Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Trouble with the History of Philosophy

As with any sacred cow found to be defunct in the modern age, there are two extremist tendencies one can tend toward. You can either preserve its life forever as per sentimental faux-superstition or in a fit of capricious rebellion you can send it moo-ing and screeching towards the abattoir of obsolescence. Both are equally distasteful, especially when performed for show.

We will return to this point later.

The ancients of philosophy; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle et al have a peculiar relationship with their discipline. They are still considered, by some, relevant to the contemporary practise and study of philosophy.  Although, this is perhaps not as idiosyncratic as I have suggested. Plenty of young Artists and Musicians are required to study Titian and Mozart, despite the fact that almost no cultural pioneer in the 21st Century would dream of reproducing their style in order to "push culture forward". The greats are studied in these fields because they exemplify certain important principles or points in our cultural trajectory that are important for contextualising and understanding our practises today.

This stands in contrast with science which encompasses a range of disciplines few of which feel the need to force students to study ancient scientific literature uniformly rejected or superseded by contemporary scientists.

The key difference between science and philosophy then, which makes their treatment of their intellectual cannon so different, is in the scope of questioning. Science, as a method, in order to pay the meticulous attention to detail that it is known for keeps its set of questions narrow and measurable. This ensures precision, quantifiability and clear grounds of truthfulness and falsifiability for each and every statement made.

Philosophy keeps its remit wide. In fact its very draw to new students is that so long as the question is not empirical, philosophy considers that question to be valid and within the grounds of legitimate philosophical enquiry. This means that philosophy cannot guarantee the precision or prediction of concrete phenomena because it eschews such questioning in order to concern itself with the big picture. Philosophers are obsessed with how we fit concrete phenomenon's into systems of perception and rationalisation; we are not concerned with the shape of the game piece but rather with the form of the board it is being placed on and why.

Accordingly this bigger picture requires a wider grasp of history. While philosophers can and do work on problems that are being encountered and hashed out over the period of decades they also struggle with problems which encompass a huge portion of our mental schemas and accordingly are the product of debates raised raged over centuries. These large underlying mental schemas may be the product of a system of thought or categorisation of life that has been around for hundreds of years and so tracing the lineage of that system and understanding its root causes and relationships benefits from historical contextualisation.

This is why philosophy students sit down with Kant, who has been dead for over 200 years. It's why they recount the cantankerous blathering of Socrates and the musings of Descartes. Philosophy students need to understand that much of our intellectual strata is a product of our time. That does not mean it is relative or that it is wrong. It means that our current theoretical framework is merely one of the many ways in which humans have aimed to understand the world, it is not special... nor are the ways in which humans of the past understood the world.

In saying that...

Modern thinkers have some significant advantages over the philosophers of yore and especially over the ancients. First of all we have the advances of science and technology and this along with the invention of the social sciences has meant that today's theorists, which is really all philosophers are once you strip away their grandiose mystique, have more data to work on than ever before.

Ideas about society, gender or the constitutive parts of the world etc can be constructed with reference to actual data. Today, philosophers trying to make sense of how this world works have the benefit of our accumulated scientific knowledge when creating descriptive theories about concrete phenomena.

The second advantage that we have is that we have a huge head-start. Many of these questions have been discussed for a long time now and our philosophy has only gotten deeper, scientifically accurate and refined.

This is a fact that is often ignored and it often irks me when I see that so much of "pop-philosophy" is sold as an explication of ancient secrets. The problem with this marketing tactic is that it reinforces the public's perception of philosophy as something that hasn't progressed since Ancient Greece.
The truth is, depending on your audience, there is a mountain of modern research that is both thoroughly captivating and lucid enough for the layman to grasp. What's more an emphasis on contemporary philosophical research would work wonders in terms of public education. Both by introducing the public to modern philosophy as it is practised today but also by demonstrating philosophy's ever changing and fast paced nature.

To return to the theme of my opening paragraph, this is why I think the likes of Socrates and Kant provide a particularly difficult heritage to manage when it comes to PR.

On the one hand we need to avoid dwelling in the past. The likes of Alain de Botton do nothing but stultify the public's perception of philosophy while appealing only to those pompous and sycophantic fools who seem to think that every question asked in philosophy requires an obligatory homage to dead Greeks.

Alternatively our historical icons are worth acknowledging even if only for the pragmatics of delineating the roots of modern thought and contextualising contemporary debate. To cast the history of philosophy aside in the hope of acquiring some pretence to youthfulness by embracing an edgy irreverence towards anyone who doesn't or didn't own a smart phone would be simple un-cultured idiocy, even if it did work (and it probably wouldn't).


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