All 20 "Rules for History of Philosophy"
Rules for History of Philosophy
A while ago I had the idea to suggest some guidelines encapsulating what I see as good practice in studying the history of philosophy. With any luck, these rules are exemplified, not routinely violated, by the podcast itself. These are not really “rules” of course, only suggestions of best practice based on my own limited experience. I would love to hear other ideas and have further discussion here on the website.
The “rules” were posted on an extremely irregular basis over a couple of years, and I eventually got up to 20. So that people don’t have to comb back through the blog, here is the entire list in one place.
Rule 1: It's possible for the same idea to appear independently more than once
It strikes me that a common error in history of philosophy is to see that two figures/traditions have put forward the same idea, and immediately infer a historical connection. For instance: atomism or monism emerging in both ancient Greek and classical Indian philosophy. Or: al-Ghazali's and Hume's discussions of causation. Yes, the similarities are striking, and there might be a historical connection, but the similarity does nothing in and of itself to show that there is such a connection. Rather it only raises the question of whether there was influence one way or the other. Often, the simplest explanation is just that people thinking about a certain topic will naturally tend towards a certain, limited range of positions (like, either bodies can be infinitely divided, or not - and in the latter case one is an atomist).
Rule 2: Respect the text
This is my version of what is sometimes called the "principle of charity." A minimal version of this rule is that we should assume, in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense. This holds not only for outstanding famous thinkers but also for lesser lights: even if they were not earth-shattering innovators, they usually didn't just write rubbish. Here it's also worth bearing in mind that until very recently (the last century) any text that has survived to get into your hands has already been through a process of selection by earlier readers. So they are likely to be reasonably good. But even without this observation, it still seems obvious (to me at least) that useful history of philosophy doesn't involve looking for inconsistencies and mistakes, but rather trying one's best to get a coherent and interesting line of argument out of the text. This is, of course, not to say that historical figures never contradicted themselves, made errors, and the like, but our interpretations should seek to avoid imputing such slips to them unless we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip.
Rule 3: Suspect the text
As I've frequently emphasized on the podcast, texts often have a long and complicated history of transmission. A work by, say, Aristotle was first written down well over two millenia ago; it's not unlikely that even the very first copy/copies had mistakes, given that it would presumably have been dictated to a scribe. To reach us, it then had to be copied by hand many many times, with the earliest surviving copies being copies of copies of copies... and those earliest surviving copies come from the Byzantine period, many centuries after Aristotle. Of course things aren't quite so daunting with more recent works but certainly anything produced before the invention of printing involves copying by hand, and there are philological issues to contend with even in the case of early printed works. This means that, if you are really getting into the nitty gritty of a pre-modern philosophical text, you need to beware of the existence of many variants in the text, which could radically alter the meaning. Scribes made mistakes, incorporated glosses into the main text, and made their own emendations to fix problems they found in their copies (these scribes were not stupid by the way: their emendations may well be right!). And that isn't even taking into account the possibility of outright tampering. The podcast fell afoul of this when I emphasized the salacious story about Avicenna's unrestrained sexual appetite while dying of colic. I subsequently became aware of a recent article showing persuasively that this was a later, hostile addition to the biography of Avicenna written by one of his students. (See the comments on the relevant episode.) The upshot is that historians of philosophy need to be philologists too, insofar as they can manage it, and to take seriously the work of scholars working on textual transmission or even collaborate with them.
Rule 4: Respect the context
Podcast listeners will know that I put a lot of emphasis on the wider historical context within which philosophy was produced. To some extent it should be obvious how necessary this is: how can we understand, say, Plato and Aristotle's political philosophy without knowing something about the political situation of Athens in their day, or understand Hobbes without knowing about English history? But historical context can be relevant in more surprising ways; my favorite example of this is the parallel between early Islamic debates over the eternity of the universe and the contemporary debate over the eternity or createdness of the Koran. (Actually, though I've drawn this comparison in many places including the podcast, I don't know that anyone agrees with me about it, but I still think it's right.)
