Wednesday, July 25, 2007

It Does Lead Up to Me

From a recent review:

Another problem is what the editors call "the degree to which it is possible to avoid the difficulties associated with the specific genre of philosophical history." (p. 4) What they mean by 'philosophical history' is, apparently, a Kantian or Hegelian approach to history and the history of philosophy. They note that this kind of approach "is so structured that historical events unfold as the means of solving present philosophical problems." (p. 4) This kind of philosophical history seems prone to an approach to the history of philosophy that concludes 'it all leads up to me'. (While it may be true that the Kantian and Hegelian histories of philosophy clearly have this feature, it is also the case that histories of philosophy written by such great philosophers as Aristotle and Bertrand Russell show exactly the same tendency.) Following on from this kind of view of philosophical history, the editors suggest that "the history of philosophy has remained largely in the hands of philosophers as a tool of doctrinal exploration and justification." (p. 2) Much of this critique is on the mark.

Or so one would think until you actually look at the alternative. The alternative to having an account of the history of philosophy that does not lead up to you is to give an account of the history of philosophy and then say that you've learned nothing from it. If, on the other hand, you've actually learned from the history that you're relating, it will lead up to you for the simple reason that you will be taking everything you've related and building upon it. Thus it will all serve in one way or another as a foundation for you. So we can say: if your view of the history of philosophy does not conclude with "It all leads to me," why are you such an incompetent student of that history?

There is a hint of a real critique here, because, in fact, there are two ways you could approach the history of philosophy (besides ignoring it altogether): you could try to do justice to the facts and evidence, or you could cherry-pick what supports your own view (or what's sufficiently easy to caricature and refute). That is, the worry is that one will, instead of building on the history, try to force it into a particular shape. There is always a temptation to do that, and what people worry about with, say, Hegel, is that it often seems to do just this. It's the same reason why Russell's history, fascinating as it is (and it must be said I'm a fan of it despite disagreeing with almost all of it, because it first introduced me to just how rich the history of philosophy could be), is very flawed. But one can do justice to the history itself, build upon it, and do it brilliantly -- Hegel at his best sometimes does manage this (particularly with the period from Descartes to Kant), and Aristotle certainly sets the tone for it.

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