At this most recent Central APA, there was a session called “Learning from the Past: Why Study the History of Philosophy?” which I was, unfortunately, unable to attend. Fortunately, Robert Pasnau’s contribution to that session, “Philosophical Beauty“, is available on his website. I am fairly sure that everyone I know who works in historical philosophy has, at some point, wrestled with the question of what it is that we are up to when we do historical philosophy, and how our projects are related to a) philosophy, more generally, and b) history, more generally. I was originally planning to summarize Pasnau’s article and then also discuss my views on the question, but I think I’ll have to save sharing my views for later, and this post is just going to highlight some things that I found interesting in Pasnau’s paper.
Pasnau opens his paper with a puzzle about progress and historical philosophy:
Here is a dilemma for the historian of philosophy: Either philosophy has progressed over the centuries or it has not. If it has not, then what good is philosophy? If it has, then what good is its history? Of course, there are many ways around, or through, this dilemma, but still it will serve as a useful starting point for considering the different sorts of reasons one might have for studying philosophy’s history.
The highroad through the progress dilemma – the road more traveled – holds that philosophy progresses, but only fitfully, and that often the traces of true progress can be discerned only retrospectively, sometimes after a great many years have passed. The historian of philosophy then plays the role of a peasant following behind the harvester, gleaning from the field any stray truths that happen to have been missed by the onrushing course of philosophical inquiry.
I myself have sometimes thought of the history of philosophy in this sort of way – except that it has often seemed to me that the portion of truth left unreaped amounts to more than just a few scattered remnants – that row upon row of choice philosophy has been left unharvested, and that those of us who linger in the past have the luxury of wandering these verdant fields in unhurried peace, plucking from whatever tender stalk strikes our fancy.
Pasnau goes on to note that the highroad approach dictates that the value of historical philosophy is dependent (entirely) on the contributions it winds up producing for contemporary philosophical inquiry. This makes it a contingent matter whether historical philosophy is worth doing:
For it certainly is possible that our discipline’s respect for the history of its subject amounts to nothing more than a bad case of idol worship – that we are wasting our time propping up these edifices from the past when we should just let them quietly crumble to dust on their library shelves. The noble path through the progress dilemma demands that we take this possibility seriously, because it pins the worth of historical scholarship to the contingent question of whether such research in fact yields philosophical insights. If we had some accurate way of assessing this question, and if it turned out that in fact historical research is not productive in that way, then the noble path would push us toward reforming the philosophical curriculum along the lines of mathematics or physics. Now I think, as I have indicated, that this is a challenge the historian can meet, but even so there seems something deeply worrisome about the noble path. For it strikes me as just absurd to treat the study of philosophy’s history as contingent on whether such study contributes to progress in philosophy today. As confident as I am that such contributions regularly occur, I do not think philosophical historians need to justify their studies in this way. The noble path misses something important about the value of the history of philosophy, and about the value of philosophy in general. What it misses, I now want to argue, is that philosophy possesses a kind of beauty that makes its study intrinsically valuable quite apart from whatever claims to truth it might possess.
The remainder of the article concerns this “philosophical beauty”, which Pasnau regards as a source of value for historical philosophy independent of potential contributions to contemporary debates:
To praise philosophy for its beauty is not to praise it for the pleasure it brings us; on the contrary, it brings us pleasure because it is beautiful. Nor is the beauty of philosophy a function of its capacity to uncover the truth – what we might call its scientific mission. Good philosophy certainly is well suited to that scientific mission, and that mission of course has tremendous value. But good philosophy also has a further kind of intrinsic value, a goodness, even in cases where the truth lies many miles away.
And Pasnau goes on to note that his approach is a way of sidestepping the progress dilemma:
This is not, to be sure, the highroad through the progress dilemma. It is a road less traveled; indeed, philosophers have paid astonishingly little attention to the question of whether philosophy might have some value apart from its scientific mission. Once we embrace this idea, however, we can understand why the progress dilemma should have little grip on the historian of philosophy. Let philosophy progress as much as you like; let the ideas of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke be as superannuated and superseded as you please. Still, they are beautiful, and worthy of study for that reason alone.
I am going to stop summarizing the paper at this point, because it is becoming apparent that if I continue in this vein, I’ll simply be posting an abridged version of his paper on this blog. It is a really interesting paper, and while I am not at all sure I agree with Pasnau’s central claims, I do think the stance he takes is well worth discussing. It, if nothing else, reflects a strikingly different conception of the field of philosophy from some other, frequently discussed, outlooks.
At any rate, I am curious what other people think of Pasnau’s paper/conception of the value of (historical) philosophy.