On Pasnau’s “parocialism of philosophy,” continued

In my earlier post on this interview with Robert Pasnau, I suggested that in order to combat the parochial and provincial nature of the history of philosophy as practiced in contemporary Anglo-American settings, that we ought to ask ourselves what it is that we are looking for in the history of philosophy in the first place. Here is what Pasnau has to say about the value of studying material from the history of philosophy, in this case, texts from fourteenth-century Europe:

Just as any given issue of a journal may contain an article by some hitherto unsung figure who advances the field in some notable way, so too an otherwise undistinguished fourteenth-century friar might have had similarly worthy ideas about some particular topic. And given how fitfully philosophy advances, I don’t see much reason to think the next great advance in the field will come from a new journal article as opposed to a newly discovered text from the fourteenth century. If the latter is unlikely, that only because [sic] we put so few resources into this sort of historical excavation.

On this view, the value of the history of philosophy lies in its potential to help us make advances on our own contemporary philosophical problems. There is certainly a utilitarian appeal in this approach, and it may indeed be exciting to search out arguments in forgotten texts that might help us resolve otherwise intractable problems faced by contemporary philosophers. Further, it might even furnish the diligent historian with a competitive advantage over less historically-minded colleagues insofar as they have a greater wealth of raw material to mine in constructing their philosophical arguments.

Note how utterly unhistorical this justification is. Here, the choice to engage in historical inquiry stems less from a desire to understand the historical genesis of the present, but rather from the hope that this storehouse contains, in some dusty and forgotten corner, an unexpected and useful argument. What this means is that, with respect to our humble fourteenth-century friar, we are not interested in understanding or explaining what allowed him to have such worthy ideas in this particular time and place, not interested in an analysis of the larger intellectual, cultural, pedagogical, linguistic, and political contexts in which he lived, nor are we interested in how his ideas may have influenced others prior to their being [temporarily] forgotten. Further, any attempts to provide such context may be deemed ancillary to the philosophical substance at stake, and only called for to the degree that it might be requisite for us to discern what it is the friar wanted to say. Thus, the goal is not to understand the friar’s world (and, by extension, our own, insofar as it is connected to that of the friar by historical descent), but rather to extract the friar’s views from their historical setting and employ them tactically in contemporary debates. For Pasnau, it appears that we are methodologically justified in treating the friar’s text in just the same way as we would as a brand new journal article given a skepticism regarding the existence of progress in philosophy, a discipline which, for the sake of argument, does not make progress in a linear and continuous fashion. Presumably, the thought is that if such progress was made on philosophical problems, the musings of an obscure monk from a benighted age would surely have little contribution to make.

Above, I suggested that we might think of this approach as utilitarian: ideas from the history of philosophy have value insofar as we may use them as means to producing beneficial consequences in the present. What does this mean for the problem of the parochialism with which we started? One might argue, for instance, that it supports a rejection of the excessive study of the “canonical nine” (once again, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant) insofar as it emphasizes the possibility that we could find valuable arguments elsewhere. We might further point out that given the excessive attention paid to these nine philosophers, it is plausibly the case that they have become exhausted as resources, after all, what more could we have to learn about Aristotle after 2,400 years? (of course, this latter point will surely break down in the face of, say, dedicated scholar of Aristotle [or Plato, or Leibniz, or Kant], who can always reject it as question-begging: who are we to presume that there is nothing new to be said about Aristotle?)

Now, to be fair, Pasnau has more to say on these matters: he also talks in the interview about a book he is writing on the emergence of modern science on the basis of Medieval discussions of knowledge, which sounds more like historical explanation than storehouse rummaging. The utilitarian justification of study of the history of philosophy also serves Pasnau’s point that historians often have to appeal, in the course of pursuing jobs in philosophy departments, to the “non-historical” philosophers populating hiring committees. More significantly for us, however, is that in discussing the marginalization of women philosophers, Pasnau points out that “considerations of fairness and historical justice” are relevant to attempts to study their contributions. I very much agree with this point, and just want to add that it is one reason to read the history of philosophy historically: showing the historical inadequacy and inaccuracy of the canonical “Great Man” view of philosophical history can shed light on the processes that have produced our canon and thereby help us do justice to those who have been unfairly excluded. By contrast, one has a sense that to the degree the utilitarian argument sketched above is concerned with questions of justice, it is primarily interested in rectifying a form of self-harm: the harm that results from allowing our intellectual narrowness deprive us of potential sources of the wisdom that we profess to love.

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