The following remarks are a revised version of Don Rutherford’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.
When Lewis Powell announced the formation of the Society for Modern Philosophy, I must admit my initial reaction was to ask myself, “Do we really need another organization of historians of modern philosophy?” We have societies, conferences and journals dedicated to major individual thinkers, as well as a host of meetings, venues and publications that feature work focusing on broader topics in seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy. So what more do we need?
Then Lewis invited me to make this presentation, and I was forced to give the question more careful consideration. I couldn’t accept the invitation if I was going to argue that the plan for the Society was ill-conceived or without point. On reflection, I decided that this was far from my view. In fact, I have come to see the Society’s formation as a very good idea. In these remarks I want to explain why I think this is so and also share some more far-reaching thoughts on the discipline of the history of philosophy. I apologize in advance if the latter seem tangential to the immediate business of the Society. In my mind, they address—in a preliminary and abstract way—some of the larger issues about our enterprise that warrant greater discussion. I look forward to your comments on them.
Why a Society for Modern Philosophy?
Since the late 1980s, my professional identity has been that of an historian of early modern philosophy. My adoption of this identity can be traced to a specific event—a baptism as it were: an NEH Summer Institute organized by Dan Garber and a group of leading senior faculty at Brown University in 1988. The participants, most of whom had only just received their PhDs, included many people who have gone on to become influential figures in the field. We were presented with a wide-ranging curriculum that portrayed early modern philosophy as a coherent, if highly diverse collection of authors and doctrines, including all of the major figures you would expect, but also figures we probably hadn’t encountered before, and in which no sharp boundary was drawn between the history of philosophy proper and contemporary (i.e. seventeenth-century) developments in natural science, politics and religion. The view of the history of early modern philosophy we were given was extremely broad and thoroughly contextualized.
There is no need to recount the extraordinary development of “early modern philosophy” over the intervening quarter century. The currency of the phrase itself, featured in job ads, faculty bios and journal titles bears witness to this. There has been a flowering of early modern seminars all over the world, spawned by Dan Garber and Steve Nadler’s first Midwest Seminar. It is fair to say that in a short period of time early modern philosophy has become one of the major growth sectors in the history of philosophy.
But what precisely falls within the scope of “early modern philosophy”? A typical announcement of one of the regional seminars says that it “was formed to foster interaction among scholars who work on various topics in the history of early modern philosophy (a period ranging, roughly, from Montaigne to Kant).” Any effort at periodization must be taken with a grain of salt; the limitations of “early modern philosophy” are evident when we consider its relation to late (or “second”) scholasticism, a complex body of doctrine that developed from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. For the most part, however, the terminus a quo of early modern philosophy is uncontroversial: it begins more or less with the seventeenth century, stretching back a couple of decades into the sixteenth century to take in such figures as Montaigne, Lipsius and Charron. Before that is the philosophy of the Reformation and Renaissance. The terminus ad quem raises trickier issues. It is hardly a secret that “early modern philosophy” as it exists today has been advanced most actively by historians of seventeenth-century philosophy—primarily specialists on philosophers between Descartes and Leibniz. We (I include myself in this group) inhabit an exciting intellectual world, defined by the rise of the new science, capped by Newton’s Principia; the termination of destructive wars of religion and the spread of ideals of religious toleration; and new theories about the legitimate basis of sovereignty. My use of the expression “intellectual world” hints at the coherence of our inquiries—we are all, more or less, talking about the same framework of thought and action—but also at their sometimes parochial character. We represent early modern philosophy as including a full two centuries of philosophical activity, but we largely occupy ourselves with the philosophy of only one of these centuries.
This concern was brought home to me in editing the Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Philosophy. While good things came out of it, it was in some ways a frustrating endeavor. It seemed impossible at the time to construct a coherent narrative and commission a set of chapters that encompassed the richness and historical significance of both seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy. To the extent that the volume represented itself as doing this, I was rightly criticized by reviewers for giving short shrift to the eighteenth century. The lesson in this, perhaps, is that “early modern philosophy” can’t have it both ways. If it can’t expand its focus to take in eighteenth-century thought, it should simply rename itself “seventeenth-century philosophy” and give up the pretense of being anything more than this.
Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, which I now coedit with Garber, does a better job of avoiding this problem. Besides papers on canonical seventeenth-century figures, recent volumes have included contributions on Reid, Hutcheson, Hume, Wolff and Baumgarten.
