Monday, March 12, 2012

The Threat to the History of Philosophy

   I wish to submit an account of how Philosophy, from very early times, has become embroiled in dispute, and how this dispute has become the core of what is recognized as Philosophy, rather than the love of Wisdom. I mean to do this through considering the use that Philosophy makes of the "History of Philosophy".
   It is fair ask: what is the History of Philosophy? I can give a few rough answers to this question. One definition that occurs to me is that it is a history of some great thinkers and their 'philosophical theories' or 'schools' that have such theories. These 'schools' of thought are sometimes different branches of a single older 'school'. They may agree in some ways, but they also disagree in other ways.
   Often a contemporary student of philosophy will learn the History of Philosophy (at least in part), and choose a side, or develop their own theory. The choice of a 'school' or the development of the theory is not to be guided by anything but the search for 'Truth' (in some sense), and generally this is very sincerely maintained. The 'philosopher' will defend the 'Truth' of their 'school' against competing 'schools' that also claim the 'Truth'. This, once again, is how things often seem to occur, and how things have gone for a long time.
   It is a very old tradition of philosophy that engages with its history in such a way. Some sort of engagement with history is always required, however, there is another competing understanding of Philosophy that many philosophers pay tribute to before entering into their disputes - that Philosophy is the love of Wisdom. This understanding of the word, as most know, is in the very etymology of the word 'Philosophy'. Now, the question I ask is this: in what way does the manner in which we engage with the History of Philosophy resemble something like a love of Wisdom or provide materials for such a love?
   Our engagement with, and assigning ourselves to, the tradition by defending the rightness of a theory from the history does not take itself to be in pursuit of Wisdom, but actually to have attained to it already. Defending a theory of ones own design is also seemingly the result of already having attained Wisdom (this is not referring to the Preface of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit). Perhaps, if Wisdom must be considered as still outstanding, then is it to be understood as everyone joining the same 'school' or agreeing on a theory? In my humble estimation, Wisdom is not loved or pursued in our 'discipline' of Philosophy that engages with the History of Philosophy in this manner described above. Rather, we continually forget that in seeking Wisdom we are seeking a better life, something that the defense of a theory is insufficient for.
   By no means do I wish to lament the tradition of brilliant philosophers that have been handed down to us in the canon, nor do I want to reject what the tradition offers - something that has been referred to as theories. I do want to suggest that the love of Wisdom has a tendency to reorganized itself around its own history, rather than to love Wisdom. Once more, I do not want to suggest that there is no wisdom in the tradition, but rather that the actual pursuit of Wisdom is often supplanted with a pursuit of conflict among the 'schools'; this conflict may contribute to the unfolding of Wisdom as a secondary matter, but I have difficulty seeing the pursuit of a better life as its primary aim. (Note: In the remainder of this post I will treat Philosophy and love of Wisdom as distinct.)
   I have a speculation concerning how the organization of Philosophy around a tradition leads to a different mode of Philosophy that involves and increases mutual opposition rather than a pursuit of Wisdom that an individual may undertake. This speculation does not see the disputes we find in Philosophy as anything unnatural, but as rather being the most natural sort of thing, and partly an indication of why the pursuit of Wisdom is so difficult. I hope to focus on particularly a threat of distraction that the History of Philosophy holds for the pursuit of Wisdom, and to show how this threat may also clarify for us the difficulties of the pursuit.
   Now I have a question for those engaged in the pursuit of Wisdom: what part of the pursuit of Wisdom is properly concerned with accepting or rejecting something, and what does the acceptance or rejection of something contribute to the pursuit? I will try to sort this out in a rough manner.
   When we accept or reject a standpoint, we take a stand, and from taking a stand we open up certain possibilities. By a 'standpoint' I clearly do not mean some physical location - it is assumed that many people can share the same standpoint. From where we stand we are able to 'continue on' until the standpoint becomes insufficient. In order to accept something new (or anew) we must already have a standpoint to move from. The transition to a new standpoint will be considered an advance as long as we don't fall back to the old standpoint. Generally, the value of accepting or rejecting for the pursuit of Wisdom is to be found in either stopping when one accepts or continuing when we reject.
