The Complete History of Philosophy, Abridged

This, perhaps more than anything else, may be my biggest scholarly disagreement with how philosophy is practiced today.  Sure, I have much bigger gripes on a personal and professional level—the casual sexism for starters—but this is less depressing.

Philosophy has a history, and its history shapes how we do things.  The problem is that each side of the philosophical turf war has its own narrative, and these narratives . . . well, they’ve got issues.

The standard version I heard as a grad student—and, to some lesser degree, as an undergrad—is that there were Presocratics, but Socrates was where it started; Plato really got things going, but Aristotle perfected it.  At this point, there was a Tradition.  Every other philosopher worked within this Tradition.  There were a few Hellenistic philosophers, then the Neoplatonists, then the Christians, especially Augustine, started working some of the Tradition into their tradition; after the fall of Rome, the Tradition got carried on through the Islamic world, then, after the Crusades, reintroduced to Europe.  That’s when Thomas Aquinas came along and perfected the Tradition.  A good Aristotelian, a good Christian, and someone with hardly any tendency towards original thought (but a great gift for exegesis), he showed us how philosophy should be done.  Then Scotus came along, and innovated a bit; what was he talking about, anyway?  Then Ockham came along, and, with the introduction of nominalism, lost the thread.  Then we had Descartes.  Descartes broke with the Tradition.  “I think, therefore I am” ruined our 2,000 years of perfect continuity, of gradual exegesis and teasing things out; he brought MODERNITY down upon us!  Suddenly, everyone just started shooting off their mouths, without regard to the Tradition, with each new person believing on nothing more than their own authority that now, at last, they had it right . . . only to have it all overturned by the next person a generation later.  British empiricism is the perfect example of this; after all, other than Locke and Hume, are there really any important empiricists?  Didn’t think so.  Dead on arrival.  Kant is the natural endpoint of this ever-increasing revolutionary method; with the Copernican Revolution, we see a complete denial of the reality of our knowledge of the natures of things in themselves, as well as a whole philosophy of the inside of one’s own head, rather than a vibrant philosophy of nature.  Nietzsche, of course, realizes this is nuts, but his solutions are so destructive as to not even be tenable.  It’s not until Husserl and Heidegger that we see a retrieval of the old Aristotelian nature-focused Tradition; when coupled with the new Thomism, maybe, just maybe, we can reestablish the philosophy Descartes destroyed.  First thing to do: save Thomas Aquinas from the analytics!  They take Leiter seriously!

Analytic philosophers have an entirely different narrative.  Sure, there were Presocratics, but Socrates is where it started; Plato, however, really kicked things off, and Aristotle added some things.  Thomas Aquinas had his Five Ways; there are some really interesting medieval logicians, and their metaphysics can be pretty good, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Pity about all the God business, though.  Descartes was where is really started, though; finally, we’ve got reason again!  Reason leads to British Empiricism, the Most Important Historical Movement Ever!  I mean, HUME!  Hume was the first person to get it right!  Hume’s the best.  We love Hume.  Anyway, Kant did . . . well, okay, the First Critique’s important for some reason, but it leads to all sorts of sketchy things, so it’s mostly just of historical interest.  After all, it leads to Husserl and Heidegger.  Until you get to Frege, there’s nothing really worth your time anyway.  However, once you hit the Vienna Circle, you get logic back.  EVERYTHING can be elevated to logic or mathematics.  No more metaphysics, no more superstition, no more irrational language; mathematize everything, turn it all into a natural science, and we shall be saved.  Seriously, why is philosophy considered part of the humanities any longer?  Someone on the Leiter blog said it shouldn’t, and isn’t he God or something?  After all, he’s saving philosophy from those frog-eaters, right?

