For some years now, I’ve thought of two different, broadly defined, relationships that contemporary folks can have to the history of philosophy. One is the historical study of philosophy: becoming a specialist in the philosophy and ideas of a particular era, group, or single notable figure. This is the route that leads academics to call themselves Russellians, Kantians, Hegelians, Spinozists, and other various adjectivized names.
Another, which I prefer myself and think is, on the whole, more philosophically productive, is to use the history of philosophy. This is similar to what Gilles Deleuze did in many of his historical works, and in his creative philosophical projects, filled with references and call-backs as they were. Using the history of philosophy takes a figure or work that was developed in a particular past time and place, and adapting those ideas into new problems.
It’s very difficult to do this well. Here are some ways I’ve seen the use of philosophy’s history go wrong. One is where you simply don’t distinguish your mutative plundering of philosophy’s history strongly enough from straight scholarship. So readers will fault you for historical mistakes, when you’re not actually interpreting and explaining an idea in its original context, but instead adapting an idea to a new context. Another problem is where you mutate your source philosopher too much, or have a skewed version of them that doesn’t even capture their initial concept.
An intriguing way to use the history of philosophy is as a foil for a broader investigation that you want to put in dialogue with a contemporary issue. I’ve been reading Graham Priest’s book, Beyond the Limits of Thought, over the last few days. And his early chapters explore a variety of philosophers from the tradition’s history, looking for a particular kind of contradiction, identifying a contradiction which indicates a limit to what can be conceived. He gets intriguing results regarding this problem from the historical figures from which he draws, but some other historical engagements can get in the way of his larger goals.
|Medieval philosophers (especially those with|
freakishly long fingers) are frequently forgotten
or marginalized in contemporary practice.
Priest takes too fast a swipe at Nicolas’ argument, essentially missing the most interesting concept that he developed: the equivocity of being. Priest very summarily dismisses the idea that the means of understanding a body must be of the same kind of being as that body: length doesn’t have to be long. But the ontological concept underlying Nicolas’ vision of a negative theology doesn’t reduce to such a simple idea as this, which is just an analogy in the original text. Nicolas’ idea is that God subsists in an entirely different manner of being than humans. We’re material, spatial, temporal in nature. God would be none of these things, but subsist in a mode of existence that’s entirely foreign to possible human experience and thought. Following this concept through leads one to conceive of a genuinely alien existence, and opens an intriguing path in philosophical thinking. It’s not really the path I’m working on myself, but Nicolas deserves credit.
Priest doesn’t give him that credit when he blasts through this argument. I have no problem with Priest’s mining Nicolas for an example of a contradiction manifesting a limit point of human thought, and analyzing Nicolas to uncover the logical structure of that contradiction.* But the use of the history of philosophy must have some fidelity and respect to the thinker and the context of his time. We must not mutate a concept too much, or ride over it too haphazardly. Otherwise, instead of updating and revitalizing the thought of a philosopher, we trample over them in the service of our own purpose.
* Because Priest developed dialetheic logic, he can analyze the logical structure of a contradiction as a truth. Such logic accepts that there can be logically consistent true contradictions. The idea is very controversial, and counter-intuitive to many. But logic is a tool for systematizing and regulating thought. We can make whatever rules for a symbolic logic as we wish, as long as we’re careful enough to make a properly functional logic, able to build formulae and arguments.