewis have said about the banality of evil? Or Arendt about modal realism? – While you might have preferences for one kind of philosophy over another, you would have a hard time explaining who the “better” or more “important” philosopher is (irrespective of said preferences). There are at least three reasons for this: Firstly, Arendt and Lewis have very little point of contact, i.e. a straightforward common ground on which to plot a comparison of their philosophies. Secondly, even if they had more commonalities or overlaps, the respective understandings of what philosophy is and what good philosophy should accomplish can be fairly different. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, philosophies are always individual and unique accomplishments. Unique creations are not something one can have a competition about. If we assume that there is a philosophical theory T1, T1 is not the kind of thing that you can compete about being better at. Of course, you can refine T1, but then you’ve created a refined theory T2. Now you might want to claim that T2 can be called better than T1. But what would T2 be, were it not for T1? Relatedly, philosophers are unique. The assumption that what one philosopher does can be done better or equally well by another philosopher is an illusion fostered by professionalised environments. People are always unique individuals and their ideas cannot be exchanged salva veritate.*

Now since there are open job searches (sometimes even without a specification of the area of specialisation) you could imagine a philosophy department in 2019 having to decide whether they hire Lewis or Arendt. I can picture the discussions among the committee members quite vividly. But in doing such a search they are doing the same thing as the shop assistant who ends up arguing for Pavarotti over Shaw. Then words like “quality”, “output”, “grant potential”, “teaching evaluations”, “fit” … oh, and “diversity” will be uttered. “Arendt will pull more students!” – “Yeah, but what about her publication record? I don’t see any top journals!” – “Well, she is a woman.” In a good world both of them would be hired, but we live in a world where many departments might rather hire two David Lewises. So what’s going on?

It’s important to note that the competition is not about their philosophies: Despite the word “quality”, for the three reasons given above, the committee members cannot have them compete as philosophers. Rather, the department has certain “needs” that the competition is about.** The competition is about functions in the department, not about philosophy. As I see it, this point generalises: competitions are never about philosophy but always about work and functions in a department.*** Now, the pernicious thing is that departments and search committees and even candidates often pretend that the search is about the quality of their philosophy. But in the majority of cases that cannot be true, simply because the precise shape, task and ends of philosophy are a matter of dispute. What weighs is functions, not philosophy.

Arguably, there can be no competition between philosophers qua philosophers. Neither between Arendt and Lewis, nor between Arendt and Butler, nor between Lewis and Kripke. Philosophers can discuss and disagree but they cannot compete. What should they compete about? If they compete about jobs, it’s the functions in departments that are at stake. (That is also the reason why we allow for prestige as quality indicators.)  If they assume to be competing about who is the better philosopher, they mistake what they are doing. Of course, one philosopher might be preferred over another, but this is subject to change and chance, and owing to the notion of philosophy of the dominant committee member. The idea that there can be genuinely philosophical competition is a fallacy.

Does it follow, then, that there is no such thing as good or better philosophy? Although this seems to follow, it doesn’t. In a given context and group, things will count as good or better philosophy. But here is another confusion lurking. “Good” philosophy is not the property of an individual person. Rather, it is a feature of a discussion or interacting texts. Philosophy is good if the discussion “works well”. It takes good interlocutors on all sides. If I stammer out aphorisms or treatises, they are neither good nor bad. What turns them into something worthwhile is owing to those listening, understanding and responding. To my mind, good quality is resourcefulness of conversations. The more notions and styles of philosophy a conversation can integrate, the more resources it has to tackle what is at stake. In philosophy, there is no competition, just conversation.

Therefore, departments and candidates should stop assuming that the competition is about the quality of philosophy. Moreover, we should stop claiming that competitiveness is an indicator of being a good philosopher.**** Have you ever convinced an interlocutor by shouting that you’re better or more excellent than them?


