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Philosophy and the Historical Perspective$

Marcel van Ackeren

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266298

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266298.001.0001

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Why We Need a Real History of Philosophy

Why We Need a Real History of Philosophy

(p.36) 3 Why We Need a Real History of Philosophy
Philosophy and the Historical Perspective

John Marenbon

, Marcel van Ackeren, Lee Klein
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The main value of the history of philosophy is not in how philosophers can use it, but its intrinsic value as an independent discipline. A ‘real history of philosophy’ maximises this value. It must meet criteria with regard to method, breadth and comprehensiveness. The method of approach requires a rejection of the usual division of labour between history of philosophy and intellectual history. Although analytical historians rarely recommend such a method in theory, they often follow it in practice. But, as a field, analytic history of philosophy fails drastically in breadth and comprehensiveness. It is highly concentrated around a short list of names, historically on just two short periods, and geographically on a small area within the broad Western tradition. As a result, students of analytical philosophy are likely to finish their courses more ignorant of the real history of their subject than when they began.

Keywords:   history, philosophy, analytical, intrinsic value, Western

THERE IS AN UNDERLYING SHARED assumption, within the broadly analytic tradition, about what questions to pose in order to examine how and why we should study the philosophy of the past.1 There is just one: in what ways can the philosophy of the past be useful to philosophers today? The answers are diverse. A few consider it is not very useful at all, but this dismissive position is rare now, as is the once widespread view that past philosophical texts are useful only insofar as they can be treated as if they were contemporary contributions to current discussions. Rather, a growing band of open-minded analytic philosophers are beginning to accept that the philosophy of the past is important for their work in a special way. They recognise that the philosophers of the past are not our contemporaries and suggest that the benefits of their work lie, not in arguments or positions that can be directly borrowed, but, for example, in making the familiar strange, in showing the contingency of the questions and range of positions that mould our debates, and suggesting unexpected directions for new thinking.2

The outlook thus appears bright. By putting together different answers, most of which do not exclude one another, it might seem that we can confidently reach a wide-ranging, unrestrictive, yet authoritative consensus about methodology for history of philosophy (cf. van Ackeren 2014). But this confidence is misplaced, because the underlying assumption about what questions should be asked is unwarranted. The question—‘How can the philosophy of the past be useful to philosophers today?’—is not the only question that should be asked in order to think about the purpose and method in the history of philosophy. For asking this question alone implies that the value of history of philosophy is purely instrumental: (p.37) that it lies in the use that can be made of past philosophical texts by today’s philosophers.3

I shall argue, by contrast, that history of philosophy has intrinsic as well as instrumental value. It is worth pursuing simply for its own sake, that is to say aiming to write what I call a ‘real history of philosophy’.4 I shall go on to explain why the best methods for achieving the intrinsic aims of history of philosophy do not fit comfortably with the various ones recommended because of their instrumental effectiveness. Most historians of philosophy, I point out, though they reject this judgement in theory, follow it in practice, using the methods which are needed for a real history of philosophy. But, once the history of philosophy is recognised as worth pursuing for its own sake, it becomes clear that it is not enough just to use the right methods. A real history of philosophy needs also to be sufficiently broad and comprehensive. And here analytic history of philosophy turns out to be drastically deficient.

3.1. The Intrinsic Value of the History of Philosophy

It is hard to justify the intrinsic value of a pursuit, since the claim that it is valuable in itself is precisely that it has a value that cannot be explained in terms of anything else that it facilitates or effects. Some philosophers have a very restrictive view about the bearers of intrinsic value. They deny that any pursuit has this sort of value: pursuits, they hold, are valuable only instrumentally, because of the pleasure or happiness or moral goodness (or some other type of value) they produce. These broad values alone have intrinsic worth. The restrictivists will not, of course, accept that history of philosophy should be studied for its own sake. But they have no reason, without further argument, to consider that it is less effective than philosophy in producing whatever broad values they consider valuable intrinsically; and so its value, though instrumental (like that of philosophy itself, and every other discipline), need by no means lie in its use for philosophers. For non-restrictivists, the different branches of knowledge, just like the different fine arts, are obvious candidates for pursuits that have intrinsic value, and if history is worth studying for its own sake, why not history of philosophy? Its intrinsic value is as a particular sort of history, and it is intrinsically valuable in the same sorts of ways as other historical work.

(p.38) Yet it is no wonder that its intrinsic value is so often overlooked in favour of its instrumental value. Historians of philosophy are a minority in analytic departments, the objects at best of tolerant curiosity, more often of indifference or even disdain: their core interests are, simply by their historical nature, outside the mainstream as their colleagues see it. They therefore very naturally want to bring their subject in from the margins by showing its potential contribution to the work of the dominant, more prestigious majority. And philosophers who are not historians are happy to accept that the only point of this strange, historical activity which has somehow found its way into their department is to help their work.

