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March 17, 2011


Marcus Adams

Interesting response, and I largely agree. The opening line of your response ("Robert Pasnau has recently written an open letter encouraging graduate students in philosophy to specialize in the history of philosophy") seems to read Pasnau's goal a little stronger than I read him to be intending, as least since he later clarified it in his comments on the Leiter blog ("The letter is intended, then, for someone who feels the pull of the history of philosophy, but worries that this is a path away from real, serious work in philosophy" ... [and then later says] "Some people just love the history of philosophy, and want to do that for its own sake. I can entirely relate to that. But I'm not writing for those folk -- they don't need any persuading.").

I took him minimally to be giving a person who might be undecided and who has existing interests in both contemporary issues and history of philosophy one reason (among possible others) to do history of philosophy work in grad school.

Pasnau's further comments at the following: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/why-study-history-of-philosophy.html?cid=6a00d8341c2e6353ef014e86c2e4f7970d#comment-6a00d8341c2e6353ef014e86c2e4f7970d

Michael M

I really can't recommended Allen Wood's essay "What Dead Philosophers Mean" enough. Here's a link (that hopefully works)


Encouraged as I was by your recent (private) assurance that we're in agreement on this, I still can't shake the sense that we disagree with Pasnau from opposite directions.

It seems to me that the division of labor you're talking about is already largely in place and that it's a disaster both for the understanding of "our" philosophical problems and for the understanding of historical texts. Rather than lobby to reinforce it and give each side equal status, I would do away with it completely, if I could.

When I compare, say, Simplicius or Avicenna or Thomas or Brentano on Aristotle to the work of our current hyperspecialized "AOS: Ancient" crowd, or Hegel or Natorp or Heidegger on Kant to the products of Kant scholarship, it seems to me that the former are better *in every way*. It's not just that their interpretations are more philosophically usable (and immediately so: there's no need to go searching around for a "pay-off") but also that, despite various obvious biases and ulterior motives, and despite, in some cases, having no access at all to the original texts, they still manage to "get it right" more often. I conclude that, however important careful philology may be, it's not nearly as important in interpretation of philosophy as is being a good philosopher yourself.

As for contextualism: I agree that, to understand a given philosophical text well, you need to read and know other things. But, given that there is so vastly much to read and know, we have to decide on priorities. In other words, the question is not: will we understand Locke better if we know about his seed collection? Of course we will. The question is: given that I can't do both, should I find out about his seed collection or, say, read William of Occam?

The existing division of labor between history and "contemporary," and, even more so, the existing and ever-increasing division of labor within history itself, always along chronological lines — these tend to favor one principle of selection over others. If you have to spend years becoming an expert on the religion, culture, social structure, idioms, etc. of, say, Germany between 1750 and 1800, not to mention all the mediocre German philosophy of that period, then you aren't going to take very kindly to the suggestion that you should really read Galen in Arabic. In fact (and this is what we see) you'll make argument after argument for the irrelevance of anything like that. But to my mind the principle is wrong and the division of labor which encourages it is therefore destructive.

Finally, on the question of how philosophical terms and debates have changed their meaning, I think first of all that this tends to be greatly exaggerated. The history of philosophy is short. There are rarely more than one or two steps between philosopher A and philosopher B. But, secondly, to the extent that this does happen I would take it rather differently than you do. It's not so much that "intellectus" and "actus" aren't always accurately translated as "intellect" and "act"; rather, we don't always use philosophical terms — for example, "intellect" and "act," which are just the same words as "intellectus" and "actus" — in their strict and proper senses. Among many others, one reason to read in the original is that one may thereby learn how to use "our" philosophical terminology correctly.


You write, "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?", and then go on to discuss how such a thing might be shown.

I'm curious about how you would fill in the details about the other part, however. Let's say contemporary philosophers are mistaken about what Locke thought. Aren't the current debates premised on the argument itself (however inaccurate), rather than its source?

It seems as if there was such a shift in the contemporary debate, it would come from one of two sources: either just from an argument from authority (which would presumably be bad), or because the quality of the accurate argument extracted from Locke was sufficient to shift the debate. But how often does the latter sort of situation happen? And on those rare occasions it does happen, aren't they usually the result of scholarship of the type that Abestone cites, rather than what results from the sort of watermark examinations you mention metaphorically?


Skef: It can happen, and maybe not very rarely, that I learn more about the meaning of what I've said by learning what was said before that. See Lewis, "Scorekeeping in a language game."


I am a little puzzled by your criticism of Pasnau's letter here. Can't someone think they study of history of philosophy is both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable for the reasons Pasnau describes? Also, people who already love history of philosophy for its own sake don't need convincing. In order to achieve his goal of winning converts, he must appeal to other reasons.

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