* At the end of the day, philosophies are either disparate or they are in dialogue. In the former case, rivalry would be pointless; in the latter case, the rivalry is not competitive but a form of (disagreeing or agreeing) refinement. If philosophers take themselves to be competing about something like the better argument, they are actually not competing but discussing and thus depend on one another.

** This does not mean that these needs or their potential fulfillment ultimately decide the outcome of the competition. Often there is disagreement or ignorance about what these needs are or how they are to be prioritised. With regard to committees, I find this article quite interesting.

*** In a recent blog post, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between being good at philosophy vs being good at academic philosophy. It’s a great post. (My only disagreement would be that being good at philosophy is ultimately a feature of groups and discussions, not individuals.) Eric Schliesser made similar points in an older more gloomy post.

**** On FB, Evelina Miteva suggeststhat we need fair trade philosophy, like the fair trade coffee. Fair trade coffee is not necessarily of a better taste or quality, it ‘only’ makes sure that the producers will get something out if their work.” – I think this is exactly right: On some levels, this already seems to be happening, for instance, in the open access movement. Something similar could be applied to recruiting and employment conditions in academia. In fact, something like this seems to be happening, in that some universities are awarded for being family friendly or being forthcoming in other ways (good hiring practice e.g.). – My idea is that we could amend many problems (the so-called mental health crisis etc.), if we were to stop incentivising competitiveness on the wrong levels and promote measures of solidarity instead. – The message should be that the community does no longer tolerate certain forms of wrong competition and exploitation.

Relatedly, this also makes for an argument in favour of affirmative action against discrimination of underrepresented groups: People who believe in meritocracy often say that affirmative action threatens quality. But affirmative action is not about replacing “good” with “underrepresented” philosophers. Why? Because the quality of philososphy is not an issue in competitive hiring in the first place.

History of contemporary thought and the silence in Europe. A response to Eric Schliesser

What should go into a history of contemporary ideas or philosophy? Of course this is a question that is tricky to answer for all sorts of reasons. What makes it difficult is that we then tend to think of mostly canonical figures and begin to wonder which of those will be remembered in hundred years. I think we can put an interesting spin on that question if we approach it in a more historical way. How did our current thoughts evolve? Who are the people who really influenced us? There will not only be people whose work we happen to read, but those who directly interact and interacted with us. Our teachers, fellow students, friends and opponents. You might not think of them as geniuses, but we should drop that category anyway. These are likely people who really made a difference to the way you think. So let’s scratch our heads a bit and wonder who gave us ideas directly. In any case, they should figure in the history of our thought.

You might object that these figures would not necessarily be recognised as influential at large. However, I doubt that this is a good criterion: our history is not chiefly determined by who we take to be generally influential, but more often than not by those people we speak to. If not, why would historians bother to figure out real interlocutors in letters etc.? This means that encounters between a few people might make quite a difference. You might also object that a history of contemporary philosophy is not about you. But why not? Why should it not include you at least? What I like about this approach is that it also serves as a helpful corrective to outworn assumptions about who is canonical. Because even if certain figures are canonical, our interpretations of canonical figures are strongly shaped by our direct interlocutors.

Thinking about my own ideas in this way is a humbling experience. There is quite a number of people inside and outside my department to whom I owe many of my ideas. But this approach also reveals some of the conditions, political and other, that allow for such influence. One such condition I am painfully reminded of when observing the current political changes in Europe. No, I do not mean Brexit! Although I find these developments very sad and threatening indeed, most of the work done by friends and colleagues in Britain will reach me independently of those developments.

But Central and Eastern Europe is a different case. As it happens, the work that affected my own research most in the recent years is on the history of natural philosophy. It’s more than a guess when I say that I am not alone in this. Amongst other things, it made me rethink our current and historical ideas of the self. Given that quite a number of researchers who work on this happen to come from Central and Eastern Europe, much of this work probably wouldn’t have reached me, had it not been for the revolutions in 1989. This means that my thinking (and most likely that of others, too) would have been entirely different in many respects, had we not seen the Wall come down and communist regimes overthrown.

