Against Huemer’s “Against History”

In a recent post at Fake Noûs, Michael Huemer asks why we have history of philosophy as a specific field of academic research. In Section 1, Huemer agrees that reading the works of dead philosophers is important and worthwhile. It is agreed that dead philosophers’ works are usually mined for the sake of creating a formulation of a problem. When this is done by a philosopher of sufficient disciplinary influence, and their work gets enough uptake among other philosophers, this formulation can become canonical and set the agenda for a subset of living philosophers.

What Huemer’s account omits is that this practice is part of the problem that historians of philosophy are trying to fix: the read-it-and-see-what-you-make-of-it way of interpreting a dead author can physically be done, I admit, by a reasonably good philosopher who is not a historian of philosophy. I agree that this sort of reading can result in interesting work. But Huemer already says this person, being a philosopher, is nonetheless probably wrong about almost everything. And a decidedly “ahistorical” philosopher who reads dead authors and then canonizes (to the misfortune of others) what they think was meant is probably also a very bad historian of philosophy.

If that is the standard for a canonical formulation of a contemporary problem, then why on Earth wouldn’t we want some historians to set such misreadings aright? It seems that Huemer’s methodology in history of philosophy naïvely sets us up to continuously get the dead philosopher wrong, then to have some other contemporary lumber along and give another interesting but incorrect misreading that then sets us up for another few years or decades of spilled ink over philosophical confusions that, for all the “ahistorical” philosophers know, were already identified and avoided by the dead philosopher they are reading.

Huemer asks four rhetorical questions:

[1] What are these scholars trying to find out? [2] Are they looking for more writings that have been lost or forgotten? [3] Are they trying to trace the historical roots of particular ideas and how they developed over the ages? [4] Or are they perhaps trying to figure out whether particular theories held by historical figures were true or false?

No, not really. Not any of those things. Scholarship in the history of philosophy is mainly like this: there are certain books that we have had for a long time, by a certain list of canonical major figures in philosophy. You read the books of a particular philosopher. Then you pick a particular passage in one of the books, and you argue with other people about what that passage means. In making your arguments, you cite other things the philosopher said. You also try to claim that your interpretation is “more charitable” than some rival interpretation, because it attributes fewer errors, or less egregious errors, to the great figure.

This pretends a breathtaking unfamiliarity with modern history of philosophy. The answers in fact are: (1) everything, (2) yes (example), (3) yes (example), and (4) yes (example).

Frankly, I don’t think there is much difference between the rhetorical-question activities and the ones that occur in Huemer’s actual answer. How does Huemer draw the line between “good” history of philosophy and “bad” history of philosophy? When a contemporary philosopher reads a dead one, and then summarizes what they say, at what point does this person start doing “bad” history of philosophy? Is it when they cite more than three books? Is it when they consult different translations? Is it when they visit an archive? When should the philosopher stop trying to figure out what they dead one meant and just report their impression of what was meant? Though there may be a difference of degree here, there is no real difference in kind between the activity being done in “good” history of philosophy, of which Huemer approves, and “bad” history of philosophy, of which Huemer disapproves.

In Section 2, Huemer suggests that the most we can achieve in history of philosophy is to understand what philosopher meant. But because this in itself gives us no evidence for the truth or falsity of what the philosopher claimed, Huemer says, “This is of no philosophical import.” But nobody would deny that we need to know what a claim means in order to determine whether our present evidence justifies a claim. The former cannot be done without the latter, particularly because most people read older works in translation. The evaluation of editing and translation is also part of history of philosophy. Is the alternative to just read Plato without critically considering the text itself? This cannot be done because what Plato said is not manifest.

This suggests that Huemer is mistaken in Section 3 in claiming that philosophers can just pick up a text and explain it well enough. The text is an object of scholarly scrutiny. The text is not given to us: it takes time and energy to understand. And here, Huemer’s argument cuts both ways: we could equally have just historians of philosophy because they could explain contemporary philosophers “well enough for undergraduates.” I could see a university provost making the same argument for replacing all philosophers with shared duties among faculty in other departments. Such a provost would be just as wrong as Huemer is here.

In Section 4, Huemer suggests that studying a dead philosopher too much can skew your modern perspective. Moreover, dead philosophers like Aristotle don’t have the benefits of “access to the accumulated human knowledge of the last 2,000 years.” But I don’t see that the modern perspective is not itself skewed in much the same way, as would probably be attested to by folks in future years if they were asked about our perspective. Appealing to what Martin Lenz has called “unquestioned teleological bullshit” about the march of progress is not particularly persuasive. And Huemer’s position that most philosophers are mostly wrong about most things makes it particularly difficult to defend the claim that living philosophers’ views are so superior to those of dead philosophers that we can or should discard history of philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Against Huemer’s “Against History”

  1. When I first started studying philosophy, at Michigan State in 1984, there was saying I heard often (it may have been from Quine originally, but really I have no idea): “We’re not historians of philosophy, we are philosophers.” I think partly as a response to that way of thinking there was (maybe, is) a particularly popular and useless version of the history of philosophy which involved taking some “hot” position and simply reading it back into the work of some significant but dead philosopher. Aristotle, for example, I learned, was a functionalist when it came to the philosophy of mind and his theory of the good for persons was Sen’s capabilities approach. Having real historians of philosophy around can, hopefully, prevent some of that.

    As far as Huemer’s post, it’s his usual mix of genuine cleverness, ignorance, and arrogance. Like Johnny in the old joke, when asked to define ignorance and arrogance, he responds, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” You have to be really smart to be certain kinds of stupid. For example, to write a breathtakingly simplistic 2,000 word blog post that breezily suggests part-way through that a significant fraction of the people you work with are useless. If everyone around you seems useless to you, sad to say, that usually means it’s you.

    I suppose I should say at least one thing of substance if I am going to insult the man. Well, he says this: “Now, let’s suppose that you have a really good historian of philosophy, who does a really great piece of work by the standards of the field, which also is completely correct and persuasive. What is the most that can have been accomplished?Answer: “Now we know what philosopher P meant by utterance U.” Before that, maybe some people thought that U meant X; now we know that it meant Y. This is of no philosophical import. We still don’t know whether X or Y is true.”

    Compare: “Now, let’s suppose that you have a really good historian science, who does a really great piece of work by the standards of the field, which also is completely correct and persuasive. What is the most that can have been accomplished? Answer: “Now we know what scientist P meant by utterance U.” Before that, maybe some people thought that U meant X; now we know that it meant Y. This is of no scientific import. We still don’t know whether X or Y is true.”:

    Or: “Now, let’s suppose that you have a really good historian of literature, who does a really great piece of work by the standards of the field, which also is completely correct and persuasive. What is the most that can have been accomplished? Answer: “Now we know how to evaluate the work that author P did in the book U.” Before that, maybe some people thought that U should be evaluated or meant something different. This is of no literary import. That evaluation is not itself a contribution to literature.”

    Furthermore, Huemer makes the amusing, but utterly unsupported, claim that it Aristotle were alive to day he wouldn’t be an Aristotelian. The only thing I think we can say for sure is that if Aristotle were alive today he would be banging on the door of his tomb begging to be let out. It’s revealing though that, in doing so, Huemer gets sidetracked by the need to argue against people who think Aristotle’s teleological view can be salvaged by some resort to evolution. It’s immaterial whether or not that’s true. The point is that Huemer gets immediately sucked into a debate of philosophical import inspired by a historical philosophical text even in the midst of arguing that such engagement is useless. Makes you think. Or not. As the case may be.

    Liked by 1 person

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