Robert Pasnau has recently written an open letter encouraging graduate students in philosophy to specialize in the history of philosophy. (Please do click and read it before reading on here.) Now I understand that Pasnau meant this letter to serve as a recruitment tool, and to this extent he was required to tailor it to what he rightly supposes are the preconceptions of most students going into graduate programs in philosophy and who are not yet convinced of the worthwhileness of specializing in the history of philosophy. However, while this approach might indeed raise the number of dissertations with a historical orientation in the short term, it does nothing in the long term to help us overcome, and in fact does much to reinforce, a number of misguided views about the relationship of philosophy to its history, about how the history of philosophy is best studied, about the proper role of history-of-philosophy scholarship within today's philosophy deparments, and so on.
I am currently co-editing a volume with Mogens Laerke and Eric Schliesser on precisely these matters, and when it comes out (OUP, 2012) I am hoping that it will help significantly to transform the relationship between non-historians and historians within philosophy, and that at least some of the contributions will make a compelling case, one that will be understood by non-historians, for the philosophical worthwhileness of plunging into the past, of coming to feel at home there, and of taking the time to really, deeply, get to know the period one studies: all of which are things that students currently specializing in the history of philosophy are not expected to do.
I am going to withhold most of my thoughts on this matter for now, saving them for my own contribution to the OUP volume. But here I would just like to point out the three elements of Pasnau's letter that I found most problematic.
First, by encouraging graduate students to specialize in the history of philosophy on the grounds that (i) it is easier to get a job with such a specialization; and (ii) once employed, they can drop history and move into what are implicitly portrayed as the big leagues, Pasnau's case for specializing in the history of philosophy perpetuates this specialization's status as a second-class, handmaiden, propaedeutic, back-up plan, etc., to real philosophy. It involves, in other words, the implicit presupposition that there is only one way to spend a valuable career in philosophy, and that is by contributing to and helping to resolve current debates.
But what if one spends one's entire career elucidating some period of the past? This changes the present state of things too, though in a different way: it shows us that we could have been wrong in attributing a certain view to a certain figure, and that if that is so we need to revise our understanding of the transmission-history of the ideas and questions we continue to take seriously. This in turn might lead us to take some of these ideas more seriously, and some less.
What if it were to be shown, for example, the Locke was not nearly so much of a nominalist as he has been taken to be? Wouldn't this cause at least a bit of a realignment in contemporary debates that descend from the nominalism-realism controversy? Now how one might show such a thing about Locke brings me to my second major concern about Pasnau's letter. (In this example, some close to the matter will note, I am drawing on the very enlightening work of Peter Anstey.) One could just read the usual, highly abridged editions of the Essay, and follow that up with the usual recent Anglophone secondary literature; in which case, I probably don't need to add, it is unlikely that major new insights will be had in the interpretation of Locke. Or, by contrast, one could study manuscripts, marginalia, even Locke's personal seed collection (!); one could map his relations with botanists, and so on.
This is the sort of work that I think Pasnau has in mind when he says that if you walk into a typical meeting of historians of philosophy at, say, the APA, you are likely to find it dull: the obsessing over watermarks, the piecing together of fragments, and so on. But this is also just the sort of work you have to do if you want to get it right, and the only philosophers, as far as I know, who would deny that that is the goal of philosophy are the ones who think that it's all just 'discourses', 'narratives', etc. There is a current of history-of-philosophy scholarship, of which most non-historian philosophers seem completely unaware, that rejects that view as adamantly as it rejects the anti-historical prejudice of much current Anglophone philosophy.
It is plain to me from years of talking to people (and as many years of overhearing conversations not intended for my ears) that non-historians who walk into a room full of historians obsessing over watermarks conclude that they must be doing this in order to compensate for a lack of philosophical ability. But this is simply a false inference. If you are going to permit historians of philosophy the freedom to try to get things right about whatever it is they are studying, you will have to cease with the demand that they produce a short-term, immediately recognizable philosophical pay-off from their historical work. It might take years of immersion and grappling in order to really understand some local, context-laden debate of long-ago. And with manuscript work in particular one has to allow to the historian of philosophy the freedom to develop a sort of expertise that is not limited to that of extracting arguments. There is in addition something akin to the expertise of the art historian: such a specialist has to stare for a long, long time, and then has to go and read a lot about networks of patronage, and so on; and then, finally, she might arrive at some kind of account of the beauty of a painting. Similarly, you have to stare and stare at manuscripts, and you have to learn about the context of their production, in order eventually to understand whether the points being made in them are good or not.
