Philosophy without the history of philosophy, if not empty or blind, is at least dumb.
“The history of philosophy,” along with its various subdivisions (“ancient,” “early modern,” “nineteenth-century German,” and so forth), is now a standard category in academic philosophy. But it means different things to different people. In particular it means two different things.
For one group, the primary job of “the historian” is to state as clearly as possible what a philosopher meant to say by writing what he did. The goal is straightforward: explication de texte. For some in this group, this means locating the writing in its proper historical context, both social and philosophical, identifying the philosopher’s likely interlocutors, and understanding the influences on the position as well as the way the ideas were taken up by the philosopher’s successors. The history of philosophy, in other words, is intellectual history, not philosophy.
For another, smaller group of “historians” in this first group, this localization and context setting is useful but not so important. Their guiding assumption is a kind of perennialism. The greatest questions—How ought one to live? What is forever forbidden and why? How can a many also be a one? Are we just atoms in the void?—are eternal and must reappear and (p.2) must be faced by every age. The assumption is that attending to what the greatest philosophers have thought and written about these questions is the best way to think about them—the best way to learn how to think about these questions—for oneself. The assumption is often that interpreting what the philosopher meant to say can be extremely difficult, and that such a difficulty is not eased by attention to inheritances, influences, or contexts. One must, every age must, simply grapple with the classic text, engaging in very careful “close reading.” The relation to the text can sometimes be more pious than critical, rather as if one’s job is to understand and revere.
Scholars in philosophy departments engaged in recovery of the past can be motivated by a belief in the inherent “preservationist” value of correctly capturing the meaning of a text or the transmission of ideas. They might differ from the professional historian of ideas only on the assumption that a thorough training in philosophy is necessary to formulate the ideas properly. Or they might argue, as Sellars claimed, that the history of philosophy is the lingua franca of philosophy itself.1 Without a proper education in such a history, it could be argued, we can lose sight of why some contemporary problem is a problem, can fail to appreciate either the depth or the triviality of some current formulation, will not fully appreciate the varieties of ways philosophy can go about its business, or can be busily reinventing the wheel, unaware of how much work had already been done, how many dead ends already discovered. But, again, for anyone in this first group: the history of philosophy is not philosophy. It is at best preparatory or ancillary to, or a kind of reenactment of, philosophy, not a way of, as it is said, “doing philosophy.”
For a second group, writing about historical figures can indeed be a way of “doing philosophy.” To understand such an idea, and to understand the dangers of such an approach, we should first recall the striking remark by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff in his famous lecture at Oxford in 1908, “Greek Historical Writing.” Wilamowitz said something of relevance to the authors discussed here. He said that
our task is to revivify life that has passed away. We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood, and the spirits we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.2
(p.3) I understand this gory metaphor to mean the following. While most with any interest in a historical figure would concede the necessity of a thorough scholarly preparation, and acknowledge that it is necessary to know the original language and what a philosopher would mean by writing that, then, and for whom, this preparation is not the end of the story. The simple question driving this version of writing about great figures in the philosophical past is: Is what the philosopher wrote true, or at least philosophically valuable for us today, comprised of ideas we can actually learn from? In fact, for many in this group the historical/hermeneutical and philosophical/evaluative cannot be separated. We cannot understand what a philosopher meant to say without understanding why the philosopher felt entitled to claim what he claimed. They are not separate questions. In approaching works of philosophy, there is no separation between assessment and understanding. This involves trying to reconstruct a philosopher’s arguments with some charity and respect (often very hard to do, perhaps because one might have to fill in gaps in an argument when they are seen to occur), or in effect “philosophizing along with” the philosopher. The German Romantics, especially Friedrich Schlegel in his Gespräch über die Poesie, even invoked a kind of term of art for this and argued it was essential for philosophy, not just explicative: symphilosophieren, philosophizing with or together.3 This could be one meaning of providing “the blood of our hearts”: to treat the philosophers as living interlocutors in philosophy (or to bring them back to life), not as dead figures of mere historical interest, the way a chemist might treat the history of chemistry. These ghosts of the past will not speak to us unless we “revivify” them with such a genuinely philosophical mode of address. We must be so invested in this encounter that we are willing to admit that some of our most deeply held philosophical convictions can be challenged by these ghosts.
