Fr. Thomas Joseph White

Timothy B. Noone
Inaugural Lecture for the Fr. Kurt Pritzl O.P., Chair of Philosophy
Aquinas Hall Auditorium
April 21, 2017

It is my great honor and pleasure to deliver this inaugural lecture as the first permanent tenant of the Fr. Kurt Priztl, O.P. Chair in Philosophy. All of us in the School of Philosophy loved Kurt very much and remember him regularly in our daily conversation and deliberations.  For that reason, if not for other reasons as well, we are quite grateful for the generosity and practical wisdom of the donor of the Chair, who decided to honor Kurt in this fashion, having worked with him personally in providing other resources for promoting the advancement of the School.

Perhaps the best way to honor Fr. Kurt in the course of this lecture is to discuss something that would be of philosophical interest to him were he still alive.  Fr. Kurt as well as many of the rest of us in the School of Philosophy concern ourselves primarily with the history of philosophy in our teaching and research.  We conceive of ourselves, more particularly, as engaged in an enterprise not too often recognized as valuable in the wider philosophical community, namely, engaging in philosophical reflection and analysis in and through the study of the history of philosophy.

A few words of clarification upon this point would be in order.  What we have in mind as we engage in our activities of research, teaching and publication is that the history of philosophy provides us with incomparably important materials for philosophical reflection and hence that the materials we study from the past are philosophically valuable in addition to whatever value they may possess regarding the advancement of historical knowledge on particular subjects.

The question that arises from such an outlook is the central query driving the present lecture: is the history of philosophy really something of value to and worthwhile for the pursuit of philosophy, or is it largely a philosophical aside, something of value for the garnering of historical, but not philosophical, knowledge?  To put the same question somewhat more pointedly: what good is knowledge of the history of philosophy for someone seeking philosophical knowledge?

To answer this question, I propose proceeding in three stages: first, we shall address the kind of learning history is and identify its salient characteristics; second, we must examine the nature of philosophy and articulate the kind of discipline it is; third, and most importantly, we shall turn to the compound notion of the history of philosophy, exploring how the history of philosophy fits into or relates to philosophy, if indeed it does.  Although the stages of our inquiry are now clear, the thesis for which I shall argue is not yet.  That thesis may be stated quite briefly: the history of philosophy is not superfluous to the study and practice of philosophy, but essential and necessary.  The essential character of the relation between philosophy and its history is not only evident in the education and intellectual development of philosophers during their formation, but even in the practice of philosophical inquiry.   As we shall presently see, the thesis being argued for is a controversial one, even among those who take a serious interest in the history of philosophy; indeed, it is the minority report among contemporary practitioners of the history of philosophy and is opposed even by our friend and colleague in the broad sense, Prof. Jorge Gracia of the University of Buffalo, who makes a case for the opposite claim in his excellent book entitled Philosophy and its History, arguing rather that the history of philosophy is not necessary for philosophy, though useful to it.[1]


Let us start with the concept of history, a concept often articulated and delineated by practitioners of the historical craft in connection with developing historical methodologies and techniques.  Our interest in comparison with theirs, however, is much more pedestrian, even touristic; historians might, in fact, well think our observations are too broad and simple for their own purposes.  Be that as it may, the place for us to begin is with commonplace English expressions found in everyday and academic life, such as 'history tells us' or 'history shows', or 'history teaches us', etc.  What is meant here by 'history'?

We must acknowledge that, taken out of a particular context, such expressions are polysemous; their meaning in a particular case of utterance is determined by context.  But taken in general, prescinding from special contexts, these expressions call to mind by the term 'history' at least three possible objects to which they can and regularly do refer: the actual events of the past, what I shall call subsequently the res gestae; the surviving historical record of such past events, which I shall label the memoria; and, drawing upon the memoria, the account, interpretation or relation of such events as given by present-day or past historians, what I shall henceforth call the narratio.  Before we make more detailed observations, let us see what properties 'history' in these three senses have and how they are, generally speaking, related.

