Sunday, February 20, 2011

Maybe a New(ish) Way to Do History of Philosophy?

University of Western Ontario is starting a History of Philosophy roundtable, discussing, as the name implies, various topics in the history of philosophy. I’m of two minds about studying the history of philosophy – my attitude towards the practice is a mixture of enthusiasm, dread, dismissal. The reasons why are a little complex, but that’s what blogging is for.

In my time as a graduate student, I've come across two approaches to the history of philosophy that seem pretty mainstream. One is history of philosophy as antiquarian studies: philology on writer X that seeks to get X right. One is understanding historical developments in current terms: asking if Aristotle was a functionalist on philosophy of mind – that question makes no sense to me. It applies the concepts of a long-ago philosopher to current debates with little heed to the radically different context of two writings.

I did my first few years of training in philosophy in a very historically-minded department, and I think I came out better for it. When I engage the work of a complex, difficult philosopher, I put a lot of effort into understanding their terminology, concepts, historical context, and the reasons why they thought the problems at the focus of their work were worth the trouble. I emerged with the ability to read a complex work in a very deep and careful manner rather quickly. You might think this leaned toward the antiquarian definition, and to a degree this was true.

But the individuals who played the biggest role in my education treated their historical subjects as their specialties, but they had no particular loyalties to them. At Memorial, I never worked on history of philosophy with any professors who said their specialty writers were the apex of philosophy, or that those writers were the only ones to get the universe really right. I’ve come across that attitude among some students who work on history of philosophy, and I hope that disappears from them.

My friend Jeremy once came up with the perfect definition of such a slavish historical philosopher: For a devoted X-ian, the only time X was ever wrong was when X himself said some element of X’s own corpus was wrong.

However, I’ve discovered over the past few years that I don’t want to work on history of philosophy, or secondary material generally, as my main specialties. I didn’t want to use my intellectual capacities in the service of illuminating the work of another writer. I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my time arguing over interpretations of another writer, with other writers whose careers were also spent commenting on the same writer as me. I’m just not humble enough to be that subordinate, even to someone who had proven themselves as remarkable as Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Heidegger, or Russell. I find secondary material to be writing about philosophy. But I want to write philosophy.

For me, the history of philosophy is a tool for creating concepts and working through contemporary social and ethical problems in philosophy. For example, I’m interested in Spinoza, but not just exegesis of Spinoza’s writings. He’s one of the few philosophers in the Western tradition for whom ontological matters – questions about being and what is – are closely integrated with ethical questions. This kind of reasoning is very important for my own work, but it’s difficult for mainstream philosophers to see this kind of convergence as legitimate. Being able to say that a big name like Spinoza did it too grants my ideas at least a small grasp on that legitimacy.

More than that, I engage with philosophy’s history to find the hidden subtlties of thought and strange concepts in dark corners that we usually don’t mention to undergraduates in the field. I’m looking for peculiarity that can inspire, or strange elements that could have sparked a completely different revolution in philosophy but never caught on because of some social or institutional factor beyond the writer’s control (this is my view of why Johann Fichte didn’t invent phenomenology in 1801).

I’m interested in taking part in this roundtable at Western, provided I can get transportation to London three or four times during the next term. I revere no one, although I respect them very much. And my applications of past to present are very indrect and convoluted. But I hope to find welcome, or at least sympathy. I’m not exactly someone who fits in.

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