Monday, May 12, 2008

Geuss, Raymond. "Richard Rorty at Princeton: Personal Recollections." ARION: A JOURNAL OF HUMANITIES AND THE CLASSICS 15.3 (2008).

On another one of our visits to the Elizabethtown Water Company, Dick described to me a new undergraduate course he wanted to give. It was to be called “An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy” and would sketch a continuous conversation from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the twentieth century without once naming any of the standard canonical figures. This would be a history of philosophy without any reference to Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, or J. S. Mill. I don't recall in all detail how the alternative story was to run, but I do remember very vividly that it was to start from Petrus Ramus. Dick had an extremely low opinion of Descartes as a philosopher, thinking of him as no more than a minor disciple of Petrus Ramus. I also remember that some of the high points were to be Paracelsus, the Cambridge Platonists, Thomas Reid, Fichte, and Hegel. I think the course was to end with Dewey, although I may be making that up. I thought this was a wonderful suggestion, for reasons, to be sure, that were probably rather different from those that motivated Dick, but there was one aspect of his prospective course that slightly bothered me, although I don't think I would at that time have been able to formulate my disquiet at all clearly. There was, as I would now formulate it, a slight unclarity in the conception of the course in that it conjoined two different views of the history of philosophy that Dick had not yet fully dissociated. On the one hand, there was a kind of debunking view of the canon as an unwarranted form of hero worship, singling out some one philosopher, often for highly adventitious reasons, and inappropriately attributing to him certain ideas, theses, arguments, or methods as his unique, original contribution, when these were actually invented by someone else, were minor variations of well known motifs, or were ideas that weren't in fact invented by anyone because they were “in the air” at the time. Descartes didn't “invent” the idea that the analytic method was the key to philosophy; Petrus Ramus did that (or perhaps: “no individual did that, because the idea was ‘in the air'”). So why read Descartes rather than Ramus? This view still seems to assume that we know what the key questions and the major developments in philosophy are, that it is unquestionably important to understand and assimilate these questions and issues in themselves and in their genesis if one wanted to understand philosophy at all, and that the only question is to whom these major developments were correctly to be attributed. The other idea is that at certain times in the past people called a certain kind of thinking and a resulting body of written work “philosophy” which from the point of view of the present seems highly eccentric in subject-matter or method. There is no such thing as a universal set of philosophical questions or issues; Paracelsus wasn't remotely interested in asking or answering questions like those we find “philosophical,” still lots of people at the time thought his work a paradigm of what a philosopher should be doing. The assumption here would be that the longer and more deeply one reflected on this fact, the more one would see that “philosophy” at different times and places referred to different clusters of intellectual activities, none of which formed a natural kind and none of which had any “inherent” claim to a monopoly on the “proper” use of the term “philosophy.” Doing a history in which Paracelsus figured centrally but not Descartes, could be seen as a part of trying to give a history, not so much of philosophy, as of historically differing conceptions of what philosophy was. Dick did not confuse these two things, and in fact I learned how to distinguish them clearly only from his 1984 paper, “The Historiography of Philosophy” (in Philosophy in History, Cambridge 1984). Rather, he was consciously relaxed about doing both as part of the same project, whether a book or a course of lectures. . . . Read the rest here:

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