Rule 10 for history of philosophy: silence is not louder than words

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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.


Chike Jeffers on 14 October 2014

I'm breaking this rule in a

I'm breaking this rule in a forthcoming essay called "Slavery, Freedom, and Equality: Cugoano and Locke on Natural Rights." I argue that John Locke's silence on the question of the justice or injustice of the transatlantic slave trade and colonial slavery can be counted as a form of theoretical racism.

I agree that one must be careful about doing this sort of thing. In Locke's case, you have an interpretive puzzle that many have struggled with. Locke actively participated in the perpetuation of the slave trade and slavery in a number of ways (most notably, by investing in it in order to financially profit and by helping to write a constitution for the Carolina colony guaranteeing near-absolute power over slaves to slaveowners). There is also a reference to West Indian slavery in the First Treatise. So given that he then provides an argument for when slavery can be justified in the Second Treatise, many have argued that he intends for this argument to justify precisely the kinds of slavery he supported in life. Others have strongly disagreed, noting that the restrictions on just enslavement in Locke's account clearly rule out the permissibility of the kind of stuff he was involved in, thus making him a hypocrite rather than a pro-slavery theorist.

So my argument cuts a middle path: no, we cannot find a justification of the transatlantic slave trade and colonial slavery in his theoretical work and yes, he is a hypocrite, but his silence on the subject is itself a kind of negative comment on the value of African lives and their status as bearers of rights. This is a theoretical inconsistency that parallels his practical inconsistency.

In reply to by Chike Jeffers

Peter Adamson on 14 October 2014

What an interesting case!

What an interesting case! That's complicated in ways well beyond I was envisioning. I was thinking mostly of a situation where a philosopher is being read as consciously and deliberately not saying something, the idea being that the "clued in" reader knows that the silence speaks volumes. But I take it that in your case the silence is not necessarily intentional in that way? I.e. his not mentioning it just shows that he is not considering the issue because he fails to recognize these people as worthy of his interest?

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