Why do I bring this up now? A brief exchange following up on an interesting post by Eric Schliesser* made it obvious that many Western Europeans, by and large, seem to assume that the revolutions from 1989 have had no influence on their thought. As he puts it, “the intellectual class kind of was conceptually unaffected” by them. And indeed, if we look at the way we cite and acknowledge the work of others, we regularly forget to credit many, if not most, of our interlocutors from less prestigious places. In this sense, people in what we call the Western world might be inclined to think that 1989 was not of significance in the history of thought. I think this is a mistake. A mistake arising from the canonical way of thinking about the work that influences us. Instead of acknowledging the work of individuals who actually influence us, we continue citing the next big shot whom we take to be influential in general. By excluding the direct impact of our actual interlocutors, we make real impact largely invisible. Intellectually, the West behaves as if it were still living in the Cold War times. But the fact that we continue to ignore or shun the larger patterns of real impact since 1989 does not entail that it is not there. Any claim to the contrary would, without further evidence at least, amount to an argument from ignorance.

The point I want to make is simple: we depend on other people for our thought. We need to acknowledge this if we want to understand how we come to think what we think. The fact that universities are currently set up like businesses might make us believe that the work people do can (almost) equally be done by other people. But this is simply not true. People influencing our thought are always particular people; they cannot be exchanged salva veritate. If we care about what we think, we should naturally care about the origin of our thought. We owe it to particular people, even if we sometimes forget the particular conversations in which our ideas were triggered, encouraged or refuted.

Now if this is correct, then it’s all the more surprising that we let go of the conditions enabling much of this exchange in Europe so easily. How is it possible, for instance, that most European academics remain quiet in the face of recent developments in Hungary? We witnessed how the CEU was being forced to move to Vienna in an unprecedented manner, and now the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is targeted.**

While the international press reports every single remark (no matter how silly) that is made in relation to Brexit, and while I see many academics comment on this or that aspect (often for very good reasons), the silence after the recent events in Hungary is almost deafening. Of course, Hungary is not alone in this. Academic freedom is now targeted in many places inside and outside Europe. If we continue to let it happen, the academic community in Europe and elsewhere will disintegrate very soon. But of course we can continue to praise our entrepreneurial spirit in the business park of academia and believe that people’s work is interchangeable salva veritate; we can continue talking to ourselves, listen diligently to our echoes, and make soliloquies a great genre again.


* See also this earlier and very pertinent post by Eric Schliesser.

** See also this article. And this call for support.

Should contemporary philosophers read Ockham? Or: what did history ever do for us?

If you are a historian of philosophy, you’ve probably encountered the question whether the stuff you’re working on is of any interest today. It’s the kind of question that awakens all the different souls in your breast at once. Your more enthusiastic self might think, “yes, totally”, while your methodological soul might shout, “anachronism ahead!” And your humbler part might think, “I don’t even understand it myself.” When exposed to this question, I often want to say many things at once, and out comes something garbled. But now I’d like to suggest that there is only one true reply to the main question in the title: “No, that’s the wrong kind of question to ask!” – But of course that’s not all there is to it. So please hear me out.

I’m currently revisiting an intriguing medieval debate between William of Ockham, Gregory of Rimini and Pierre D’Ailly on the question of how thought is structured. While I find the issue quite exciting in itself, it’s particularly interesting to see how they treat their different sources, Aristotle and Augustine. While they clearly all know the texts invoked they emphasise different aspects. Thinking about thought, William harkens back to Aristotle and clearly thinks that it’s structure that matters. By contrast, Gregory goes along with Augustine and emphasises thought as a mental action. – For these authors it was clear that their sources were highly relevant, both as inspiration and authorities. At the same time, they had no qualms to appropriate them for their uses. – In some respects we make similar moves today, when we call ourselves Humeans or Aristotelians. But since we also have professional historians of philosophy and look back at traditions of critical scholarship, both historians and philosophers are more cautious when it comes to the question of whether some particular author would be “relevant today”.