Wilamowitz was well aware of the dangers of such an approach. It is after all our blood that we are supplying. He went on to say that, if such ghosts drink, then “something from us has entered into them; something alien, that must be cast out.”4 And it is true that some approach the history of philosophy as “plunderers,” or pirates, taking what they can use for their own purposes, ventriloquizing their own ideas in the historical figure’s, importing an alien, incompatible framework, and contorting the historical (p.4) figure’s ideas until they fit ours. But with a thorough historical and scholarly preparation we can ask these figures “our” questions, not merely try to understand “theirs” (perhaps even questions that the original philosophers would not be able to recognize as such), or can provide them our blood, in a way that genuinely revivifies the dead figure, rather than infects them with something alien.
There is of course one other possible attitude toward the history of philosophy besides these two, and anyone who works on historical figures has no doubt heard some version of the attitude. No one, it is argued, who is working on chemistry or physics or a sociological study feels any need to prepare for such work by understanding the history of chemistry or physics or sociology. There are plenty of philosophical problems to work on, whether they have been treated by past figures or not. We should just get to work on them. Such sentiments are animated by a concern one sees at its clearest, if less polemically, in Kant. Philosophy has a very long history, so long, and with contributions by so many indisputable world-historical geniuses, that anyone serious about philosophy has to ask: Why no progress? We have instead, still, after two thousand years, no consensus, various camps and schools, and extremely unusual geographical categorizations (“European” or “Continental” versus “Anglo-American”) more appropriate to food than to any common and distinctive search for knowledge.
An understandably impatient reaction to this situation would be: Doesn’t this suggest that there is something profoundly wrong with philosophy itself? So wrong that the only good reason to work on issues in philosophy is to free ourselves from the delusion that there are such things as distinctly philosophical problems? A less radical response, equally understandable, would be: with the full development of modern natural science, we are now in position to start philosophizing properly for the first time, and all such philosophy should begin with the assumption that the proper account of nature and human nature is science. This is essentially Kant’s position, and in one way or another all philosophy after Kant has had to deal with such a challenge. For these reasons, the history of philosophy is not important to Kant; it is mostly a history of uncritical dogmatism and errors. Kant liberated us from dogmatic metaphysics; Frege, from psychologism in logic, and he “invented” the quantifier. There has been progress.
There is no way to settle all such issues here. Formulated in the right way, each of the positions noted above has merit, even the last. We should think seriously about why (if it is the case!) there has been no “progress” (p.5) in philosophy. We might argue that this is not because of something inherently deluded within philosophy, but because the question itself betrays a misunderstanding of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy is not the sort of human enterprise that could “progress.” (Perhaps at its core, it is not doctrinal at all, but a “way of life.”) No one, no one credible, could claim that our default assumption should be that Ibsen must be a better playwright than Shakespeare because he wrote later, or that Shakespeare must be better than Sophocles, and if we do not see such progress, there must be something wrong with playwriting. Not many philosophers accept such an analogy, arguing instead that what makes great literature in any genre is great writing, not great thinking (already a somewhat crude and implausible division of labor), akin to what makes for great sculpture or great music. If we pursued that issue we would have to try to understand the neighboring relations between philosophy and art and literature, on the one hand, and between philosophy and mathematics and science on the other, something like the twin sources of inspiration for, or even twin sides of, philosophy. The question of the historicity of philosophy would have to arise as well, its location both in and beyond its age (in a way not dissimilar to Homer or Shakespeare).
Some examples of what the second group above hold—that interpreting (and even criticizing) a historical figure can be a way of advancing, working through, coming to understand better, and defending a philosophical position—are presented in the following as evidence that the project is possible without anachronism, on the basis of sound scholarship and solid textual knowledge, but animated by more philosophical than historical intentions. None of them seems to me at all guilty of the reproach one hears about such a philosophical aspiration—“treating Plato as if he wrote for an Anglophone philosophy journal published yesterday.” In fact the examples are of reflections (mine) on other philosophers’ reflections on historical figures in the hope that such a dialogic interchange can also be philosophically valuable. There is a larger assumption behind such an aspiration.
