Why Philosophy Needs History

Bernard Williams

‘Lack of a historical sense is the hereditary defect of philosophers . . . So what is needed from now on is historical philosophising, and with it the virtue of modesty.’ Nietzsche wrote this in 1878, but it still very much needs to be said today. Indeed, a lot of philosophy is more blankly non-historical now than it has ever been. In the so-called analytic tradition in particular this takes the form of trying to make philosophy sound like an extension of science. Most scientists, though they may find the history of science interesting, do not think that it is of much use for their science, which they reasonably see as a progressive activity that has lost its past errors and incorporated its past discoveries into textbooks and current theory. The American philosopher who stuck on his office door the notice ‘Just say NO to the history of philosophy’ was probably riding on the idea that the same could be said of philosophy.

The fact that philosophy is often neglectful of its own history is not, however, the most important point. Many philosophers do have some respect for the history of philosophy: what matters more is their neglect of another history – the history of the concepts which philosophy is trying to understand. The starting point of philosophy is that we do not understand ourselves well enough. We do not understand ourselves well enough ethically (how or why we should be concerned, positively or negatively, with some human dispositions and practices rather than others); we do not fully understand our political ideals; and we do not understand how we come to have ideas and experiences, and seem moreover to know quite a lot about the world. Philosophy’s methods of helping us to understand ourselves involve reflecting on the concepts we use, the modes in which we think about these various things; and sometimes it proposes better ways of doing this. So much is (relatively) uncontentious.

In any area of philosophy, the concern that gets reflection going, the failure to understand ourselves, must start from where we are. Who ‘we’ are, who else is part of ‘us’, may very well be disputed, above all in ethical and political cases. But reflection must start with us in the narrowest sense – the people who are asking the question and the people to whom we are talking – and it starts from now. The concepts that give rise to the question are ours. But there is a story behind those concepts: a history of how people have come to think like this. In the case of some ideas, such as political equality or democratic legitimacy, or the virtues of sincerity and honesty, the history will be dense and distinctive of our own culture, as contrasted with the cultures of past times and also, perhaps, with those of other existing societies. So much, again, is uncontentious. The standard assumption, however, is that a philosophical inquiry does not need to bother much with that history: the distinctive business of philosophers is reflection, and reflection, roughly speaking, will see them through. The basic point of Nietzsche’s remark is that, in ethical and political cases at least, that assumption is wrong.

It is not wrong in every case. A scientific concept – ‘atom’, for instance – can certainly be said to have a history, but typically (for much the same reason that the history of science is not part of science) its history makes little contribution to what may puzzle us about that concept now. Another way of putting it might be to say that the modern idea of an atom, understood in terms of quantum mechanics, is not the same as the one that entered human understanding under (very roughly) that name in the fifth century BC, though it is recognisably a descendant of it. But this is a case where it does not matter much (for our understanding of either the concepts or the history) whether the same or a different concept is employed by different societies or cultures: it is never going to be a highly determinate matter and there are many instances, of which ‘atom’ is one, where it would be arrant scholasticism to go on about it. There are, however, some very important occasions when we need to say both that there is significant historical variation between an idea or concept as used by two different groups, and that these are in some sense variant forms of the same concept. We need to say this particularly with value concepts such as freedom and justice, where there can be significant conflicts between interpretations of the value at different times or between different groups: between freedom as a disciplined life within an independent republic, for instance, and freedom on Eighth Avenue. Trying to understand the problems that we have with the idea of freedom, we need to describe and understand these differences, and we need to say that in some sense they represent different interpretations of the same thing: simply giving different names to these conflicting values would significantly miss the point of the conflict.

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