   From here I can make some general observations concerning a few trends in the engagement of the History of Philosophy in relation to accepting and rejecting and standpoints.
   Some philosophers in the tradition are concerned with justifying their standpoint (or a historical one), and to convince others of its sufficiency; others argue that no standpoint is itself sufficient, and that we must always be in the habit of moving from one to another. There is a third group who are not so much considered with making the theme of their discussion a particular standpoint, or the impossibility of holding to a single standpoint; rather, they recognize the necessity of at least having a standpoint at any time. This last group asks about what it means to have a standpoint. Each of these groups of philosophers offer a different sort of engagement with the History of Philosophy.
   The first group, which Kant called Dogmatists, engage the History of Philosophy by defending particular standpoints (or adding their own to the history). In this way, Dogmatists will only be able to engage with a philosopher by finding a particular standpoint. The second group, which Kant called Skeptics, also depends on finding particular standpoints, but with the addition of revealing insufficiencies in them such that they cannot be maintained alone. I note again, that the engagement with the History of Philosophy by Dogmatists and Skeptics require that particular standpoints are found in the History of Philosophy. (I also must note that Dogmatism and Skepticism are not to be considered here as insulting titles.  I have a post on what Kant means by Dogmatism here.)
   The third group, which Kant fancied he initiated, are Critical Philosophers. Critical Philosophers do not seek particular standpoints in order to defend them, but rather to clarify what a standpoint is.  The engagement with the History of Philosophy by a Critical Philosopher does not stop at finding particular standpoint to accept or reject, but considers how a particular standpoint builds itself on a standpoint considered generally.  Of course, to articulate what a standpoint in general is assumes a particular standpoint, but the purpose is not to remain standing on the same particular point or to leave it, but to continually clarify what any standpoint is - something one can do no matter where one is in fact standing.  (Note: Critical is not meant to suggest being antagonistic to any position.)
   With some variation on Kant's emphasis, I will add that Critical Philosophers can only absolutely reject a standpoint that contradicts standpoints in general, that is, Critical Philosophers reject non-standpoints. Incidentally, such rejections do not take place very often. Because of this the Critical Philosopher does not require an interest in accepting or rejecting standpoints, as long as they are standpoints that one may have. A Critical Philosopher will come to understand how a standpoint is 'standable'. A Critical Philosopher cannot borrow the evaluation of standpoints in general from the tradition, but must work themselves and consider their own standpoint apart from any other, and use the 'essence' of how it is that they stand in examining other standpoints. In this way, the Critical Philosopher is always in a process of self-discovery, and not merely historical consideration. Dogmatists and Skeptics always assume in maintaining a standpoint some understanding or other of what a standpoint is and can be, but without Critical Philosophy, Dogmatists and Skepticists never understand what a standpoint generally is and entails.
   From the perspective of Dogmatism and Skepticism, only one 'school' or parts of 'schools' will have value, and the others are to be despised and deprecated. For the Critical Philosopher, every 'school' has value precisely in how it can contribute to the understanding of a standpoint generally. Dogmatism, Skepticism, and Critical Philosophy all participate in each other, and even towards the overall ends of the pursuit of Wisdom. These are all specializations, however, and no one of them can constitute a proper engagement with the History of Philosophy or the love of Wisdom.
   The tendency towards Dogmatism and Skepticism often overlooks the possibility and need of Critical Philosophy in the requirements of maintaining a standpoint. And in the fervor of defending and attacking standpoints, Critical Philosophy is interpreted as having to defend a particular standpoint, instead of offering suggestions at understanding standpoints. As a result of treating Critical Philosophy as something that either accepts or rejects standpoints, a critical resource is missing in the overall balance of the study of Philosophy.
   The general ignorance of Critical Philosophy, and even more, the interpreting of Critical Philosophy as either Dogmatic or Skeptical, is, to me, what contributes to the complete domination of debate in Philosophy as a field. The domination of debate is a continual sign of forgetting the commonality of standpoints. The ongoing abstract debates ultimately lead Philosophy to fail as a whole in engaging with anything more than abstract theories, and this will continually hinder engaging once again with Philosophy contributing to living a good life directly, and for fulling making use of the History of Philosophy as something that continually informs at all points our ability to live a good life.
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