Saturday, September 27, 2014

Richard Rorty on the Historiography of Philosophy

In his essay on the historiography of philosophy, in which Rorty identifies four different genres of historical writing about philosophy, Rorty looks first at a binary choice that philosophers can make: whether to reconstruction the arguments of the past philosophers as contemporary conversations, what is termed rational reconstruction, or in the context of their past conversations, that is, historical reconstruction (p.49). Rorty considers this dilemma false, as he points out that both are necessary and that the history of science shows how this could be done. Rorty wonders why it is OK for the historian of science to note these unfortunate confusions.
We do not think its anachronistic to say that Aristotle had a false model of the heavens, or that Galen did not understand how the circulatory system worked. We take the pardonable ignorance of great dead scientists for granted. We should be equally willing to say that Aristotle was unfortunately ignorant that there are no such things as real essences, or Leibniz that God does not exist, or Descartes that the mind is just the central nervous system under an alternative description. (p.49)
Rorty has a discourse-level suggestions as why that hesitancy might exist.

We hesitate merely because we have colleagues who are themselves ignorant of such facts, and whom we courteously describe not as ‘ignorant’, but as || ‘holding different philosophical views’. Historians of science have no colleagues who believe in crystalline spheres, or who doubt Harvey’s account of circulation, and they are thus free from such constraints. (p.50)
There are purposes for which it is useful to know how people talked who did not know as much as we do — to know this in enough detail so that we can imagine ourselves talking the same outdated language. (p.50) 
There is knowledge — historical knowledge — to be gained which one can only get by bracketing one’s own better knowledge about, e.g., the movements of the heavens or the existence of God. (p.50) 
However, in order for this to be controlled, a heuristic has to be be developed, and Rorty makes use of the one proposed by Quentin Skinner, to wit:
No agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done. (Skinner 1969:28) (p.50)
Rorty envisions such reconstructions as eliminating false perceptions of the past.
As Skinner (1969:52-3) rightly says, ‘the indispensable value of studying the history of ideas’ is to learn ‘the distinction between what is necessary and what is the product merely of our own contingent arrangements.’ (p.51) 
[E.g. animal magnetism in Hegel’s philosophy. RCK]
… we would like to be able to see the history of our race as a long conversational interchange. We want to be able to see it that way in order to assure ourselves that there has been rational progress in the course of recorded history — that we differ from our ancestors on grounds which our ancestors could be led to accept. (p.51)
This means that we are interested not only in what the Aristotle who walked the streets of Athens ‘could be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done’ but in what an ideally reasonable and educated Aristotle could be brought to accept as such a description. (p.51)
[RCK: Rorty is right in this, because the absence of this belief would undermine the possibility that people could be swayed by rational arguments at all, bringing the project of philosophical discourse to an end. A dead philosopher is an extreme example of someone who is both incredibly bright and coming from incredibly different presuppositions; a perfect person to convince to our own stance.]

Rorty uses Peter F. Strawson's The Bounds of Sense from 1966 on Immanuel Kant, to make Kant a “fellow-member of the same disciplinary matrix” (p.52), as Rorty had put it in an earlier paragraph.

Since Kant agreed with this line of thought [i.e. that Humean psychological atomism is deeply misguided and artificial, RCK], and such much of the ‘Transcendental Analytic’ is devoted to making similar points, it is natural for someone with Strawson’s concerns to want to show Kant how he can make those points without saying some other, less plausible, things which he said. (p.52)
In the long footnote 1 (pp.52-53), Rorty objects to Michael Ayers attempt to reconstruct the philosopher historically before reconstructing him rationally, because the understanding of what is being said is a pre-requisite to coming up with a good translation and not just the raw materials for such a translation. 
I think that Ayers overdoes the opposition between ‘our terms’ and ‘his terms’ when he suggests that one can do historical reconstruction first and leave rational reconstruction for later. The two genres can never be independent, because you will not know much about what the dead meant prior to figuring out how much truth they knew. These two topics should be seen as moments in a  continuing movement around the hermeneutic circle, a circle one has to have gone round a good many times before one can begin to do either sort of reconstruction. (p.53 Fn 1 cont). 
Such enterprises in commensuration are, of course, anachronistic. But if they are conducted in full knowledge of their anachronism, they are unobjectionable. (p.53)
It is natural to describe Columbus as discovering America rather than Cathay, and not knowing that he had done so. (p.53)
Historical reconstructions of what unre-educated dead thinkers would have said to their contemporaries — reconstructions which abide by Skinner’s maxim — are, ideally, reconstructions on which all historians can agree. If the question is what Locke would be likely to have said to a Hobbes who had lived … for a few more decades, there is no reason why historians should not arrive at a consensus, a consensus which might be confirmed by the discovery of a manuscript of Locke’s in which he imagines a conversation between himself and Hobbes. (p.53)
[RCK: This would of course never validate the correctness of the reconstruction of Hobbes, only the correction of the reconstruction of Locke.]

