Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why It Sucks to be a Historian of Philosophy

After Nature has a post up about the history of philosophy.

I concur with his assessment and encounter similar problems, though we have different audiences in mind: contemporary continental vs. mainstream analytic. I would add a few other scenarios.

When bridging the gap from American to analytic philosophy, I often try to discuss a contemporary topic by way of shared historical figure, e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, or some other figure I would expect any professional philosopher to know something about. However, I am frequently met with the reaction that I am "just doing history," when in fact I am using a historic and shared language to communicate a problem that, e.g., Aristotle never would have considered. I get quite frustrated, because I get the impression that my interlocutor is unfairly dismissing the point, and I am not the kind of person to drag someone to the point. No blood sport here.

When discussing a contemporary topic from my mostly historical background, I often use a neutral contemporary vocabulary to describe a criticism motivated by historical insights. I do not try to use my field's technical contemporary or historical vocabularies, because it's not a shared language. Yet once again I am frequently dismissed because I am not speaking the technical language of my interlocutor, who is usually an analytic philosopher.

I understand that discussing technical points with someone not within your specialty is difficult--believe me since almost all my conversations are such--but some philosophers are just too ready to dismiss anything that does not already speak their language or to their obvious interest no matter how on topic it is.

In practice, academic philosophy is far less pluralistic and historical than it claims. I am really worried about this since the rise, at least within the U.S., of treating historic philosophy as a means to treating contemporary problems--not itself a bad thing--through re-interpreting history in terms of the needs of the present--terrible historiography. I have posted a number of times about the plight of my own field, American pragmatism, and our co-option by analytic philosophy that tends to interpret all pragmatism through lens of neopragmatism.

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