There are at least two worries we might have here. First, that history of philosophy is turned into something that is more history than philosophy. Sometimes people speak dismissively of the "history of ideas," in which philosophical theories are nothing but reflections of other historical events. But I strongly feel that history of philosophy is both a kind of history and a kind of philosophy. Understanding the historical context will help us understand philosophical arguments, but going through and evaluating those arguments is still a philosophical enterprise.
Second, that this rule makes it nearly impossible to do the history of philosophy. Are we really supposed to become experts, not only on all these philosophers, but also on the whole context they lived in, taking into account everything from political events to social circumstances, economic factors, etc? My answer would be, basically, yes. There is no point at which you can say, "ok, I've learned enough about the historical context, nothing I learn further will help or be relevant." In principle, it is always worth looking at the context more carefully, no matter how well you understand it. The limits are imposed by what we can manage in terms of time and expertise. Like some of the other rules I'm proposing, this rule is intended as an open-ended encouragement to strive for an ideal which is not practically reachable.
Rule 5: Take "minor" figures seriously
I suppose no one is going to be surprised by this one, given the "without any gaps" slogan. One of the main points I'm trying to make with this podcast is that, if you want to understand the history of philosophy, you can't just hop from one great thinker to another, leaving out everything that happened in between. Of course the famous names are those who drew us all into the subject in the first place: I am not alone in having caught the philosophy bug by being exposed to Plato. But even if all you want to do is understand the famous figures, you have to remember that they are responding to less famous figures who came right before them or who were their contemporaries. We've seen plenty of examples in the podcast so far. Furthermore, as we've also seen, the so-called "minor" figures have made significant contributions themselves.
Previously ignored authors are routinely "discovered" in scholarship and pushed into the front rank. In the series on medieval philosophy, for instance, we look at John Buridan who was previously relatively obscure but has gotten a lot of attention in recent secondary literature. Another point to consider here is that all the figures who leap to mind when you think of "great philosophers" have been men. So ignoring the "minor" figures means leaving out the contributions made by women authors throughout the history of philosophy. Historically, attitudes towards women have almost guaranteed that they would be evaluated as less important than their male counterparts. While some, for instance Wollstonecraft, are now taken seriously as major thinkers, we have a long way to go in terms of rescuing women thinkers from undeserved obscurity.
None of this is to say that it is illegitimate for a historian to spend much of their time reading, say, Plato, or Descartes. These are complex, deep and rewarding thinkers who seem to be almost inexhaustible in rewarding our attention. But as a discipline, the history of philosophy would benefit if more effort were devoted to the B team.
Rule 6: Learn some dates
This one may seem obvious, but I mention it because it does really come in handy. As I've had occasion to mention on the podcast I don't have a very good head for dates, so I try to remember some specific ones as landmarks -- like the death dates of significant philosophers, and then you can at least get a vague idea when another philosopher is by knowing whether they are earlier or later than that philosopher. (A good one to memorize is Socrates' death date of 399 BC, because you can work backward to know when the Presocratics were and forward for Plato and Aristotle.) It's also a good idea to learn some other non-philosophical dates, to help with knowing what the context of the philosophers' work was (see rule 4).
While I'm on this subject, don't forget the timelines here on the website (in the menu above) which give you the dates for all the philosophers I've mentioned on the podcasts thus far, with links to the episodes where they are covered.
Rule 7: Ask yourself why they care
This and the next couple of rules are going to be about avoiding anachronism. That seems obvious enough, but anachronism is surprisingly hard to avoid in the history of philosophy, so I thought I would break the issue down into several aspects. This first one is, I think, often overlooked. Instead of assuming that the historical figures we study are motivated by the same philosophical worries that worry us, we need to understand why they care about each issue they raise. Often it will be because of something in the historical context (again, see rule 4), a view held by a predecessor, or something else in their own philosophical system. Seeing what led them to a particular argument or discussion will help us understand that argument or discussion.
My favorite example here is the medieval debates over the eternity of the world. We might even be tempted to dismiss the whole debate as uninteresting, since modern physics has rendered the debate obsolete. But if we dig into the motivation for the debate (as I tried to do in, for instance, episodes 144, 161, and 252) we see that the eternity debate was not only about eternity. It was about God's relationship to the world, and more abstractly, about how to understand the concepts of necessity and causation.