But here, too, we face a dilemma: what to do about Kant? Scholarly commentary on Kant’s critical philosophy constitutes an intellectual world of its own, comparable in scope to that of seventeenth-century philosophy. Early modern seminars do feature papers on Kant’s philosophy, but often they seem addressed to the wrong audience, given the disciplinary gulf that separates Kantians and specialists in seventeenth-century philosophy. Sometimes signals can barely travel between these worlds—and the intervening space occupied by all the important eighteenth-century figures I haven’t mentioned, among them Butler, Smith, Reid, Wolff, the French encyclopedists and Rousseau! How much of this wealth of philosophy, we must ask, is adequately represented under the banner of “early modern philosophy”?
So, here is the first thing that recommends a Society for ModernPhilosophy. Let’s give up the pretense that early modern philosophy takes in the period of philosophy from Montaigne to Kant. Let’s concede that “early modern philosophy” more often than not means seventeenth-century philosophy, with occasional references to Berkeley, Reid and Hume, and let’s adopt “modern philosophy” as a more inclusive banner that leaves no doubt that the eighteenth century is as central to the concerns of the Society’s members as the seventeenth century.
I support this development as promoting transparency and honesty in advertising. No longer should specialists on Hume, Reid or Kant see themselves as second-class citizens in the world of “early modern philosophy.” We should not fool ourselves, though, that we are thereby overcoming all the problems of periodization. A question I haven’t heard answered is how modern the Society’s organizers see “modern philosophy” as being. Does it extend beyond Kant to later German idealists? To nineteenth-century positivists, naturalists and neo-Kantians? To Marx? To Schopenhauer and Nietzsche? To Frege and early analytic philosophy? If there are problems drawing the chronological boundaries of early modern philosophy and ensuring that it is sufficiently inclusive of eighteenth-century figures, the same problems will arise in defining the relation of nineteenth and early twentieth-century philosophy to the activities of the Society for Modern Philosophy. Perhaps the answer to this question is simply that the Society for Modern Philosophy is a more apt name for an organization whose members’ interests converge on the period of philosophy “ranging, roughly, from Montaigne to Kant.” Though all boundaries are to some degree arbitrary, that is a familiar and well-charted stretch of philosophy’s history, around which common projects and events can be organized.
The Work of the Society
Alongside the growth of “early modern philosophy,” there has been a flowering of societies dedicated to the study of individual philosophers. Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Reid, Hume and Kant all have their own specialist societies, which organize meetings and publish scholarly work on the philosophy of that figure. All of this is to the good, since nothing is more satisfying than being able to discuss difficult topics with fellow specialists who really know the texts. In some cases, like that of Leibniz, the scholarly society also plays a critical role in making the relevant texts available to scholars. Given the focus of historians of philosophy on the texts of individual philosophers, specialist societies are a natural locus for scholarly interaction. They are where we test our understanding of a philosopher’s thought against that of people who know as much or more than we do about a given topic. This is peer review at its best, where we come as close as we can to objective conclusions about a philosopher’s views.
The value and effectiveness of intellectual engagement within specialist societies throws into relief the question of what we might hope to achieve in seminars and societies that take a broader perspective on the history of philosophy. One thought is that they are not doing anything different than the specialist societies but simply doing it more inclusively. The same paper I might present to a group of Leibniz specialists, I could present to a regional early modern seminar, sharing my understanding of Leibniz with non-specialists and benefiting from questions that reflect concerns and issues effectively shielded within a dialogue of specialists. On the face of it, this makes good sense, and it is replicated in the contents of general journals in the history of philosophy, e.g., JHP, BJHP, the Archiv. For the most part, these journals feature specialist studies of individual philosophers, framed so as to make them interesting and intelligible to historians of philosophy who concentrate on other figures and other periods.
This picture of research in the history of philosophy, centered on studies of the form “an interpretation of X’s view of Y,” captures the bulk of the scholarly work of most of us. It is the bread and butter of our discipline. We find a puzzle in a text, or a disagreement in the literature, and we attempt to set the record straight: “Here’s how X shouldbe understood on topic Y.” Although specialist studies of this sort rightly occupy a primary place in our discipline, I suggest that we should also be thinking in more ambitious terms. We should do more to confront the history of philosophy on a larger scale and to consider its significance in relation to contemporary philosophy. Metaphorically, we ought to focus not just on atoms (the views of individual philosophers), but on how those atoms combine in molecules of increasing complexity (the ways in which the views of a philosopher intersect with those of other philosophers), and ultimately on chemistry as a whole (the long-term unfolding of the history of philosophy). Borrowing a page from economics, we should pursue not just micro-history of philosophy, but also macro-history of philosophy, in which we investigate the broad shape and structure of philosophy’s history and endeavor to explain, to other philosophers and to the public, why that history matters.
