JEHS: The history of philosophy need have no more relation to philosophers’ present concerns than Egyptology to the present concerns of Egyptians.
ES: [—I omit terms of abuse, like “positivist”—] History of philosophy can be used to address our present concerns; “immersing” a past thinker in his or her context prevents our doing so; ergo immersion is to be avoided.
Each of them sounds like, and perhaps wants to sound like, he’s saying something stronger—so that Eric’s reply would in fact be contrary to what Justin proposes. But on close reading, Justin is not denying all relevance to history of philosophy, nor is Eric opposed to bringing context to bear on the understanding of old texts.
Justin, in making a connection between past and present experimental philosophy (that is, the currently trendy X-Phi and the long-ago trendy “experimental Philosophy” of Boyle & co.), argues that the upshot of X-Phi is that the range of evidence that can be brought into philosophical argument has no effective limit. That is quite far from denying relevance to the study of history (as Mark Lance notes in his comment on Eric’s post). The point of invoking Egyptology is rather one of priority, as I said earlier (and even earlier).
The history of philosophy (says Justin) is part of intellectual history, which in turn is part of cultural history, and that is in turn part of Big History, which is to say the result of the combined efforts of all the historians dealing with a particular object (event, institution, text, …). That there is a history of philosophy at all (rather than say a portion of the history of ideas that happens to deal with things that philosophers are interested in, like their canon) has, I think, to do with the fact that philosophy, like mathematics, has parts that are relatively insulated from the culture surrounding them. Philosophers, when they think about philosophical questions, tend to respond first of all (and sometimes only) to what other philosophers have said or written. The temporal stages of philosophy—like those of mathematics—exhibit a great deal of cohesion, despite “breaks” such as that which occurred in the seventeenth century or the early twentieth (quite a bit of the history of anglophone philosophy after 1960 or so consists in realizing that the past was not so easily done away with, and then in recovering it). You can read Aristotle or Plato and—with a bit of help—find in their works questions similar to, and historically connected with questions we ask now.
None of that, I hope, raises a red flag for anyone. The question at hand—the point on which great minds may not think alike—is one of priority and of emphasis. Eric holds that something he calls “immersion” precludes any consideration of which among the objects of our study matter more to us; that, I think, is false, unless by “immersion” one simply means “studying old stuff with no regard to our current interests”.
Despite a bit of hyperbole, I don’t think that’s what Justin has in mind. After all, the past could hardly be invoked as evidence if the invoker had no regard for our current interests. The sense of tension between Justin’s Egyptologist and Eric’s engaged history lies in what sometimes happen when an engagé does, or attempts to do, history. Namely, he or she does bad history: ignores contrary evidence, gets the facts wrong, makes judgments that are driven not by the evidence but by ideology.
Here’s an example (from the American Scientist July-August 2011, p293):
By arguing that the body was the sum of its interacting parts […] Descartes shifted centuries of scientific and philosophical discussion about imponderable life forces and inexplicable animist vapors. (Lest we go overboard in praising Descartes, he clearly panicked at the last moment. He exempted human beings from the ground rules he set for other living organisms. In so doing, he sowed 400 years of confusion and discord with his notion that the mind and the body were separate phenomena, governed by separate rules).
As happens all too often when scientists do history, elementary mistakes and freshman misunderstandings enter print that in their own fields they would never tolerate. But why? In this case, it’s easy to see: our author, who puts forward Descartes as the father of reductionism and mechanism, wants to praise him for what he got right and damn him for what he got wrong. The part that’s right is wonderful and of course relevant; the part that’s wrong isn’t, it seems, even worth the trouble of understanding. (By the way, Descartes did not “panic”. He regarded his mechanistic physiology not as presenting any danger to his version of dualism, but as the best way to preserve the distinctness of the soul.)
