There is almost universal recognition, reflected in hiring patterns, that historians of philosophy play a vital teaching role in philosophy departments. We are experts on the core texts that majors and graduate students are supposed to have read, and we are committed to bringing those works alive in a way that non-historian colleagues might not be. But we all are aware of the dangers of accepting a view of our activities as ancillary in relation to those of philosophy in general. To see ourselves merely as keeping alive a tradition that serves as a backdrop for on-going philosophical research, a tradition that students should study but also supersede in their properly “philosophical” work, is to write ourselves out of the mainstream of contemporary philosophy and to undervalue the significance of our discipline.--Don Rutherford. [Emphases added--ES.]
the history of philosophy can defend its position as an integral part of philosophy, namely that part of philosophy concerned with our understanding and assessment of what philosophy has accomplished and can hope to accomplish.
The “history of philosophy as metaphilosophy” is my slogan for this pathway. Metaphilosophy is an inevitable and widely acknowledged branch of philosophy. Just as philosophers reflexively make their own modes of reasoning and norms of rationality a topic of inquiry, so the enterprise of philosophy as a whole—its subject matter, methods and prospects for progress—is a topic for philosophical inquiry.--Rutherford.
In "Don Rutherford’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA," he moves artfully from acknowledging the anxiety over the possible second-class status of historians of philosophy within professional philosophy to concluding audaciously that, in fact, the history of philosophy is the most philosophical enterprise within professional philosophy today. Within the intellectual division of labor, which generates ever more narrow specializations ("specialists" is a key word throughout the essay, and Rutherford offers important observations about increased specializations among 'early modernists'), a properly conceived history of philosophy can take on one of philosophy's key tasks -- distinct from science, and religion,* intellectual history, etc. -- that is knowledge of generality, that is, a necessary ingredient of philosophy, which he understands in "the broadest terms as our self-understanding as human beings." To be clear (and fair to Rutherford), the "enterprise of philosophy as a whole" is a second-order enterprise that pertains to philosophy's "subject matter, methods and prospects for progress," rather than the first-order, specialist enterprise of contributing to progress by solving some puzzle, re-framing the nature of problem, philosophical limits, generating a new purported paradox, etc.
Before I turn to Rutherford's explicit conception of history of philosophy as meta-philosophy, I register two notes on the first paragraph quoted above. First, the "hiring patterns," Rutherford describes are more localized than he realizes even in Anglophone (analytical) philosophy, e.g. (a) in England, there is remarkably little hiring in (let's call it) pre-Fregean philosophy, a few splendidly isolated bastions of 'Ancient' excepted; (b) in many European departments, self-described 'analytical' philosophers (in some ways still minority) are very hostile to any 'history' or will only recognize history of logic/physics as somewhat respectable.
Second, Rutherford takes the notion of a 'mainstream' for granted in his piece; now if the mainstream just is where the jobs are (recall 'hiring patterns'), then we can just grant some sociological interpretation of this and move on (although it would be worth testing to what degree responses to PhilPapers surveys and hiring correlate). But, it is more likely that, in practice, 'mainstream' functions as a kind of disciplinary self-policing tool located in the imaginations and self-understandings of folk that is used locally and more widely in opportunistic ways to articulate what is acceptable and not for a professional philosopher, historian or otherwise, to engage in. (I use 'self-policing' here in order to do justice to Rutherford's repeated 'we.') This matters because Rutherford seems to rule out, in advance, the possibility that some such dissatisfaction with some such imagined 'mainstream' might be the conatus behind history of philosophy or the historian of philosophy (recall this post); to recognize this particular conatus, does not entail that such a historian has the aim to overturn the existing (imagined) 'mainstream directly or indirectly, but it should not be ruled out. Rather than seeing it is an anxiety-producing problem that one can write oneself out of the mainstream, one might see this as liberation, even necessary preparation to a recasting of the discipline. That is to say, Rutherford's way of setting things up suggests initially a conception of the second-order (meta-philosophical) enterprise that leaves the first-order enterprise untouched; it's general, but harmless. On might think that Rutherford endorses such conception (e.g., "our work as historians of philosophy is, first and foremost, to understand the views of historical philosophers on their own terms before considering the relation between them and contemporary philosophical views.")
To cast the issues in Kuhnian terms (I could also have used Koyré, but he is less familiar these days). Rutherford's historian of philosophy is like a (philosophically self-aware, that is,) Kuhnian historian of science who stands, as it were, outside the developments described by such a historian and can't really influence them. Not unlike Kuhn, Rutherford is decidedly ambivalent about progress. Like Kuhn he does not allow (i) progress "as the definitive solution of timeless problems, or progress as approximation to a fixed truth." Rutherford allows that there are two genuine kinds of progress: (ii) of particular dialectics from some baselines; and (iii) "as the overcoming of whatever limitations we find in our earlier understanding of a topic." (Of course, (ii)-(iii) have a kind of creative interplay between them.)
Of course, if (i) is true and the fruits of specific knowledge that is a consequent to the proper study of the history of philosophy (perhaps aided by some meta-philosophical inductions [e.g. "Philosophers “solve” problems in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics at particular dialectical junctures, when the weight of reasons points decisively in one direction rather than another. But such moments are inevitably transitory, awaiting the next compelling objection..."]), then, of course, there is a sense that the historian of philosophy knows better than the specialist what ultimately the fruits of specialist labor will be. In fact, the specialist philosopher may well need to believe (motivationally, even conceptually) either that the definitive solution of timeless problems is possible, or that she makes progress as approximation to a fixed truth (or both). Again, there are many shades of Kuhn here. So, while the historian of philosopher, stands apart of the mind-numbing puzzle-solving-action (with the same clean hands because not complicit in the sins of the applied philosophers [akin to the crimes of the scientist-engineers]), as it were, she alone can grasp the whole and have true self-knowledge (and, thus, is the real philosopher). Of course, (i) is also a substantive, controversial position that may well be argued against in metaphysics or epistemology or value theory (etc.); I return to this below.