The Society for Modern Philosophy can be an important vehicle for furthering these ambitions, which necessarily surpass the goals of societies dedicated to individual philosophers. It can encourage work on philosophers who are not commonly studied as part of the canon—a large and heterogeneous group, consisting of well-known figures like Bacon and Gassendi, figures of historical importance who have fallen off our radar (e.g. Comenius and Vico), and thinkers whose contributions have been marginalized because of their sex or race. It can also, as the Mod Squad blog already has done, foster greater self-awareness about our practices as historians of philosophy: how we choose the texts and topics that we teach and work on, and how we conceive of our endeavors in relation to the larger mission of philosophy departments. The latter topic has attracted a great deal of attention recently and it is one that should concern us all. 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. It is not too much to hope that the Society for Modern Philosophy can contribute to the recognition of the history of philosophy as an integral part of philosophy. What I can say on this topic is necessarily limited, and I must emphasize that here I speak only for myself and not for the organizers of the Society. What follows is an all-too-brief and personal take on how the history of philosophy matters to philosophy.
One of the most important recent developments in the historiography of philosophy in the English-speaking world has been the increased awareness of the historical context of philosophical writing. Philosophers are thinkers located in particular times and places; their starting points reflect their relation to the prior history of philosophy and to their own larger culture. Indeed, we cannot even assume that “philosophy” means the same thing for earlier figures as it does for us. Intellectual boundaries are fluid across time; fields and subfields have divided, cross-fertilized and merged in ways that make any essentialist assumption about the identity of philosophy across its history problematic. Given these sorts of observations about the situatedness of philosophical inquiry, there has been a growing tendency to see our subject in a historicist light. What historians of philosophy study is not philosophy per se, but philosophy as it has been practiced in a particular time and place. On this understanding of what we do, it is difficult to draw a sharp boundary between the history of philosophy and intellectual history in general. We focus on that part of the intellectual life of the past that is expressed in what we think of as philosophical texts; however, if there is no sharp distinction between philosophical texts and texts from, for example, theology, politics or natural science, then our endeavors are plausibly understood as part of a broader effort to reconstruct the intellectual life of the past, holding it up for comparison with the intellectual life of the present. This is a view of the history of philosophy held by a number of distinguished practitioners, among them Richard Popkin.
To accept this conception of our discipline is, I think, to divide ourselves in unfortunate ways from the activities of our non-historian colleagues in philosophy. I find intellectual history enormously interesting and see it as intersecting at many junctures with the history of philosophy. Nevertheless, we do our discipline a disservice if we allow it to be assimilated to intellectual history. The history of philosophy is a distinct form of inquiry, which pursues different questions than intellectual history and employs different methods in answering those questions. Attempts to trace the influence of earlier philosophers, sets of texts, or larger cultural forces on the content of a philosopher’s views are exercises in intellectual history that connect closely with the history of philosophy, but they are not identical to it. Employing these methods, we can hope to establish facts about the circumstances in which a philosopher’s views were formed, but we are not taken deeper in our understanding of those views as moments of philosophical thought. 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. 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.
To the extent that contextualism represents the view that philosophical texts and doctrines should be interpreted within their proper historical context, I am a firm defender of it. However, I believe that contextualism must be supplemented with an understanding of the distinctively philosophical focus of the history of philosophy. By this I mean that the history of philosophy should be regarded as a species of internal history that takes up the perspective of a philosopher and the debates in which she was engaged and aims to explicate their content. Thus, it consists in doing philosophy, while retracing the steps philosophers from the past have taken.
In defense of this assumption, we may note that philosophy, as represented in the work of its most influential contributors, has always been at least implicitly historical in its outlook. Philosopher have identified the questions with which they are concerned, and the answers deemed germane to those questions, by reference to a tradition of inquiry that extends back to Socrates and Plato. Even where they have represented themselves as disagreeing with, or overcoming, the answers earlier philosophers have given to these questions—of being, knowledge, and value—they have understood themselves as part of a continuous intellectual tradition, which at critical junctures has distinguished itself from parallel traditions of, for example, scriptural religion and natural science.