Rorty is interested in this convergence of the historical reconstruction because he denies the convergence for the rational reconstruction.

Rational reconstructions, on the other hand, are not likely to converge, and there is no reason why they should. … The Fregean, the Kripkean, the Popperian, the Whiteheadian, and the Heideggerian will each re-educate Plato in a different way before starting to argue with him. (p.54)
Thus, philosophers can alternate between the two modes of reconstruction, historical and rational, obeying and disobeying Skinner’s maxim.
When we respect Skinner’s maxim we shall give an account of the dead thinker ‘in his own terms’, ignoring the fact that we should think ill of anyone who still used those terms today. When we ignore Skinner’s maxim, we give an account ‘in our terms’, ignoring the fact that the dead thinker, in his linguistic habits as he lived, would have repudiated these terms as foreign to his interests and intentions. (p.54)
However, that difference of historical and rational cannot be mapped to the difference between meaning and truth.
The contrast between these two tasks, however, should not be phrased as that between finding out what the dead thinker meant and finding out whether what he said was true. (p.54)
This is partially due to the fact that meaning is not necessarily something that cannot develop even for the utter.
It is perfectly reasonable to describe Locke as finding out what he really meant, what he was really getting at in the Second Treatise, only after conversations in heaven with, successively, Jefferson, Marx, and Rawls. (p.54) 
… grasping the meaning of an assertion is a matter of placing that assertion in a context — not of digging a little nugget of sense out of the mind of the assertor. (p.55)
From this stance the search for truth falls out, because 
… determining truth is a matter of placing it [i.e. the assertion, RCK] in a context of assertions which we ourselves should be willing to make. (p.55)
Thus any separation of truth and meaning is suppressed. 
There will be as many ration reconstructions which purport to find significant truths, or pregnant and important falsehoods, in the work of a great dead philosopher, as there are importantly different contexts in which his work can be placed. (p.55)
Rorty now introduces the distinction of history of culture or thought versus history of philosophy, or the question of the canon, as to how to pick great philosophers. (p.56)

The problem arises only in a relatively trivial form for the history of chemistry, because nobody much cares whether we call Paracelsus a chemist, an alchemist, or both. (p.56) 
This is because we have, in these areas [such as chemistry, RCK] clear stories of progress to tell. It does not make much difference … at what point we see a ‘discipline’ emerging out of a chaos of speculation. (p.56)
For the big, geistesgeschichtlich[e] stories that Rorty finds paradigmatically in Hegel, but also in Heidegger, Reichenbach, Foucault, Blumenberg and McIntyre, Rorty returns to his previous assessment that their purpose is self-justificatory.  
When I say that these are works of self-justification, I of course do not mean that they justify the present state of things, but rather that they justify the author’s attitude towards the present state of things. Heidegger’s, Foucault’s, and MacIntyre’s downbeat stories condemn present practices but justify the adoption of their authors’ views towards those practices, thereby justifying their selection of what counts as a pressing philosophical issue — the same function as is performed by Hegel’s, Reichenbach’s, and Blumenberg’s upbeat stories. (p.57 Fn 4)
Instead of working on specific issues, 
… Geistesgeschichte works at the level of problematics rather than solutions to problems. (p.57)
As a result, the scope is much broader “(e.g. Kant as the author of all three Critiques) …” (p.57).
It [i.e. Geistesgeschichte, RCK] wants to give plausibility to a certain image of philosophy, rather than to give plausibility to a particular solution of a given philosophical problem by pointing out how a great dead philosopher anticipated, or interestingly failed to anticipate, this solution. (p.57)
This is another crucial difference vis-a-vis the history of science.
Historians of science feel no need to justify our physicists’ concern with elementary particles or our biologists’ with DNA. … philosophers do need to justify their concern …. (p.57) 
The question of which problems are ‘the problems of philosophy’, which questions are philosophical questions, are the questions to which geistesgeschichtlich[e] histories of philosophy are principally devoted. (p.58)
The academic discipline called ‘philosophy’ encompasses not only different answers to philosophical questions but total disagreement on what questions are philosophical. (p.58)
This means that the rational reconstruction is the little sister to the geistesgeschichtliche approach. 
If one disagrees with him [i.e. the great dead philosopher, RCK] mainly about solutions to problems, …, one will think of oneself as reconstructing him …. If one thinks of oneself as showing that one need not think about what he tried to think about (as in, e.g. Ayer’s dismissive interpretation of Heidegger, …) then one will think of oneself as explaining why he should not count as a fellow-philosopher. One will redefine ‘philosophy’ so as to read him out of the canon. (p.58)
Canon-formation is unimportant in the natural sciences, because the work stands on its own. It is only in philosophy, and only in its honorific use with moralistic intent (p.58), that the affiliation with a great dead philosopher is required (p.59). For mere rationalistic reconstruction, the relevance of the problem suffices; and for historical reconstruction, a contextualist historian need not concern themselves about the canon (p.59)
One might, in one’s philosophical capacity, share the Anglo-Saxon belief that no philosophical progress occurred between Kant and Frege and still, as an historian, delight in recapturing the concerns of Schiller and Schelling. (p.60)
In practice of course, everyone want to work on the relevant problems and analyze the relevant historians, so the Geisteshistoriker as the "sage" of the philosophers remains enormously influential; but the geistesgeschichtliche approach has lost a lot of its influence, given the meandering focus of effort over the centuries.

