Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Empirical Use of History of Philosophy

I conceptualize the history of philosophy as, in part, the source of interesting empirical data about the psychology of philosophy. Nietzsche and Dewey also conceptualized the history of philosophy this way, but I don't think many other philosophers do. There's a lot of untapped potential.

Here are some ways I've put the history of philosophy to empirical use:

* As evidence that it is impossible to construct a detailed, thoroughly commonsense metaphysics of mind-body dualism.

* As evidence for a relationship between culturally available metaphors for visual experience and views of the nature of visual experience.

* As evidence for a relationship between culturally available metaphors for dream experience and views of the nature of dream experience.

* As evidence that philosophical expertise doesn't diminish the likelihood of being swept up in noxious political ideologies.

* As evidence of the diversity of philosophical opinions that can be held by presumably reasonable people (especially on the character of conscious experience and the metaphysics of mind).
I can't resist also mentioning Shaun Nichols's observation of the suspicious lack of historical occupants of one theoretically available position regarding free will.

These analyses are mostly not quantitative, but that doesn't make them less empirical. In all cases, the fact that some philosophers claimed X (or X1... Xn) or did Y is treated as empirical evidence for some different hypothesis Z about the psychology of philosophy.

Maybe empirically oriented philosophers typically don't regard themselves as expert enough in history of philosophy to write about it. But I think we hobble ourselves if we allow ourselves to be intimidated. The standard of expertise for writing about Descartes or Kant in the context of a larger project -- a project that isn't just Descartes or Kant interpretation -- shouldn't be world leadership in Descartes or Kant interpretation. It should be the same standard of expertise as in writing about a contemporary colleague with a large body of influential work, like Dennett or Fodor.


Nick said...

For the second item in your list, you might be able to glean evidence for a more general claim: ...evidence that temporal cultural metaphors will usually be contemporary with all sorts of philosophy metaphors (e.g. computationalism about mind, pixelation as supervenience, etc.).

Nick said...

Also, I thought you might find this of interest because it concerns group consciousness and a new-ish twist on the discussion of whether corporations out to be considered persons. Here. (Thanks to Michael Labossiere).

Richard Marshall said...

I like this. Could you not also use the study of novels, poems, plays etc in a similar way. So Proust and Joyce and Henry james provide evidence of conceptions of introspection and self deception, say.

clasqm said...

Indeed. IMHO most people working in Philosophy departments are not philosophers but historians of philosophy, busying themselves with "What Kant really meant by X" or "What could have led Hume to say Y". Not that this invalidates their work, I hasten to add. We need those people. But actual thinkers of the stature of Hume and Kant remain thin on the ground. Present company excluded, of course!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Nick: I entirely agree with your first point. On the issue of corporations as people -- yes, there's a definite connection to literal group consciousness, but I'm not aware of any political philosopher pushing it in that direction.

Richard: I agree there's interesting work to be done there. I sometimes hear suggested that Proust, Joyce, & co provide evidence about what the stream of experience is like, but I'm not inclined to think that they get it right, phenomenologically. (Hurlburt is probably closer -- but if he's right, the stream of experience is usually too boring to want to novelize.) So it would be interseting to interpret them, rather, as revealing something about the cultural/subcultural *conception* of what the stream of experience is like.

Clasqm: Humes and Kants will always be thin on the ground. One per century would be a fast clip.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Excellent Post!

The PeSla

Richard Marshall said...


'it would be interseting to interpret them, rather, as revealing something about the cultural/subcultural *conception* of what the stream of experience is like.'

I think that's right. it would be a really interesting research project - v different from the theory/deconstruction approach that's still prevalent in many departments. It would give a new momentum to the naturalistic ideal by giving the arts a genuine role in the project running from physics through philosophy and out. The supposed break betwen humanities and science , the 2 cultures thing, becomes unmotivated.
By the by, I think Gellner's 'Legitimation of Belief' is an interesting case of someone approaching history of philosophy in a certain Nietzschean way that allows his philosphical position to be argued through this historical anthroplogy.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I agree -- there's no need for the disconnection. Thanks for the tip on gellner!

Richard Marshall said...


Your last paragraph I particularly find refreshing. For encouragement I love Fodor's prologue to his book on Hume. 'I'll bet... too I can teach a seminar on Hume without actually knowing anything about him.'

Charlie H said...

Very interesting post! My only complaint is that you seem to be using the Great Deads only as ready examples of cognitive shortcomings. I like the use Jonathan Bennett has made of history of philosophy: for whatever reason, closely studying and thinking through those old works does help along our own original philosophical thinking. Not because everything they say is right, but you can learn a lot by working out why something that seems wrong is wrong. It's not the only way to do philosophy, but it's one fruitful way.

Agreed on the last point: history of philosophy should not be reserved for specialists. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say nothing in philosophy should be!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Charlie: I agree with your point about using the thoughts of the Great Deads to help us through our own thinking. But that's a rather different use than the empirical use I am contemplating in this post. I think, too, it's probably the use that most historians of philosophy would encourage other philosophers to adopt. I sometimes adopt that approach, too, for example in my thoughts about whether human nature is good, as informed by the Mengzi-Xunzi and Hobbes-Rousseau debate.

formerly a wage slave said...

"Culturally available " is a curious expression. I realize that without reading your claims in a fuller context, I cannot be sure that my comment will be apt; nonetheless, here's my thought: If I think or express myself in a given manner, you may say that the very fact of my doing so shows it is "culturally available", but that seems inflated. It might just be a one-off, something not especially representative. Of course there is a question here about what exactly a culture is. I'm not sure exactly what you have in mind by the term. The background to all this is that from my slight reading of social sciences, universality claims don't exactly come without work, and I suspect that claims that this or that is due to "culture" equally need some work to be made believably. Okay, I'll stop: all with the warning label: for what it's worth.

formerly a wage slave said...

To whatever extent my previous remark was a complaint, I guess I should withdraw it. If Aristotle seemed to have no problem with talking about color in dreams, but individuals living after the advent of black-and-white technology were otherwise inclined, then, yes it's hard to avoid the inference that "culture" is at work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ FAWS: I agree it's work. I worry a bit about my arguments in particular regarding the metaphors for visual experience. The metaphors are inconsistent, even sometimes between contemporaries in the same culture or subculture. However, I do think that with systematic reading, consistent trends become evident. Direction of causation is harder to establish.