I take this as a starting point in circumscribing the domain of the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy is not concerned with just any part of intellectual history: it is concerned with the texts and doctrines of thinkers who identify themselves, explicitly or implicitly, as part of a the tradition of inquiry that leads back to Plato. This tradition intersects at many points with others traditions of thought and practice, but there is nonetheless a traceable line of descent connecting our philosophy problems and concerns with those of the ancient Greeks. This is not to say that the problems themselves, or our favored solutions to them, are exactly the same as those favored by the ancients. This is where contextualism enters as a critical hermeneutic principle: 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.
What I have said so far does not point to a uniquely close relation between philosophy as currently practiced and its history. One can imagine practitioners of the history of chemistry defending much the same view as I have just propounded: the history of chemistry is a species of internal history that takes up the perspective of the chemist and the debates in which she was engaged and seeks to explicate their content. Thus, it consists in doing chemistry (including replicating the relevant experiments), while retracing the steps chemists from the past have taken. Yet a historian of chemistry will quickly add that, of course, she is not doing chemistry in the way that contemporary chemists do it. She is not discoveringnewknowledge about molecules and reactions; she is only recounting and explicating what others have already discovered.
It is precisely here that the legitimation question raises its head: are we as historians of philosophy really doing philosophy, in a sense comparable to our departmental colleagues, or are we merely recounting and explicating what philosophers from the past have done? My own convictions lie strongly with the first answer, hence I resist moves to embrace an understanding of the history of philosophy as “antiquarian” in its outlook and “disinterested” with respect to the present condition of philosophy. As I understand it, the history of philosophy is an integral part of philosophy as it is currently practiced and is as capable of discovering new knowledge as any other branch of philosophy. As my reasons for believing this rest on a particular conception of the end and method of philosophy, I must say something about these before, finally and all too briefly, saying why the history of philosophy matters for philosophy.
Philosophy as Dialectic
As I conceive it, philosophy is a dialectical practice aimed at honing what can be described in the broadest terms as our self-understanding as human beings. The latter includes, minimally, our understanding of the nature and origins of the world in which we find ourselves; our nature as human beings and our capacities for thought, feeling and action; and the content and basis of the norms according to which we regulate the latter capacities. These are topics on which both science and religion have much to say. Their accounts—in different ways for different people—often form the starting point for philosophical inquiry; however, 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?
We owe our awareness of this “one more question” to Socrates, or to Plato who depicts Socrates as raising it and then elaborates it in a general account of the practice of philosophy. Plato’s crucial innovation is his representation of philosophy as a form of inquiry in which an interlocutor offers reasons for holding p, where it is assumed that those reasons will be challenged by another interlocutor who questions the grounds claimed by the first. Characterizing philosophy in this way as a dialectical practice means that whatever topics philosophers consider (natural phenomena, the gods, the criterion of knowledge, the highest good), they consider them in a different way than others concerned with such matters. Philosophers are not satisfied simply to propound a doctrine (a cosmology, a theology), but advance reasons for accepting that doctrine, with the tacit admission that those reasons are subject to challenge by others. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that challenges to our reasoning may push us to ever more general or fundamental reasons for believing what we do. Where practitioners of other disciplines (e.g., mathematics, chemistry, theology) impose strict limits on acceptable forms of reason-giving, 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).
My description of philosophy as a “dialectical” practice is intended to resonate with ancient understandings of the term, but it does not presuppose any particular account of dialectic. I make no assumption that dialectical reasoning is limited to deductive argument. The defense of a philosophical claim can involve inductive or abductive reasoning (e.g. the claim that a theory better explains a range of evidence, or better accords with a set of common beliefs). Dialectic may also involve an effort to shift the direction of philosophical debate by introducing new concepts that alter the weight accorded to previously accepted premises or theories. The only point I insist on is that dialectic is centrally concerned with the justification of a claim, according to accepted norms of rationality, and not simply the assertion of a claim whose credibility turns on the authority of the speaker or its appeal to the interests or passions of the audience. The dialectical defense of a philosophical claim cites a reason for accepting the claim, where it is assumed that the reason is one that would persuade an impartial interlocutor who is in a position to assess the claim according to common norms. Of course, this describes an ideal situation. Often it transpires that the reasons offered on behalf of a claim fall short of the required standard. These are points where, according to the rules of the dialectic, objections can and should be registered to the claim in question.