Rule 8: Read the whole text
I shouldn't even have to say this! But I do, because in fact it's very common to take individual passages or arguments or claims out of their textual context. Perhaps the best example of all is something I mention in podcast episode 205, on Anselm's ontological argument: the argument fits onto a page or two and is nearly always read by itself without going through the rest of the work in which it appears (his Proslogion). In fact that argument is only the first step in a lengthy attempt to grasp God, and it's impossible to understand correctly what Anselm is up to unless you read the whole book. That's an extreme example, but it's not atypical, I think.
Of course, there may be more or less free-standing bits of text that don't need to be read along with the rest of the work in which they appear - some philosophers write aphoristically, for instance. But even in that sort of case, we shouldn't just assume that (say) a collection of aphorisms and short texts by Nietzsche has been put together with no thought regarding structure or thematic arc. At the other end of the spectrum, it amazes me that people often read bits of Platonic dialogues as if they could be understood in isolation - even though it's patently obvious that Plato put immense effort into the unity and structure of each dialogue. (In fact he even talks about the organic unity of a good speech in the Phaedrus.)
Now, it's not always easy or even possible to read works as a whole. There are texts that are preserved only as fragments, like with the Presocratics and early Stoics; similar problems arise with, say, anonymous glosses or notes in medieval manuscripts, where we can't be sure what (if any) other material was written by the same annotator. Then there are massive works where reading the whole thing is a major commitment; I wouldn't tell someone it is worthless to read one book of the Republic unless they are also going to be reading the other nine in the near future. As with the other rules, this is therefore more an ideal to shoot for. Whenever possible consider textual evidence in light of the rest of the work, for instance by considering what the author may have been trying to do in the work as a whole, and what function this particular part of the text plays in that whole.
This is incidentally another way to avoid anachronism. By being more attentive to the goals and project of the whole work, we are less likely to jump to conclusions about one isolated passage and to import anachronistic philosophical concerns into that passage.
Rule 9: Learn the terminology
Another obvious one, perhaps, but also worth mentioning. Not all philosophers develop their own technical or semi-technical vocabulary, but many do. (Sometimes even those who officially make a big deal out of not worrying about terminology, like Plato.) When reading any philosopher, you need to know which words have a technical meaning and what they mean – this obviously requires knowing at least enough of the primary language to track the terms in question. (I actually considered having a more general rule to the effect of “learn the primary language,” but I worry that this could be discouraging: please do read Plato, even if you can’t read Greek! Still, it really does go without saying that there is a significant sense in which you can’t in fact read Plato if you can’t read Greek.)
This is another rule that has to do with avoiding anachronism. The more we know about a philosopher’s language, including not only the way terms were generally used at his or her time but also the way that this philosopher in particular uses terms, the less likely we are to import our own assumptions about what these terms must mean. There are many examples where scholars have pointed out that interpreters have mistakenly been taking a given word to mean what we now today would mean by it, whereas actually it meant something different – one that comes to mind is “cause” in Aristotle. The best way to guard against such mistakes is to track the use of a word across the philosopher’s works, using context (both in these works and in other works of the time) to get a better grip on exactly what the word means.
Rule 10: Silence is not louder than words
One of the most tempting things to do when you are reading a philosophical text is to assume that, if the philosopher you're reading hasn't mentioned something you would expect to be mentioned, then they have omitted it on purpose. Allusions to predecessors, suppressed premises, allusions to historical/religious context, etc all may cause what seem to be loud silences when they are absent. And definitely, being alive to the possibility that a philosopher is purposefully not saying something should be in every historian's toolkit. But it's a tool to be used with great caution. What we might expect a philosopher to say is going to depend to a great extent on what our own interests and philosophical worldview looks like, so breaking this rule can be another souce of anachronism. The same goes for our (inevitably very partial) understanding of the philosopher's intellectual and historical context. How, we might think, can a philosopher not mention such-and-such a historical event that we think of as really crucial... they must be avoiding mention of it on purpose! At its worst, this sort of reading allows us to project our own concerns onto the text with wild abandon.
