Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Doing History of Philosophy with Funerary Inscriptions

I have an interest in the diffusion of philosophy by nonstandard means -- i.e., outside the usual means of philosophical treatises and lectures. I've found by experience, however, that it's fairly difficult to get most of my colleagues interested in this as well. Usually if we are talking about correspondence and sermons you can find a few people who are willing to discuss the matter -- if the person corresponding or sermonizing is a sufficiently renowned name, of course. But if it's a more obscure name, it is harder to catch anyone's interest. And if we move outside even correspondence and sermons to more unusual conduits of philosophical thought, like, say, newspapers and tracts and poems and examination questions in the Tripos, you have to find a historian to talk it over with, because your chances of finding anyone in a philosophy department who will take an interest are very, very small. Indeed, it tends to get denigrated as 'of purely historical interest'; which is in some places in philosophical academia a rather terrible condemnation. To say of someone doing history of philosophy that his work is 'history, not philosophy' is a profound insult; it is often taken as a reason for ignoring the work altogether. There is an absolute rejection of the idea "that a historical inquiry can establish a philosophical point," to use a phrase William Frankena used to criticize Alasdair MacIntyre's work. But I'm very much on MacIntyre's side in this matter. I think the following, which looks at an even more unexpected conduit for the diffusion of philosophical thought, namely funerary memorials (such as eulogies and inscriptions), with a special focus on inscriptions, is one of the several things there needs to be much more of in HoP.

One source, in England at least, of knowledge about common beliefs about the virtues in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the Church of England tombstone or memorial in church or graveyard. Neither Protestant dissenters nor Roman Catholics generally carried on this practice of funerary inscription in a systematic way in this period, so that what we learn from tombstones concerns only one section of the population, and one moreover ostensibly still committed by its religious allegiance to a Christian teleology. But this makes the degree of variation in funerary catalogues of the virtues all the more impressive. There are for example Humean inscriptions: the memorial to Captain Cook erected by Sir Hugh Palliser in 1780 on his own land speaks of Cook as possessing 'every useful and amiable quality'. There are inscriptions in which 'moral' has already acquired a highly-restricted meaning, so that to praise someone's virtues you must praise more than his or her morality: 'Correct in Morals, Elegant in Manners, Steady in Friendship, Diffusive in Benevolence,' says the tablet commemorating Sir Francis Lumm in St. James's Piccadilly in 1797, in a way that suggests that the Aristotelian ideal of the great-souled man still lives. And there are distinctively Christian inscriptions: 'Love, Peace, Goodness, Faith, Hope, Charity, Humility, Sincerity, Gentleness' are the virtues ascribed to Margaret Yates in the same church in 1817.

[Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., Duckworth (London: 1987) 235.]

Of course, one can conceive it being done on a more systematic level than this, and with perhaps a bit more caution in interpretation. But this is a good move; there is a great deal about commonly accepted ideas of the good life that can be learned from funerary inscriptions; one could, depending on the period, branch out into eulogies and obituaries and the consolation genre for supplementary information; and from this all draw a picture of how more technical and sophisticated moral philosophy is filtering down among the people (or, for that matter, filtering from common society into more sophisticated forms of moral philosophy). This is only an example of the sort of thing one could do, of course; there are many other possible ways of supplementing the more standard fare.

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