And then there’s the continental philosophers.  For them, there was some jiggerypokery with the Presocratics, but Socrates is where it started; Plato, however, got things goin’ hot (if, perhaps, in a less-than-egalitarian direction) and Aristotle just amplified the aristocratic anti-liberal ideal.  There was a middle ages (Aquinas had something to do with it, right?), but Descartes ended it; with him came the return to subjectivity, a new focus on the self and our knowledge as the basis of experience.  This reaches its fruition in Kant, is further developed in Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger, before the Second World War brings us to the flowering of French philosophy.  Out of this, we get existentialism, neo-Marxism, radical philosophy, structuralism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, and feminist philosophy. Most things can be solved if you find just the right neologism to express the previously unexpressible idea that wasn’t part of our discursive field.  Oh, and Brian Leiter is an ass.

Why does this history matter?  Forget about ignorance condemning you to repeat the past; where you’ve been determines where you think you’re supposed to be going.  The Thomists aren’t the only ones who think they have an irrevocable Tradition that must be carried on and that is the Only Valid Way of Doing Things, even if they are the only ones to admit it.  How you think philosophy was done by the greats is probably how you think it should be done in the future.

Which is a big problem if we’re going to fix any of the problems in philosophy, or even the problems with philosophy.

Seriously, find me a woman on that list.  The Thomists may claim Hildegard von Bingen, Analytic Thomists G.E.M. Anscombe, and Continentals . . . well, slightly more than both combined (Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, and Iris Murdoch spring to mind without me actually thinking), but still, that’s pretty damn sad.  Other than a few snippets of Anscombe and Arendt from a Wittgenstein course I had as an undergrad, I don’t think I ever had a woman’s writings assigned to me.  Sure I sought them out for grad school papers (sometimes intentionally—it’s probably coincidence, but the three best books I’ve read on Kant were by women), but I was rarely told to.  If people don’t think of women as having done philosophy, then why would they think of them as doing philosophy?

And before anyone thinks otherwise, I’m aware philosophy has other serious demographic challenges that need to be addressed as well; however, this is not only the area in which we really lag behind the rest of the humanities, but also enough fodder for another post.

And, even beyond the individuals, what they look(ed) like, and where or when they lived, what about their ideas?  Where does Marsilius of Padua or Raymon Llull fit on that list?  You want truly awesome and fun stuff to read?  Check out these two medieval whack jobs.  Just to give you a hint, Marsilius sounds a lot like a 14th century Thomas Hobbes (and is the reason I got into medieval philosophy in the first place), while Llull . . . well, Borges loved Llull.  That should tell you everything.  What about Dante—yes, that Dante, the one who may be the first philosopher to defend the separation of church and state when he wasn’t writing okay-I-guess poetry?  You might think the Thomists would like these guys—after all, they are medieval Christians!—but, not only do they not defend the Tradition, at least two of them (Marsilius and Dante) actively attacked it.  What’s more, that whole “radical break” Descartes is responsible for?  If you read the philosophers from Ockham through Buridan and Roger Bacon into de Vitoria* and Suarez, suddenly everything Descartes says becomes . . . well, boring.  You’ve seen it all before, really.  The idea that he started/ruined philosophy?  Yawn.  To be honest, the real significance is that people thought he was significant—which, actually, is a big deal.  The really radical things from the Middle Ages—social contract theory, advanced methods of preference aggregation, modal and deontic logic, who knows what else—had to be reinvented by (among others) Hobbes, Borda, Condorcet, and C.I. Lewis.