There is, however, another quite different reason why some philosophers, and some of those outside philosophy altogether, claim that the value of the history of philosophy lies, if not only, then principally, in its benefit to philosophy. They believe that the main value of philosophy itself is instrumental. They are not, however, restrictivists about intrinsic value, and they usually would accept that all academic disciplines have some degree of intrinsic value. But, they consider, philosophy is far more important and valuable than its mere intrinsic worth would indicate. Philosophy, they say, is where we learn how to live well, how to organise ourselves as political communities, how to gain knowledge and avoid false belief. History of philosophy might have some value simply for its own sake, but far more insofar as it can contribute to this life-determining and life-enhancing function of philosophy.

I do not accept this high assessment of the instrumental value of philosophy, since philosophy has never reached firm, agreed conclusions on which people could reliably base their manner of life, or a political society its structure; and there is no strong reason to believe that, instrumentally, philosophy has brought about or now brings about more good than harm—the obvious evidence points, indeed, to the opposite conclusion. Grant, however, that philosophy does have this very high instrumental value: it is hard to see that history of philosophy will have much contribution to make in producing it. When philosophy is regarded in this way, as a guide to life, it is being treated like a superior kind of natural science: as a subject in which progress is made and where, although there are disputes, there is a professional consensus at any one time about the correct answers to most of its questions. In such subjects there is little that direct study of texts from the past has to contribute to present developments. The great past scientists’ discoveries have been incorporated into the main body of the subject, refined, expressed in different terms, and, very often, surpassed. If those with this view of philosophy wish to consider history of philosophy at all, they would do best, therefore, to concentrate on its intrinsic value, which, although small by contrast with the instrumental value they attribute to philosophy proper, should, from their perspective, be no less than that of most other academic disciplines. Compare the case of chemists and physiologists, who have strong reason to see great instrumental value in their disciplines: they rarely turn to the history of their sciences for direct help, but often acknowledge its intrinsic value as a separate specialism.

(p.39) 3.2. Methods for the Real History of Philosophy

How should history of philosophy be studied in order to aim for work of the highest intrinsic value—a real history of philosophy? The answer is simple, although what it requires is demanding. Texts from the past need to be studied so that they are understood both philosophically and historically. By understanding a text philosophically, I mean interpreting it by working out exactly what it argues, claims, or suggests. To do so involves essentially not just weighing up carefully the meanings of the words and being aware of the text’s literary genre and how that affects what is expressed, but also considering the plausibility of the premises and what is taken for granted within the text’s intellectual and social context, and scrutinising the steps of its explicit or implicit reasoning, in a way that requires the reader to think of counterarguments and counter-considerations and how the author could meet them.

This philosophical understanding of a text is also one of the requirements of historical understanding: unless a philosophical text is studied philosophically, the result is not just insufficient as philosophy, it is bad history. Good history aims to understand the past. But unless a philosophical text is read philosophically, it is not understood. Military historians need not themselves be generals, but they should be deeply familiar with the machinery and techniques of war in the period they are studying, and with the art and aims of military strategy. Similarly, though historians writing about philosophy need not be philosophers, who produce their own philosophical arguments, they need to be thoroughly at home in the world of philosophical argument, otherwise they will not understand what they read and will merely parrot the phrases which their authors used.

A philosophical grasp of the texts is, however, just one of the requirements for historical understanding. On the one hand, historical and philological skills must be brought to bear, along with philosophical ones, for the text to be understood at all. Engagement with the text in its original-language edition, and an awareness of the gaps between even that and what the author might have said or written, is an essential part of the process of understanding that text, no less than the ability to pose the relevant philosophical questions of it. Indeed, the two processes work in tandem. ‘How do these words fit together?’, we ask, perhaps with a glance at the apparatus to see if there are other textual possibilities. We answer our question by putting together our knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, the writer’s general views and aims, the intellectual context, the requirements of the genre, and the coherence and relevance of the argument. Philosophical, philological, literary, and historical considerations intertwine, corroborating, correcting, and informing one another.