In view of this question, historians are trained to exhibit all kinds of (often dismissive) gut reactions, while philosophers working in contemporary themes don’t really have time for our long-winded answers. And so we started talking past each other, happily ever after. That’s not a good thing. So here is why I think the question of whether any particular author could inform or improve current debates is wrongheaded.

Of course everyone is free to read Ockham. But I wouldn’t recommend doing it, if you’re hoping to enrich the current debates. Yes, Ockham says a lot of interesting things. But you’d need a long time to translate them into contemporary terminology and still more time to find an argument that will look like a right-out improvement of a current argument.* – My point is not that Ockham is not an interesting philosopher. My point is that Ockham (and many other past philosophers) doesn’t straightforwardly speak to any current concerns.

However … Yes, of course there was going to be a “however”! However, while we don’t need to ask whether any particular author is relevant today, we should be asking a different question. That Ockham doesn’t speak to current concerns doesn’t mean that historians of philosophy (studying Ockham or others) have nothing to say about current concerns. So it’s not that Ockham should be twisted to speak to current concerns; rather historians and philosophers should be talking to each other! So the right question to ask is: how can historians speak to current issues?

The point is that historians study, amongst other things, debates on philosophical issues. “You say tomahto, I say tomato”, that sort of thing. Debates happen now as they happened then. What I find crucial is that studying debates reveals features that can be informative for understanding current debates. There are certain conditions that have to be met for a debate to arise. We’re not just moving through the space of reasons. Debates occur or decline because of various factors. What we find conceptually salient can be driven by available texts, literary preferences, other things we hold dear, theological concerns, technological inventions (just think of various computer models), arising political pressures (you know what I mean), linguistic factors (what would happen if most philosophers were to write in Dutch?), and a lot of other factors, be they environmental, sociological, or what have you. Although we like to think that the pursuit of truth is central, it’s by far not the only reason why debates arise and certain concepts are coined and stick around, while others are forgotten. Although contingent, such factors are recurrent. And this is something that affects our understanding of current as well as past debates. The historian can approach current debates as a historian in the same way that she can approach past debates. And this is, I submit, where historians can truly speak to current concerns.

Coming back to the debate I mentioned earlier, there is another issue (besides the treatment of sources) that I find striking. In their emphasis of Augustine, Gregory and Peter show a transition from a representational to an action model of thought. Why does this transition occur? Why do they find it important to emphasise action over representation against William? – Many reasons are possible. I won’t go into them now. But this might be an interesting point of comparison to the current debates over enactivism versus certain sorts of representationalism. Why do we have that debate now? Is it owing to influences like Ryle and Gibson? Certainly, they are points of (sometimes implicit) reference. Are there other factors? Again, while I think that these are intriguing philosophical developments, our understanding of such transitions and debates remains impoverished, if we don’t look for other factors. Studying past transitions can reveal recurrent factors in contemporary debates. One factor might be that construing thoughts as acts rather than mere representations discloses their normative dimensions. Acts are something for which we might be held responsible. There is a lot more to be said. For now suffice it to say that it is in comparing debates and uncovering their conditions, that historians of philosophy qua historians can really contribute.

At the same time, historians might also benefit from paying more attention to current concerns. Not only to stay up to date, but also to sharpen their understanding of historical debates.** As we all know, historical facts don’t just pop up. They have to be seen. But this seeing is of course a kind of seeing as. Thus, if we don’t just want to repeat the historiographical paradigms of, say, the eighties, it certainly doesn’t hurt if our seeing is trained in conversation with current philosophers.


* That said, this is of course an open question. So I’m happy to be shown a counterexample.

