Posts tagged: history of philosophy

Build Big Philosophical Theories and Study Those Who Did

Jason Brennan wrote a nice reply to my defense of the great historical philosophers against Mike Huemer’s critique of them. I think the best way to respond is to outline two different ways of thinking about how to make progress in philosophy that I think roughly parallel how Brennan and I approach our own work. With those approaches laid out, I think we can explain why it strikes me as obvious that studying the great historical philosophers has value, and why Brennan is more skeptical.

I. Particularist and Coherentist Methods

As I see it, there are at least two ways to approach having true philosophical beliefs. One is a kind of go-it-alone strategy, where you simply try to determine what is true by looking at arguments, sorting through them, and believing accordingly. Big theories have worth, but they tend to distract us. Better to build small theories on different topics. On this picture, reading the history of philosophy has at most modest instrumental value, qualified by the danger of bias from being mentally trapped by these theories. Philosophers who pursue this more particularist strategy are thinking more like natural scientists do about the history of their own discipline. Why should physicists read Newton? Or Aristotle, for that matter? They shouldn’t, because their time is better spent working with contemporary methods, which are much better than old methods, at getting at the truth.

Another strategy is to build big philosophical theories that attempt to capture a much broader stretch of philosophical territory and work to see if certain puzzles can be resolved from within the view. Here the philosopher plays a part in building systems of thought in conjunction with others – past, present, and future. From this perspective, philosophical theorizing is a social endeavor; and it’s long-term, extending perhaps over centuries. The payoff is a coherent worldview that can provide powerful answers to the big questions. Many great systems of thought work this way, especially with followers of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant. Philosophers who approach progress in this way have a kind of coherentist strategy. From this perspective, studying the great philosophers and their systems of thought is conducive to philosophical truth in part to help you decide which social endeavor to join, and if not, at least to get a sense for how to build one’s own philosophical project.

It may well be that inhabiting a philosophical system and working out the results leads to some false beliefs. But for the coherentist, working within established frameworks is a better bet for discovering truth than doing one’s own thing.

II. Schmidtz and Gaus on System-Building

Both particularist and coherentist strategies have merit, and Brennan and I have chosen those two paths, perhaps in light of the examples set by our dissertation advisors (Dave Schmidtz for Brennan, Jerry Gaus for me). Schmidtz argues that philosophical theories are like maps, and many have readily detectable flaws. Accordingly, we should be hesitant to hold to any one theory too tightly, and should instead opt for pluralist approaches and addressing different problems in a more particularist manner. Here there is a central role for engaging work outside of the philosophy profession, since those professions make more progress and know more stuff.

Gaus is especially worried that any large philosophical system runs the risk of bias and ideology. But unlike Schmidtz, he thinks that the process of building big theories and working within larger frameworks has a greater payoff than the more particularist, pluralist approach. So long as philosophers are in conversation with scientists, building philosophical theories as a social enterprise is likely to be productive. Philosophical systems by themselves can become ideology, but large-scale interdisciplinary theory-building is worthwhile.

Brennan’s approach to philosophy is much more particularist, mine more coherentist. This has led Brennan to write a number of great books on quite different topics, despite having some underlying common themes. I have tended to work within the social contract tradition, and various dimensions of it: historical and contemporary, Rawlsian and Gausian, as well as putting the social contract tradition into conversation with the social sciences. These days I’ve been working at the intersection of social contract and social trust, which is a central endeavor in Must Politics Be War?

III. Particularist and Coherentist Approaches to Great Historical Philosophers

Particularists and coherentists will tend to disagree about the importance of the great historical philosophers for philosophical progress. History is more essential to the coherentist approach because the great philosophers created systems of thought that shed light on important questions. We cannot ourselves make much progress in a field without a deep familiarity with those systems of thought. If you think building big theories makes progress, then knowing the big theories, or at least some of them, will help you make progress. That’s at least so because they are good templates for building our own systems. But if you think building big theories is a bad way to make progress, then you’re view historical philosophers more like Brennan and Huemer.

I think it is almost impossible to know which strategy is better for making philosophical progress overall, and that it is up to each philosopher to choose a more particularist or coherentist approach. I prefer to work within big systems of thought, and I think I can contribute more to the field in that way. I don’t trust myself striking out on my own. That’s one reason I find studying the history of philosophy essential to my work as a philosopher, and I can see why Brennan has a different view.

But zooming out a bit, my sense is that philosophy needs both nimble particularists and patient coherentists, and so studying the history of philosophy is going to be essential for at least some strategies for making philosophical progress.

Great Philosophers as Architects: A Reply to Huemer

Philosopher Mike Huemer has recently blogged that most of the great philosophers make terrible arguments, and are great primarily because they turned out to be influential (this follows a previous post on history of philosophy, which I responded to as well). Mike received  pushback, including a comment from Roderick Long, which I wanted to explore a bit. Here’s Long:

When I think of the great philosophers, I imagine them as architects of ideas. They survey a series of intuitions and observations, show how they lead to certain puzzles, and then figure out ingenious new ways to organize these institutions and observations into coherent wholes that can solve the puzzles they identify. The great philosophers design great buildings and inspire new architectural styles that organize much of intellectual and social life.

Viewing philosophers as architects helps to see why they often offer bad arguments. They’re first and foremost focused on creating a coherent system of thought, in contrast to building clear argumentative connections between every different part of their conceptual structure, and many of those connections are a stretch. But even if the beams of their buildings crack and bend, it is worth repairing them. For if we can repair them, then something beautiful, elegant, and maybe even true will come into view; and those systems will help us share a vision of how the world can be organized and understood.


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!