On the other hand, most good work on the history of philosophy goes beyond simply understanding a text philosophically—that is to say, providing an account of the positions and arguments in a text, essential though this process is as a first step. In order to make this understanding contribute fully to historical discussion, scholars need to add a further set of distinctively historical (p.40) aptitudes: the ability to explore cause and effect in human affairs, to see the place of detail (here detailed arguments) within a wider picture, to see patterns and discontinuities.5

These requirements might seem obvious ones, but they go far beyond what mainstream analytical historians of philosophy envisage in their explicit discussions. In his Introduction to an important collection of essays on methodology in the history of philosophy, Tom Sorell complacently observes that those trained and working in analytic philosophy need not have ‘extensive’ historical knowledge, nor more than an ‘elementary’ knowledge of the ‘literature, religion, art, and science of the past’, nor need they ‘know all of the languages their texts were originally written in or … how to read and distinguish different manuscript versions of the same text’ (Sorell & Rogers 2005: 4). Why not? Of course, anyone seeking a wide knowledge of philosophy will need to read some texts in, and many with the aid of, translation; and only a few specialists will have all the requisite skills, and the patience, to produce critical editions. But within an historian of philosophy’s particular special field, such as ancient Greece, or 17th-century England, or 19th-century Germany, it is reasonable to demand the relevant foreign languages (at least Greek, Latin, and German, respectively), scholarly skills (such as textual criticism and bibliographical techniques), and a detailed grasp of the historical, intellectual, and cultural background. Without such skills, it is not possible to write a real history of philosophy.

For this reason, one of the most widely accepted ideas about how to study philosophy of the past should be rejected: the division of labour between philosophers who study the philosophy of past and intellectual historians, or historians of ideas, who study the same material.6 Philosophers (including those who have devoted themselves professionally to history of philosophy) should look at the texts from the past in this philosophical way, whilst the historians should look at them historically. This division is especially appealing, because it conveniently corresponds to the institutional one, in universities, between philosophy departments and history departments. But, if it were followed in practice as widely as it is accepted in theory, the division of labour between philosophy-based historians of philosophy and history-based intellectual historians would have the effect of ensuring that the history of philosophy could not be properly studied, since to study it properly requires precisely the combination, in each scholar, of the training and abilities of the two groups it separates. Philosophical texts need to be studied philosophically in order to be properly understood. Yet philological and historical expertise is needed both to make this philosophical study possible and to draw from it worthwhile history of philosophy.

To argue that this division of labour is, in general, harmful does not mean that labour in the history of philosophy should never be divided. As intellectual history (p.41) shades into cultural, institutional, social, or political history, a precise philosophical grasp of detailed arguments becomes less useful than a knowledge of the broader and sometimes cruder terms in which ideas were disseminated. And the forays into the past by analytical philosophers who lack historical and linguistic expertise are often very valuable, either instrumentally for contemporary philosophy or for the suggestions they give to genuine historians of philosophy, who find the mould of their thinking productively disturbed by a fresh perspective. But such contributions are at the edges of the real history of philosophy—important exceptions rather than the rule.

From the argument just made, the conclusion would seem to follow that, in analytical departments, historians of philosophy, desperate to please their contemporary philosopher colleagues by producing work of instrumental value to them, and unwilling to embrace the more historical dimensions of their work, usually fail to produce work that is valuable for its own sake. Yet this conclusion is obviously false. Open a recent issue of one of the prestigious, analytically inclined journals in the area (for instance, the Journal of the History of Philosophy or the British Journal for the History of Philosophy), and it will be filled with articles which show a philosophical grasp of arguments gained through careful study of texts in the original languages and informed, at least to some extent, by knowledge of the context. Indeed, deficiencies in any of these areas would be grounds for referees to reject the submission. True, many of the articles will be narrow, taking a particular argument or interpretative problem out of context and defending a conclusion step by step in the clear but somewhat ponderous, sometimes logic-chopping manner characteristic of contemporary analytic philosophy. And, away from the top journals, some pieces will show signs of weakness on the philological side, while the apparatus of scholarship, rather thin even in leading authors, will often be threadbare. Rarely, however, will an article address itself very directly to a contemporary problem; the caste of mind may be analytical, but the focus will usually be on the past texts, and especially their arguments, considered for their own sake. Indeed, there is room to complain that too little use is made instrumentally of contemporary arguments and ideas, to help focus and enliven the analysis of thinking from earlier centuries.