Now it might in fact be the case that some people who do this sort of work are not the best epistemologists, philosophers of mind, metaphysicians. But even then, so what? Where is the justification for the presumption that they must in fact be working towards an eventual, direct contribution to contemporary philosophical debates in order for their study of old texts to be a legitimate endeavor? Maybe there is simply a division of labor within philosophy, wherein some people excel in elucidating and resolving problems in texts produced by others, and some people excel in contributing to current debates. I want to hear an argument that will convince me of the greater nobility or urgency of the latter endeavor.
In any case, it is simply not true that watermark-obsessers are compensating for their philosophical mediocrity. I have never met a single contextualist historian of philosophy of whom such a judgment would be fair. They just happen to like what they do, and they recognize, for reasons I've already sketched, why doing this is an important contribution to the discipline of philosophy as a whole.
Finally, and relatedly, in his somewhat jocular account of his own approach to working with Latin texts --mastering Latin is in fact a lot harder than remembering that intellectus means 'intellect' and actus means 'act'; in fact, it is by no means clear that even these translations of these two words are adequate in all contexts--, Pasnau seems to reject the notion that a specialist in the history of philosophy might also benefit from liking history itself, as well as philology, the study of languages, and so on. He presents these rather as obstacles to getting at what really counts --the timeless arguments inconveniently shrouded in Latin-- rather than being portals of access to rich and unfamiliar worlds.
What history, philology, foreign-language study, and so on, can often reveal is that in fact what we took to be timeless philosophical problems were in their inception conceptualized very differently, and have transformed over the course of their histories in ways that can cause us to doubt whether we and our predecessors are talking abut the same thing at all. This sort of discovery is one that can generally only be made if one opens oneself up to the world of the past philosopher, to his idiom, his social values and status, his culture and religion, and so on. Those who open themselves up in this way are usually classicists, historical anthropologists, historians of religion, for example, but seldom historians of philosophy. Sometimes however the work of such non-philosophers (Walter Burkert on Pythagoreanism comes to mind) has been so compelling as to force philosophers to reconceptualize the nature of the texts they study (though for the most part it is specialists in ancient philosophy who allow themselves to be influenced in this way).
Since Pasnau's letter took the form of advice to students, part of me wants to reply in kind with very different advice: to warn prospective graduate students who are interested in the sort of approach I've described to go instead into a history-of-science program, or a history-and-philosophy-of-science program that takes the 'H' in its acronym very seriously (and there are many such programs; to name a few: Cambridge, Indiana, Toronto, Johns Hopkins, Sydney, Pittsburgh, Nijmegen...). If it is the philology part that interests you most, then I am also tempted to recommend going into classics instead, or into some variety of area studies (e.g., South Asian Studies), where one might learn about Indian philosophy in a way that comprehends and respects Indian history, and in a way that values and promotes, rather than taking as an obstacle, the mastery of the relevant languages. Or follow the model of Erwin Panofsky and go into art history: indulge your love of things besides arguments, while still producing arguments and dealing with concepts in a way that could not but impress any philosopher.
Yet it's only part of me that is tempted to offer that sort of advice. (It's the part of me that feels intellectually at home for the first time ever during the present term, which I am spending in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, surrounded by archaeologists, anthropologists, historians of ancient China, historians of medieval Islamic art, and so on). This advice may be the most useful for some people, and it may have been useful to me 15 years ago. But I've grown committed to philosophy, and really would rather reform than secede: so I hope that a generation from now there will be historians of philosophy within philosophy departments who are both rigorous historians from a methodological point of view, and are also recognized as first-tier, full-status philosophers by their colleagues.
So yes, do work on a historical topic in graduate school, not because this is easier and you can drop it later on, but because you love history, and because you know it's good for philosophy.