In Defense of the History of Philosophy: A Reply to Huemer

Mike Huemer has just written a provocative broadside against the history of philosophy, following a broadside against analytic philosophy and another against continental philosophy. I had some sympathy with the first two posts, but much less with this one. I want to outline some reasons to value the history of philosophy and historians of philosophy.

  1. Intrinsic Value. Studying the great works of philosophy is a lot like studying the great works of literature. Many of these works are beautiful¬†and it is worth having people around who understand those works and that can teach others about them. We don’t need a good reason beyond the intrinsic value of art or great literature to justify having at least some academics who study these works full time. Same with the great works of philosophy. Yes, Mike is right that we have historians of philosophy around to teach undergraduate courses, but that’s because we think those works have intrinsic value for students. So the same reasons that justify teaching the history of philosophy to undergraduates can also help justify having people around who study the history of philosophy full time.
  2. Philosophers Forget Stuff. Philosophy changes a lot from generation to generation. We often focus on a narrow band of views and then forget the insights of the past. Philosophy is vast field of complex conceptual systems. Focusing on some of those systems takes so much time and effort that we just plain forget about other systems or at least their most important features.
  3. Philosophers Learn New Stuff. We can learn new views from studying old texts. Many of the great works of the history of philosophy are quite complex, in that their parts can be combined in many ways. Huemer’s vision of a history-less philosophy profession seems to assume that we’ll good ways to get all the interesting views on the table without history of philosophy, but he doesn’t consider that studying the history of philosophy might help us gain new insight by struggling with complicated, frustrating texts. Maybe the great works of philosophy are the grain of sand in the oyster – beauty-generating irritants. Another way we learn new stuff is when a single philosopher knows multiple important historical texts and can contrast them to form new views. My graduate course with Jerry Gaus on the Social Contract, where we read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, helped me to see the way in which public reason views arise rather naturally from studying their views as a coherent whole. And indeed, the texts of that class, with some others, were turned into this lovely little volume. I don’t know where my work would be without engaging them all.
  4. Social Benefits from Diverse Historians. Huemer claims that studying great historical works of philosophy can be bad for you as an individual since you may become ideologically wedded to the position. Sure, that’s a risk. But we have lots of historical texts that are radically distinct from one another, which often generates a bunch of diverse ideologues. And that means diverse minds can bring disputes between those systems of thought to life and carry out useful debates. I absolutely love seeing great historians of different philosophers interact, like Hume and Hobbes scholars, or Aristotle and Aquinas scholars, or Kant and Hegel scholars. Sure, each one is wedded to their view, but their interactions have serious positive externalities.

Of course, we should be focused on figuring out true views. But history of philosophy helps that process in a number of ways Huemer doesn’t consider.

So history of philosophy is philosophically valuable history and a source of philosophical progress in some cases.

In sum, contra Mike, let there be Aristotelians! They’re good to have around because they can convey the intrinsic value of Aristotle, keep Aristotelian systems of thought alive for people to engage and to revisit for new views (like neo-Aristotelian virtues ethics), and it is great to have Aristotelians be part of a diverse group of philosophical historians. So, let there be Platonists, Thomists, Hobbesians, Lockeans, Humeans, Kantians, and Hegelians, and let them all interact forever!



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  • Eric B Rasmusen Posted September 27, 2020 9:07 pm

    I was with you till the end. History of philosophy, and reading old philosophers, can be valuable even without anyone being a follower of any of them. Indeed, I would think the best person to study and teach history of philosophy wouldn’t be a Platonist or Aristotelian or Hegelian— aren’t they too close to their subject? In economics, my field, it is worth reading Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall, Joseph Schumpeter, and others, but much more dubious to be a Smithian or Marshallian or Schumpeterian. And not all great economists are worth reading in the original— Ricardo and Walras, for example, were not such gifted writers and their contributions are more straightforward and better studied in rewrites. Plato is worth reading in the original, but is Aristotle? Maybe, but it’s not as clear

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