The same is true of most monographs written by historians of philosophy in analytical departments. There are very few books in the history of philosophy written now, which, like Bernard Williams’ Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, actually follow ‘the direction of rational reconstruction … where the rationality of the construction is essentially and undisguisedly conceived in a contemporary style’ (Williams 1978: 10)—even though ‘rational reconstruction’ (distinguished from or identified with ‘charitable interpretation’) is often placed in theoretical discussions among the methodological ideals. Consider two leading experts on 17th-century philosophy, Daniel Garber and Tom Sorell. Garber is one of the few historians of philosophy who, though having made his career in analytical departments, has, in his theoretical discussions (1989; 2001; 2005), unequivocally championed an (p.42) ‘antiquarian’ approach.7 Sorell, by contrast, as already quoted, accepts the division of labour and endorses the view that analytic historians of philosophy should be free from antiquarian constraints and at the service of contemporary philosophers. Their books might therefore be expected to be very far apart in approach. Yet, in fact, the differences are far more nuanced. Garber’s major studies of Descartes (1992) and Leibniz (2009) have, indeed, greater contextual detail (especially with regard to the natural sciences) and more biographical information than is usual among analytic historians—the studies’ range of contextual reference is broader and their scholarship deeper. Sorell’s 1986 study of Hobbes is, by contrast, rather pared to a purely philosophical bone, reflecting the style of the now semi-defunct Arguments of the Philosophers series to which it belongs (cf. Garber 2001: 232–4), but his brief Introduction to Descartes (Sorell 1987) is full of details about intellectual and scientific history. Sorell has also edited a number of collections which go deep into the wider historical material he is happy, in principle, for those who are analytically trained to ignore; to which he himself usually contributes in similar vein. Both he and Garber, then, seem mainly to be aiming at the same goal: a clear, accurate exposition, in terms readily graspable today, of the positions and arguments of past philosophers, though Garber often chooses more technical, rebarbative material, which requires much more introduction and explanation. In his more recent book on Descartes (2005), Sorell does, indeed, explicitly aim ‘to find common ground between what Descartes did say and have reasons for saying, and things that are worth arguing for in philosophy as we now have it’, but he recognises in the same breath that ‘this book does not belong to the genre history of philosophy’ (Sorell 2005: xx).

In short, there is a gap between many of the theoretical pronouncements of historians of philosophy in analytical departments and their usual practice, so that, despite themselves, such historians work on texts from the past in a way that is valuable in itself. It may, therefore, seem that the real history of philosophy is not a distant ideal, but what is actually being produced in dozens of analytic departments. The fact that few of these historians own up on a theoretical level to what they are doing may even seem a useful strategy by which they can make a place for themselves in the world of their discipline, orientated towards contemporary problems, while really concentrating on what interests them for its own sake. But this happy picture is an illusion. Simply putting together real historical work on individual texts and philosophers does not constitute a real history of philosophy. The right methodology alone is not enough.

3.3. Beyond Method: The Scope of a Real History of Philosophy

Individual pieces of historical writing are judged by whether they use acceptable methods and how well they use them, but the state of historical scholarship in a (p.43) given field should be assessed not just by the excellence of the contributions to it considered singly, but also according to the criteria of breadth and comprehensiveness. Suppose we are assessing the state of historical studies about the political history of France. Although the field is a particular one, political history, we have cause for complaint if it is understood too narrowly (for instance, restricted only to high politics, or negligent of the links between political and economic circumstances). In addition, we expect a certain comprehensiveness, a coverage stretching from the beginning of historical records to the present day. It is no fault for an individual university to have gaps in its provision, but it is a weakness if there are periods not studied, or barely studied, anywhere; or even if there is a great concentration of work on just a few centuries. Comprehensiveness has also a geographical dimension, although shifting boundaries might make it contentious to what particular area in different times past a present national name, such as ‘France’, should apply. Moreover, comprehensiveness calls for even-handedness in dealing with material in a period. Of course, individual historians will focus on particular areas and themes, often initially suggested by present-day concerns; history is never entirely impartial or perspectiveless. But a field of history suffers when most of its practitioners write from one point of view. It is considered particularly deficient if it presents the past selected, and perhaps even shaped, by the political certainties of the present: Whig history is badly regarded, even by those who celebrate the progress of democracy it traces, whilst the ‘histories’ written at the behest of Fascism or Stalinism are generally despised.

History of philosophy, as practised in analytic departments, strikingly fails in breadth and comprehensiveness. With regard to breadth, there is, admittedly, no consensus about how broadly ‘philosophy’ should be understood. There is no fixed body of questions that has been described by this word and its cognates through the history of the Western tradition, and many of the figures recognised by everyone as outstanding philosophers—for instance, Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz, Descartes, Hume—wrote a great deal on areas not now considered to be philosophy, including natural science, medicine, theology, mathematics, and history. One way of selecting from this mass of material what counts as philosophical is to begin from today’s philosophical problems and seek out discussions in the past which have similar, if not exactly the same, concerns. This is probably the most widespread, though often unacknowledged, method by which analytical historians select their material. It makes, of course, for a very narrow selection of material from the past, but it should be complemented by a second stage, in which the historian of philosophy replaces the discussions that have been selected in their original contexts, following through the links in argument and information, and so giving a far broader account that will almost certainly stray into many areas not now considered to be philosophy. Together, these two stages provide a way (which I call ‘historical analysis’ (Marenbon 2000: esp. 15–19; 2015: 305–6)) of choosing a reasonably broad range of material without allowing the scope to become so broad that the history is no longer of philosophy, but of intellectual life (p.44) in general. Even so, this approach probably needs to be complemented by others, in order to achieve reasonable breadth in the whole field.8