It's an interesting question what exactly you need to have as evidence before arguing from silences in this way; one kind of license might be a philosopher who actually tells you that some points are deliberately being suppressed (as Maimonides does in his famous preface to the Guide). But generally, I think one should always err on the side of working out the philosopher's priorities and ideas from what they do say rather than what they don't.
Rule 11: Think critically
With all these worries about avoiding anachronism, you may have gotten the impression that I am only worried about "getting the text right," and in fact I do think that is a first step in dealing with any historical source material. However, just as I said above that history of philosophy is a kind of history, it is also a kind of philosophy! Philosophy comes in not only when you are reconstructing the position (because you need to make sense of the ideas in the text "from the inside" which is a philosophical task) but also in assessing the arguments you've read and, hopefully, now understood in all their complexity, historical context, etc.
Here I like something that we used to emphasize a lot when I taught in England (it's much less emphasized in Germany, I find): that from the very beginning of their education in philosophy, students should not just summarize and present a text in their essays or discussion in class, but also say what they think about it, consider possible counter-arguments, etc. Of course this often meant that students were being asked critically to assess arguments and ideas they weren't yet in a position to understand fully, but it's nonetheless a good approach because it trains students to think critically about what they are reading.
The most obvious reason to do this is that we are in the end interested in whether any of these philosophical views are true! But even if your motivation is strictly historical, you will often need to think hard about a given philosopher's ideas critically to understand why later philosophers (or even the same philosopher, after re-thinking) rejected, or carried forward, those ideas in certain ways.
Rule 12: Think about the audience
All good writers, teachers and speakers know to bear in mind the audience they are writing for; think about what will interest them, what their concerns may be, what they already know and what they want to learn. Obviously not all philosophers have been good writers, teachers and speakers, and some philosophical texts seem to have been written with no particular audience in mind (or even with an “audience be damned!” attitude). But usually, texts are written with at least some conception of the readership. This can be an important guide to interpretation. It is vital to know, for instance, what a philosopher could take for granted in terms of background knowledge in their intended audience, or which other texts the audience will be likely to know. Just to give a specific example, it is almost impossible to overestimate the presence in an ancient Greek’s mind of Homer and Hesiod, or the Bible in a medieval reader’s mind – these texts could be brought to mind even with single words or vague allusions, much as we can bring to mind tv shows or movies with a single word or phrase. Likewise it may be useful to bear in mind, say, that an audience member is likely to have primarily theological concerns in mind, or primarily political ones, in thinking about how the author has framed arguments aimed at that audience: what does such-and-such an argument indirectly imply about the Trinity, or about the legitimacy of monarchy?
The result is that the historian of philosophy needs to know as much as possible about who the audience for a text was likely to be, and as much as possible about what that audience would have read, known, and thought. This is obviously related to knowing about the historical context more generally, but it is a more specific and to some extent more challenging task, one even impossible to carry out fully, since for most periods we have little hope of stepping entirely into the shoes of the audience members. Again, it’s more of an ideal to shoot for.
Rule 13: Take metaphors seriously
The history of philosophy is full of metaphors, analogies and similes - from Plato's cave to Neoplatonic "emanation" to Rawls' "veil of ignorance". In general, I am a big supporter of taking seriously the "literary" features of philosophical texts, like structure or characterization and dramatic setting. Metaphors are a particularly interesting case, though, because one needs to decide how exactly to apply the metaphor. Obviously many philosophical metaphors have been parsed and analyzed in great detail - no one would say that Plato's cave has received insufficient attention. Nonetheless I think there are a lot of such metaphors that bear further thought. For instance I once wrote a paper on the widespread ancient tendency to compare the following things to one another: the individual (or the soul); the household; the city; and the cosmos. It turns out to be useful to dwell on exactly how such metaphors are cashed out, and what effect they have on philosophers' ways of thinking. That comparison between a city or other society and the cosmos tends to push them in the direction of arguing for monarchy, because the cosmos is likewise for them ruled by a single divine principle. (Or was it the other way around, that they draw the analogy in the first place as a way of justifying their political preconceptions?) And then there is the issue of what, if any, argumentative weight a metaphor has - should we be more persuaded by a philosophical view just because it is illuminated by a rhetorically powerful metaphor? Again, think of Plato's cave and how much less resonance it would have if he had just said something like, "I think people in everyday life are paying attention to images of reality, instead of true reality," without giving the metaphor. Yet that resonance itself doesn't make the philosophical position more convincing... or does it? Again, it's just one example of what could be a more general rule, which is to pay heed to literary features of texts.