Such a Kuhnian conception of the historian of philosopher, requires a strong, moralized ethos among historians in order to function as proper score-keeping umpires. For example, he writes,
The last qualification highlights a key function of the history of philosophy. Philosophers engaged in a dialectic routinely make reference to claims with which they disagree, but they often do so in ways that serve their own purposes. They represent their views as responding to prior claims in ways that emphasize their own insights and destroy the credibility of their opponent’s position. Hence, they are rarely reliable as interpreters of how the dialectic has unfolded. The phenomenon of philosophers confounding the dialectical background to their own positions should be familiar. Its pervasiveness in the history of philosophy points to the role of historians of philosophy as philosophers who track the dialectical development of philosophy, much as Plato does in summing up the progress of Socratic dialectic. As ideal observers, we are able to assess—disinterestedly and defeasibly—how the dialectic has gone: where telling points have been made, where objections have gone unanswered.**
The "ideal observers" keep the disciplinary score-keeping honest perhaps not in real time, but certainly in historical time. Even in my own life-time, something like this has, indeed, happened; initially, it seems to have been widely felt that Quine had 'won' the debate with Carnap. But a mixture of historical and philosophical work (associated with names like Gillian Russell, Howard Stein, Michael Friedman, etc.) has apparently overturned (perhaps, if Rutherford's conception is correct, temporarily?) that initial verdict. This example suggests that unlike the Kuhnian historian of science, the second-order enterprise of the proper historian of philosophy does not leave things at the first-order entirely untouched. That is, the activities of the historian of philosophy can, in fact, influence first-order practice not (surprisingly enough) by sharing hard-won claims such as (i), but rather (iv) by contributing to the ongoing evaluation of the 'dialectic,' which helps drawing the baselines (and the criteria apt to them) from which progress is measured and evaluated: "A properly philosophical approach to the history of philosophy aims to understand a position from within, both with regard to its internal consistency and justification and with regard to a philosopher’s framing of a problem against the background of earlier attempts to address similar problems."+ Some such shared "framing of a problem' is -- to continue the Kuhnian tropes -- characteristic of a (paradigm-adhering) 'mainstream.' So, in Rutherford's approach the historian of philosophy helps drive, and maybe provides the main road-map to, philosophical development toward, well, better understanding of ourselves.
Now, let's grant Rutherford his technical use of 'dialectic.' (It allows him to characterize what philosophers essentially do, ''Philosophers are not satisfied simply to propound a doctrine..but advance reasons for accepting that doctrine, with the tacit admission that those reasons are subject to challenge by others...philosophers place minimal prior constraints on the content of reasons and make reason-giving itself a legitimate topic of inquiry (hence the central place given to logic and epistemology in philosophy).") And, let's also grant him the claim that "the history of philosophy offers the most reliable means of orienting ourselves in philosophical inquiry and of articulating a meaningful notion of philosophical progress:" That is to say, Rutherford's understanding of the history of philosophy is refreshingly ambitious philosophically. I admire it and have, in fact, been influenced by Rutherford's more informal attempts at articulating his vision. So, this is a good moment to explicitly acknowledge my debts.
Because I have gone on quite a bit already, I conclude by noting that while I grant that the 'ideal observer' picture of the historian is an attractive regulative ideal worthy of constant renewal, it is inherently unstable for reasons hinted at above: (I) this ideal observer may influence directly and indirectly what is to be observed, and so has only tenuous 'impartial' status; (II) the ideal observer has commitments (recall (i)) that cannot be widely shared with the folk studied and so either demands a great deal of self-command among historians of philosophy or embracing something akin to noble lies--it is also not obvious that (i) can withstand critical scrutiny; (III) this particular ideal observer theory violates the first norm of analytical egalitarianism (recall): "philosophers cannot keep themselves (their incentives/their roles, etc.) out of the model." The problem here is not that Rutherford has not signed up to Schliesser's conception of philosophy, but rather that this particular norm is conducive to, and necessary for, his official stated aim: self-understanding. (IV) By conceiving of philosophy as a kind of general understanding, Rutherford contributes to the tendency to overlook the particular and the idiosyncratic--this tendency, I claim, underestimates philosophy's capacity to help us overcome systemic injustices.
*Rutherford writes: "I see philosophy as pursuing a form of self-understanding that is distinct from that offered by science and religion. The simplest way to put the point is to say that for the philosopher there is always one more question: Do I have reason to accept what science, or religion, tells me about the world, myself or the norms by which I guide my life?" In my view this is, in large part, itself a modern post-Newtonian conception of philosophy (see my work on Newton's Challenge). This is not to deny that we can trace the one more question picture back to the depiction of Socrates and recognize it as something distinct.
**The idea of an "ideal observer" recurs in his piece: "To engage in the history of philosophy is not to pursue psychological or other causal explanations of why philosophers have held or expressed certain propositions. Instead, it is to undertake an analysis and assessment of the reasons offered on behalf of those propositions. And this we can do only by taking up a philosopher’s perspective, standing to her as an ideal observer with an unrestricted access to her texts (including unpublished writings and correspondences) and to the prior history of philosophy." (Emphasis in original.)
+ See also: "If the account of philosophy as inherently dialectical is correct, then we cannot come to grips with a particular claim without understanding how that claim figures as a move in a dialectic, which itself is conditioned by a prior history of inquiry. In my view, our first task as historians of philosophy is to expose as perspicuously as possible the form of the underlying dialectic, complicating and correcting where necessary its participants’ own representations of their accomplishments."