To a great extent, however, analytic historians of philosophy just follow the first stage of historical analysis, and even here most of them are unadventurous in looking beyond a tiny canon of the most famous figures. In the 17th century, for example, all but a small amount of effort is directed towards the quintet of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, and Berkeley, so that, for instance, Hobbes (though perhaps covered in political philosophy courses), Gassendi, Malebranche, Bayle, and Arnauld receive little attention, despite their intellectual proximity to the Famous Five, while thinkers with different outlooks, such as Suárez, Caramuel y Lobkowitz, Cremonini, Campanella, La Mothe Le Vayer, Herbert of Cherbury, and Cudworth, are entirely excluded.9 Moreover, there is a very narrow definition of the sort of writing that is counted as philosophical, with contemporary analytic philosophy’s emphasis on arguments explicitly used as a way of delimiting material from the past, and so writers such as Nicholas of Cusa, Montaigne, and Pascal are excluded.10 In this lack of breadth can be seen one of the noxious effects of the division of labour. Historians of philosophy are content to narrow their focus, handing over these thinkers (regarded, indeed, as interesting, but not really philosophers) to intellectual historians.

Analytic history of philosophy as a field measures up even less well to the second criterion: comprehensiveness. The problem is not that of absolute absences of coverage, but relative ones. Probably no period in philosophy altogether lacks an analytic historian somewhere who sometimes works on it, though perhaps not within a philosophy department. But the vast majority of work is concentrated on two short periods—the 4th and 5th centuries bc and the period from 1600—two islands in a vast ocean. The picture of philosophy’s history commonly presented resembles an image in one of those funfair distorting mirrors, where everyone has enormous feet and giant heads, and their bodies are shrunk to the size of a fly’s.

Those in the world of analytic philosophy will recognise this description—even if few would want to put it in these dramatic terms. Empirical investigation confirms that the position is even starker than it seems impressionistically (see the Appendix for details). The two islands take up 88 per cent of the history of philosophy work in the twenty top analytic philosophy departments. Indeed, even within the modern period, there is an overwhelming concentration on just two centuries, the 17th and the 18th (they make up 40 per cent of the whole, whilst the 19th and 20th amount to just 16 per cent). Undergraduate courses show the (p.45) same unbalanced concentration on ancient and early modern philosophy, even if slightly less exaggerated.

The defender of the status quo could argue, however, that—by contrast with political history—there is no reason to expect the history of philosophy to be spread out evenly, century by century: a concentration on some periods at the expense of others simply reflects the facts. In principle, the objection is justified: there might well have been fallow periods in a whole broad and long tradition of philosophy, about which there would be little for historians of philosophy to say. But, in fact, the Western tradition of philosophy has been remarkably continuous, from the time of the pre-Socratics until today. And it is not just that some philosophy was always being done—that it is possible to write, as one enterprising historian of philosophy is currently doing, a History of Philosophy without any Gaps (Adamson 2014; 2015). There is no century when a good deal of philosophy was not studied at a high level. Consider two centuries which most analytic courses on the history of philosophy pass over: the 16th and the 10th. The 16th was the time of Pomponazzi, Zabarella, Vitoria, Fonseca, de Soto, Suárez, Montaigne, and Sanchez, and the beginning of the great flowering of philosophy in Safavid Iran. Tenth-century philosophy in the Latin world is not outstanding, but in the Arabic world it embraces most of al-Farabi’s lifetime and the beginning of Avicenna’s career.

The last point leads immediately to the question of geographical comprehensiveness. My discussion here is about just the history of Western philosophy (other traditions should indeed be studied, and their neglect is lamentable—but this problem is different from the one considered here). But am I not going beyond the bounds of geographical comprehensiveness when thinkers from Baghdad, Persia, and Central Asia are included in Western philosophy? On the contrary, if the Western philosophical tradition, as almost all historians accept, is that which goes back to the pre-Socratics, Socrates and Plato, then it clearly has four main branches: Greek philosophy, which continued in Byzantium until the mid-15th century; Latin philosophy, which starts to be written in Latinate and Germanic vernaculars most obviously from the 17th century onwards, but also before then; Arabic philosophy; and Jewish philosophy, written in Arabic until about 1200, then mainly in Hebrew, and finally in the European vernaculars before it lost its distinctive identity in the 19th century.11 Analytic history of philosophy’s failure as a field in geographical comprehensiveness is indeed even more patent than with regard to chronology. Again, it is a matter of comparative rather than absolute absence. There are very occasional specialists in some parts of Arabic or Jewish philosophy in analytic departments, and rather more scholars in these areas who belong to departments of Islamic or Jewish studies, or theology, or classics, but share some of the methods of the analytic historians.12

