Thursday, November 06, 2008

HoP, Networks, and Problems

David Chalmers and David Bourget are putting together what they call a taxonomy of philosophy. The actual draft of the taxonomy is here. It's really only a taxonomy in a loose and figurative sense (in much the same sense in which a taxonomy of items on my desk might include CDs, Envelopes, Papers, Books, Notebooks, Cups of Tea, etc.), but it's an interesting project; the idea is to help organize access to online work in philosophy. Stop by and leave comments on their post if you have any comments to make on how they can modify their draft for greater convenience.

One of the things I began thinking about after looking at the draft was how best to organize information in History of Philosophy. The Chalmers-Bourget approach is to do it by period, which is probably the best way to do it for their purposes. But HoP doesn't taxonomize well at all, even with this loose sort of taxonomy, and it's worth thinking about why this is so, since I think it touches on an important aspect of the discipline.

The field of inquiry for HoP naturally organizes itself along two completely different lines, each of them important and essential to the field. On the one hand, what historians of philosophy study is naturally seen as a complicated historical system of networks: networks of influence, networks of institutions, networks of oppositions, networks of personal interaction, along with the individual thinkers at the nodes of these networks. On the other hand, they study not only networks but themes, which we usually call, somewhat misleadingly, problems. Thus historians of philosophy do philosophy by tracing both the history of networks of various kinds and the internal structures of problems discussed and investigated within those networks; and what is more, they do so simultaneously, and doing so simultaneously is essential to the approach.

It is also what puts non-dabblers -- that is, people like myself who do history of philosophy professionally, rather than as a small supplement to various other projects, or as an occasional hobby -- in a rather tricky position. On the one hand, we are like historians; that comes naturally from our interest in networks; and we are always under a bit of pressure from the historical side to put more emphasis on the networks. But we're historians in a purely incidental way, by a kind of accident arising from some of the tools we use and what we use them on. I fully understand Miriam's amusement whenever someone calls her a historian because what she studies is historical: historians of philosophy are in the same boat, because we're accidental and incidental historians, and thus historians in a sort-of-kind-of-but-not-really sort of way.

But try telling that to many of our philosophical colleagues! They are interested chiefly in problems, or at least the tiny temporal slices of problems being discussed in the journals at a given moment, which they also call 'problems'. You might get them interested in networks and nodes as a side interest, as a sort of profession-relevant entertainment, in much the same way that a physicist might become absorbed in a biography of Albert Einstein, but it takes extraordinary efforts to convince them that what we're doing is really philosophy, and most are never convinced at all. I have heard job candidates for a HoP position criticized for being too historical; I have heard papers in the field insulted on the same grounds; I have heard graduate students discouraged from interesting lines of historical investigation on the grounds that it would take them too far afield from philosophy. If you're dealing with people who only have an interest in what domesticated philosophy can do for them, it simply does no good to try to convince them that there is intrinsic value in the study of philosophy in the wild. All you can do is torture whatever you're studying out of shape until it looks or feels roughly like it might possibly be relevant to understanding the particular strain they are breeding. Good luck on telling them that you are studying (say) the role of thaumaturgy in Neoplatonism after Iamblichus; you'll have to tell them that in some bizarre way Neoplatonistic thaumaturgy was a presentiment of Donald Davidson. Good luck trying to convince them that philosophical thought can benefit from studying Suhrawardi's notion of illumination, simply because Suhrawardi's brilliant and his ideas are interesting; if it doesn't foreshadow Williamson, they just won't regard it as philosophy.

It is curious, if I may say so, how HoP is treated in the profession. Functionally it is the core of the discipline: it is the foundation of virtually any undergraduate program, and it is often the one thing that allows there to be any common ground for discussion among very disparate viewpoints. Nobody gets away with ignoring it altogether, and everyone dabbles in it regularly. But historians of philosophy are continually forced to justify their works in ways that no other members of the profession have to do so, because if they don't, they'll be seen as doing just history -- by which the philosophers will mean that they are not doing philosophy at all.

