History of Philosophy

In a typical philosophy curriculum, there are some history courses, and some courses that are not history courses. A course on Plato’s metaphysics is a history course; a course on recent work on causation is not. Some courses have a history component. When I teach scepticism at upper levels (or graduate levels), I start with Descartes and Hume. I’m teaching history at that point; I’m not doing so when I go over the recent debate between Jim Pryor and Crispin Wright.

In that sense of ‘history’, which parts of the curriculum do you think count as part of history of philosophy? That is, when are you teaching history, and when are you not? To focus attention, consider which of the following works you would count as part of a history course, or part of the historical part of a course:

  • Mill’s On Liberty;
  • Russell’s “On Denoting”;
  • Moore’s “Principia Ethica”;
  • Wittgenstein’s Tractatus;
  • Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic;
  • Ryle’s The Concept of Mind;
  • Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia;
  • Quine’s Word and Object;
  • Gettier’s “Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?”
  • Davidson’s “Actions, Reasons and Causes”;
  • Grice’s William James lectures (as published in Studies in the Way of Words);
  • Davidson’s “Truth and Meaning”;
  • Anscombe’s Intention;
  • Rawls’s A Theory of Justice;
  • Kripke’s Naming and Necessity;
  • Lewis’s Counterfactuals?
  • Putnam’s “The Meaning of Meaning”;
  • Thomson’s “In Defence of Abortion”;
  • Block’s “Troubles with Functionalism”;
  • Perry’s “The Essential Indexical”;
  • Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language;
  • Lewis’s “New Work for a Theory of Universals”;
  • Lewis’s On the Plurality of Worlds.

That’s probably enough to give you the spirit of the enterprise. My answer is in the comments.

8 Replies to “History of Philosophy”

  1. It’s striking to me how sharp a break there is around 1970. With a couple of exceptions (Gettier in one direction, perhaps Rawls in the other), most work before 1970 strikes me as part of history of philosophy, and work since 1970 strikes me as part of our era.

    I’m not sure why it strikes me this way. It certainly isn’t that I regard the pre-1970 stuff as not worth teaching. As I said, I start classes on contemporary epistemology with a nod back to Descartes and Hume to set the stage. And some of the stuff from the 1970s and 1980s (and in philosophy of language the 1990s too), feels pretty dated. But I still feel it’s part of our, for want of a better word, era. What I’m wondering about with this post is whether other people feel the same way.

  2. Robert Brandom suggests (though I don’t know whether he got it from someone else) that Kripke’s treatment of modal semantics is responsible for a significant methodological shift in analytic philosophy, and that Naming and Necessity in particular shook things up. If true, that would explain 1970 as a date rather tidily.

  3. Here’s an off-the-cuff theory: it’s history when subsequent developments have dramatically changed the way we read it. When I read Quine, I’m struck by the failure to distinguish necessity from apriority — a point that is only obvious in retrospect, for those of us who grew up with Kripke. To understand what’s going on in a historical work, you need to study at list a little bit of historical context — in particular, you need to appreciate the respect in which the philosophical resources of the author were impoverished, relative to our own.

  4. I’m not sure Jonathan. I think in debates about context sensitivity (either in phil language or epistemology), we have the same reaction to a lot of stuff from the 1990s as you have to Quine. There’s so much more we know now, that a lot of (very smart) writers then didn’t know. But I’m not sure I’d count DeRose or Cohen’s classic papers, or the radical contextualists Stanley and Szabo are responding to, as part of history.

  5. Jonathan,

    You say,

    “When I read Quine, I’m struck by the failure to distinguish necessity from apriority.”

    Is it so clear that this is right?

    Here is Word and Object §14 (p. 66):

    “Philosophical tradition hints of three nested categories of firm truths: the analytic, the a priori, and the necessary. Whether the first exhausts the second, and the second the third, are traditional matters of disagreement[…].”

    The second sentence shows that Quine knows in 1960 that there is debate about whether the apriori exhausts the necessary. This seems to me like he is distinguishing the notions. (Though so much the worse for all three of them if they aren’t inter-definable.)

  6. Brian, I found your presentation at REC very interesting, one of the highlights of an outstanding conference. To the topic I would submit that within philosophy it can be truly said that philosophy is history and history is philosophy. For anyone on the lookout for a macro problem as opposed to a Witgensteinian puzzle research is this area could be fruitful. As an historian I can say we really could use a more comprehensive philosophy of history.

  7. Brian, I find it very interesting that you view Rawls as part of “history” and not part of our era. I would appreciate to hear your reasons. Thanks.

  8. I don’t know enough about Rawls to speak with confidence. But two things about Theory of Justice stand out compared to the other things released around that time. One is that it was so long in preparation. Another is that it was clearly intended to be continuous with a long philosophical tradition, while other writers at the time seemed almost self-consciously to be distancing themselves from their predecessors.

    But these are somewhat ill-informed musings – this is way too far from my areas to have competent opinions on!

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