Nobody is quite sure whether the issues discussed by contemporary philosophy professors (of any school) are issues which are ‘necessary’ or merely part of our ‘contingent arrangements’. Furthermore, nobody is sure whether the issues discussed by all or most of the canon of great dead philosophers offered by books called The History of Western Philosophy — e.g. universals, mind and body, free will, appearance and reality, fact and value, etc. — are important issues. (p.60)
Thus, the Geisteshistoriker assembles
… a cast of historical characters, and a dramatic narrative, which shows how we have come to ask the questions we now think inescapable and profound. Where these characters left writings behind, those writings then form a canon, a reading-list which one must have gone through in order to justify being what one is [i.e. a philosopher, RCK]. (p.61) 
It is this form of history, though, that is parasitic on the rational and the historical reconstructions, synthesizing their insights, and in combining these two into the same process runs headlong into the problem of anachronism, because it has to simultaneously trace and evaluate, speak in their and in our terms.
It has to ‘place’ that vocabulary [of the great dead philosopher, RCK] in a series of vocabularies and estimate its importance by placing it in a narrative which traces changes in vocabulary. (p.61)
It is self-justificatory in the way that rational reconstruction is, but it is moved by the same hope for greater self-awareness which leads people to engage in historical reconstructions. (p.61) 
Rorty now turns to doxology, the most dubious of the historiographical genres, which is an enumeration of the individual philosophers that presents their writings with neither enough historical context, against historical reconstructions, nor with enough interaction with the best present day work, against rational reconstruction (p.62).

But because not all historical philosophers that are well known worked on the same issues, the underlying narrative must suffer from a lack of coherence.
… doxography is the attempt to impose a problematic on a canon drawn up without reference to that problematic, or, conversely, to impose a canon on a problematic constructed without reference to that canon. (p.62)
A more honest approach would either adjust the problematic or the canon to fit the task (p.63), and to admit that the "deep questions" are dependent on the time at hand. 
The main reason for this recurrent half-heartedness is the idea that ‘philosophy’ is the name of a natural kind — the name of a discipline which, in all ages and places, has managed to dig down to the same deep, fundamental, questions. So once somebody has somehow been identified as a ‘great philosopher’ (as opposed to a great poet, scientist, theologian, political theorist, or whatever), he has to be described as studying those questions. (p.63)
The solution to the problem of mistaking 'philosophy' for referring to a natural kind is both better contextualized historical reconstruction and "more self-confident" Geistesgeschichte:
We need to realize that the questions which the ‘contingent arrangements’ of the present time lead us to regard as the questions are questions which may be better than those which our ancestors asked, but need not be the same. They are not questions which any reflective human being must necessarily have encountered. (p.63) 
It is not the answers to the same questions that have improved, but also the questions themselves (p.63).
We can think of the fundamental questions of philosophy as the ones which everybody really ought to have asked, or as the ones which everybody would have asked if they could, but not as the ones which everybody did ask whether they knew it or not. (p.63)
We should just stop trying to write books called A History of Philosophy which begin with Thales and end with, say, Wittgenstein. (p.65)
For not all topics were prevalent in all centuries:
They [i.e. these books, RCK] have to worry, for example, about the absence or the skimpiness of chapters headed ‘Epistemology in the sixteenth century’ or ‘Moral philosophy in the twelfth century’ or ‘Logic in the eighteenth century’. (p.65) 
Against these difficulties of histories of philosophies, with its unwarranted distinctions of canon (p.66), Rorty proposes a scheme that is based on "a sociological view of the distinction between knowledge and opinion” (p.66). 
On this view, to say that something is a matter of opinion is just to say that deviance from the current consensus on that topic is compatible with membership in some relevant community. To say that it is knowledge is to say that deviance is incompatible [with membership in the relevant community, RCK]. (p.66)
Rorty illustrates this with the example of the “good Americans” who consider the party to vote for a matter of opinion, but know that the press should be free from government censorship; while “good Soviets” [this is a 1980s paper, after all, RCK] know that some censorship is necessary for newspapers, while the question of appropriate consequences—labor camp or asylum—is a matter of opinion (p.66). 
… to say that the existence of real essences, or of God, is a ‘matter of opinion’ within philosophy departments is to say that people who differ on this point can still get grants from, or be employed by, the same institutions, can award degrees on the same students, etc. By contrast, those who share Ptolemy’s opinions on the planets or William Jennings Bryan’s on the origin of species are excluded from respectable astronomy and biology || departments, for membership there requires that one know that these opinions are false. (pp.66-67)
Since these communities make their own rules about what counts as opinion and what counts as knowledge, they should be able to define their own canons and pick their own favorite great dead philosophers (or parts thereof) (p.67), without being submitted to such a canon by a History of Philosophy (p.67).