The doubt can be raised here that this is an unrealistic picture of how people actually form and revise their opinions. For the most part, people—even those we call “philosophers”—do not settle their views by engaging in dialectic. Those views, rather, are settled in them by causal (psychological, cultural) factors of which they are largely unaware. Hence, the objection goes, if you want to understand the beliefs people hold you need to look for external reasons that explain why they hold those beliefs. Objections of this sort highlight the difference between historical approaches that seek to explain why people, including philosophers, think as they do (hold certain beliefs, employ certain ideas) and the history of philosophy, which aims to uncover the reasons, whether or not explicitly advanced, that make a particular claim defensible within a given context of justification. Again, the difference comes down to the fact that the history of philosophy has as its concern the internal history of a practice of reason-giving. This makes the history of philosophy a narrower and more specialized discipline than intellectual history; yet it is not for that any less vital, since those of us who identify with philosophy believe it is an activity of vital importance for individuals and their culture. It is a good thing that individuals have the capacity to reflectively endorse the opinions they hold on the basis of a careful examination of the reasons for holding them, or else revise those opinions in light of the arguments against them.
If it is plausible to see philosophy as in its roots dialectical, then it should be clear that there is, and always has been, a role for the history of philosophy in the practice of philosophy. To be meaningful, dialectical inquiries must carry a record of their own progress. To assess where we are in a dialectic, we must be able to reconstruct where we have come from, how the dialectic has led us to this point. All of us have experienced the moment in a philosophical discussion where the participants pause to reconstruct how the arguments have led them to their present state, be it a contradiction, a mutually agreed conclusion, or a dialectical impasse. Offering this sort of assessment of the progress of a dialectic requires being, or imagining oneself as, a participant in it. It is not enough to observe that p was said, followed by q, r and s. Instead, we must (for example) be able to represent p as a reason for holding q; r as a reason for holding s; and to observe that one cannot simultaneously hold q and s. Plato gives such moments a prominent place in dialogues in which Socrates sums up the conclusions to which his interlocutors have been led by his questioning. As Terence Irwin emphasizes in his recent Development of Ethics, aspects of this method are taken over by Aristotle, who represents his conclusions in ethics, natural philosophy and metaphysics as the result of dialectical inquiries that build on the views of earlier Greek philosophers. Thus, dialectic is not confined to real or imagined conversations between face-to-face interlocutors, but extends to reason-giving and challenges to reasons given by philosophers separated by space and time.
One view of the history of philosophy, defended by Irwin (and in different ways before him by Jonathan Bennett and Bertrand Russell), is that we should see ourselves as engaged dialectically with our late, great forbearers. Our job as historians of philosophy is to take the texts left to us by these figures and to subject them to rigorous scrutiny, seeing which, if any, of their views stand up to the cold hard light of reason. While there is doubtless value in this sort of undertaking, I see our task in different terms. 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.
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.
Our performance of this function suggests the need for a variety of kinds of research in the history of philosophy. There is need for work that reconstructs the structure of a dialectic at particular moment, identifying frameworks of reason-giving; for work that recovers the views of neglected thinkers who may have contributed materially to philosophical debate; for work that examines in finer detail the cogency of arguments offered on behalf of particular conclusions; and finally for work that takes the largest view of the historical development of philosophy. The diversity of these inquiries correlates with the reality of our discipline, where we find a wide range of exemplary work in the history of philosophy. Common to these projects is the effort made to locate oneself within a dialectic, and to assess the weight of the reasons offered on behalf of a particular claim. Being able to do this requires familiarity with the external intellectual and cultural factors that shape a space of compelling philosophical reasons. However, the discovery of these factors is distinct from the effort to understand a philosopher’s arguments as probative responses to earlier moves in a dialectic. That is to think philosophically about the history of philosophy.
The History of Philosophy and “Philosophy”
Most of us pursue the history of philosophy for the same reason that Aristotle says we pursue philosophy in general: we desire to understand. Yet a critic may object that what we historians desire to understand is not what “philosophers” desire to understand: the world, ourselves, our values. As historians of philosophy we do not focus on these topics as they concern us; rather, we focus on them as they concerned people in the seventeenth century, or the twelfth century or the fourth century BCE. Hence, what we are doing is fundamentally unlike what “philosophers” are doing. On some occasions, we may incidentally contribute to the progress of philosophy by digging up a forgotten insight from the past; yet for the most part this is not the outcome of our research. It does not contribute to the current state of philosophy, but reports on philosophy’s past—a past that has been overcome as the boundaries of knowledge have pushed forward.
On the view represented by my imagined critic the history of philosophy is at most of instrumental value in relation to philosophy proper. It may be worth pursuing for its pedagogical benefits; it may sometimes turn up a neglected aperçu; but it is not philosophy, in the way that metaphysics, epistemology and ethics are. The persuasiveness of this claim leans heavily on unexamined assumptions about the business of philosophy and the nature of the progress it is able to make. On my understanding of philosophy, it cannot be sustained.
