History and Historians of Philosophy

I’ve been noticing lately that historians of philosophy have been articulating some friction with the mainstream philosophy community.  The issues seem to be the straightforward problems of building a history when present disciplinary concerns are overbearing.  In the New York Times’ The Stone series, Justin Smith (who maintains a blog) argues that philosophical agendas constrain inquiry into older philosophers’ sprawling interests, particularly in the sciences.  Meanwhile, at the University of Otago, historians of early modern philosophy are arguing for a historical distinction between experimental and speculative philosophy, as opposed to the empiricist-rationalist distinction applied retrospectively from post-Kantian epistemological agendas. This situation in history of philosophy seems to be similar to what prevails in the history of economic thought, where historians sometimes complain of being an unloved branch of a (sometimes militantly) unhistorical economics profession. At first glance, historians and philosophers of biology seem to have less angst over this, but maybe I’m not privy to the right conversations.

Personally, I’ve never really understood why historians — particularly of older periods — would want to view their work as chained to the present manifestation of a particular discipline.  From a practical standpoint, the job market may be incrementally better within those disciplines than within history departments.  From an intellectual standpoint, it may well be that the goal of seamlessly uniting historical inquiry with present concerns is simply too attractive to declare the historical enterprise to have distinct goals.  However, it may also be the case that intellectual historians and historians of science do not have enough patience for these other areas’ pickier concerns to provide an attractive second home.  That would be a pity, because a robustly united intellectual history could, I think, be a vital field.


About Will Thomas

Will Thomas is a junior research fellow at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Imperial College London. He is originally from Minnesota, and received his PhD in the History of Science from Harvard University in 2007. From 2007 to 2010 he was a post-doctoral historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics near Washington, DC. There he developed the Array of Contemporary American Physicists resource. His primary interests are in 20th-century America and Britain, and in the histories of physics and the sciences of policy analysis. He maintains the blog Ether Wave Propaganda, usually posting about the problems of maintaining a constructive historiography, and about argumentative systems in all eras.
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3 Responses to History and Historians of Philosophy

  1. I’m fairly sure things are not so bad as with historians of economics; part of the reason for the complaints is precisely that history of philosophy is pretty securely set within the profession. Not only does HoP research in one generation pretty much determine undergraduate philosophy education in the next generation and heavily influence how problems are handled in its own, philosophy is such a vast field that it can be difficult for different groups to talk to each other, and historians of philosophy have tended to be the ones doing the mediating. HoP is absolutely essential to the field and the profession as it currently exists. But it’s precisely this that makes for the friction: while it’s not by any means universal, there are plenty of historians of philosophy who are in it precisely from an interest in seeing the twists and turns of where philosophy in history leads, but everyone else regards it as crucial that their idea of the right way to do history of philosophy gets implemented — if HoP goes off studying Digby’s weapon salve application of corpusclarianism, for instance, some people are afraid that might drag the entire discipline somewhere they don’t want it to go. In practice this often amounts to rather petty denigration and especially the insult ‘too historical’; and some junior academics pick this up without thinking from senior academics who should know better, so it’s a constant issue. (There are other things at work, too, though; a philosopher of mind, say, will lay out an argument against Descartes and be told by a historian of philosophy that the argument isn’t in Descartes; philosophers of mind are generally impatient with this insistence that attributions need evidence, because they are interested in the arguments themselves, not in whether Descartes or anyone else actually held them. So there’s pressure to insulate their concerns as much as possible from the interference of historical evidence.) On the other side, historians of philosophy often work with historians, but most historians of philosophy are in it precisely because they see their work as philosophy, and as related to the concern of other philosophers; the history is purely a means, albeit an essential and beautiful one. This does set a pressure to stick to the philosophy department.

    But, of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that this is philosophy: there isn’t so much a mainstream as mainstreams, and this leads to jockeying for control of the conversation even where there isn’t bad blood.

  2. I think it is possible to do intellectual history without having a philosophical agenda beyond getting the ideas right. Ideas do not exist as a “free-floating rationale” to quote Dennett, but they do have content beyond the immediate concerns of the individual actors or even the wider society when dealing with science. For instance, I do not think that gender issues add much to our understanding of Newtonian physics, although of course they add a lot to our understanding of how Newtonian physics was employed in that social context.

    But while historians of science chide philosophers and intellectual historians for their lack of context, philosophers chide intellectual historians for their lack of attention to the intensional content and sometimes (it happened to me recently) lack of ideological purity. I think neither field is really ready to deal with both the content and the hermeneutics of the past, with a few noble exceptions.

  3. Will Thomas says:

    I should clarify that I’m not so much concerned about the possibility of writing history free from present agendas. I take the position that while it’s not possible to have absolutely no agenda, we can adopt agendas that allow us to recover portraits of the past that make a close approximation of the logic (if we can call it that) governing past events and thought. What I’m wondering about is whether groups that are well positioned to explore past philosophical thought feel that they are free to recover this logic even if it leads away from a preconceived set of concerns. Brandon’s answer is very informative and satisfying, though I’d like to hear if there are other perspectives as well. Between these discussions and the Chalmers-Newman dispute over chymistry that I’m following at EWP, it seems like it will be an ongoing intellectual and professional challenge to mesh agenda-driven histories with historians’ histories. Personally, I would be pleased if we could revive intellectual history of science to the point where the two camps had work that meshed. The early modern period seems to be the primary place where the most promising work is being done right now.

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