That assumption concerns whatever “success conditions” there might be for philosophy. On the assumption that philosophy is not a form of empirical knowledge (although the widespread appeal to “intuitions” in philosophy has exposed those who make such an appeal to “experimental” philosophical results and counters) and that mathematics-like forms of proof are only as valuable as the nonmathematical premises that must first be assumed and defended before any notion of proof can get any grip, then there can be no general, methodologically secure way to know when a defense (p.6) of a philosophical position has been successful. There is in philosophy nothing remotely analogous to the relationship between theoretical and experimental physics, and there is no sense in hoping there is or will be. (“Experimental” philosophy has to count as something like an objection to philosophy, not an elaboration of it.) Of course, the gold standard in any serious attempt at knowledge would be to know that the position was true, but philosophical questions are often questions about meaning and value asked in ways such that strict truth conditions in the normal sense do not apply. We might want to make sense of the wide variations in what human beings in the Western tradition have valued, or how a person can undergo many radical psychological transformations and still be the same person, or make sense of the possibility of consciousness on the assumption that the only relevant explananda are neurological. In these and many other cases, the success conditions for such interrogations, when sense has finally been made, seem impossible to fix in any general way. Make sense to whom? How did one get from the absence of full sense or intelligibility to its presence? How could one? What would explain that success?
It is not the case, of course, that the mere fact of being able to convince as many people as possible that your version is the satisfying one ensures that it is in fact successful. You may simply be a good, clever, powerful rhetorician. Not for nothing was the earliest “life-threatening” attack on philosophy the charge that it is indistinguishable from sophistry, mere success in argument. But while not a sufficient condition (persuasive ability), at least the engagement with interlocutors and critics is a necessary and unavoidable condition of some satisfaction that one might have made more sense than before one’s attempt. Philosophy is thus essentially and not incidentally dialogic. Every philosophical position must start out as a proffer; it “lives” (remains a live possibility, attracts attention, criticism, defense) or is animated, only in such interanimated exchanges, even exchanges with dead people whom we must revivify.
It is conceivable that such a dialogic condition can be created within a single mind. Encouraging beginning philosophy students to “write dialectically,” not just espousing views, but anticipating and responding to objections and then imagining counters to such responses, is to encourage the creation of such an internal dialogic situation. But human imaginations are limited, and opportunities for personal fruitful encounters quite finite. One publishes and hopes for reaction; one travels to colloquia and conferences and does not merely report one’s results in the manner of the scientist. One (p.7) presents one’s proffers. And one especially hopes for instruction from great agenda-setting figures from the past who have interests similar to one’s own. In interrogating such figures, and imagining their responses to contemporary formulations of their questions, even formulations they might not be able to recognize as such, one is simply seeking the best interlocutor possible on the issues that interest one: say, a priori knowledge, acting under the guise of the good, the nature of organic unity, or the purpose of art, and so forth. Or one might come to believe that we have been led astray on some issue or other because of the enormous influence of some historical figure and might want to use that figure as a foil, a way of setting things straight. This all, again, presupposes as a condition of its possibility that the “way in” to a philosophical text from the past requires the appropriate scholarly preparation and sensitivity to historical context. And it concedes that there is no reason to believe engagement with one aspect of a position requires acceptance of all of it.
In response to all this, philosophers uninterested in philosophy’s history will argue that anyone interested in the possibility of a priori knowledge or whatever should just try to work out systematically his or her own answer. Historians interested in past texts as historical documents will argue that a philosophical interrogation of these texts from a contemporary position is necessarily anachronistic. The advice that follows from both positions is oddly the same: no philosophical engagement with figures in the history of philosophy is worth the effort. My hope is that everything that follows will count as at least an indirect answer to such objections.
In the eleven essays that follow, I consider a number of philosophers, mostly contemporary, in two cases (Heidegger and Strauss) themselves now historical figures, and try to explore the nature of this philosophical interanimation, the effective rejection of the advice from both camps just cited. That is, I try to present and explore what I think of as excellent examples of fruitful, genuinely philosophical engagements with historical figures. In each case I express some disagreement, not, I hope, in the manner of “correcting” “mistakes” in interpretation, but in a like-minded attempt to find what remains philosophically valuable in the philosopher under question.
