Problems with History of Philosophy

If I’m writing a history of military strategy I don’t have to be a successful military strategist myself because I can evaluate military strategies based on their results.  I would give a lot of attention to Roman military strategies and not so much to those of the neighboring Italian states of Latium because the Romans won and the Latians lost.   The task of studying the history of philosophy is harder: it’s as if I am given the strategy books of history’s generals but the knowledge of the success or failure of these strategies is barred to me because the world is hidden by a fog.  I have no way of knowing whether the generals I’m studying won or lost.  How do I figure out who to study?  How do I figure out who to pay attention to?  I need to evaluate Eisenhower without knowing if the D-Day invasion was a success or a fiasco.

If I want to evaluate whether Kant was an important or a minor figure I need to figure out for myself whether or not the central claims of the critique of pure reason make sense or they don’t.  Otherwise I am just doing the history of publishing — there was a man in such and such a place who wrote some pages.  I can’t even say who is influential or who is not, because the people who claim to be influenced by Kant may be incorrect.

The only way to do the history of philosophy is to do philosophy.  Every historian is a good or bad philosopher.


5 thoughts on “Problems with History of Philosophy

  1. “The only way to do the history of philosophy is to do philosophy.” Absolutely. But what are we doing when we do philosophy?

    Philosophy (like mathematics, economics, and many other fields) is akin to storytelling. We construct a narrative about some aspect of the world and we judge its success by several criteria. Is it comprehensible to its intended audience? Interesting to them and to us? Helpful? Internally consistent? Consistent with observation? Likely to result in tenure?

    The criteria are of different kinds: subjective, pragmatic, logical, and empirical. Therefore, philosophical stories are neither purely intellectual exercises nor purely artistic creations; and there is no non-arbitrary algorithm for weighting the importance of the various success criteria.

    In philosophy, we want to find patterns in reality that challenge our ability to find such patterns and satisfy our craving to enjoy them. As Brand Blanshard said in “Reason and Goodness,” we seek a good that fulfills (exercises our abilities) and satisfies (answers our desires).

    Evaluating the influence of philosophers is, of course, quite different from evaluating the merits of their work.

  2. Mikey says:

    Perhaps this is a criterion for deciding whether a subject has any worth. Military history: anyone can evaluate military strategies based on their results –> Knowledge of the Military is important. History of maths: experts can easily evaluate mathematical proofs –> Knowledge of maths is quite important. History of Philosophy (also Astrology etc): no one can evaluate any of the ideas, but the experts who spend their whole time trying, all disagree with each other –> Philosophy is worthless.

    But I suppose we’d better carry on trying, just in case in the future someone works out a really successful philosophy which everyone gets is really good without having to be an expert.

  3. Robert French says:

    To Noah Palmer: Perhaps there is a criterion and Mikey gets very close with his “a really successful philosophy which everyone gets is really good without having to be an expert.” I recently read a slim “Philosophy for Dummies” book by a French philosopher (in English) and I learnt that Plato(?) settled on “the only certainty is death so live until death honourably, not overly worried about the past (which you can’t fix) and not anxious about the future which you cannot anticipate)”. The Frenchie then went through the history of philosophers until he summarised philosophy’s position today, stripped of all its decorative details: “the only certainty is death etc.” 2500 years of philosophers’ fists pressed tightly against foreheads for zero progress except in terms of Roccoco-like verbal elaborations! Am I wrong?

    Could Mikey’s ‘someone’ be Jesus of Nazareth who is reported as indicating that, because he was executed and came alive again, people can come to an arrangement with him to have the past, present and future dealt with, even beyond the grave? Not sermonising, just asking.

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