Rule 14: Take religion seriously
Ok, this one might be controversial. But it was much on my mind when I wrote the episodes on medieval philosophy, where religion is woven into pretty much every text I was looking through. As I wrote the scripts I thought a lot about how to present the material in a way that will be interesting and seem relevant to listeners who don't care much about religion, without misrepresenting the material or for that matter letting down listeners who do have an interest in the religious side of things. At any rate, it seems to me important to remember that the vast majority of figures available for us to study in the history of philosophy have been religious believers. This goes not only for the obvious cases like the medieval Latin Christians but also for pagan thinkers of antiquity. We can assume that nearly all of the people I covered in episodes 1-100 (i.e. before arriving at ancient Christianity) were practicing pagans, and that includes household names like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They may have had culturally unusual interpretations of the religion of their day but they were in some sense themselves religious (by which I mean that they believed in divine entities and presumably engaged in cultic practices) and more importantly for us, they felt the need to engage with religion in their works. So religious issues are (to differing degrees, but almost always to some degree) woven into the very fabric of the philosophical works we are reading from antiquity, and this also goes of course for the medieval period in various cultures, and for early modernity. As we’ve seen in the series on Indian philosophy, religious issues also played an important role there. Nowadays most professional philosophers in Europe and the US seem to be atheists, as far as I can tell, but that is a very recent development, even if one can point to occasional atheists in earlier periods (Hume is a favorite example).
What does this mean for the historian? In the first place that we need to learn about religious context just like the other aspects of historical context. No surprise there. But it also means something more challenging, which is that one needs to take an objective and open-minded attitude towards the philosophers' religious beliefs. Insofar as we are historians of philosophy, our goal should not be to take inspiration for our own religious faith if we have it, or to find the mistakes made by great religious authorities for the sake of reinforcing our own lack of faith if we don't have it. Rather it should be to understand how the religious views interacted with and influenced the philosophical views – for instance, how Augustinian ideas about grace affected views on free will. Actually I would go further and say that we shouldn't even worry which aspects of a thinker's worldview are "religious" as opposed to "philosophical." Much of the time this dividing line is going to be blurry or even non-existent, and there is no reason to get anxious about it. I know from comments I've seen here on the website that some listeners think that philosophy is antithetical to religion; whatever merit that may have as a philosophical position nowadays, it is not a good place to start from in doing history of philosophy.
This is not to say, of course, that one's own beliefs remain irrelevant. If you are an atheist you had better be ready to say what is wrong with Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, once you have done your best to understand it! It's just that, as I've argued before in this series of rules, the first and very challenging step is to understand the texts you are reading, and taking religion seriously is part of that.
Rule 15: Be broadminded about what counts as “philosophy”
This is in a way a generalization of the previous rule to take religion seriously. The point I want to make with this rule has as its obvious starting point the frequent observation that, until very recently (like, only the last couple of centuries) the word "philosophy" included much more than we would include today. Still during the Enlightenment people we would call "scientists" would have referred to themselves as "natural philosophers." Of course that by itself might just mean that the word has changed meaning. But we need to remember that historical figures would have seen topics of inquiry that for us are no longer "philosophical" as being part and parcel of "philosophy"; they didn't recognize the same disciplinary boundaries that we do, so they moved very freely from topics like epistemology and metaphysics to topics like astronomy, mathematics or medicine. This is why I have devoted so much attention to "scientific" and even "pseudo-scientific" subjects in the podcast, covering things like medicine, astronomy, and astrology.
