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Experiment, Culture, and the History of Philosophy

This is a guest post by Justin E. H. Smith. 

Along with Mogens Laerke and Eric Schliesser, I am currently working on an edited volume for Oxford University Press (to appear in 2012) on the topic of methodology in history-of-philosophy scholarship. In some respects I have been thinking of this project as a redux of the influential 1984 volume, Philosophy in History, edited by Rorty, Schneewind, and Skinner.

One tremendous change over the past 27 years, which makes this redux not simply a repetition, has been the appearance, and reappearance, of experimental philosophy: that is, the emergence of experimental philosophy as a defining feature of the non-historical wing of the discipline, as well as a crucial focus of study (thanks in no small part to the work of the Otago group) for scholars studying the history of early modern philosophy.

A question of central methodological importance for the historian of philosophy concerns the appropriate relationship between the aspects of philosophy’s past that a scholar takes on, on the one hand, and on the other the current agenda of non-historical philosophy. Recently, in the results of a query launched by Mark Lance at the NewAPPS blog, my own deep worry about the state of the discipline was confirmed: a good many non-historian philosophers believe that, at the end of the day, history-of-philosophy scholarship should make itself relevant to the cluster of questions currently being investigated in philosophy. I could not disagree more strongly. To riff on John F. Kennedy’s famous line, I believe that we should not be asking what the history of philosophy can do for us, but rather what we can do for the history of philosophy. That is, we should be attempting to do justice to past thinkers by carefully reconstructing their own world of concerns. In doing so, we shall often have to move beyond the boundaries of what we consider philosophy (and even of what they considered philosophy).

I have argued in many fora that we should respect the historical usage of the term ‘philosophy’. Some have objected that it is a semantic issue –as in, a mere semantic issue– what might have been called by a certain name in another era. What is important, they say, is whether the activity so-called in fact has any continuity with what we are doing when we do philosophy. To some today, the discontinuity seems most evident when we consider early modern experimental philosophy. There simply is no meaningful sense, they maintain, in which we can think of meteorology as a proper part of philosophy, even if this is how it was conceived in the history of natural philosophy from Aristotle through (at least) Boyle.

We might suppose that this discontinuity is bridged to some extent by the recent appearance of an activity going by the name of ‘experimental philosophy’, but of course the scope of ‘experimental’ was very different for, e.g., Margaret Cavendish than for Joshua Knobe. Nonetheless, it is certainly worthwhile to reflect on what the 17th- and 21st-century versions of experimental philosophy share, and also on what they might someday share. For now, the new experimental philosophy sees itself as having common cause principally with experimental psychology. As some philosophers sympathetic to x-phi have argued, however, the concept of ‘experiment’ could be extended much further than has been done so far. Jesse Prinz, in particular, has suggested that ‘experiment’ could be understood broadly to include what we think of as ‘experience’: thereby reuniting it with its lexical ancestor, and also reconciling with the intuitions that x-phi initially came out against.

If experiment is (re-)broadened to include experience, then willy-nilly we arrive in a situation for philosophy in which, in effect, any source of information may be deemed of interest. Such a situation, I think, is one in which history-of-philosophy scholarship could thrive. It is one in which, moreover, this branch of scholarship would find common cause with historical anthropology. It might even open itself up to non-textual sources of information (e.g., instrument design, seed collections). The text would be dethroned as the exclusive source of information about what was motivating thinkers to come up with the ideas they had.

For a long time it has seemed unnecessary to historians of philosophy to move beyond texts, since philosophy is about ideas, and where else but in texts are ideas encoded? Certainly, texts are a useful source of ideas from the past, but seed collections and instrument design are also, so to speak, fossils of past intentions, and there is no reason why they should not complement texts of philosophy, just as the layout of graves complements hieroglyphic texts in an Egyptologist’s effort to reconstruct ancient Egyptian ideas about the afterlife.

