History of philosophy: why bother?

One difference between science and philosophy is how they treat their own history. Physicists typically don’t spend too much time studying the theory of impetus, chemists don’t bother to learn about the theory of phlogiston, biologists don’t pay a lot of attention to the theory of the four humours, etc. They simply don’t need any of that to get on with their business. Philosophers, on the other hand, endlessly mull over the old doctrines of Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Hegel, and others. According to some, this reveals a serious problem: unlike scientists, philosophers are unable to decide which theories are flawed, so they cannot discard anything in order to move forward.

Bernard Williams argues this is a misunderstanding. To explain why, he introduces a curious distinction:

Discussing, some years ago, different ways of approaching the thought of Descartes, I made a broad distinction between two activities that I labelled ‘the history of ideas’ and ‘the history of philosophy’. The two are distinguished in the first place by their product. The history of ideas yields something that is history before it is philosophy, while with the history of philosophy it is the other way round. In particular, the product of the history of philosophy, being in the first place philosophy, admits more systematic regimentation of the thought under discussion. The two activities can be distinguished also by having rather different directions of attention. The history of ideas, as I intended the distinction, naturally looks sideways to the context of a philosopher’s ideas, in order to realize what their author might be doing in making those assertions in that situation. The history of philosophy, on the other hand, is more concerned to relate a philosopher’s conception to present problems, and is likely to look at his influence on the course of philosophy from his time to the present.

According to Williams, the relation between physics and the history of physics is like the relation between philosophy and the history of ideas, not like between philosophy and the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy is something unique to philosophy. It arises from the need to “revive a sense of strangeness or questionability about our own philosophical assumptions”. Each such assumption has its own historical origin, which has to be traced back so that the assumption can be questioned and properly assessed.

One fairly obvious objection to that would be that beliefs can be refuted or justified irrespective of where they happen to come from. Here’s Williams’s rejoinder:

Some philosophers deny that any historical story could vindicate (or fail to vindicate) our values. They see any such idea as an instance of the ‘genetic fallacy’: it is reasons or justifications that count, not origins. But this overlooks the possibility that the value in question may understand itself and present itself and claim authority for itself in terms which the genealogical story can undermine. The ‘morality’ that Nietzsche’s genealogy damaged claimed to be the expression of a spirit that was higher, purer and more closely associated with reason, as well as transcending negative passions such as resentment, and if Nietzsche’s account of it, in its functional and its historical aspects, were true, it would emerge as self-deceived in that respect. Similarly, when it is argued that the values of contemporary liberalism cannot possibly be criticised in terms of their history, this will be so only to the extent that those values can be separated from the claim – one which is often made for them – that they have emerged from the spread of reason and represent a cognitive achievement.

I’m not really convinced by this reply. Of course if a claim about the historical origin of a doctrine is an integral part of the doctrine, evaluating it must involve doing some historical research – this doesn’t sound terribly controversial. But most philosophical doctrines don’t seem to be like that. Take, say, the problem of universals. How can any of its proposed solutions, like nominalism or realism, “claim authority for itself in terms which the genealogical story can undermine”? Or how can this be said about any of the assumptions behind the way we frame the problem in the first place? And yet philosophers keep discussing Plato’s and Aristotle’s theories of universals.

I’m not saying we should simply forget about Plato and Aristotle and philosophy will be fine. We would only be justified in ignoring their theories if it was uncontroversial they’re deficient and outdated, and it’s clearly not. All I’m saying is that if philosophy’s preoccupation with its own history is not a symptom of a serious problem, it’s probably not for the reasons laid out by Williams.

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