On the future of research in the history of philosophy

Many problems in research in the history of philosophy arise from a basic orientation of philosophy at research institutions: philosophers in general tend to be more concerned about the present and future than about the past. Quine and those influenced by him, for instance, are explicit in regarding theories even in history as fundamentally guided by concerns about prediction; more concretely, much literature on nearly any topic is primarily concerned to see if the argument “works”–that is, is able to do work for us. This basic tendency to evaluate everything on the basis of its ability to be appropriated leaves many philosophers unequipped to engage in research on more than individual figures for the sake of more than adopting them for contemporary needs.

A mark of this tendency is the ease with which much research in the history of philosophy can be taxonomized into two approaches: the one I shall call the ‘necromantic approach’; the other, ‘Mormon genealogy’. [i]

The aim of the necromantic approach is to resurrect the mighty dead in order to get into an argument with them. This approach tends to focus on well-known figures (there’s not much value in picking a fight with the feeble dead), with an eye towards appropriating their ideas for contemporary purposes.

The Mormon genealogist, by contrast, baptizes his roots: he does not raise the dead to slay them, but redeems them by linking them to something greater – the attitudes and contributions of the researcher’s own generation. One finds this approach in the naming of contemporary principles and positions for thinkers who couldn’t possibly have known or held them (e.g. ‘Hume’s Principle’, ‘Neo-Humeanism’); in the assimilation of ancient theories to contemporary ones (e.g. Aristotle’s physics and psychology to contemporary functionalism); in the myriad works tracing the origins of scientific method to the later Middle Ages, the historical-critical method to Medieval biblical exegesis, contemporary advances in mathematical logic to Medieval logicians, etc.

Neither of these approaches addresses history in the manner in which it addresses us.

‘History’ names the past. The fundamental givenness of the past in its pastness is as weight. The past is what presses us. As pressing, it presses us toward some end. This is the basis for the connection fashioned by ancient peoples between the star of one’s birth and one’s destiny.

The recognition of weight grounds the recognition of my own history as mine. This weight is given prior to any assessment of its value or goodness. Whether the weight of history be one of sin or of glory, it prepares a rapport of its bearer towards a future.

The name ‘history’ specifically signifies the past in its wholeness. This is why the French ‘l’histoire’ means both ‘history’ and ‘story’; it is also why our removal from an authentic experience of history should be accompanied by an increasingly atomistic approach to historical research. The necromantic approach only values the thinker by de-historicizing him. The genealogical approach treats the thinker as a node to be connected with other nodes in order to reconstruct channels of influence. The atomistic presuppositions behind both projects are a fiction. Ideas do not come from thinkers, nor does their transmission resemble that of your cell-phone data to the government.

Though the pressure associated with research in philosophy is great, the direction of research itself increasingly demands that no attention be given to research as pressure. Recall the following from Kant’s “What is enlightenment?”

  • The officer says: “Do not question – drill!” The tax collector: “Do not question – pay!” The pastor: “Do not question – believe!”

To these we may add the mandate of the university itself:

  • Do not question – write!

What is most uncanny here is that the mode of futurity assumed by historical research divorces it not merely from the experience of history in its pastness: in doing so, it also deprives the researcher of an originary experience of futurity. Futurity is authentically given as what is to come. As such, it may be longed for, anticipated, feared, dreaded. One comes to a future out of a past, like an arrow to its mark from the taut bow. Instead of this, futurity is present to the researcher in the mode of optionality. It is that which is available for the choosing from a position of superiority.

Where there is no reckoning of ground, neither is there the reckoning of a height to be reached; and a thinker who does not think through an inheritance does not think.

[i] The first phrase comes from Charles Pigden. See Charles Pigden (2015). “Scott Soames: The analytic tradition in philosophy, volume 1: Founding giants” Philosophical Studies 172: 1671-1680. The second was suggested to me by a medievalist in Europe in private correspondence.

One thought on “On the future of research in the history of philosophy

  1. Necromancers need not be fixated solely on the mighty dead. For in many of philosophy’s important controversies, the glamorous ‘great philosopher ‘ may have won the debate but the dogged ‘second-rater’ wins the argument. Thus (for example) Wittgenstein versus Ewing and Hume versus Price. I have not gotten around to Wittgenstein and Ewing yet, but I HAVE raised the shade of Richard Price to combat the ghost of David Hume. See my ‘Coercive Theories of Meaning’ in Logique et Analyse.


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