Eric Schwitzgebel has a recent post in defense of ‘uncharitable and superficial history of philosophy’. The basic idea is that, rather than explaining away the apparent incoherences and absurdities often found in the texts of great historical figures, the task of the historian of philosophy should above all be that of engaging critically – i.e. uncharitably – with the material in question. In this post, I will argue that there is much to be commended on the ‘uncharitable’ part of Eric’s story (which forms the bulk of his post anyway), but that ‘uncharitable’ and ‘superficial’ must be carefully kept apart here. In fact, I will argue that uncharitable history of philosophy presupposes that it not be superficial.
What seems to offer the background for Eric’s criticism of traditional, overly charitable history of philosophy is the widespread ‘cult of the author’ in philosophical historiography. Much of it focuses on the ‘big names’ in the philosophical canon, and scholars often present themselves as specialists on big name X or Y (Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Ockham, Frege etc.). This way of organizing the study of the history of philosophy quite naturally leads to a posture of excessive reverence towards historical figures, which seems to be Eric’s target.
Having done most of my historical work on medieval philosophy, I was ‘lucky’ to be somewhat insulated from this approach. As remarked by the influential historian of philosophy Alain de Libera, given that a large portion of the crucial texts in the Latin medieval tradition have unknown authorship, scholars working on medieval philosophy are naturally compelled to relativize the ‘cult of the author’ approach. (To be sure, there are a few figures from this period who receive unconditional approval by some scholars, such as Aquinas, Ockham, perhaps Buridan.) When working on this tradition, one is practically forced to narrate stories whose protagonists are not people but rather concepts, problems, arguments etc. (as well put by de Libera in the interview linked to above).
Scholarship on medieval philosophy offers some positive illustrations of the kind of ‘uncharitable’ history of philosophy advocated by Schwitzgebel. A good example is the work by Christopher J. Martin on Abelard’s logic. While arguing that Abelard is rightly seen as one of the most brilliant logicians of all times (given that he revolutionizes the logic of his time taking as a starting point the same Boethian legacy which had been available for centuries), Chris also concludes that Aberlad’s logic is ultimately untenable: “Unfortunately Abelard’s various intuitions about the propositional connectives cannot be reconciled.” (Chapter on logic from the Cambridge Companion to Abelard, p. 191) But he is only justified in drawing this uncharitable conclusion precisely because his knowledge of Abelard is everything but superficial; such a judgment relies on profound familiarity with Abelard’s texts and ideas in general, accompanied by a keen sense of their non-historical, systematic implications.
And here is an example, again from medieval logic, of 'bad' uncharitable history of philosophy, and 'bad' precisely because it is superficial. In Reference and Generality, Geach analyzes medieval theories of supposition from the point of view of modern theories of reference. He concludes that the medieval theories are pretty lousy, because they don’t work as theories of reference. Geach thus relies on an anachronistic, uninformed projection to proffer an uncharitable evaluation of the historical theories in question. Had he not engaged in a historically superficial analysis, he might have been able to view the medieval theories through different lenses, and to conclude that they are not bad theories of reference: they are actually theories of something else. (In chap. 1 of my Formalizing Medieval Logical Theories I offer a detailed defense of the view that theories of supposition are not theories of reference.) (This point is somewhat related to Eric’s third argument in the post, on Crazyism, which I endorse wholeheartedly.)
In other words, it is only equipped with in-depth knowledge of a given historical theory/author that the scholar can justifiably be uncharitable. Otherwise, it may well be that she is simply missing some crucial details in the story. I do suspect that in his post Schwitzgebel wants to emphasize the ‘uncharitable’ part of the story over the ‘superficial’ part, and indeed the term ‘superficial’ seems to be used in a somewhat lighthearted way. But the association between uncharitable and superficial when it comes to the history of philosophy is bound to be pernicious, hence this post.
Can readers think of other examples of uncharitable and superficial/not superficial analyses?