Some philosophers, particularly those working on formal topics and in subfields closely identified with the natural sciences, maintain that philosophy is a problem-solving enterprise and that there is a sharp distinction between the current state of the discipline, in which some problems have been solved, or almost solved, and its history, in which philosophers have failed in their attempts at solutions. I accept that philosophy is, at its roots, a problem-solving enterprise (it addresses our puzzlement about ourselves and the world), but I deny that solutions to its deepest problems are anything like solutions to mathematical equations or the fitting of curves to data. 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. Furthermore, we can only fully appreciate their significance as solutions, by understanding how they and the problems to which they respond have appeared at a particular moment in a dialectic whose roots run deep into the past. For this reason, the history of philosophy offers the most reliable means of orienting ourselves in philosophical inquiry and of articulating a meaningful notion of philosophical progress: not progress as the definitive solution of timeless problems, or progress as approximation to a fixed truth, but progress as the overcoming of whatever limitations we find in our earlier understanding of a topic.
What the history of philosophy is seen as contributing to philosophy ultimately turns on how we conceive and practice the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy can embrace an identity as antiquarian and disinterested in relation to the current state of philosophy. Or it can embrace an identity as “hand-maiden” to philosophy. Alternatively, 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. That the history of philosophy has a vital contribution to make to metaphilosophy is less apparent today than it has been in the past. Hegel’s historicism remains out of fashion. The genealogical approaches of Nietzsche and Foucault have been influential, but not in a way that constructively targets philosophy as it is practiced in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless there remains a case to be made, I believe, that the history of philosophy offers our best vantage point for understanding what philosophy is and can be for us. Occupying this vantage point requires devoting more of our attention, in the way I have briefly tried to do, to the broad contours of philosophy as it has developed over the last two and a half millenia. Of crucial importance is our ability to represent not just the content of the concepts and doctrines of the figures we study, but the nature of their epistemic achievements and the circumstances that allow them to count as achievements. If the Society for Modern Philosophy can bring us closer to realizing this view of the significance of the history of philosophy, it will more than have proved its value.
 It is heartening to see that attitudes on this point may be changing. According to a recent poll conducted by Brian Leiter, “With over 2000 votes cast, 55% said ‘history of philosophy is philosophy,’ being a ‘central, foundational part of the discipline,’ with another 25% deeming it an ‘important area of research’—so fully 80% chose the most positive options” (http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/05/what-do-my-readers-think-of-history-of-philosophy.html).
 For a recent response to this phenomenon, see the papers collected in Philosophy and Its History: Aims and Methods in the Study of Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Mogens Lærke, Justin E. H. Smith, and Eric Schliesser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 For a helpful discussion, see Mogens Lærke, “The Anthropological Analogy and the Constitution of Historical Perspectivism,” in Philosophy and Its History, 7-29.
 That there is a single continuous thread of inquiry that links us with the Greeks is a factual assumption that deserves careful scrutiny by historians of philosophy. Nothing I say here hinges on it. It is consistent with what I say that the thread should turn out to have multiple strands, some of which originate elsewhere than in Athens. In the next section, I advance a more specific claim about the form of our philosophical practice. That, too, is defeasible, and might be replaced with a more nuanced account of philosophical inquiry. I regard all of this as an open field of research to which we historians should give greater attention.
 For an endorsement of this view, see Daniel Garber, “What’s Philosophical about the History of Philosophy?,” in Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy, ed. Tom Sorell and G. A. J. Rogers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 129-46.
 Compare Eric Schliesser’s defense of the work of philosophy as “coining concepts” (“Philosophical Prophecy,” in Philosophy and its History, 209-35).
 The allowance of latitude in what counts as an adequate defense of a claim highlights the need for a contextual approach to the philosophy of the past. Without carefully studying the structure of dialectic at a given time and place, we cannot understand how philosophy functioned in that context. Philosophers who question this assertion should reflect on what passes as an adequate defense of a philosophical claim in, for example, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza and Kant.
 For Irwin’s defense of this view, see the opening chapter of volume 1 of The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Two prominent examples from the modern period: Descartes’s critique of scholastic Aristotelianism, and Kant’s critique of the “Leibnizian-Wolffian” philosophy.
 I say “mine,” because I haven’t seen it used in the literature. But I also haven’t looked carefully. I would be grateful to learn if there are precedents for it.