(p.46) Why does this lack of comprehensiveness matter? Even if only a few areas from the history of philosophy are usually studied, so long as they are examined perceptively and honestly, are not the resulting books and articles valuable in their own right? No doubt they do have value, but it is both reduced and compromised by comparison with what it might have been within the context of a real history of philosophy. The value is lessened because even specialised research needs to be set in a wider chronological framework, and this contextualising will be impoverished when, outside the few popular areas of specialisation, so little research of the same sort is being done. The value is compromised because this work, historically illuminating when taken individually, comes at the price of being part of an overall history which brings darkness, by casting into the shadows most of the philosophy that has been done at a high level in the last two and a half millennia. What is worse, these shadows are not ones cast at random, through insufficiency of light, but according to a policy, just as happens in the sort of history, or ‘history’, written selectively according to a political agenda. The history of philosophy told as a whole in analytic departments is history as written by the victors—victors who wish to destroy not only their enemies themselves, but also even the memory of their achievements. Two victories have been especially important in forming it. The first was that of Cartesian philosophy over scholastic Aristotelianism; the second, the defeat by Moore and Russell of the much adapted Hegelianism predominant in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Both have been especially potent in promoting a highly selective view of philosophy’s history, because in each case what went before was rejected not as a rival, erring school but as a completely wrong way to go about philosophy. Since analytic philosophers are the inheritors, in the one case remote, in the other more recent, of what was put forward in their place as the correct approach, it is easy to see how they remain blind to the narrowness and partiality of the history they promote.

3.4. Why Philosophers Need a Real History of Philosophy

Sections 3.1–3.3 have carried through the plan I promised at the beginning of this chapter. They have made the case that the history of philosophy is valuable intrinsically and that, for this value to be fully gained and a real history of philosophy to be produced, not only are certain special methods needed, but also a breadth and comprehensiveness of approach. Theoretical writing from analytic departments about method in the history of philosophy rarely acknowledges, and sometimes explicitly rejects, these methods, but in practice most analytic historians of philosophy today use them. But, as a field, the analytic history of philosophy is woefully deficient in breadth and comprehensiveness, so that, in an important sense, many students finish analytic philosophy courses more ignorant of the real history of their subject than when they began.

This argument should disturb analytic philosophers, and perhaps make those with the power to determine the shape of university courses and the pattern of (p.47) expertise in departments rethink their decisions about courses and hiring. They might, however, read the argument and accept it, and yet deny that it gives them any reason to change. ‘All you say’, they might respond, ‘rests on the idea of valuing history of philosophy for itself. Now, we do not deny that it has intrinsic value, but there is no reason why we should care about that value. We are pursuing what you recognise as a different subject—philosophy. From our point of view, its history is valuable only insofar as it is useful for what we are doing now. Pursue your subject for its own sake if you wish, but not within our department.’

This objection can, however, be answered. One of the ways—arguably the principal way—in which history of philosophy is instrumentally valuable to philosophy depends on its also being the sort of history that is to the highest degree intrinsically valuable: a real history of philosophy.13

One central group of problems which philosophers should investigate is posed by the simple question: what is philosophy? This question involves others. What sort of questions are philosophical questions, how can they be answered, and what purpose, if any, is served by investigating them? And how is this investigation linked to other activities, intellectual, cultural, social, economic, and political? Although such problems constitute a distinct field of research, there are strong arguments that no serious philosopher should ignore, since the answers to them will have implications for how every branch of philosophy should be approached. These questions are not, however, ones that can be settled by conceptual analysis. For philosophy is not a natural kind, but a human practice, or rather, a family resemblance of human practices, and understanding what it is—and not merely what it happens to be now—rests on understanding how it has been practised in history, what has been common to it, and what diverse, in different social and cultural circumstances.

There are just two ways to set about answering these questions: by learning about the history of philosophy in our own broad tradition, and by studying other, distinct traditions of philosophy (Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy, for example). What sort of history of philosophy is needed? Clearly, it should be one that, so far as possible, shows philosophy as it really was practised and developed. By contrast, the sort of history peddled for the most part in analytic departments—determined in what it includes and what it omits by the interests of that department’s members, and by what they happen to know or not to know—will only lead away from an understanding of the practice in which analytic historians are engaged, condoning their ignorance and reinforcing their prejudices. When, therefore, the study of history of philosophy is designed with a view to perform tasks in the service of analytic philosophy, it ends up by failing in what is arguably the most important of them. It succeeds in this instrumental task only when it is not pursued as an instrument, but for its own sake, so as to provide a real history of philosophy.