** More on the exchange between philosophers and historians of philosophy can be found in my inaugural lecture.

Do rejections of our claims presuppose that we are abnormal?

Discussions about meaning and truth are often taken as merely theoretical issues in semantics. But as soon as you consider them in relation to interactions between interlocutors, it’s clear that they are closely related to our psychology. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that people questioning our claims might in fact be questioning whether we are normal people. Sounds odd? Please hear me out. Let’s begin with a well known issue in semantics:

Imagine you’re a linguist, studying a foreign language of a completely unknown people. You’re with one of the speakers of that language when a white rabbit runs past. The speaker says “gavagai”. Now what does “gavagai” mean?

According to Quine, who introduced the gavagai example, the expression could mean anything. It might mean: “Look, there’s a rabbit” or “Lovely lunch” or “That’s very white” or “Rabbithood instantiated”. The problem is that you cannot determine what “gavagai” means. Our ontology is relative to the target language we’re translating into. And you cannot be sure that the source language carves up the world in the same way ours does. Now it is crucial to see that this is not just an issue of translation. The problem of indeterminacy starts at home: meaning is indeterminate. And this means that the problems of translations also figure in the interaction between speakers and hearers of the same language.

Now Davidson famously turns the issue upside down: we don’t begin with meaning but with truth. We don’t start out by asking what “gavagai” means. If we assume that the speaker is sincere, we’ll just translate the sentence in such a way that it matches what we take to be the truth. So we start by thinking: “Gavagai” means something like “Look, there’s a rabbit”, because that’s the belief we form in the presence of the rabbit. So we start out by ascribing the same belief to the speaker of the foreign language and translate accordingly. That we start out this way is not optional. We’d never get anywhere, if we were to start out by wondering what “gavagai” might or might not mean. Rather we cannot but start out from what we take to be true.

Although Davidson makes an intriguing point, I don’t think he makes a compelling case against relativism. When he claims that we translate the utterances of others into what we take to be true, I think he is stating a psychological fact. If we take someone else to be a fellow human being and think that she or he is sincere, then translating her or his utterances in a way that makes them come out true is what we count as normal behaviour. Conversely, to start from the assumption that our interlocutor is wrong and to translate the other’s utterances as something alien or blatantly false, would amount an abnormal behaviour on our part (unless we have reason to think that our interlocutor is seriously impaired). The point I want to make is that sincerity and confirmation of what we take to be true will correlate with normality.

If this last point is correct, it has a rather problematic consequence: If you tell me that I’m wrong after I have sincerely spoken what I take to be the truth, this will render either me or you as abnormal. Unless we think that something is wrong with ourselves, we will be inclined to think that people who listen to us but reject our claims are abnormal. This is obvious when you imagine someone stating that there is no rabbit while you clearly take yourself to be seeing a rabbit. When the “evidence” for a claim is more abstract, in philosophical debates for instance, we are of course more charitable, at least so long as we can’t be sure that we both have considered the same evidence. Alternatively, we might think the disagreement is only verbal. But what if we think that we both have considered the relevant evidence and still disagree? Would a rejection not amount to a rejection of the normality of our interlocutor?

What’s behind the veil of perception? A response to Han Thomas Adriaenssen

Imagine you’re using glasses, would you think that your grasp of reality is somehow indirect? I guess not. We assume that glasses aid our vision rather than distort or hinder it. The fact that our vision is mediated by glasses does not make it less direct than the fact that our vision is mediated through our eyes. Now imagine your perception is mediated by what early modern philosophers call “ideas”. Does it follow that our grasp of reality is indirect? Many philosophers think that it is. By contrast, I would like to suggest that this is misleading. Ideas make our perceptions no less direct than glasses.

