Monday, March 14, 2011

Pasnau on the history of philosophy

Some wise words from Prof. Robert Pasnau to prospective grad students in philosophy:

The discipline of philosophy benefits from a serious, sustained engagement with its history. Most of the interesting, important work in philosophy is not being done right now, at this precise instant in time, but lies more or less hidden in the past, waiting to be uncovered. Philosophers who limit themselves to the present restrict their horizons to whatever happens to be the latest fashion, and deprive themselves of a vast sea of conceptual resources.

If you think you have original philosophical thoughts in you, they can wait – indeed, it’s better to let them wait until you’ve had the chance to develop the philosophical breadth and depth to make the most of them…

[M]any philosophers today are presentists – they think that the only philosophy worth reading has been written in the last 100 years, if not the last 30 years. This attitude is hard to justify. The historical record shows that philosophy – unlike science and math – does not develop in steady, linear fashion. Perhaps the very best historical era ever came at the very start, in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. If that was not it, then one has to wait some 1600 years, for the century from Aquinas to Oresme, (Who’s Oresme?, you may ask. Exactly.) or wait 2000 years, for Descartes through Kant. I’m leaving out important figures, of course, but also many quite fallow periods, even in modern times. Maybe subsequent generations will judge 2011 and environs as the highpoint up until now of the whole history of philosophy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Every generation of philosophers has been equally prepossessed by its own ideas.

Of course, I am no more capable than others of judging my own times, but certainly I am not alone in feeling some amount of dissatisfaction with the way philosophy looks today. Tyler Burge nicely expresses my own worries when he remarks, in the preface to his recent book, that “if philosophy is not to slide toward irrelevance and become a puzzle-game-playing discipline, good mainly for teaching the young to think clearly, some central parts of philosophy must broaden their horizons.” Burge mainly has in mind science as a broadening influence; I think the history of philosophy can play a similar role. Although a background in the history of the subject is obviously not a prerequisite for doing deep and original work, it helps, and I fear the discipline’s present collective neglect of its past contributes to its often insular character.

As the kids say, read the whole thing.  Then compare the remarks of Stephen Mumford and John Heil we recently took notice of.

14 comments:

Josh said...

"The historical record shows that philosophy – unlike science and math – does not develop in steady, linear fashion."

This reminds me of Mortimer Adler remarking that philosophical progress was more like a spiral...

Anonymous said...

Mutatis mutandis, the same thing goes for contemporary theology, which is also badly infected with presentism.

Untenured said...

"The historical record shows that philosophy – unlike science and math – does not develop in steady, linear fashion."

Net-skeptic troll appears and uses this quotation as evidence that philosophy is pointless in 5, 4, 3, 2....

McCue said...

My fave prof. at Villanova told me years later (after I graduated) that the students they were graduating at that later time with M.A.'s in Philos. were ignorant of the history of philosophy.

I blame this problem on the "Continental" viral disease strain which infected the philosophy dept.

Continental Phil. can't stand up to much deep criticism, it seems, so forget the past philosophers before Nietzche.

In the early 80's at Villanova it was "Heidegger Mania". I think that warped into "Derrida Deconstruction Disorder"..

Don't know about the present. lost touch.

Fun. Fun. Fun. Fun. said...

Continental Phil. can't stand up to much deep criticism, it seems, so forget the past philosophers before Nietzche.

Well, I've seen many Analytic Phil. departments that forget all the past philosophers before Frege.

dmt117 said...

Chesterton's comment certainly applies to philosophy:

"Nine out of ten new ideas are old mistakes."

When I first began reading Plato as a primary source (instead of reading secondary sources about Plato), I was amazed how many ideas I thought were "new" were actually explored with penetrating insight by Plato.

One quibble: Math and science don't really advance in a steady linear fashion. What happened in science in the 17th and 18th centuries was a revolution that made all prior advances trivial in comparison.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

Thanks for posting this! I've long suspected that history of philosophy is the way to go, and I've increasingly found that better works in analytic philosophy tend to be the most historically informed.

Michael Sullivan said...

Analytic philosophy taken as a whole is certainly no better and might be rather worse than Continental philosophy in this regard.

Anyway I too agree with Pasnau wholeheartedly and count myself lucky to have gone through one of the very few good graduate programs in this country that emphasize the history of philosophy.

they think that the only philosophy worth reading has been written in the last 100 years, if not the last 30 years. This attitude is hard to justify.

Nice understatement. I would say rather that it's complete balderdash, as anyone could instantly tell who's made a serious effort to study widely in 13th and 14th century thought (for instance).

Tony said...

One quibble: Math and science don't really advance in a steady linear fashion.

Thank you, that's what I wanted to say. There are truly significant discontinuities there in math and science as well. It is, for the last 150 years at least, simply that there are SO MANY MORE PEOPLE doing math and science that developments are always happening on one front or another, even if not on this one. In each separate area, the progress is nothing like linear.

machinephilosophy said...

avoid deep criticism
follow the latest trend
stay insulated

and i would add:

call opposition anti-intellectual and biased

Josh said...

@machinephilosophy

Your blog is great dude.

machinephilosophy said...

@Josh

Thanks. It will soon have some quotes from Last Superstition, but I'm too busy reading and taking notes on the book right now to do much on the blog.

My father is near his death, and relaying him some quotes from the first chapter, "Bad Religion" has given him quite a positive charge and greatly encouraged him. Cheers

Kristor said...

@ machinephilosophy: May light perpetual shine upon you and your father.

Lee Faber said...

Of course, if things are to change, departments will have to hire more history people. At the moment it feels like career death. History for the analysts is either ancient (plato and aristotle) or 17th-19th cen, and now history of analytic philosophy (spanning the last 100 years?). If you want to do say late antique, you have to go to polysci or great books programs, and forget about Medieval. My impression from last year's job marked was that there was a decent number of 17th cen. jobs, but there were only about 3 medieval jobs (which spans 500-1500). I think there were actually more history of analytic phil. than there were for medieval. My only hope for a job is to get a spousal adjunct position from wherever my wife gets a job.