This Appendix gives empirical backing to my claims about the concentration of historical work in analytic philosophy departments on just a few areas, especially ancient and early modern philosophy. It presents two exploratory investigations: one: (a) into the research interests of historians in twenty top analytic faculties; the other (b) into the historical content of philosophy courses in the twenty best UK philosophy departments. The statistics are based on what was available online when this chapter was written up for publication, in spring 2016.

(a) Research Interests within the History of Philosophy

Scope: The following mainly analytic philosophy departments constitute a rough top twenty, to judge by the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University rankings: Australian National University (ANU), Berkeley, Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia, Edinburgh, Harvard, London School of Economics (LSE), Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), New York, Notre Dame, Oxford, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rutgers, St Andrews, Toronto, University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Yale. All teachers and/or researchers employed by philosophy departments who publish work on history are included, but not visitors or emeritus professors.

Method: The scores aim to give the full-time equivalent number of philosophers engaged in each area of the history of philosophy. So, for instance, someone whose time is split equally between two areas earns each 0.5.

Results (in descending order): European philosophy, 1600–1800: 50.7; ancient Greek philosophy: 38.75; 19th-century European and American philosophy: 9.2; Latin philosophy, 1200–1400: 8.25; 20th-century continental philosophy: 8; 20th-century analytic philosophy: 4.1; Hellenistic and Roman philosophy: 1.5; late ancient philosophy: 1.5; Latin philosophy, 600–1200: 1.25; Jewish philosophy before 1200: 1; Arabic philosophy before 1200, 1; Latin philosophy, 1400–1600: 0.5. The following areas had no specialists: Byzantine philosophy; Arabic philosophy after 1200; Jewish philosophy 1200–1600.

Notes: About a third of the European philosophy 1600–1800 score is contributed by Kant specialists. The figures for Latin philosophy between 600 and 1200, and 1200 and 1400, and for Arabic philosophy up to 1200, depend almost entirely on just two departments: Toronto and Notre Dame.

(b) Historical Content in Philosophy Courses

Scope: The following twenty best philosophy departments in the UK, according to The Complete University Guide, omitting Bristol, for which insufficient material was available, and adding Manchester, are: Birmingham, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, King’s College London (KCL), Lancaster, Leeds, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Royal Holloway, St Andrews, Sussex, University College London (UCL), Warwick, York. Undergraduate courses only.

(p.49) Method: (i) Where a paper or module is devoted in whole or part to an area of the history of philosophy, one point is given. Papers which range generally over the whole history of philosophy are not included; (ii) each time the name of a philosopher from the past is mentioned, it receives a point.

Results: (i) (in descending order): European philosophy, 1600–1800: 27; ancient Greek philosophy: 17; 19th-century European and American philosophy: 14; 20th-century continental philosophy: 14; 20th-century analytic philosophy: 10; Hellenistic and Roman philosophy: 6; Latin philosophy, 1200–1400: 6; late ancient philosophy: 3; Arabic philosophy before 1200: 2; Latin philosophy, 600–1200: 2; Jewish philosophy before 1200: 1; Latin philosophy, 1400–1600: 1. The following areas did not feature in courses: Byzantine philosophy; Arabic philosophy after 1200; Jewish philosophy 1200–1600. (ii) (in descending order, omitting names mentioned fewer than five times): Aristotle 20; Plato 19; Hume 18; Kant 17; Locke 12; Berkeley, Descartes, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein 11; Hegel 10; Heidegger, Russell, Spinoza 7; Frege, Leibniz 6; Augustine, Duns Scotus, Sartre 5.

Notes: UK universities were chosen because they have fairly specialised philosophy courses at undergraduate level. The aim of (i) and (ii) is merely to give an impression of what is generally available, and where the emphases tend to fall.


Bibliography references:

Adamson, P. (2014), Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy without any Gaps (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Adamson, P. (2015), Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds: A History of Philosophy without any Gaps (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Catana, L. (2013), ‘Problems in the History of Philosophy: What Are They?’, in M. Lærke, J. E. H. Smith, & E. Schliesser (eds), Philosophy and Its History: Aims and Methods in the Study of Early Modern Philosophy (Oxford, Oxford University Press), 115–33.

Garber, D. (1989), ‘Does History Have a Future: Some Reflections on Bennett and Doing Philosophy Historically’, in P. Hare (ed.), Doing Philosophy Historically (Buffalo NY, Pergamon Press), 27–43.

Garber, D. (1992), Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics (Chicago IL & London, University of Chicago Press).

Garber, D. (2001), ‘Au-delà des arguments des philosophes’, in Y.-C. Zarka (ed.), Comment écrire l’histoire de la philosophie? (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France), 231–45.

Garber, D. (2005), ‘What’s Philosophical about the History of Philosophy’, in Sorell & Rogers (2005), 129–46.