But I am digressing. My point is that HoPers are in this odd situation because they simultaneously study ideas, positions, and arguments through the lens of networks and the lens of problems. This often creates interests that might not otherwise exist. Take just one small example. No one really reads the British Malebrancheans any more; trying to get a typical analytic philosophers interested in Mary Astell's idea that we should court truth with a romantic passion, or John Norris's ontologism, is a futile endeavor. But network-wise they are extraordinarily interesting. For one thing, it's not so clear how Malebranche has influenced them. He certainly has, and there is a line of influence running from Malebranche to Norris to Astell. But both Norris and Astell seem to have come to the bulk of their philosophical views completely independently of Malebranche. Norris tells us explicitly that he had come to his position before reading Malebranche, and Astell certainly had her basic views in place before she read Malebranchean passages in Norris and then contacted him to start up a correspondence, the one that eventually led to the publication of the Letters Concerning the Love of God. They both make considerable use of Malebranchean idiom, though, and Norris adapts Malebranche's arguments. So we have the spontaneous formation of a small but rather creative Malebranchean network in Britain, which is interesting itself. This network of correspondence and influence is itself part of a larger network involving an opposition to the Lockeans; Norris had been a friend of Locke (through Damaris Masham) but had had a falling out with him, and Norris takes the trouble to adapt Malebranchean arguments against Lockean empiricism. This in turn sets Locke to building an empiricist response to Malebranche. Meanwhile, Lady Masham works out a Lockean counterproposal to Astell's rationalist theory of education. That's interesting as well: the opposition between the Malebrancheans and the Lockeans means that there are two different and mutually exclusive justifications for the education of women floating around in the early eighteenth century, one rationalist and emphasizing philosophical reflection away from the world, the other empiricist and emphasizing active participation in society. At the same time, we begin to see the importance of the patronage of people like Lady Masham -- so important to Norris and Locke early in their careers, and without whom none of this interaction could have been possible at all. Coalescence points like Masham or (even more strikingly) Mersenne in France are extremely important for any account of how philosophical ideas, positions, and arguments originated, were propagated, and eventually die. And what we don't know about the networks are often of interest as well: Astell's education is hard to pin down (one is reminded a bit of the mystery of Boethius, fluent in Greek under circumstances where it's hard to see how that would have even been a possible part of his education -- and that mysterious fluency turns out to have a massive effect on the history of philosophy), Norris's influence is equally unstudied.

The combination of networks and problems makes it difficult to divide the field of inquiry in any clear way. Should Hume be placed with Locke, whose empiricism he adapts, or Malebranche, whose rationalist attack on causation he adapts? How in the world do you do justice to the fact that almost everyone in seventeenth century France is interacting, directly and indirectly, with the texts of Augustine? And so forth. One of the things we do in practice is build a typology. For instance, we introduce two opposing types, the Rationalist and the Empiricist, and put Hume in the cluster of thinkers tending toward the Empiricist type. (This is certainly where Hume puts himself, despite his debt to Malebranche, and Hume seems to be the first person explicitly to propose this particular typological opposition between rationalists and empiricists as a way of understanding early modern philosophy.) But typologies are a tricky kind of classification when you are dealing with something as complex as human thought. Change the types to Occasionalists and Defenders of Causal Powers and Hume and Berkeley are suddenly a long way from empiricist Locke, and not far at all from rationalist Malebranche. And what reason would there be for thinking this typology in any way inferior to the other? Another thing we do is simply mark off periods of time (like the Eighteenth Century): it has the advantage of being easy to do and the disadvantage of corresponding to nothing real. So we modify this by looking at heavily interconnected networks that extend through a significant period of time -- the Scottish Enlightenment, for instance; now we're building on evidence, but we have overlapping categories, gray areas, and important figures falling through the cracks, as Whewell inevitably does whenever people try to do this with nineteenth century Britain, because they are at unusual places where very disparate networks interconnect. And so forth. It's an unruly field. And how could it be otherwise, when human reason itself is so unruly?

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