The following remarks are a revised version of Martha Bolton’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.
My reflections on this topic take the form of remarks about how work in the history of modern philosophy has changed in the course of my experience. The observations are impressionistic, but in an effort to provide some objective basis for them, I collected a little information. The endeavor consisted mainly of a literature search. It yielded a list of articles on history of modern published in The Philosophical Review over the past fifty years. Because this is a non-specialized journal widely thought to publish some of the very best work in philosophy, it seems an appropriate barometer of changes in the history of modern in relation to philosophy more generally.
The survey covers issues spanning the fifty years from 1953 through 2013. Articles on Kant are counted as in the field, because during much of this time German idealism was not a separate and active area of research as it is now. A couple of articles on Newton are on the list, as well as several on the political philosophy of Hobbes, which was much discussed in the early decades of this period. Let me repeat that my observations are from a personal perspective; don’t mistake them for a history of the development of the field during the last fifty years.
This is what strikes me about the literature search. The number of articles on 17th and 18th century philosophy per volume has sharply declined over the last fifty years, but the articles have grown in length and the number per volume has diminished. The proportion of articles in modern relative to articles published per decade, traced over the last five decades, varies—it arcs. In round figures, it is 9% from 1953-1962, 7% from 1963-1972, a high of 18% in 1973-1982, 15% in 1983-1992, 14 % in 1993-2012, and down to 10% in 2003-2012. At the same time, there is a change in the credentials of the authors. In the 1950’s most articles come from scholars who do some, or even most, of their work on historical figures, but also work in other areas. During the 1960’s a higher proportion of the articles are by those who write mainly on historical subjects, but some of the most widely read are by philosophers better known for their work elsewhere; they include Jakko Hintikka on the cogito, Norman Malcolm on Descartes’ essence, Harry Frankfurt on the Cartesian circle and Descartes’ existence, and Andre Gallois on Berkeley’s Master Argument (in the early 1970’s). Hintikka’s piece is rather loosely connected with the text of the Meditations, but Frankfurt and Gallois offer interpretations which are well grounded in the texts. Then, during the 1980’s, nearly all articles on early modern topics are by authors who work primarily in history of philosophy—although Jonathan Bennett is difficult to classify. This trend continues through 2013, where my survey ends.
By the 1950’s, ancient Greek philosophy had emerged as a distinct area of research with recognized importance, requiring special linguistic skills. This may have been influenced by Cherniss and by the strong tradition of German classical scholarship. But it had a boost from the ordinary language philosophy which flourished at Oxford in the 1950s. Its advocates maintain that Plato, and especially Aristotle, engage in clarifying concepts by investigating how certain words are ordinarily used (see the first paragraph of Gilbert Ryle, ‘Ordinary Language’, Philosophical Review, 62 (1953), 167-86). So Aristotle’s philosophy was thought to be of a piece with that practiced by certain prominent Oxford philosophers. Something rather similar may have been be true of medieval philosophy. By contrast, the study of early modern philosophy emerged as a distinct area of expertise between the mid 1970’s and ‘80’s. In the 1970’s, it was hardly the case that any philosopher writing on historical figures was blind to the relevance of historical languages, idiolects and other historical variables. Some devoted their attention primarily to this, e.g. John Yolton and Richard Popkin. What was broadly assumed is that current philosophy had inherited certain issues from the 17th and 18th centuries, e.g. the mind body problem, the nature of causality, and personal identity. The historical figures were accordingly treated as partners in philosophical discourse, as we find in work of Bernard Williams, Peter Mackie, P. F. Strawson, and others we have mentioned. My sense is that work of this sort contributed a lot to the growing realization that the modern period is a fertile and rewarding area of research. But when I was in graduate school, history of modern philosophy was not a recognized AOS; it came to be so in the mid to late 1970’s. Margaret Wilson’s example had a great deal to do with this. The insistence that the meaning of historical texts is essentially conditioned by accidents of history and cannot be explained in present day terms came from within the community of early modern scholars late in the 1980’s, lead by Michael Ayers, Dan Garber, and others. This implied a higher degree of specialization. It set qualifications for expertise considerably beyond those which had come to be standard for philosophers and it enforced a narrowing of the field.