But it's not just science: historically the boundaries between philosophy on the one hand, and theology or mysticism on the other, have been quite blurry or just non-existent. I won't go into the theology point again, except to refer back to the Islamic world episodes and all the philosophy we saw being done by representatives of "kalam" (systematic theology). We also saw some philosophically interesting material in Sufis and Kabbalists, with mutual influence and re-purposing of ideas about negative theology, the soul, and so on, from philosophy to mysticism or vice-versa. Even a topic like Islamic jurisprudence turned out to have important implications in ethics and epistemology.
The moral of this story, then, is that historicans shouldn't restrict their attention to texts, figures and movements that seem "philosophical" in our sense. Philosophical material is not philosophical because of where it appears, but because (to make a long story short) it is philosophically interesting.
Rule 16: Respect texts about texts
A whole genre of philosophical writing that traditionally suffers from neglect is the commentary. Actually there is a whole range of texts about other philosophical texts, which would include commentaries but also glosses, paraphrases, epitomes, and the like – I am referring to all this sort of thing, but to simplify I’ll mostly just talk about “commentaries.” A good example, and also an example where prejudice has largely been overcome now, is the massive body of philosophical commentaries on Plato, Aristotle and other philosophical works that was produced in late antiquity. Thanks to Richard Sorabji’s Ancient Commentators Project (which I worked with in London for some years) these commentaries are now mostly available in English and have been pretty well integrated into history of philosophy. There are also many commentaries in Latin medieval philosophy and in the Islamic tradition. In fact, one reason for the widespread myth that philosophy in the Islamic world ended after the 12th century or so is that thereafter, philosophy was often written in the form of glosses and commentaries, which are always in danger of not being taken seriously. (I interviewed Robert Wisnovsky about this here on the podcast.)
There are at least three reasons why we should take such texts seriously, and include them in the history of philosophy. First, they can still fulfill their original purpose of illuminating the text commented upon. Alexander of Aphrodisias was not only a superb philosopher in his own right, but also had a thorough and intimate knowledge of Aristotle’s works (plus he was a native speaker of ancient Greek!). He is thus a very useful guide to textual and philosophical problems in the source text – that doesn’t mean he’s always right in his interpretations of course, but he is pretty well always worth consulting. Admittedly not all commentators reach his standard; maybe only Averroes can compete with him as an insightful and interesting commentator on Aristotle. But the mere fact that a commentary has survived down to the present day is usually a sign that many generations of readers found it useful.
Second, commentators are themselves philosophers and say interesting and original things in the context of commentating – sometimes this happens as a kind of digression from the commentary, but you can also find fascinating material in the midst of commenting on a passage. It’s often precisely when the commentator has trouble with the source text that he or she is going to be innovative – a Platonist commenting on Aristotle, for instance – and the innovation may show itself in very subtle ways, for instance slightly but significantly different word choice as a source text is paraphrased.
Third, there is something philosophical about the commentary activity itself. What these older commentators were doing is much like what we are doing when we read historical philosophical texts today: trying to make sense of them and find what is true in them. The methods and presuppositions a commentator brings to a text can be illuminating for our own practice. For instance, do they use a “principle of charity,” trying to offer readings that will make the source text come out true or at least coherent or plausible, and if so how do they do so? As you’ll know by now I’m firmly convinced that doing history of philosophy is itself a philosophical enterprise, and we may have no texts that illustrate this point better than texts about texts from earlier time periods.
Rule 17: Focus on the primary text, not secondary literature
I often tell my students, "I would always rather you read the primary text one more time than go read a piece of secondary literature." The point of this is to encourage students to form their own impressions and analysis of a historical source, rather than just reproducing what scholars have already written about that source. This is not to say that secondary literature is useless. It would be pretty hypocritical for me to say that, given that I produce it myself! But one needs to think carefully about how to use it, and about the balance between reading the primary source and using scholarly literature. I think that it is a good rule of thumb for everyone - from beginning student to professional historian of philosophy - to focus on the primary text, and to have a clear idea what one is trying to get out of secondary literature when one does turn to it. Some uses are pretty much unproblematic, for instance:
• It may help provide historical context for the primary source, e.g. what other texts the author is responding to; often you just won't be able to get that out of the primary text (editorial notes indicating sources or parallels in other works are, of course, themselves a "secondary" intervention and not part of the primary text).
• If you want to produce new research about the primary text you obviously need to know what has already been said, so that you aren't just reinventing the wheel.
