Friday, April 17, 2009

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response

In response to an earlier post, a commentator posed the following series of questions which I would like to respond to:

What is the historian’s relationship with philosophy? Is it merely to document which philosopher's were influential and their personal and philosophical effect on contemporary and future society? Should historians comment on the content of a philosopher's works? Does a historians training prepare them to understand philosophy in a manner which could justify any opinions, theories, conclusions they may state? Should historians abstain from analyzing the content of philosopher's work? My questions are focused on getting insight on how a historian conceptualizes his relationship and duties when dealing with philosophy.

The issue of the relationship between history and philosophy is a pertinent one for me since I operate within the gray zone between them as an intellectual historian. For me, the line between the history of philosophy and philosophy is that a historian is only interested in the who, what, when, where and why of an issue. A historian when approaching a given philosopher will, therefore, try to explain what that philosopher actually believed, where did he get those beliefs from and who was influenced by this philosopher. What will be noticeably absent from the work a historian of philosophy is any indication whether the historian actually agrees with the philosopher in question. A philosopher on the other hand, when faced with the work of a philosopher from a previous generation is going to have to voice some sort of judgment about the work of said philosopher. For example, as an undergraduate at Yeshiva University, I took an Intro to Philosophy class where we learned all about Anselm, Aquinas and Descartes and their arguments for the existence of God. The byline for the class, though, was “why you are not going to march up to the blackboard and demonstrate that there is a God in under forty-five minutes.” As a side point, the professor who taught this class, Dr. David Johnson, is, surprisingly enough, a deeply religious Christian and this was one of the best classes I took in college.

There is a story told about Thomas Kuhn and his history of science class. It was his custom to assign his students a primary source text in early modern science for analysis. From the responses, he was able to tell which of his students were history majors and which were philosophy majors. The history majors would just analyze the text, regardless of whether it made sense or not. The philosophy majors would try to make sense of the text even if the end result they come up with was very different than the actual text.

Some people would take a firmer line than I do in regards to history and philosophy, particularly my advisor, Dr. Matt Goldish. When I first came to Ohio State to start work on my Ph.D. I wanted to do a dissertation either on Isaac Abarbanel’s relationship to Kabbalah or his views on Maimonides. Dr. Goldish insisted that whatever I did it could not simply be an analysis of a text but must work to fit itself into some larger narrative. We went back and forth on this issue but in the end, Dr. Goldish prevailed. He is my advisor so his word is law. He is also a far more knowledgeable historian both in terms of the craft itself and also in terms of the politics of the field. Finally, he managed to convince me that, no matter what my views on history, in order to get a job, I am going to have to write something that will speak to people outside my narrow field and that means addressing larger narrative issues.

Certainly, a major part of what historians of philosophy have to do is to document which philosophers were important in a given era. This is important because not every philosopher who we moderns think is important was prominent during his own lifetime or immediately afterward. For example, it is a matter of some debate as to how widely read Enlightenment philosophers were doing the Enlightenment. I think historians are capable of analyzing works of philosophy. The fact that historians have a unique ability to deal with the societal context of a given philosopher gives them an important seat at the table when discussing philosophy.


RVA said...

What does Goldish mean when he says that your work must fit into "some larger narrative?" Do you fit your work into a narrative that other historians have created?

On a normative level, should historians be creating "narratives?" And who are these narratives created for? The general public? Other historians? Academia in general? Posterity?

It seems I would favor your initial desire to just do a textual analysis, and eschew from making your work fit into a larger narrative. The mains reasons to fit your work into a narrative would be for personal ends (i.e. career advancement, pleasing your superiors) than for any pedagogical or academic ends.

One last thing I'd like to touch on is the relationship between "fitting your work into a narrative" and post-modernism's criticism and skepticism toward such metanarratives. I agree with your general assessment that post-modernism offers interesting analytical tools, but is probably misguided as an end in itself. Could you elaborate your thoughts on this topic?

Izgad said...

I have put up the first part of my response. Again, thank you for your questions.