We should encourage people who are tempted to dismiss Aristotle as a biologist who got out of his depth, or Berkeley an as eccentric bishop, or Frege as an original logician with unjustified epistemological pretensions, or Moore as a charming amateur who never quite understood what the professionals were doing. (p.67)
Rorty views these as experiments that support Geistesgeschichte but suppress doxography (p.67). Having thus axed doxography as an unnecessary genre, Rorty now summarizes the three genres that are indispensable to philosophy and recalls their purpose (p.67):
Rational reconstructions are necessary to help || us present-day philosophers think through our problems. Historical reconstructions are needed to remind us that these problems are historical products, by demonstrating that they were invisible to our ancestors. Geistesgeschichte is needed to justify our belief that we are better off than those ancestors by virtue of having become aware of those problems. (pp.67-68)
These three genres thus form a nice example of the standard Hegelian dialectical triad. (p.68) 
Rorty now turns to the broader genre of intellectual history, which has more grounding in the sociological and political aspects of the time (p.68), and covers cases of figures that never make it into the canon but belong there for other reasons, "people like Erigena, Bruno, Ramus, Mersenne, Wolff, Diderot, Cousin, Schopenhauer, Hamilton, McCosh, Bergson and Austin" (p.69). Rorty also discusses the non-philosophers:

These are people who in fact did the job which philosophers are popularly supposed to do — impelling social reform, supplying new vocabularies for moral deliberations, deflecting the course of scientific and literary disciplines into new channels. They include, for example, Paracelsus, Montaigne, Grotius, Bayle, Lessing, Paine, Coleridge, Alexander von Humboldt, Emerson, T.H. Huxley, Mathew Arnold, Weber, Freud, Franz Boas, Walter Lippman, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Kuhn — not to mention all those unfamiliar people … who turn up in the footnotes to Foucault’s books. (p.69)
This general intellectual history provides the grounding for the sketching out of the histories of philosophy; only the doxographies find themselves independent of these analyses.
Like the history of anything else, history of philosophy is written by the victors. Victors get to choose their ancestors, in the sense that they decide which among their all too various ancestors to mention, write biographies of, and commend to their descendants. (p.70) 
But it also broadens the contexts, flattening the mountain tops into the plains by exposing a more accurate assessment of the degree of influence of the famous figures (p.71).
… intellectual history works to keep Geistesgeschichte honest, just as historical reconstruction operates to keep rational reconstructions honest. (p.71)
It is only that skepticism, of asking how the famous philosopher X ever came to have that position, that allows philosophers to write radically new Geistesgeschichte, such as Foucault's The Order of Things (p.72).
I am all for getting rid of canons which have become merely quaint, but I do not think that we can get along without canons. This is because we cannot get along without heroes. … We need to tell ourselves detailed stories about the mighty dead in order to make our hopes of surpassing them concrete. (p.73)
The assumption that there are timeless questions, that all people everywhere should have sensibly thought about, is a necessary precondition for the community of philosophers that present day thinkers want to be members of (p.73).
On this assumption, what we need is to see the history of philosophy as the story of the people who made splendid but largely unsuccessful || attempts to ask the questions which we ought to be asking. (pp.73-74) 
The competition [between the canons, RCK] is not likely ever to be resolved, but as long as it continues we shall not lose that sense of community which only impassioned conversation makes possible. (p.74) 

Bibliographical Record

Richard Rorty, The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres, published in 1984 in Richard Rorty, Jerome B. Schneewind, Quentin Skinner (ed), Philosophy in History, Cambridge, as Chapter 3 (pp.49-76), now also accessible inTruth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Cambridge 1998, pp. 247-273.

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