• General secondary works (like this podcast and the books based on it!) can give you a broad sense of what primary texts are out there, and which you may want to study more closely. To employ a metaphor I've used before, the podcast is akin to a travel guide, which tells you which cities and landmarks you may want to visit; but you shouldn't only read the guide book, you should go visit yourself.
The tricky part comes when secondary literature tries to help you understand the primary text, by making distinctions or observations you may not have seen yourself. Of course this is useful too; indeed it is usually the point of reading published scholarship on history of philosophy. But it is more treacherous, because having read this scholarship you run the risk of coming to the primary text without "fresh eyes" and only seeing the problems or solutions others have already found in it. Hence the point of my advice to students: when in doubt, make up your own mind first and then check to see how your understanding of the text compares to what others have said.
Rule 18 for history of philosophy: don't essentialize
In reading about Indian philosophy for the podcast I have been struck that, especially in older secondary literature, you'll come across claims like "an interest in the self is fundamental to the Indian worldview" or "non-violence is deeply rooted within the humanism of Indian culture." Such claims, made by both Indian and non-Indian scholars, are usually meant as compliments. But to my mind they are reductive and, to be frank, silly. In one case, which actually inspired me to devise this new rule, an author said that non-violence (ahimsa) was fundamental to the Indian worldview, so that the spectacular and tragic violence of mid-20th-century Indian history must have been somehow a violation or abberation of Indians' true nature! That looks suspiciously like a theory that is immune to counterevidence. One sees this with other cultures too. I've often seen - and not only in older literature - remarks that Islam is, or isn't, a "religion of peace," is "intolerant" or "tolerant," etc.
The truth is that cultures, including religious cultures, are complex and marked by internal disagreement, and they develop over time. So we should see them as historical phenomena, not as having some sort of essential character that is acquired by all the adherents of a given religion or members of a given culture.
Probably it is easier to make this point about cultures or geographical regions than religions. It seems just evidently ridiculous to suppose that the population of India has, in general, had a commitment or even tendency to any particular philosophical view or ethical maxim from the time of the Upanisads down to the current day. Lurking below the surface here is our urge to stereotype - just as Italians are emotional and germans love discipline, so Indians are supposedly fascinated by the self and committed to non-violence.
With religion, things are trickier. I think I would have to admit that someone who is actually a Muslim might have a stake in what Islam "really is committed to," e.g. on the basis that there are correct and incorrect interpretations of the Koran and hadith. But I see no reason for a non-Muslim, or even a Muslim historian of philosophiy who is writing in his or her capacity as a historian, to think in these terms. Rather the question should be, "what have actual Muslims in such-and-such a period believed about their religion?" Anyone who's dipped into the Islamic world episodes of the podcast knows that the answer to that is as varied as the thinkers that I covered, to say nothing of those I didn't.
This matters for the history of philosophy in particular because of the widespread tendency to expect that certain (especially so-called "non-western") philosophical traditions will have a distinctive, essential character - more "spiritual", more "determinist," or whatever. This is a bad approach. We are much more likely to discover tensions and disagreements within a tradition of any significant historical scope, than we are to discover some kind of enduring character that marks all thought from within that tradition. And supposing that frequently recurring ideas within a culture somehow derive from the "innate character" of that culture is lazy, and a way of avoiding the more interesting question: what historical or intellectual reasons underlie the prevalence of such ideas?
Rule 19 for history of philosophy: beware of jargon
This is, I think, good advice for all kinds of writing in the humanities but it's especially relevant for philosophers and historians of philosophy. Contemporary philosophy, both analytic and continental (to use some terminology that in itself is questionable), bristles with off-putting jargon and also technical tools like logical notation to abbreviations and numbered propositions. There's certainly a place for this: philosophy is, among other things, about precision and rigor, and formal languages and jargon can be very precise. But analytic philosophers often make things unnecessarily hard on their readers by using technical symbols when normal language could say the same thing quite easily, or expecting the reader to bear in mind what lots of numbered theses stand for. (I read a book for the podcast that had so many numbered propositions in it that it needed a several page long appendix to list them all, forcing the reader constantly to flip back and forth between the main text and the appendix.) As for "continental" philosophy, the scandals of parody articles being accepted for peer review speak for themselves. Every time you introduce a new piece of terminology, abbreviation, or tag (like referring back to some philosophical claim as P, or 4*) you make it harder for the reader to stay with you, and an accumulation of these devices will make your text almost impossible to read. Of course their use is often justified, and what is incomprehensible for a general audience is often straightforward for a specialized audience. But the rule should be: don’t formalize, or use jargon, unless the gain in clarity, rigor etc is worth the burden you’re placing on the reader by doing so.