To put these developments in their proper historical context, we need to go back to 1950. At that time, there was no English language journal devoted to history of philosophy in general or modern philosophy in particular. By and large, historical work on the modern period took the form of monographs or occasional collections of essays. Taking note of this in 1953, the APA (Eastern Division) formed a committee to look into the need for and means of establishing such a journal. The committee found only one of six major journals that said it regularly accepted worthy articles on the history of philosophy, so it organized an effort to establish a journal devoted just to this. The eventual result is the Journal of the History of Philosophy, which published its first issue in 1963. (See Edward W. Strong, ‘The Founding of the Journal of the History of Philosophy’, JHP, 25 (1987), 179-183.) Since several journals devoted to ancient philosophy were already established, the new journal received many submissions in modern. In its early years, the contributors vary in historical orientation: they include Yolton, Popkin, Charles Schmitt, Nicholas Rescuer, and Jakko Hintikka. I have no first hand experience of this, but my impression is that the founding of the journal was an important step toward making it possible to think of history of modern philosophy as a distinct area of research.
The emergence of the field as an area of specialization came along with a change in the relation between the history of modern philosophy and philosophy more generally. In the era of historical work by philosophers such as Hintikka and Frankfurt, certain cruxes in the history of philosophy were centers of attention; they were exposited and analyzed in venues which had a wide philosophical audience. This had at least two significant effects: one was to highlight some parts of the historical texts as of particular interest, while putting other parts in the shade—a distortion which lingers even now in the consciousness of philosophers more generally. (Apparently others, too, have had to remind their colleagues that it’s all taken back later on in the Mediations.) The other effect was to put certain problems taken from early modern thought in the domain of knowledge widely shared in the philosophical community. When I went to my first APA meetings, I could be pretty sure that just about anyone I talked to would know about the master argument and would be ready to talk about why it goes wrong, if it does. We could have an interesting conversation even if we strayed from the argument urged by Berkeley. I doubt there is any current issue of lively debate among scholars of the history of modern that I could fall right into discussing with just about any philosopher who happened to be on the bus to the hotel.
In the course of my career, specialization has taken hold throughout philosophy and it has brought this sort of fragmentation. The present isolation of the history of modern philosophy is largely responsible for the spate of recent interest in historiography. It also accounts for recent efforts to understand how history of philosophy is related to philosophy, as well as the felt need to defend the presence of history in the philosophy curriculum especially at the graduate level (which affects the undergraduate level).
Theories of the methodology of the history of philosophy, the nature of philosophy and its relation to its history have a history of their own, to be sure, one affected by historical context. During the past thirty years, at least three collections of essays on these topics have been published: in 1978, 1984, and 2013 respectively. The earliest, Philosophy and Its Past, contains essays by Jonathan Rée, Michael Ayers, and Adam Westoby. Its theme is set by the thought that unlike histories of other disciplines, history of philosophy is oddly unhistorical—the essays were composed in the late 1970’s. The volume is meant to stimulate thought about whether philosophy actually has a history, and if so, how we should think of it. The collection published in 1987, Philosophy in History edited by Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner, puts the nature of philosophy in question. The editors note that it is not a surprise when a philosopher announces that we have only just discovered what the problems of philosophy are. Many contributors hold that the subject matter of philosophy is largely a construct of philosophers; accordingly, they tend to think that the history of philosophy is woven into philosophy. Some express doubt that there is anything useful to say about the method of history of philosophy. While they are well aware of the contention that the historical meaning of a text cannot be separated from its context, they generally assume there are ways the doctrines of the past can be prepared for their role in on-going philosophizing. The collection published in 2013, Philosophy and its History, edited by Mogens Laerke, Justin Smith, and Eric Schliesser, contains two very different views on such matters. One group of authors argues that there is a specifiable, and according to some codifiable, method required for good work in history of philosophy; they maintain that the field is autonomous, which I take to mean that it neither has anything to contribute to current philosophy nor has anything to learn from it. A second cluster of authors maintains that the history of philosophy enables current philosophy to overcome factors which constrain it; that is, the study of history of philosophy is likely to make a philosopher better at the work she does.