It seems to me that when historians get irritated by the uses to which the past (or, as in the case above, a myth purporting to be about the past) we tend to pin the blame on the rush to judgment visible in the passage above, and so—over-broadly, no doubt—on engagement in history generally. The mistakes, moreover, that the bad historian engagé makes tend to be of the sort that attention to context would preclude—anachronism, failure to read the appropriate texts, misunderstood vocabulary, and so forth.
The heart of Eric’s argument is this:
Justin has a flawed understanding of what it amounts to [to do] “justice to past thinkers,” which according to him requires carefully “reconstructing their own world of concerns.” This is to treat the past as object of study not as a voice in the present or a tradition to be extended/continued.
You have to read the last sentence so that the opposition is between treating the past as a mere object of study and treating it as a voice in the present etc. Otherwise the issue evaporates. I think the opposition Eric here sets up is no more tenable than the opposition he disagrees with, namely that between “immersion” as defined above and attentiveness to current relevance. Take the very simplest sort of case. To read Huarte’s Examen de los ingenios in the original means to read him in his seventeenth-century Spanish, which for me involves the use of dictionaries and grammars. Huarte’s text doesn’t just “speak to me” as Eric’s does. I have to treat it as a linguistic object in order to understand it—in order that it may eventually speak to me.
Or again: Medieval philosophers, arguing about Aristotle’s definition of change as “the actus of a being in potentia insofar as it is in potentia”, make what turn out to be very interesting distinctions between views that treat change as a forma fluens, a “flowing form” and those that treat change as a fluxus formæ. Annaliese Maier wrote a long essay disentangling some of the strands of Scholastic discussion of the two ffs, without which I would have been entirely at sea. For quite some time—memory says at least a month—not even Maier, let alone the texts, spoke to me. It takes a lot of immersing to get to the point where you have any change of determining whether what those philosophers are saying might interest you if, say, you were working on the metaphysics of change. And yet I think that once we historians have done our work, and made the ideas relatively accessible, then you might well find inspiration in those ideas even though the authors’ physics is entirely outmoded and even though many of the concerns that are on their minds as they do metaphysics (e.g., theological) no longer matter to you. (I should add, echoing Paul Veyne, that I don’t see anything wrong in simply satisfying one’s curiosity: just why did Locke say that stones are real vegetables? Only a Gradgrindian would oppose absolutely the satisfaction of curiosity without ulterior motive.)
If a philosopher of physics now looks at Leibniz (other than to find a convenient canonical “relationist”), the tradition he or she is extending will be tenuous as regards the mathematics of space and time, the physical evidence for or against various claims, and even to some extent the philosophical means by which questions about the nature of space and time (we say “spacetime”, of course, which is already a big difference) are answered. But the links are there and could be substantiated by careful historical work. Leibniz begat … who begat Kant … who begat Einstein … who begat your thesis advisor. (The issues involved in the study of philosophy in cultures and periods not linked to ours raise other, and I think, difficult questions.)
One final point. You will remember that my bad historian was concerned to judge, to figure out what is true (= useful) and what is false (= useless). Justin says that when he studies Leibniz on the afterlife he’s not interested in adopting (nor, I suppose, in refuting) Leibniz’s view. In that sense he is treating it as a mere object. But of course there may be other reasons to study what Leibniz has to say about the afterlife; he was a systematic thinker, and his views on that topic may be diagnostic with respect to the concepts he uses to arrive at them. Take the strange (by current lights) view that immortality of the soul requires that some part of the body be indestructible. That’s a striking consequence: where did it come from?
It often happens that the bits of a philosopher’s discourse that trip you up are the ones most fruitful to study, because the tripping up is a sign that the concepts may work differently from ours. Difference, it seems to me, is of special interest to philosophers, because we often claim to be considering not just how we think but how someone could think. But where there is conceptual difference there will likely be difficulty, initially at least, in understanding; and that is to say, we won’t know at first, or perhaps for a long time, whether what for the time being is a mere object of study will speak to us, or whether the tradition it represents is one we wish to extend.