Garber, D. (2009), Leibniz: Body, Substance, Monad (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Glock, H.-J. (2008), ‘Analytic Philosophy and History: A Mismatch’, Mind, 117: 885–97.

Libera, A. de (1993), La philosophie médiévale (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France).

Marenbon, J. (2000), ‘What is Medieval Philosophy?’, in J. Marenbon, Aristotelian Logic, Platonism, and the Context of Early Medieval Philosophy in the West (Aldershot & Burlington VT, Ashgate), no. xvii.

(p.50) Marenbon, J. (2011), ‘Why Study Medieval Philosophy?’, in T. Kobusch, J. Müller, & M. van Ackeren (eds), Warum noch Philosophie? Historische, systematische und gesellschaftliche Positionen (Berlin & Boston MA, de Gruyter), 65–78.

Marenbon, J. (2015), Pagans and Philosophers: The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton NJ & Oxford, Princeton University Press).

Marenbon, J. (2016), Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Normore, C. G. (1990), ‘Doxology and the History of Philosophy’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy: Supplementary Volume, 16: 203–26.

Robaszkiewicz, L. (2015), ‘Bernard Williams zum methodischen Gebrauch der Philosophiegeschichte’, Philosophisches Jahrbuch, 122: 76–95.

Rudolph, U. (ed.) (2012), Philosophie in der islamischen Welt, vol. 1: 8.–10. Jahrhundert (Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie; Basel, Schwabe).

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Sorell, T. (2005), Descartes Reinvented (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

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van Ackeren, M. (2014), ‘Was bedeutet der aktuellen Philosophie ihre Geschichte? Postionen—Probleme—Pragmatismus’, Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung, 68: 305–27.

Williams, B. (1978), Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Harmondsworth, Penguin).


(1) The scope of this chapter is limited to history of philosophy as practised in mainly analytic departments (almost every philosophy department in anglophone universities). Non-analytic departments and hybrid ones (increasingly common in continental Europe) face a different set of problems.

(2) For examples, see, for instance, most of the essays in Sorell & Rogers (2005), many of the essays in the present collection, and Glock (2008). This is the question which is posed by the title of van Ackeren (2014), ‘Was bedeutet der aktuellen Philosophie ihre Geschichte?’ ‘Making the familiar strange’ is an idea introduced into the debate by Bernard Williams: see Robaszkiewicz (2015: 85–9). Not every historian in an analytic department follows these views: one important exception is Daniel Garber—see fn. 4 and pp. 41–2.

(3) There is also another hidden assumption: that the only people who can benefit from the instrumental value of the history of philosophy are philosophers. This also needs to be questioned—but not in this chapter.

(4) Garber (2005: 130) writes: ‘People do histories of all sorts of things, including politics, military strategy, theatre, table manners, corkscrews. Why not a real history of philosophy?’ This comment comes in the course of an incisive and elegant exposition of the intrinsic value of history of philosophy, although Garber does not, as I do, put the emphasis on ‘real’ and use ‘real history of philosophy’ as a way of describing history of philosophy written so as to maximise its intrinsic value. Indeed, Garber’s main aim in this article (and in Garber 1989; cf. Garber 2001: 244–5) is to show why, as well as being intrinsically valuable, the history of philosophy is also instrumentally valuable for philosophers.

(5) For a similarly stringent view of what is required, cf. Catana (2013).

(6) A classic statement of this view is by Bernard Williams (1978: 9). For a developed version of the position, see Normore (1990).

(7) See fn. 4.

(8) In Marenbon (2015: 305–6), I propose another method (‘historical synthesis’) to achieve this result. Wide-ranging doxological accounts, such as those in the new Ueberweg http://www.schwabe.ch/uploads/tx_ttproducts/datasheet/Editionsplan_Ueberweg_02.pdf (for a medieval example: Rudolph 2012), also serve this end (I am grateful to Dominik Perler for making this point at the conference where this paper was originally given).

(9) In the descriptions of history of philosophy courses in the twenty best UK philosophy courses, the only one of these twelve names mentioned is that of Malebranche (once): see Appendix (b).

(10) None of these three appears in the course descriptions mentioned in fn. 9.

(11) This rather obvious point was generally overlooked until Alain de Libera’s textbook of 1993; I have tried to present the case for seeing the Western tradition in this way in Marenbon (2016).

(12) See the Appendix for some sample data. It shows that in the best philosophy departments the Byzantine tradition is not studied at all, and the Arabic and Jewish traditions barely (and not for the period after 1200).

(13) Whether what is described in Section 3.4 is the principal way in which history of philosophy is valuable to philosophers depends on how great a value is attributed to the other ways in which it supposedly helps them: for a sceptical view about these other sorts of value see Marenbon (2011).