But we tend to think of an Egyptologist’s work as having to do with culture, while we do not, today, think of historians of philosophy as specialists in culture at all. Historians of philosophy are supposed to be engaging with more-or-less timeless ideas, which are not supposed to be bound by the parameters of the culture inhabited by the thinker who had them. But let’s be serious. Is, say, Leibniz’s account of the fate of the soul of a dog after death (that is, shrinking down into a microscopic organic body and floating around in the air and in the scum of ponds for all eternity) really any more viable a candidate for the true theory of life after death than the account offered in The Egyptian Book of the Dead? I don’t believe so, and when I read Leibniz’s account it is not because I am considering adopting this account myself. It is because I am interested in the range of ways people in different times and places have conceptualized the irresolvable problem of the fate of the soul. I specialize in 17th-century Christian European approaches to this mystery, but I could just as easily have been an Egyptologist.

To acknowledge that we are studying culture –not all culture, but a particular manifestation of a certain culture: the European educated elite, which leaves its traces in texts, but not only in texts– is to make a move that is exactly parallel to the one practitioners of non-historical experimental philosophy are currently making relative to the discipline that houses them. Current x-phi is putting philosophy back into culture by empirically studying the culture-bound nature of intuitions, rather than resting content with the intuitions of self-appointed experts in intuition-having. This is a welcome development, but I believe it must be seen as just one small part of a broader project of re-embedding philosophy in culture, and I believe historians of philosophy have a particularly important role to play in this project. Philosophy in history is philosophy in culture.

Even if Boyle and Cavendish meant something different by ‘experimental philosophy’ than Knobe and Nichols do, to take an interest in Boyle and Cavendish’s conception of philosophy as extending to experimental science is to contribute in a specialized way, I believe, to the overall aim of current x-phi, which is to study how people in different times and places actually think. In pursuing this aim, current x-phi practitioners have found common cause with experimental psychologists. The parallel interdisciplinary move for the historian of philosophy should be one that brings us closer to the work of historical anthropologists.

4 thoughts on “Experiment, Culture, and the History of Philosophy

  1. Justin:
    I thought I’d throw in a comment, since you mention me as starting the discussion about which you could not disagree more strongly. With two caveats, I do endorse the claim: “a good many non-historian philosophers believe that, at the end of the day, history-of-philosophy scholarship should make itself relevant to the cluster of questions currently being investigated in philosophy.”
    caveat 1: It seems a rather incautious oversimplification to describe contemporary philosophy as having some cluster of questions currently being investigated. My point is that what count as that cluster is always – and now probably more than ever – being contested. There is no settled view on what the questions are. Many groups think that the questions of other groups are completely pointless, or incoherent, or just looking under the street lamp.
    Caveat 2: “relevant to” needn’t mean “contribute to answers to”. Indeed, one can be relevant to the concerns of contemporary philosophy – esp when you attend to caveat 1 – precisely by showing why we should “move beyond the boundaries of what we consider philosophy”.
    With those two caveats, I stand by my earlier defense of the requirement of relevance, and also want to ask what your objection is. You say that you couldn’t disagree more strongly, but in fact this whole post is a defense of the claim that your methods are relevant in this sense. You do not at all defend the claim that a historian of philosophy can be engaged in something of no relevance to philosophy, but rather, argue that it is a mistake to think that texts are the sole vehicles of relevant input to philosophical understanding. On this I completely agree, and your historical examples – and the historical methodology necessarily tied up with them – seem both great examples, and to extend the point. But it is a way of showing relevance, not of defending irrelevance.

    Suppose someone really were engaged in a bit of history, or historical anthropology, which neither sought nor promised any relevance to philosophy. My question then is why a philosophy department should support that work. Why shouldn’t it find a place in – and subject itself to the evaluations of – a history department, or a historical anthropology department? I’m not sure we actually disagree at all. Certainly not on whether the work you briefly describe here is history of philosophy. But if we do, it is on the answer to this last question.

  2. Sorry, I meant that I agree with the claim “at the end of the day, history-of-philosophy scholarship should make itself relevant to the cluster of questions currently being investigated in philosophy.” (Agreeing with the claim that lots of philosophers say this is hardly interesting.)

