23 June 2006 - Friday

Patronizing our elders

In an essay collected in Philosophy in History (Rorty, Schneewind and Skinner, eds., 1984), Richard Rorty distinguishes among different genres of the history of philosophy. He argues that there are multiple valid ways to approach past thinkers. First, he notes that it is often helpful to avoid anachronism when reconstructing the work of a philosopher:

There is nothing wrong with self-consciously letting our own philosophical views dictate terms in which to describe the dead. But there are reasons for also describing them in other terms, their own terms. It is useful to recreate the intellectual scene in which the dead lived their lives -- in particular, the real and imagined conversations they might have had with their contemporaries (or near-contemporaries). 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who did not know as much as we do -- to know this in enough detail so that we can imagine ourselves talking the same outdated language. [...] 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. (50)
That seems reasonable enough, although plenty of his contemporaries would object to Rorty's "better knowledge" about God's existence. But Rorty goes on to advocate an ahistorical approach in addition to the genuinely historical approach described above:
But we also want to imagine conversations between ourselves (whose contingent arrangements include general agreement that, e.g., there are no real essences, no God, etc.) and the mighty dead. We want this not simply because it is nice to feel one up on one's betters, but because 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 reassure 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. The need for reassurance on this point is as great as the need for self-awareness. We need to imagine Aristotle studying Galileo or Quine and changing his mind, Aquinas reading Newton or Hume and changing his, etc. We need to think that, in philosophy as in science, the mighty mistaken dead look down from heaven at our recent successes, and are happy to find that their mistakes have been corrected. (51)
This is tangential to Rorty's purposes for the article, but I want to quibble. I see a problem here. Such "rational progress" in philosophical history is a fiction. I think Rorty implicitly admits as much, but I seem to differ from him by thinking that this fiction tends to be a harmful one. At least where prescription and spiritual matters (rather than empirical science) are concerned, we should not imagine that ignorance accounts for the differences between us and our predecessors.

The history of republicanism might be a useful illustration of the danger. There has been no sure progress in republicanism over the centuries. Generalizing grossly for the sake of convenience, I could say that the ancient Romans believed in republican government; so did the 15th-century Italians; so did the 17th-century English. But each of these groups faced opposition from viable philosophical opponents, even within its own ranks, and each favored republicanism for a different reason. Furthermore, the 20th-century Russians, claiming to represent historical progress, embraced a republican model that quickly turned into the most absolute autocracy ever seen. Me, I would happily swallow whole the worldviews of any number of medieval philosophers before I would adopt that particular modern philosophy. And I would disagree with anyone who claimed to see rational progress from the more ignorant Locke to the more knowledgeable Marx. Yet that is exactly what many Marxists claimed to see.

This is not to say that progress -- improvement of the ideas considered orthodox in a society or even considered correct by individual thinkers -- never happens; I simply believe that it does not happen reliably, and encouraging ourselves to believe in it is counterproductive. Progress is no more helpful a concept than degeneracy; both let us write thinkers off too easily. When we say that philosopher X was wrong about question Y, it is rarely wise to flatter ourselves with the notion that it was only because of ignorance of what we now know. Even if we do need such "reassurance," as Rorty says, I think we should resist the urge.

| Posted by Wilson at 19:57 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk