Your own private Plato

On a philosophical weblog recently I saw an instance of the kind of interpretation that sets historians’ teeth on edge. Since my topic here is a kind of interpretation, I’m not going to criticize anyone in particular. To single out one instance from a multitude would be unfair. For one thing, it’s evident that people pick up this method more or less unreflectively from their teachers, & are therefore not entirely responsible for their use of it.
The method I have in mind works like this. You’re reading an old text. A short passage grabs your attention. This one, for example:
There can be no memory of what is past without the conviction that we existed at the time remembered. There may be good arguments to convince me that I existed before the earliest thing I can remember ; but to suppose that my memory reaches a moment farther back than my belief & conviction of my existence, is a contradiction.
You ponder it a while. You find that on one interpretation, it’s false: a fairly simple counterexample occurs to you. You come up with another interpretation, one that avoids the counterexample. Etc.
Call this the “Great Sentences” method in the history of philosophy.
We all indulge in it. The habit of extracting brief passages from works for the purpose of contemplation goes back to antiquity. Made into a genre, by Locke’s time, an anthology of such extracts—a “commonplace book”—would be compiled by every aspiring author. Locke himself wrote an essay on a new method of keeping a commonplace book, a method he was evidently proud of ().
Extracting & pondering, however fruitful, isn’t doing history. But it is often called history, and occupies page-space that might otherwise be occupied by history.
Two sentences on history
Ah, but what is history? Isn’t ‘history’ a vague term, an eternally contested concept or something of that sort? Volumes have been devoted to the question (). I’ll dispose of part of it in two sentences.
History of philosophy is a division of intellectual history, which is itself a division of the history of culture. The task of intellectual history is to explain an indefinite range of events & artifacts in which (typically elite) concepts (ideas, beliefs, …) are thought to be the predominant determining causal factors or conditions, to describe the structures in those concepts (etc.) participate, how and why those structures change, and finally to explain those changes by reference, for example, to earlier structures and to other sorts of events and structures (political, economic, religious, …).
As often happens with dictionary-style definitions, this is unlikely to help anyone who hasn’t already encountered the thing itself. The key is that we are dealing in causal explanation (or, more broadly, in “narrative interpretation”—making sensible stories out of events). In the case of texts, such an explanation will appeal to the intentions and opinions of the agent that produced it, to the repertoire of concepts, techniques, & so forth available to the agent, & also to the social and technological conditions under which the material tokens of the text were produced. It cannot appeal to what did not exist at the time of production, it cannot impute to the agent intentions the agent could not have had at the time ().
In particular, my “natural” understanding of the text is relevant only insofar as it is a decent simulation of the agent’s (or the intended audience’s—there is room for much complication here) (). Reid doesn’t seem to be as complicated as Descartes or Hume. Nevertheless some background is necessary. In the passage cited above, he writes:
There can be no memory of what is past without the conviction that we existed at the time remembered.
[ … ] to suppose that my memory reaches a moment farther back than my belief & conviction of my existence, is a contradiction.
The background here is Hume, no doubt (given the remarks on the self a bit later), Locke (on personal identity), and Descartes (on the “conviction of my existence”). Reid is first of all talking about first-person memories of the form ‘I remember xing’ or ‘I remember that I xed’. A first-person memory carries with it the (first-person) conviction that I existed at the time that I xed, the time in question being not calendar or clock time but the internal time assigned to such memories, which includes relations of simultaneity and precedence among events remembered. For example: ‘I remember being hungry then, and before that forgetting my lunch money’.
Reid’s proposition is that ‘I remember xing but I do not believe I existed then’ is contradictory. Note that ‘I remember xing last Tuesday but I do not believe I existed last Tuesday’ is not contradictory, because the first clause may be taken to refer to an “internal” Tuesday (‘I remember xing and I remember looking at the calendar then and seeing that it was Tuesday’), while the second can, and naturally does, refer to an external, public Tuesday.
We must be dealing with first-person memories; the temporal indexing of those memories must be internal. The difficulty Reid faces is that from the proposition above he wants to derive claims about my existence in external time.
I remember that, twenty years ago, I conversed with such a person ; I remember several things that passed in that conversation ; my memory testifies not only that this was done, but that it was done by me who now remember it. If it was done by me, I must have existed at that time, and continued to exist from that time to the present : if the identical person whom I call myself, had not a part in that conversation, my memory is fallacious (1:345 Hamilton).
The joker here is “twenty years ago”. No memory of the form ‘I remember xing (or that I xed) in 1984’ can demonstrate that I existed in the public year 1984, though normally my having such a memory is considered good evidence for my having existed at that time. What I’m entitled to conclude is that if the memory is not fallacious then I existed at the internal time assigned to that event. (Even if I can be mistaken in my judgments concerning the internal temporal indexing of my memories, that will make the indexing less reliable; but that I existed then is certain, wherever then is in the temporal order.)
Reid wants to rescue the self from Hume’s skepticism, using a prolongation of the cogito:
Whatever this self may be, it is something which thinks, and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and suffers. I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling ; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions, and feelings, change every moment—they have no continued, but a successive existence ; but that self or I, to which they belong, is permanent, and has the same relation to all the succeeding thoughts, actions, and feelings, which I call mine (345).