Given my own interests, the historical figures in question are Hegel and Nietzsche, introduced by an initial discussion of the contemporary revisionist (p.8) readings of Kant’s moral theory. This Hegel-Nietzsche duality comes burdened with some momentous claims. Hegel is often called the last systematic, speculative metaphysician in the European tradition, and is characterized as a triumphalist about such an ending. The love of wisdom finally ended in wisdom in his systematic account of the partiality and interconnectedness of all the basic positions in the history of philosophy. Whether that is true or not, his work has to count as the most sustained philosophical reflection on the fact that philosophy has a history, and the most ambitious attempt to make some overall sense of that history. Although it is a bit of an exaggeration, it is not far off to say that Hegel is the last representative of philosophy in the grand style, a systematic philosophy. (Others take Hegel at his word and interpret it ironically. Hegel did succeed in bringing traditional philosophy to an end, but by revealing its inner impossibility.) And Nietzsche is sometimes claimed as the first postphilosophical thinker, the first to imagine what reflective thought must be, now that philosophy has failed. While there is something right about both characterizations, much more patient work still needs to be done on both, especially on the details of their various claims and the contemporary resonance of such detailed explorations, before any such sweeping generalities are even thinkable. Partly this is because there are by now as many “Hegels” as there are “Nietzsches” in the literature, and there a great many of both, something not surprising if the “animation by interanimation” claim above is roughly accurate. In fact, people citing some claim supposedly made by Plato or Hegel are very likely citing some interpreter’s version of Plato or Hegel, often unknowingly, and that means without any sense of the alternative possibilities. (The myth of “the” text is as misleading as the Myth of the Given.) Considering these figures as they have been considered thus also helps to highlight what in the thinkers has attracted contemporary interest and, because the commentators at issue are all astute readers as well as philosophers, what of philosophical value there might be in such interests.
Considering first “Kant as he has been philosophically considered” involves considering rejoinders to one of the two most persistent criticisms of Kant’s moral theory. Those are known as the “formalism” objection (Kant’s moral law is too abstract and formal to be actually action-guiding) and the “rigorism” objection (Kant reserves attribution of moral worth to a kind of motivation, acting from duty alone, that is too narrow and far too strict to capture what we want to approve of in attributing moral value to some actions). Philosophers like Barbara Herman, Marcia Baron, Allen Wood, and (p.9) Tom Hill want to say not only that these objections attack a straw man, not the real Kant, but also that a proper consideration of Kant’s actual account reveals a philosophically deeper and more persuasive moral theory. We can see that working out a proper response to the objections is thus a way of working out a more adequate moral theory and moral psychology. Likewise, objecting to such defenses (as I briefly do) is a way of worrying not only that something essential in Kant’s theory is thereby left out but that, having left it out, the revisionist positions do not achieve a more adequate moral theory and moral psychology.
The four chapters on Hegel and Hegel interpretation cover the main areas of revived Hegelianism in the last thirty years: what has been called “Sellarsian” or “Pittsburgh” neo-Hegelianism, the continuing importance of Hegel in the “critical theory” tradition, and the resonance of Hegelian ideas in postmodernist discussions. None of the “Hegels” on offer by these philosophers would be recognizable to, say, an early twentieth-century Hegelian theologian or a so-called British idealist Hegelian, but all, I want to say, are exploring genuinely Hegelian philosophical claims in ways that rightly and carefully bring Hegel into the center of many contemporary debates. Again, disagreeing with aspects of these interpretations (as I do) is also a way of arguing that the philosophical value and relevance of Hegel’s position are weakened if interpreted in the ways on offer. (This needn’t be the case, of course. One could certainly argue that with regard to the particular questions at issue Hegel’s position is otherwise than that attributed and, even so, worse off philosophically. There are plenty of examples of that out and about. But those are not the issues I am concentrating on in these rejoinders.)
The same strategy is employed in the discussion of the five Nietzsche interpretations. In two cases, those of Heidegger and Strauss, the issue is complicated because those two philosophers are much more explicitly working out their own positions, in their own distinctive way, in such an “encounter,” or Auseinandersetzung, with Nietzsche. Just what they are trying to say about Nietzsche can be elusive. In one instance, “The Expressivist Nietzsche,” I am responding to objections to my own reading of Nietzsche in my book Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy. Such an iteration in a discussion (an interpretation, responses, a response to the responses) does not seem to me unusual, but what we ought to expect about the uniquely interanimated nature of the life of philosophical concepts.
In the final case, that of MacIntyre, “Nietzsche” comes to stand for a (p.10) whole host of modern philosophical positions that MacIntyre wants to object to in his influential book After Virtue. This represents yet another way in which engaging with figures in the history of philosophy can be a way of “doing philosophy,” in this case rejecting a modern line of thought that MacIntyre traces back to Nietzsche, and supporting another, an Aristotelian. In this discussion, it is what is absent that is relevant to such a genealogy—Hegel’s position, but, yet again, only if properly interpreted.
(2.) Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing and Apollo, trans. G. Murray, 25.
(3.) Schlegel, Kritische Ausgabe seiner Werke: Charakteristiken und Kritiken I, 2:285–86.