  3. Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the input.
    I can see how your first caveat gives us an inroad to find quite a bit of agreement with one another. I certainly don’t think that historians of philosophy should be paid to look into something of no relevance whatsoever, but only that what counts as relevant shouldn’t be something determined in advance, let alone something determined in advance by non-historian philosophers.
    It’s true that non-historical philosophy is not a unified, monolithic agenda that announces to historians of philosophy a list of legitimate questions; current philosophy is as you say a contentious field with multiple strands of inquiry, and different historians of philosophy will see themselves as being in sympathy with, or as directly contributing to, different of these strands. But nonetheless it seems to me obvious from years of conversation with non-historian colleagues, whatever their own orientation, that they come to our discussions of, say, Leibniz’s life work with a clear criterion in their minds for separating Leibniz’s philosophy from Leibniz’s other non-philosophy activity. This criterion is never one that would have made any sense for Leibniz. So current philosophy is monolithic in at least this regard, that it makes a philosophy/non-philosophy distinction that is rather more restrictive, or jealous of the discipline’s boundaries, than the one that was operative in the 17th century. This becomes a problem for someone who is trying to research 17th-century philosophy in a way that is adequate to the source material.
    Now for a while I did go around saying: fine, put me in a history department if you think this isn’t philosophy. But I’ve changed my mind, and that’s a large part of the reason why I’ve gone public with this issue, generated a discussion through the volume I’m editing with Eric and Mogens, etc.: I wanna stick around in philosophy, and I want my non-historian colleagues to understand why. I think your first caveat can help me do so: precisely because current philosophy is not monolithic, but a dynamic field of contentions, etc., the historian of philosophy who goes exploring in the foreign country of the past, without knowing quite what she’s looking for, can bring back new material for discussion that will change the dynamics of current thought.
    However, I believe it is important to insist that there not be a quota on ‘stuff brought back per year’, say, that the exploration be allowed to advance imperceptibly by the standards of the non-historian. And I also have to insist that it not just be answers to our questions that be brought back, but also different questions, questions that people aren’t even asking today. Finally, I believe it may often be the case that the questions brought back are not really worthy of being asked anew, and that’s just fine: they might just be interesting objects to study (for reasons Dennis Des Chene nicely spells out in his follow-up post to Eric Schliesser’s at the NewAPPS blog).
    I take it this last point is most controversial, yet I see it as most fundamental. Let’s go back to the example of Leibniz’s theory of the fate of the soul after death. Again, I can’t imagine considering adopting this theory myself. That’s just not among the reasons why I study it. Theories of the fate of the soul after death in 17th-century philosophy are deeply wrapped up with religious sectarianism, social upheavals, etc., and it would be a huge mistake to not think about Leibniz’s ‘retreat to the smaller theatre’ doctrine in those terms. And yet, if we remove it from our picture of Leibniz’s thought, pretty much everything else stops making sense. It’s part of an elaborate house of cards.
    And this is why, I think, non-historians (at least, and indeed especially, the ones who are not anti-realists about truth and knowledge) really need people who do the sort of work I am advocating: if we don’t have the church-historical (and technology-historical, and medicine-historical…) aspects of the development of a past thinker’s thought filled in, and instead try to isolate the ‘philosophical’ ones, the result is a caricature, a mascot, a Leibniz* or a Liebniz. That’s fine for a certain variety of work: cf. Strawson’s Individuals, which begins by saying something like, “There is a doctrine that I am going to identify by invoking the name of ‘Leibniz’. Whether it was his or not is not my concern.” This is fine, I suppose, but one does sort of wonder what use it is here to invoke Leibniz at all. And if we agree that the past is worthy of more attention than Strawson is willing to give it, then we have to, so to speak, open ourselves up to its foreignness. If philosophy wants to be adequate to its past, rather than resting content with myths of origin and with backward-projections of our own concerns, then it needs to become what I think of as ‘realist’ about its past, that is, it needs to really accept that the people we study from philosophy’s past did not simply exist as prefigurations of ourselves.
    I’m amplifying some points I’ve made earlier for the sake of maximum clarity. I think, Mark, that we in fact agree quite a bit, and the only problem has been that I did not make one point sufficiently clear earlier, namely, that I am not advocating a sort of defiantly irrelevant curiosity, but only a treatment of philosophy’s history that is adequate to its object of study.