The issue is not persistence simpliciter but persistence through change of qualities. My thoughts each have some duration. They are not instantaneous. But the self is supposed to be that which has one thought and then another. The cogito, notoriously, does not yield such a self; that was (I am guessing) common knowledge by the mid-eighteenth century (). Reid thinks that in first-person memory he has a means of proving that I am a self—i.e. that there is something which persists through change of thoughts, which has first one thought & then another. The proof is limited by the fallibility of first-person memory; in that respect it is weaker than the cogito. Nevertheless it is clearly a variation on that familiar theme.
The example I began with is not egregious, not like making Heraclitus out to be a percursor of quantutm mechanics or Descartes of automaton theory. It shows, however, what every genuine historian must learn: don’t trust your intuitions about what people meant or what they were doing. The very changes that history tries to describe almost ensure that, if you go back more than a generation, you are going to misunderstand motivations, fail to catch connotations, and perhaps mistake meanings. “Great Sentences” history, if it has value, must have it as philosophy; as history, it is likely to be worthless.
But what is the value of getting it right? After all, there are costs. You will have to read more, perhaps much more, than that Great Sentence. You may even have to learn another language, one with accents and stuff. Aside from the satisfaction of having a better shot at knowing what the Great Producer of that Great Sentence actually said, and why, what’s the benefit?
Here’s one answer (I could go on—that should be obvious). The standard occasion for “Great Sentences” history is to find pithy statements to use in stating present positions on present questions. Everything remains within the frame of now. But suppose that you don’t like the frame. What then? You could try to think up a new one on your own. But doing some honest history is a great labor-saver. Aristotle lived in a different world than we do. So did Descartes. (I don’t mean this in any deep scary relativist way, but just that a world, let’s say, in which slavery is taken for granted is different in an important feature from ours.) Aristotle’s ontology admits intrinsic ends and potentiæ; many analytic philosophers now are unfriendly to both. You can see from serious treatments of Aristotle what it’s like to take such things seriously, which will at least help dispel the notion that they are simply nonsense.
Similarly with Cartesian dualism. Several recent works have argued that what Descartes argued for is not the caricature put forward on his behalf by philosophers of mind now (). They don’t agree on what Descartes’ position is. But each of them offers a useful perspective not only on his thought, but on current conceptions of the mental. Though in some cases (notably Baker & Morris) they owe obvious debts to more recent philosophy, those perspectives might not have been accessible had these authors not wrestled with the texts & done some work in re-inserting them back into their context.
At some point arguing for the value of history takes on the quality of pious exhortation. It’s good for you. After all, it was good for Rawls (Kant and Sidgwick), Brandom (Hegel), Nussbaum (the Greeks), and Cavell (Emerson). For myself I don’t think I could take philosophy seriously if all I had to think about was fake barns, Dutch book arguments, and raging trolleys.
() The method was included by Locke in a letter to Nicolas Toinard in 1685. It was published in French translation a year later, and in English in 1706. Several subsequent authors “improved” Locke’s method; the last of them was published in 1804. For more, see the Locke bibliography by John C. Attig. On the history of note-taking, see Ann Blair, “Note Taking as an Art of Transmission”, in Arts of Transmission, a conference sponsored by Critical Inquiry, 21–22 May 2004.
() Some standard works in English (ABE = Advanced Book Exchange, Pow = Powells, Front = Frontlist):
Carr, David. Time, Narrative, and History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. (ABE, Pow)
Carr, E. H. What is History? New York: Vintage, 1961; many subsequent reprints (ABE, Seminary Co-op). A volume called What is history now? (ed. David Cannadine) was published this year to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Carr’s lectures. (Front, Pow)
Collingwood, R. C. The idea of history. Oxford, 1946, etc. (ABE, Pow, Front)
White, Hayden. The content of the form. Hopkins, 1990. (Pow, Front, ABE)
Two collections (out of dozens):
Gardiner, Patrick, ed. Theories of history. New York: Free Press, 1959. (ABE)
Burke, Peter. New perspectives on historical writing. Penn State, 2001. (ABE, Front, Pow)
() This principle has been stated by Quentin Skinner, among others. Meaning & context, which includes five reprinted essays by Skinner, several critical essays by others & a reply, offers an entrée into Skinner’s now ample œuvre. (ABE, Front, Pow)
() When Descartes prefaced his Meditations with a letter to the fathers at the Sorbonne (he did so with the aim of securing their approval), he had to keep in mind their likely understanding of his words. In letters to Regius, who was proposing theses at the University of Utrecht, Descartes advises him not only to avoid controversial claims (“man is an ens per accidens”, for example) but to adapt himself to the vocabulary of substantial forms in discussing the human soul. Rhetorically artful authors alter their manner of expression almost without thinking; here Descartes pulls the curtain aside a bit & shows us his tactics.
() Descartes turns this to advantage in the Principles. After stating a version of the cogito, he notes that “from the fact that we now exist it does not follow that we will exist in the next time following”—not, that is, without a cause of our conservation, which must be so powerful that it can conserve itself. That would be God, of course (Principles 1§21).
() Four recent books:
Gordon Baker, Katherine J. Morris. Descartes’s dualism. Routledge, 1995.
Marleen Rozemond. Descartes’s dualism. Harvard University Press, 1998.
Desmond M. Clarke. Descartes’s theory of mind. Oxford, 2003.
Lilli Alanen. Descartes’s concept of mind. Harvard, 2003.

LinkAugust 29, 2004 in History of Philosophy