Saturday, February 10, 2007

A kind of history of philosophy

[This one is kind of rough.] There's an essay by Dan Garber on the history of philosophy I rather like. The essay is "What's philosophical about the history of philosophy?"[edit: It appears in Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy, edited by Sorell and Rogers.] In it, Garber distinguishes two approaches to the history of philosophy: collegial and antiquarian. Roughly the distinction is that collegial history of philosophy treats the philosophers as sources of problems and a context in which to situate or contrast a view while the antiquarian treats the wider context, including the surrounding chapters, other works by the author, historical events and correspondence, etc., as necessary for understanding the philosopher. The latter tries, as nearly as possible, to recapitulate the perspective of the philosopher, so we can get into their heads, so to speak. The former takes some element of a theory as a foil or jumping off point for a new position. The example of this that Garber gives is John McDowell, although I'm sure there are better examples. The point of the article is to argue that antiquarian history of philosophy is relevant for philosophers that don't have exclusively historical interests. He does this by explaining what it is he sees antiquarian history of philosophy doing and pointing out how that is worthwhile. A large part of this is to more fully understand an argument and to provide prospective on how to think about problems. This seems fairly correct to me, but he was preaching to the choir somewhat in my case.

There is one kind of, roughly, antiquarian history of philosophy whose approach I rather like. It tries to approach a philosophy book by trying to figure out the problems from the perspective of the author. What problems did they tackle and why? How did they try to solve them? On one interpretation, this might just sound like any sort of history of philosophy, and in a way it is. I think a good way to put it is that there is a lot of focus on what is being reacted to as well as the reaction. The Wittgenstein class I'm taking now is a good example of this. It started with reading a bunch of the post-Principles of Mathematics Russell, particularly the stuff that Wittgenstein read. From this, we look at Wittgenstein's notes and the Tractatus to see how he reacted and how he tried to solve the problems he attempted to solve. (I am having a little trouble getting nice clear necessary and sufficient conditions for this approach.) The Kant class I took last term was somewhat similar. The focus on was on reconstructing Kant's trails of thought in the first Critique by concentrating on the Critique rather than secondary literature. Secondary literature has its place, and some of it is quite good (E.g. Ricketts's "Wittgenstein against Frege and Russell"). Some of it is less good, and very little of it compares with the original material. The mighty dead are mighty for a good reason (and dead for a good reason too I suppose).

What makes this sort of approach worthwhile? I think one of the main values in it comes from thinking through what the philosopher in question was trying to do. But, isn't this just what doing philosophy is, in large part? I suppose. Trying to see how the printed views followed from (or were thought by their authors to be entailed by) the collateral commitments that constitute the beliefs of the philosopher in question seems like a very edifying exercise. It seems like this splits into at least two parts. One is reconstructing their arguments and the other, which usually goes on in tandem, is to figure out those collateral commitments. Of course, each informs the other. Another payoff from this is that in reconstructing the perspective of the philosopher in question, one can (might?should?) get enough distance on one's own view (or proto-view, or conceptual stumblings around [as a lowly grad student]) of things that one can more clearly see what rests on what and what follows from what. This is fairly close to the justification that Garber gives for antiquarian history of philosophy, because it is pretty close. The main difference I see (or think I see) is that antiquarian history of philosophy often approaches the subject from "outside" the philosopher in question, looking back from now, in a way. This approach tries to tackle the problems from "inside" the philosopher, trying to see how one would view problems and possibilities given a certain tool set, as well as figuring out what tools one has. The inside and outside approaches to antiquarian history are closely related, but I'm digging the inside approach, reconstructing the internal perspective of the philosopher. I see it as sort of like working through proofs, but that isn't a perfect analogy. At the very least, this approach seems good at doing what Wittgenstein's friend O.K. Bouwsma said was an aim of philosophy: to "quicken the sense of the queer."


Richard Zach said...

Do you have a link/reference to Dan's article?

Shawn said...

The essay appeared in the collection Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy edited by Sorell and Rogers, published by Oxford. I'll add that to the post. The paper doesn't seem to be available online.