The topic of the place of the history of philosophy within philosophy as a discipline has been extensively discussed over the last week, after Leiter’s post on Pasnau’s letter. It is great that the topic has received so much attention lately, and I think some progress has been made towards clarifying the different positions one could take on the matter.
One position that seems to have emerged is what one could refer to as an ‘instrumentalist’ defense of the significance of the history of philosophy, in particular the claim that the study of the history of philosophy allows for better, deeper analyses within contemporary philosophical theorizing. This position encounters resistance from both sides. On the one hand, many contemporary philosophers object to the idea that it is important to take into account the historical development of the problems and issues they deal with, and even hold that a historical focus distracts us from the real issues. On the other hand, many historians feel that a focus on the instrumentality of the history of philosophy for contemporary philosophy only perpetuates the perception of its secondary significance. They argue that the study of the history of philosophy has intrinsic value and needs no external justification on the basis of its significance for enterprises such as contemporary philosophical theorizing.
My proposal that the history of philosophy has the crucial role of telling us where our ‘philosophical intuitions’ come from may rightly be viewed as an instrumentalist defense of its importance. What I want to add at this point though, which I should perhaps have made explicit in my original post, is that I don’t see why there should be an opposition between an instrumentalist defense of the history of philosophy and the view that it has intrinsic value. I for one certainly hold both. An analogy may help here: as I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog, I believe that philosophy must be informed by findings from the empirical sciences, and in this sense the empirical sciences have an instrumental value for philosophical theorizing. But naturally, this does not imply that the empirical sciences have no intrinsic value as such! (Although, one could of course be an instrumentalist all the way down and claim that the empirical sciences are important only insofar as e.g. they have practical consequences in fostering our well-being as humans.)
I have done quite a lot of ‘purely’ historical work myself, i.e. work aimed at a better understanding of past philosophical traditions with no specific, direct contribution to contemporary issues. I am particularly proud of my work on medieval theories of supposition, and what I think led me to a better understanding of these theories was precisely the move away from contemporary questions so as to focus on the medieval theories in their contexts. When arguing that it is a misconception to think of medieval theories of supposition as theories of reference, I was asking precisely what I take to be an obvious question, but which had been mostly absent in previous analyses: what was the significance of these theories for the medieval authors themselves? What did they need them for, what did they do with them? An answer to this question could only be given by taking into account the larger context of Latin medieval intellectual and academic practices. My idea was that the need for semantic theories allowing for a certain degree of interpretative freedom (such as theories of supposition) was particularly felt in a philosophical tradition which relied crucially on commentary of authoritative texts as a philosophical practice. The texts could not be contested verbatim, but one could say that what the author really meant was such-and-such, incidentally precisely the view defended by the commentator in question! (Ockham was a master in the genre.)
But again, none of this is incompatible with the view that, besides having intrinsic value, the study of the history of philosophy may have a crucial role to play also for non-historical philosophical theorizing. Moreover, the kind of ‘tedious’ work described by Justin Smith as ‘obsessing over watermarks’ is an integral part of the enterprise; it’s all teamwork, again there is no opposition here. (Incidentally, let me add that I agree with some of the points raised by Smith, in particular concerning the somewhat irritating rhetoric of Pasnau’s letter.) I can illustrate this again by research on medieval philosophy. I cannot read manuscripts, as I’ve never learned paleography, so I am utterly dependent on the work of the people who turn the medieval manuscripts into (critical) modern editions to be able to read them at all. And editing a manuscript is truly a demanding endeavor, as it involves the technical skills of deciphering medieval handwritten texts, an excellent mastery of the language (Latin), and philosophical acumen in order to understand the content of the text (it is not just a matter of transcribing what is there, as typically many editorial choices have to be made). Moreover, when a text has no attributed authorship, the challenge of attributing it a place and a time, and hopefully an author, will involve precisely elements very much of the ‘watermark’ kind (the handwriting, the paper used etc.) All this may seem ‘tedious’ at first sight, but it is precisely what enables further historical and ultimately philosophical analysis to be carried out.
To sum up, this is a plea for pluralism in philosophy, both in terms of methods and in terms of subject-matters; in the same vein, it seems to me that the differences between the various approaches are best construed not from the point of view of oppositions, but rather from the point of view of complementarity. As I’ve said many times before, an integrative analysis is often the only way to get to the bottom of things.