The recent exchange between Dreyfus & Kelly and Garry Wills in the NYRB has a depressingly familiar ring. In brief, the conversation goes like this:
Rorty thought that Descartes invented the mind. The historians said no. (In Philosophy and the mirror of nature Rorty even quotes John Yolton on the “act” interpretation of ‘idea’, which he recognizes to be bad news for his historical claim. He replies, offhandedly, that if Descartes didn’t invent the mind, then Kant certainly did…)
Does it matter? Rorty might well have said that what counts is that we have the concept. And yet it does seem that the history has a role: it sets up a contrast between bad Cartesian cogito-fixation and good Aristotelian (and post-Cartesian) no-big-deal-ism. Similarly, Dreyfus and Kelly use old texts (and slightly less aged athletes) to set up a contrast between bad out-of-this-worldly-individualism and good being-there-whooshism, and they do so by examining what they take to be instances of the types.
Perhaps one could set up the contrasts in “neutral” terms, without essential reference to Descartes or Aristotle or Homer or Melville. Philosophers like to lump views together under labels like “eliminativism” and then argue against everything in the lump at once. Typically they don’t worry much about whether the labels are historically appropriate; and seldom does it occur to them that the labels themselves have histories (when and why did “physicalism” take over from “materialism”?).
Historians, for their part, like to make distinctions so fine that even unadventurous minor Cartesians or epigones of Aristotle known only from fragments fall into separate bins. That is in part because the historian is just as keen as the scientist to achieve precision. Not, typically, numerical precision, but rather precision in the application of historically effective social and conceptual categories. So when the lumper comes along and press-gangs Augustine or Homer into service as an instance of X, the historian will often cry foul. It’s bad enough if Homer isn’t an instance of X; but sometimes Homer couldn’t have been, because the conditions under which a person could instantiate X didn’t exist. In response the philosopher will, like Rorty, just move on, unperturbed, to a more promising specimen.
What bugs Wills, I think, among other things, is that Dreyfus and Kelly want their philosophical story also to be historical, to have, so to speak, not only truth but Homer on its side. Wills observes that Homer is not, in fact, on its side, and they reply in effect that really it doesn’t matter: “Our goal is to determine whether there is anything we can recognize and admire in that experience [i.e. the Homeric experience of having a god care about you]. We claim there is, but that it takes serious philosophical work to uncover it.” Once you get to serious work, Homer can be forgotten, or so it seems. Wills, for his part, isn’t taking part in their excavations. He’s standing by the edge chiding them for digging in the wrong place.
In the end, what interests me is that Dreyfus and Kelly do invoke history. Could whooshes be defined or described without reference to Homer and Melville? Could the benefit of whoosh-experiences be conveyed without contrasting that way of being in the world with “the Enlightenment account of human beings as rational, autonomous agents”? And if (as I suspect) they cannot be extracted from the historical setting in which they’ve been presented, then how important is it that the history be correct? Will fables do?