Developing a New History of Philosophy

An immediate response to the title is: Do we need yet another history of philosophy?  Anyone vaguely familiar with their local library’s selections and new arrivals will have seen half a dozen such histories, ostensibly, at least.  For example, Anthony Kenny has recently put out a set of volumes, and there has even been the instantiation of a very ambitious attempt at a “History of Philosophy without Any Gaps” by Adamson.  Go beyond that, and there are more or less scholarly compilations by Bertrand Russell (much less), Frederick Copleston (more), and Will Durant (less).  Smaller chunks of history have been, in some respects, very competently done.  I stress the qualifier “in some respects,” a great example being A History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages by Etienne Gilson, which beautifully ties together a number of the ideas with theirs sources (and the relation of the ideas) and philosophers to their intellectual forbearers and inspirations.  However, that work fails as a history qua history.  Historians do not look to ideas people have had and expect a narrative to emerge, but look to the evidence as a whole, seeking a narrative on an evidentiary basis.  This evidence could be historical or social in nature (i.e., externalist historiographical elements), which aren’t entailed in most histories of philosophy, in any way.  In fact, given the temporal smattering of evidence (i.e., the data) and using it to construct a narrative (i.e., the theory) with various methodological techniques, some philosophers of history have claimed that history is an empirical science.  Perhaps, most notably, Karl Marx maintained this (and maybe we could add Darwin, in the collection of such proponents), and a number of philosophers continue to argue this today.  Looking to the content of a history to generate the sort of narrative expected of the discipline of history is folly.  This becomes particularly clear when one reads a fine project, like Copleston’s, only to find that the nature of the narrative is so confused and either impenetrable or non-existent that there is nothing like an externalist or internalist historiography at work; indeed, many of the best histories of philosophy have no conscious historiography.  Among the few histories of philosophy in which I found anything like a historiographic lens and commentary was in Robert C. Solomon’s A Short History of Philosophy, though the evidence wasn’t strung together in requiting fashion.  Perhaps the single best narrative I have come across, yet had its own shortcomings despite my high opinion for it, is Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind.  Many of these histories, Copleston’s notable set included, are little more than a series of ideas that pop up, as if from a vacuum, and little more is done than explain the ideas in some superficial degree.  On these grounds, and in answer to my original question, I make the critical asseveration that, if there are legitimate histories of philosophy, I am unaware of them, as are my colleagues, who I consulted.  In short, it may be the case that a real history of philosophy has never been written.  As the reader may already have the impression, the reason for this is that philosophers specialize in the intricacies of ideas and the nuances of argumentation; compiling data to present the most coherent theory about the data is not something they typically do.  On the other hand, historians, if you are lucking to come across one who knows anything about philosophical ideas, will wilt very quickly in the face of trying to parse out distinctions and similarities in thinkers and ideas.  This is most notable instance that I have encountered being Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light, in which case his thesis was that Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas have tugged and pulled and combatted for supremacy over the ages; but he completely failed to see how it was that these thinkers’ ideas were mixed, matched, mishmashed, synthesized, and resynthesized, and so forth, by interpreters.  To call Augustine a Platonist, even though he had little Aristotle at his disposal, or to call Aquinas an Aristotelian, is to make an unforgivable error.  One should always bear in mind that interpretation of texts, especially philosophical ones, is really creative misreadings of authors, as Harold Bloom proposed, and this seems to be more true of evermore complex and sophisticated texts.

In attempting to get at what has really been happening throughout the history of philosophy, I have arrived at the working hypothesis that the central trend of philosophy has been a de-anthropocentrization of story-telling, for the sake of understanding the world.  This is precisely what I view all intellectual pursuits as, whether religion, philosophy, history, or science (keep in mind that I view science as coming in two separate types, one that provides understanding through interpretation, and one that does not, so refer to my previous blog post for further information).  To be clear, as my following notes will indicate, de-anthropocentrization refers to removing, both, the human from the center of the universe and removing the human element of story-telling from the stories (the narrative of understanding).  This is a gradual process, not complete tout de suite.  Substantiating this claim is not difficult, I think; there are many very noticeable landmarks in the history of philosophy, which clearly show this to be so.  For example, philosophy in Greece, most notably, gets its start by turning away from human senses, because reality is often in a way that belies the senses, and turns toward a principle-oriented approach.  Thales makes a break from mythos, such as that of Homer and Hesiod, and turns to logos.  A major difference is that mythos requires passing on information about the worldview, the constructed narrative of understanding, i.e., truths, about the world, while logos permits each individual to arrive at truths, or so it is hoped.  Methodologically, these are different.  There are other occasions of attack and removal of human elements from the philosophical tradition.  Consider Plato’s kicking the poets out of the republic, in the Politeia.  Perhaps, my most argumentative and somewhat heterodox example is Pierre Duhem’s (and others’) thesis about the tradition of “saving the phenomena,” where it was believed that pre-eighteenth-century thinkers maintained that mathematics was the art of creating models of the universe that permitted preservation of what was seen, the idea being that the models (such as the heliocentric model) do not actually represent reality.  (A good example of this was Galileo, whose work was never really in question, until he moved from a post in mathematics to physics, the latter being that statements made in this area have metaphysical import.  I have heard historians of philosophy argue against this “saving of phenomena” and the transition away from human senses toward higher degrees of abstraction, one such case being leading scholar, William R. Newman of IU’s History and Philosophy of Science Department, who disagreed with an unpublished paper I wrote on the transition from occult philosophy to natural philosophy (i.e., “science,” if wish to call it so).  Nonetheless, I think all qualms on this and other periods of philosophy can be dealt with.  It is perhaps more important to note that I intend to treat occult philosophy, also known as “magick,” particularly in its contribution to the formation of science —one may even contentiously argue it transitioned into science.  I would say contribution to or transition into natural philosophy, but occult philosophy was natural philosophy, so statements of that sort are incorrect.  This is important because I have yet to see a history of philosophy that entails the magick tradition —or one that properly treats sciences as a product of philosophy that transitions from speculative philosophy about nature into something more like a regular philosophy of nature, and into something that we would today call “science”

I am using the history of philosophy course I am teaching to more thoroughly construct my thesis, make finer distinctions in what I see in the historical trajectory, and to clarify my thoughts.  I will be posting supplements for my class below.  The course’s text book is Enoch Stumpf’s Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy.  While it is another example of hitting a reader with a barrage of ideas with little context, it suffices as laying a linear backbone to work with.  In teaching future courses on various philosophers or particular segments of history, I will enrich the lecture notes that will eventually, maybe 20 or 40 years down the road, be compiled into a set of books.  Given the piecemeal nature of the notes I am constructing for classes, I have decided not to post them in a running fashion, as I originally intended.  I will post them, but only after they have been satisfactorily edited and filled out.  Instead, I will post only the class supplements, on a running basis.  An additional note: the present course I am teaching is on Western philosophy, but I DO fully anticipate adding Eastern philosophy into the narrative, and I even think its differences contribute immensely to my thesis, in that Eastern philosophy is something like a mix between mythos and logos, an admixture of ancient elements and elements that we’d view as very modern.


Supplement 1: Notes on preliminary development of historiography and approach, and basic information points.

Supplement 2: Notes on mythos versus logos and its evolution in Plato.

Supplement 3: Notes on Aristotle’s intellectual quality and how he continued the break from mythos.

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Filed under Education, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Philosophy, History of Science, Natural Philosophy, Pedagogy

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