There are two reasons that this point is especially relevant to history of philosophy. One is that the use of contemporary technical tools and jargon brings with it the risk of anachronism (and by now you know how I feel about anachronism). My favorite example is the use of the “backwards E” or existential quantifier (Ǝ), for instance Ǝx which would be read “there is an x.” You can readily find examples of this symbol being used in work on ancient philosophy. Of course such notation was not used then, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that one can have a long debate about whether ancient thinkers had a notion of existence that would correspond to the use of this quantifier, where anything can be put in for “x”. I would argue that they did not. Just imagine what Aquinas would say if you insisted that God, a created substance, or a created accident must all “exist” or “be” in the same sense, because they can all be substituted for x in Ǝx. Similarly, using bits of jargon from contemporary philosophy can cover up the interesting fact that earlier thinkers lacked precisely the concepts or presuppositions behind that jargon. Again, I’m not saying it is never warranted, and I myself am willing to apply a term like “compatibilist” or “physicalist” to, say, the Stoics. But you have to be very clear in your own mind what these terms mean and whether they truly apply.
The second reason is that historical texts have their own jargon (see rule 9: learn the terminology). Of course using these terms is not anachronistic, unless you apply a term from one period of history to another period. But again, it is a barrier to understanding for the reader. I hate it when people write about Aristotle and use untranslated Greek, or about Avicenna with untranslated Arabic. This is like putting a note at the top of the piece that says “if you can’t read these languages, I don’t want to talk to you.” And same with unexplained bits of technical language (say, using “supposit” in a discussion of medieval philosophy without explaining it). Here too of course, the rule is not absolute. You might be writing a detailed discussion of the original terminology, which inevitably presupposes that the reader knows the original language. Or you may intend to write only for other specialists in medieval thought, who are just going to be annoyed and bored if you tell them things they already know. My suggested rule of thumb though is to avoid erecting unnecessary barriers to understanding.
Rule 20 for history of philosophy: things are always more complicated than you think
For this final rule I considered several options, like “learn some geography” which is definitely a good idea (compare to rule 6 about learning some dates), or exhorting people to explore philosophy from more than one culture or more than one branch of philosophy (not just ethics, but also epistemology, etc). But eventually I decided the best piece of advice to close with is this: “things are always more complicated than you think.” In a way this sums up the core message of my so-called “rules.” Like plain old history, history of philosophy is very complicated and there is no real limit to the things you might want, or need, to know if you really want to understand how and why ideas developed. Hence my earlier pieces of advice to explore the context of historical texts, the role of lesser-known authors, and so on.
But I also suggest this last piece of advice with a view to the core activity of the historian of philosophy, which is reading philosophical texts. One thing I have learned from participating in many philosophy reading groups over the years (and not least from MM McCabe, who was for many years a colleague of mine at King’s College London) is that a good philosophical text will keep yielding insights the longer and more closely you read it. Of course you can’t, for practical reasons, just keep reading and re-reading the same page forever, even if that page was written by Plato or Kant. But one should also resist the thought “ok, I basically get the point of this text,” or “I already know what this author thinks about this topic,” and swiftly move on. Slow reading, and repeated reading, is crucial. Towards this end, it is useful to remind yourself that the text you’re looking at is more complicated than you think. Just assume you haven’t yet figured it out fully. Of course not every text rewards this kind of scrutiny; perhaps there are even some bits of Plato that aren’t this rich (if so I haven’t found them). But with any given text, as for the history of philosophy as a whole, it doesn’t hurt to assume that there is always more to discover.
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