We, historians of modern philosophy, presently confront the following questions: (i) Aside from the point that historical context, in any number of dimensions, is highly relevant to an accurate interpretation of historical texts, is there a specifiable method required for reliable results? (ii) Does history of philosophy have an inevitable, or an accustomed, or even an occasional role in the comprehension, evaluation, or construction of current philosophical theories? (iii) Can a historical text, understood in its context, be explained in terms familiar to philosophers of a later time without an unacceptable degree of distortion? Is it a mistake to try for this or does the role of history in the practice of philosophy call for it?
There is no reason why members of the Society for Modern Philosophy should agree about these things. To my mind, the questions are provocative, deeply difficult, and probably largely empirical. My attitude is mildly skeptical and pragmatic.
My familiarity, such as it is, with the modern period, such as it is, suggests that there is no single method of philosophical inquiry. Descartes and Spinoza, among others, purport to demonstrate metaphysical truths by deductive arguments with necessary a priori premises. Locke, on the other hand, rests his theory of human understanding on observations about our cognitive development and performance. The dialectical mode of inquiry, in the technical sense of Plato or Aristotle, is deployed by others. The exact way to understand dialectic among the ancients is controversial. I mean, roughly, a mode of inquiry about a topic which begins with an initial account of it and proceeds to solicit other opinions, or objections. If the account is on the right track, each of them can somehow be accommodated—either by refuting it or altering the theory to take account of it. It is an inherently inconclusive mode of probation, but if a great many opposite views are accommodated, the result may attain a high level of confirmation. Present day philosophers who argue on the basis of intuitions, e.g. about what a person ought to do in puzzling situations, use the dialectical method. Many of us may use it when we seek feed back on our work. In the 17th century, Leibniz is an outstanding practitioner of dialectic; probably Gassendi, too. But Descartes’ use of the Objections to the Meditations is expository and defensive; he is not interested in adjusting his position to take account of them. A similar attitude is maintained by Hobbes and Locke, among others. When philosophy is done dialectically, however, historical doctrines have an indispensable part.
Many 17th and 18th century philosophers assign a different role to theories urged by their predecessors. As you know, they begin a treatise by attacking some established doctrine, charging it with confusion, unintelligibility, or other faults. This is the prelude to articulation of a program deliberately designed to avoid the source of difficulty and provide a better account of the matter at hand. Descartes starts by undermining Aristotelian epistemology, and builds his metaphysics on an alternative; Locke questions whether innate knowledge can be made intelligible and develops an anti-innatist theory of ideas and knowledge; Berkeley accuses the doctrine of innate ideas of fostering confusion which tolerates materialism with all its ills. There is also Kant. The aim of making progress is characteristic of many philosophical programs; a project of this sort cannot loose sight of the theories which have been held so far, because the contention is that they have been surpassed. Even after a once innovative theory has become entrenched, there is need to keep superseded theories in view to sharpen awareness of the principles and merits of the accepted account. But this is true only in the case of successive theories which address an issue which remains stable at a reasonably detailed level of description. Nowadays, some questions in epistemology, moral theory, metaphysics, etc. may meet this condition. But in the case of many current topics of research, any similarity to issues discussed in the modern period is far too abstract to be meaningful.
I am, then, skeptical that the historical antecedents of present philosophical research are assured of relevance to current work, but convinced that there are several ways of doing philosophy in which they have a natural role. Also, as others point out, philosophy sometimes reaches a state in which it profits from reverting to models drawn from earlier eras—as with essentialism and innate knowledge, in recent times. Add the fact that philosophical explanations, as such, are of interest to many philosophers. Even when the problem or solution is outdated, a philosophical account may have value because of its originality, or ingenuity, or its systematic capacity to deal with a range of issues—traits easy to find in the modern period.
