Wednesday, April 01, 2009

On n’a pas à rougir

What do historians of philosophy do? Are they doing philosophy when they are doing the history of philosophy? I've been re-reading two interesting answers to these questions in in B. Cassin ed. Nos grecs et leurs modernes (Paris, 1992; CR review by Simon Goldhill here):

Aubenque, P., 1992, ‘L’histoire de la philosophie est-elle philosophique? Oui et non’: 15–36

Brunschwig, J., 1992, ‘L’histoire de la philosophie est-elle philosophique? Non et oui’: 37–96

One of my favourite passages from Brunschwig's piece is this:
L’historien de la philosophie, je pense, n’a pas à rougir de sa vocation, qui est distincte de celle de la création ou, disons, de l’initiative philosophique, et qui répond à une autre curiosité, à une autre démande. La réflexion sure les doctrines philosophiques (qu’il s’agisse d’une réflexion historique, analytique, interprétative) relève d’un certain genre d’activité intellectuelle; la production de telles dotrines, ou de ce qui en tient lieu, relève d’un autre genre. (p.44)
I'm not sure I was much inclined to be embarrassed for what I get up to but it's good to have Jacques' assurance that there is no need.


Monte said...

The idea here seems to be that we should not be ashamed of doing history of philosophy, even though it constitutes a distinct genre from doing philosophy, meaning real creative philosophy. I wonder why he says that this is so. Most of the people I perceive as real philosophers, Aristotle for instance, engage in historical reflection, analysis, and interpretation of predecessors. In fact, one might wonder whether it is possible to create or initiate real philosophy without doing these, as opposed to just reinventing the wheel. This happens a lot, but historians of philosophy have to come around and explain how this all has a long traditional background behind it, which tends to invigorate the issue. But I should read the articles myself. By the way James, what occasioned you reading these? Monte

JIW said...

I was reading in part because here in Cam, as you know, 'historians' of philosophy are mostly in Classics or HPS. This leaves the 'Philosophy' department feeling like history of philosophy is done elsewhere and also that it is not something that is a central concern of what they do. Sure, they have some (optional) history papers but these are often taught by people outside the Philosophy Faculty. So I got wondering what other people, especially the types who do what I do, have to say about this sort of question. Jacques a smart and elegant writer so I started with him.

Monte said...

But what is the argument for considering them to be separate kinds of activities, philosophy and history of philosophy? I understand that certain ways of dividing up a university put them in different departments. (Even in those cases there can be no hard and fast rule, since there are ancient philosophers in the philosophy faculty at Cam., or at least there have been.) But, although I often hear the attitude expressed that this or that is not real philosophy because it's only history of philosophy, I'm not aware of any sustained argument to the effect that they are really different in kind. But again, maybe I need to read the articles, because maybe in them I will find some reason why people consider them to be separate activities.

JIW said...

Reading the piece would certainly help. One common argument goes like this: it is not necessary in order to write the history of medicine to be a doctor; indeed, it is more or less irrelevant to the chances of writing a good history of medicine if one is a doctor. Similarly for writing the history of philosophy. Jacques is characteristically subtle in wondering about the range of what might be covered by calling a practice or person 'philosophical' but in the end I think he does want to insist on the distinction in this quotation.

George Charles Allen said...

This reminded me of some interesting responses to the 'history of philosophy' problem by Michael Pakaluk a few years back.