Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Doing Philosophy Historically

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Doing Philosophy Historically

Article excerpt

QUINE IS SAID TO HAVE JOKED THAT "there are two sorts of people interested in philosophy, those interested in philosophy and those interested in the history of philosophy." (1) Though many of us would bristle at Quine's joke, it makes a straightforward point: that there is a distinction to be drawn between trying to solve contemporary philosophical problems and trying to understand the philosophers of the past. Doing philosophy and studying its history are separate enterprises, at least in principle, and they must be carefully distinguished. (2) In the last several decades, however, doing so has become more complicated, as it has become common for philosophers to speak of a third enterprise that must be distinguished both from doing philosophy and from studying its history. This enterprise is called "doing philosophy historically." (3) Doing philosophy historically involves more than simply doing philosophy since not every attempt to solve philosophical problems does so by engaging with thinkers from the past. We can try to solve philosophical problems in nonhistorical ways--through conceptual analysis or the study of ordinary language, for example. Doing philosophy historically also involves more than simply studying the history of philosophy since not every attempt to understand the thinkers of the past is also an attempt to solve contemporary philosophical problems. We can try to understand what Aristotle or Aquinas said without asking whether what they said is true, rational, or relevant to our own concerns. Doing philosophy historically is thought to be a hybrid, an attempt to gain philosophical understanding through or by means of an engagement with philosophy's past. It takes the study of history to be a philosophical method and a method that offers a kind of illumination that is difficult or perhaps impossible to gain in any other way. This much seems clear; but the matters of what it means to do philosophy historically, and of what sort of illumination this enterprise offers, are much less clear.

My aim here is to explore what is involved in doing philosophy historically. I want to offer an explication of this enterprise's goals and methods, one that serves to distinguish it both from the practice of philosophy more narrowly construed and from the study of the history of philosophy. I also want to investigate the value of this activity--that is, to explain what kind of illumination it offers and why this illumination is worth seeking. Accordingly, the rest of the paper falls into three parts. In the first, I examine a number of current views about what it means to do philosophy historically and explain why I find them inadequate. In the second section, I raise the question of what kind of understanding is gained through the study of history--any kind of history. I do so by drawing on John Herman Randall's discussion of the "genetic method." (4) In the third section, I extend Randall's discussion of the genetic method to the case of philosophy and explain how a study of past philosophy might teach philosophical lessons. I also ask what assumptions we must make about philosophy if it is to be possible for us to learn such lessons. These assumptions, I argue, are plausible. (5)

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It is not difficult to describe the enterprise of doing philosophy historically in very general terms. Let us imagine two ideal types: the pure philosopher and the pure historian of philosophy. The pure philosopher is interested solely in "doing" philosophy--that is, in discovering the answers to contemporary philosophical questions. He may want to know whether uncaused free action is possible or moral values objective, for example. He may not be particularly interested in the history of earlier attempts to answer these questions. He simply wants to know the answers, and he may not think that a familiarity with the history of his questions will help him find them. Indeed, the pure philosopher may suspect that paying too much attention to this history will lead him away from the answers he seeks. …

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