Both early modern and contemporary crictics often take the “way of ideas” as a route to scepticism. The assumption seems to be that the mediation of perception through ideas makes our thoughts not about reality but about the ideas. Han Thomas Adrianssen’s recent book is original in that it tells the story of this and related debates from Aquinas to the early modern period. In celebration of receiving the JHP book prize, Han Thomas gave a brief interview that aptly summarises the common line of criticism against ideas or the assumption of indirect perception related to them:

“Okay. So you explore the philosophical problem of ‘perception and representation’ from Aquinas to Descartes; what exactly is the problem?

HTA: ‘Right. So it goes like this: what is going on in your mind when you see something in your environment? Take this chair, for instance. When you see this chair, what’s happening in your mind? One answer is that you form a kind of pictorial representation of the chair. You start drawing a mental image for yourself of the thing in front of you, and you label it: ‘chair’. … But then there is a worry: if this is how it works – if this is how we access the environment cognitively – then that means there is a sort of interface between us and reality. A veil of perceptions, if you will. So what we’re thinking about is not the chair itself, but our picture of the chair.– But that can’t be right!”

Besides summarising the historical criticisms, Han Thomas seems to go along with their doubts. He suggests that metaphors trick us into such problematic beliefs: the “mental image metaphor” comes “naturally”, but brings about “major problems”.

While I have nothing but admiration for the historical analysis presented, I would like to respond to this criticism on behalf of those assuming ideas or other kinds of representational media. Let’s look at the chided metaphor again. Yes, the talk of the mental image suggests that what is depicted is remote and behind the image. But what about the act of drawing the image? Something, presumably our sense organs are exposed to the things and do some ‘drawing’. So the drawing is not done behind a veil. Rather the act of drawing serves as a transformation of what is drawn into something that is accessible to other parts of our mind.* Thus, we should imagine a series of transformations until our minds end up with ideas. But if you think of it in those terms the transformation is not akin to putting something behind a veil. Rather it is a way of making sensory input available. The same goes for glasses or indeed our eyes. They do not put something behind a veil but make it available in an accessible form. My point is that the metaphor needs to be unpacked more thoroughly. We don’t only have the image; we have the drawing, too.

Following Ruth Millikan’s account of perception,** I would like to argue that the whole opposition of indirect vs direct perception is unhelpful. It has steered both early modern and 20th-century debates in epistemology in fruitless directions. Sense perception is direct (as long as it does not involve inferences through which we explicitly reason that the presence of an idea means the presence of a represented thing). At the same time sense perception is indirect in that it requires means of transformation that make things available to different kinds of receptors. Thus, the kind of indirectness involved in certain cognitive vehicles does not lead anymore to scepticism than the fact that we use eyes to see.

What early modern philosophers call ideas are just cognitive vehicles, resulting from transformations that make things available to us. If an analogy is called for I’d suggest relating them, not to veils, but to glasses. If we unpack the metaphor more thoroughly, what is behind the veil is not only the world, but our very own sense organs making the world available by processing them through media accessible to our mind. If that evokes sceptical doubts, such doubts might be equally raised whenever you put your glasses on or indeed open you eyes to see.


* As Han Thomas himself notes (in the book, not the interview), many medieval authors do not think that representationalism leads to scepticism, and endorse an “epistemic optimism”. I guess these authors could be reconstructed as agreeing with my reply. After all, some stress that species (which could be seen as functionally equivalent to ideas) ought to be seen as a medium quo rather than that which is ultimately cognised.

** Ruth Millikan even claims that language is a means of direct perception: “The picture I want to leave you with, then, is that coming to believe, say, that Johnny has come in by seeing that he has come in, by hearing by his voice that he has come in, and by hearing someone say “Johnny has come in,” are normally equivalent in directness of psychological processing. There is no reason to suppose that any of these ways of gaining the information that Johnny has come in requires that one perform inferences. On the other hand, in all these cases it is likely that at least some prior dedicated representations must be formed. Translations from more primitive representations and combinations of these will be involved. If one insists on treating all translation as a form of inference, then all these require inference equally. In either event, there is no significant difference in directness among them. ”

Who’s afraid of relativism?