This leads me to mention something we historians of modern philosophy can do which may also help to span the divide between our work and that of our colleagues. This is to study the philosophy expressed in the works of historical thinkers. Here the aim is to interpret the texts correctly, which is to say with due sensitivity to context, in an effort to expose the philosophy going on in them.
This concerns the intentional content of the text, not the physical text itself. Let me say three things about what I mean by the ‘philosophy’ in a text. (i) It purports to bring rational understanding to certain phenomena which are regarded as controversial, puzzling or otherwise problematic. (ii) The explanation may take any number of forms; the view that proper explanations should be based on either the formal, material, efficient or final cause of the explanandum has little hold on the moderns, so they innovate. (iii) The explanation comprises several elements—perhaps one or more general principles for which rational ground is provided, perhaps some unargued assumptions, a description of the phenomena, and rules for allowable moves. To understand the philosophy in a text involves identifying this apparatus and explaining how it works, how the elements fit together to account for the phenomena. It also involves explaining how it responds to objections. We also want to know how the philosopher purports to establish the truth of the theory. But above all, how does it purport to make sense of the phenomena in question?
Someone might say: philosophical texts express arguments, first and foremost. Philosophers are sometimes said to be in the business of finding good, preferably sound, arguments for their claims; this may be thought to be the primary content of the philosophical writing. But as I have said, I doubt there is any mode of probation which is characteristic of philosophy in general; some justly famous works offer no argument at all. In fact, the theory advocated by a philosopher may be accepted by readers who find the argument for it unpersuasive; in the same vein, a theory may be disbelieved by those who can find no flaw in the proof of it—recall Boswell’s quip, no one believes Berkeley’s philosophy but no one can refute it. Some followers of Descartes mistrust his demonstration of dualism but adopt it anyway. Berkeley’s Principles of Philosophy is devoted to articulating a theory of Being and its epistemic implications for which no argument is in evidence. I don’t mean to say that we should not aim to interpret the arguments a philosopher offers, but it is at least as important to show how the doctrine argued for works as an explanation.
In addition to interpreting the philosophy abroad in historical texts, some of us should, some of the time, aim to present our results in ways that are accessible to our colleagues. Even though we cannot arrive at a viable interpretation without taking account of its historical situation, it is not impossible to use terms familiar to present day philosophers to convey the philosophy without unduly distorting it. Present day terms need to be suitably qualified and explained. As someone said to me at the meeting in San Diego, it is a problem of translation. There is no uniquely correct translation of a text, but some are very good.
Research on the intentional content of historical texts usefully addresses any number of other topics, as you know. But to round out what I am suggesting, I should say that to my mind research which aims not to inform us about the intentional content of texts but rather considers the text, an artifact with material, spatial, temporal and all sorts of relational properties of its own, should also be vigorously pursued. A scholar who aims to do understand the philosophy in the texts, as I often do, has to be informed about the circumstances in which the text was composed; they can make all the difference in how it should be interpreted. Beyond its relevance for expositing intentional content, research on the texts considered as artifacts with social and other relations informs us about philosophy as a practice. This can hardly fail to interest anyone who counts herself a philosopher. Why is philosophy deemed important in earlier periods? To what extent is its importance, or lack of it, a historical accident? What part do women have in the doing of philosophy, and what about other social groups? How are philosophical doctrines received, transmitted, appropriated, promoted, and misrepresented—as it seems they often are?
The Society for Modern Philosophy has an opportunity to establish new forums for debating issues, sharing work on specific figures and questions, forming collaborative projects, and so on. Such things are needed to sustain the work of scholars who are geographically dispersed and whose departmental colleagues are likely to have specialized areas of their own. May it thrive!