Sometimes the need to fit things into a certain narrative does violence to philosophers forced into that narrative.  Thomists, especially River Forest School Thomists (AKA Real Thomists), tend to think of Thomas as simply an interpreter, someone who read between the lines of Aristotle and the Scriptures.  The true philosophical statements of Aquinas are to be found in the Aristotelian commentaries; as such, any references to Neoplatonism are included mostly out of fideism to his theological forbears, like Augustine, Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius.  This is the Holy Writ I was taught about Thomas, and how I was taught True Philosophy was to be done.  The problem is, of course, that Aquinas was not only a profound thinker, but, at times, a shockingly original one, whose statements were condemned twice by the ecclesiastical authorities, who was one of two major philosophers of the middle ages to come to the conclusion that God is not, properly speaking, a being, much less part of being-in-general, and who could play in the vast gaps where Aristotle just asserts things to create viable and coherent systems of metaphysics and ethics.  Oh, and a large part of my MA thesis is based on some very Neoplatonic passages that keep on recurring throughout the Angelic Doctor’s works, even in the Aristotelian commentaries.  Which is odd, now that I think about it; I mean, if you limit the Real Philosophical Works™ to only Aristotelian commentaries, then of course you’re going to conclude that Thomas’s philosophy was really just commenting on Aristotle.  Sometimes, your need to fit a philosopher or philosophy with your own preconceived notion of where they fit is so great that it ends up doing violence to the philosophy you claim to be studying.  While I’m sure other philosophers have been (and are!) treated in this way, none of them have the central importance Thomas Aquinas does to Thomists.**  When your preconceptions have distorted the philosophy you claim to be modeling your entire philosophical method on, you wind up with a distorted philosophy.

The final problem (for now!) is that the fruitful continuities between times and places that might give us new ideas is lost if two philosophers belong to different schools.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I may explain it later: Existentialism didn’t begin with Kierkegaard or even Pascal, but with Augustine of Hippo.  Go read books VII and X of the Confessions and tell me it ain’t so.  The problem is that Sarte and his buddies are continental figures, Augustine is very much part of Thomism (though most Thomasts haven’t read as much of him as you might think), and nobody really reads Pascal.  Thus, the historical chain—Augustine-Pascal (both directly and through the Reformation)-Kierkegaard (also through Luther as much as direct influence)-Sartre—isn’t at all easy to see.  The more I look at this, the more certain I am that there’s something going on here.  However, even if we can’t establish direct historical chains of influence, some ideas keep popping up over and over again.  Kant’s theory of the will, its relation to the intellect, and what this all has to do with ethics, has some eerie similarities to Scotus on the same points.  Zen Buddhism often seems to me to be a more developed form of Epicureanism, while the Tao Te Ching reminds me of Epictetus.  Sometimes, someone in another place or time may have started from the same premises seeking answers to the same problems; perhaps, just by leaving your own narrative, with its rules of what is and is not admissible discourse as opposed to crazy talk, something worthwhile might just happen.

*De Vitoria is cool for other reasons too, of course, not the least of which are his just war theory and arguments on Aristotelian grounds against enslaving the native peoples in the Spanish colonies.  Needless (and sadly) to say, Charles V didn’t exactly like his advice, promptly ignored it, and may have taken it out on de Vitoria.
**A full rant against the damage the River Forest school has done to Thomism and philosophy in general is not only another post I may never end up writing, but would be, I suspect, a good way to hack off a few people.  I also suspect at least a few of those people are ones I might not want to hack off, though I sincerely doubt that, at this point, they don’t already know what I think.  Meh, I may write it anyway for the three people who’d read it.
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3 thoughts on “The Complete History of Philosophy, Abridged

  1. Phill,

    I just want you to know that I love your writing. It manages to be both insightful and incredibly entertaining, as witnessed by this brilliant post. And what IS with that systematic neglect of Pascal, anyway? One of the more interesting thinkers I’ve encountered.

  2. Thanks! I’ve long been a fan of the Philistine, so . . .
    The best I can think of to explain Pascal is that he deals with God and the human condition without mincing words, but from an approach that other people who’d like to do the same thing don’t like. Thomists want God, but without Pascal’s uncertainty about nature; continental philosophers would like his existentialism, but without the whole God thing; nobody wants to deal with those really dark passages about distraction. Plus, whenever anyone mentions “Pascal,” the next thought is “wager,” which, while the high point of the Pensées, is far from the only great bit.
    Which is sad, really. There’s not much I can read without thinking of Pascal anymore.

  3. Pingback: Could the Future of Philosophical Writing Be… The Graphic Novel? « The Erstwhile Philistine

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