In recent years, relativism has had a particularly bad press. Often chided along with what some call postmodernism, relativism is held responsible for certain politicians’ complacent ignorance or bullshitting. While I’m not alone in thinking that this scapegoating is due to a severe misunderstanding of relativism, even those who should know better join the choir of condemnation:

“The advance of relativism – the notion that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint – reached what might be seen as a new low with the recent claim by Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway that there are such things as “alternative facts”. (She went so far as to cite a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” to justify Trump’s refugee travel ban, something she later described as a “misspeak”.)” Joe Humphrey’s paraphrasing Timothy Williamson in the Irish Times, 5.7. 2017

If this is what Williamson thinks, he confuses relativism with extreme subjectivism. But I don’t want to dismiss this view too easily. The worry behind this accusation is real. If people do think that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint, then “anything goes”. You can claim anything and there are no grounds for me to correct you. If this is truth, there is no truth. The word is a meaningless appeal. However, I don’t think that the politicians in question believe in anything as sophisticated as relativism. Following up on some intriguing discussions about the notion of “alternative facts”, I believe that the strategy is (1) to lie by (2) appealing to an (invented) set of states of affairs that supposedly has been ignored. Conway did not assume that she was in the possession of her own subjective truth; quite the contrary. Everyone would have seen what she claimed to be the truth, had they cared to look at the right time in the right way. If I am right, her strategy depends on a shared notion of truth. In other words, I guess that Williamson and Conway roughly start out from the same understanding of truth. To bring in relativism or postmodernism is not helpful when trying to understand the strategy of politicians.

By introducing the term “alternative facts” Conway reminds us of the fact (!) that we pick out truths relative to our interests. I think we are right to be afraid of certain politicians. But why are we afraid of relativism? We have to accept that truth, knowledge or morality are relative to a standard. Relativism is the view that there is more than one such standard.* This makes perfect sense. That 2 plus 2 equals 4 is not true absolutely. Arguably, this truth requires the agreement on a certain arithmetic system. I think that arithmetic and other standards evolve relative to certain interests. Of course, we might disagree about the details of how to spell out such an understanding of relativism. But it is hard to see what makes us so afraid of it.

Perhaps an answer can be given by looking at how relativism evolved historically. If you look at early modern or medieval discussions of truth, knowledge and morality, there is often a distinction between divine and human concepts. Divine knowledge is perfect; human knowledge is partial and fallible. Divine knowledge sets an absolute standard against which human failure is measured. If you look at discussions in and around Locke, for instance, especially his agnosticism about real essences and divine natural law, divine knowledge is still assumed but it loses the status of a standard for us. What we’re left with is human knowledge, in all its mediocrity and fallibility. Hume goes further and no longer even appeals to the divine as a remote standard. Our claims to knowledge are seen as rooted in custom. Now if the divine does no longer serve as an absolute measure, human claims to knowledge, truth and morality are merely one possible standard. There is no absolute standard available. Nominal essences or customs are relative to the human condition: our biological make-up and our interests. The focus on human capacities, irrespective of the divine, is a growing issue, going hand in hand with an idea of relativism.  The “loss” of the absolute is thus owing to a different understanding of theological claims about divine standards. Human knowledge is relative in that it is no longer measured against divine knowledge. If this is correct, relativism emerged (also) as a result of a dissociation of divine and human standards. Why would we be afraid of that?


* I’m following Martin Kusch’s definition in his proposal for the ERC project on the Emergence of Relativism“It is not easy to give a neutral definition of “relativism”: defenders and critics disagree over the question of what the relativist is committed to. Roughly put, the relativist regarding a given domain (e.g. epistemology) insists that judgments or beliefs in this domain are true or false, justified or unjustified, only relative to  systems of standards. For the relativist there is more than one such system, and there is no neutral way of adjudicating between them. Some relativists go further and claim that all such systems are equally valid.”