The spheres of history picked out by the different senses are, at least to some extent and perhaps surprisingly, dynamic.  The res gestae are, of course, immobile and fixed; barring strange views regarding God, causality, and time, such as those associated with the Augustinian theologian Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1350), we may take it that not even God can bring it about that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon in 44 B.C.  Memoria and narratio, however, are plastic.  For one thing the memoria is subject to increase and decrease; it can be increased by archaeological digs, discoveries of 'lost' manuscripts (or, more often, the discovery of hitherto unacknowledged copies of known works), and so forth.  But the memoria can be decreased by acts of war (Constantinople, 1204 and 1453; Leuven, 1914 and 1940; and Muenster, 1944-1945), fires (Alexandria, unknown date; Al Sa'eh Library, Tropoli, 2014), floods (Florence, 1966), earthquakes (Lisbon, 1755), and engineering errors connected to the extensions of subways (Koeln, 2009), among other things.  To the extent that narrationes are dependent upon memoriae, they too are dynamic, changing at least in part in their comprehensiveness accordingly as the evidence available grows or shrinks.  Yet both memoria and narratio have a further element to contribute: productions of memoria or (re-)presentations thereof as well as narrationes are themselves res gestae, the deeds done that are the subjects of inquiry for future historians.

The res gestae require, moreover, some additional elaboration.  When we speak of 'past events', we mean to be quite broad in our scope, embracing not only past physical acts, but acts of thought, whether expressed verbally or not, speech acts  - the entirety of the human past if you will. That means that the res gestae actually includes a whole host of things not liable to be, or perhaps not able to be, recorded and registered in the memoria. The rapidity of the heartbeat of Duns Scotus as he placed the last scrap of parchment into his personal copy of the Ordinatio, or for that matter my own blood pressure at the outset of the present lecture are part of the res gestae, but there are, to my knowledge, no recorded elements associated with them. Hence, the first gap that should strike us is that history in the sense of the res gestae may not be available at all, or not available in a reasonably complete fashion, in the memoria.  The selection or even deliberate elimination of parts of the res gestae into the form or the content of what is preserved in the memoria may, of course, owe its origin to something other than technological limitations or the accidents of circumstance.  When I worked, while a graduate student, as an officer for the now defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, my own inspection of former President Gerald Ford, an entirely chance event not following protocol or proper security procedures, was to my utter amazement introduced into the annals of the Service under the suspicious title "PFI-TOR welcomes President Ford: Inspector Noone does the Honors" precisely in order to construe, for internal political purposes, the whole event as something planned and expected. Such distortions, often deliberate but sometimes unintended, are an inevitable feature of the memoria and require careful analysis and safeguards on the part of historians.

What interests us foremost are the narrationes and their particular character within the scope of the history of philosophy, but even the memoria requires a few more remarks.  The repository of primary source records, usually manuscripts, preserve whatever is available to contemporary scholars of pre-modern philosophy.  These manuscripts are often multiple copies of the same work or perhaps the same set of lecture courses.  These copies need to be sifted through and the text they contain edited to prove useful even to most other scholars; such editing usually involves careful consideration of the reading presented by the different witnesses, supplying the text with punctuation and pertinent sources.  The product of such labors is a critical edition but nearly as important nowadays, because of the decline of the knowledge of ancient languages, is the translation of such an edition into a modern language such as English, inasmuch as that is how many, perhaps most, philosophers will access the texts.  Among the works, then, that historians of philosophy produce are such critical editions and translations and these must be accounted as part of the increase to the memoria, though the introductions to such editions may well be concerned with doctrinal or historical matters surrounding the text and thus constitute narrationes.

One of the reasons that I have bothered to clarify these three dimensions of history is not simply to tabulate the range of activities in which historians of philosophy engage, but also to correct what I deem to be a mistake in the analysis of Gracia. He only distinguishes, without using the terminology I do, between history in the sense of the res gestae and narrationes; but that leaves him with a problem when he notices that there is a gap between the actual historical occurrences and what, in principle, a historian may reconstruct from the surviving records.  To cope with this problem, he allows what I consider to be a potentially pernicious terminological latitude; the historian, he tells us, does not really deal with the historical author (understanding by this the author as an entity pertaining to the res gestae), but the 'pseudo-historical' author (i.e., the author as available to us through the memoria).[2]  Now the very sound of this is odd, for in the history of philosophy we really do have to do with some authors who, for whatever reason, have posed as other persons or have been misidentified by earlier historians with another known historical person  -- Pseudo-Dionysius the Areaopagite and Pseudo-Scotus come to mind -- and hence we need the 'pseudo' prefix for very different purposes.  But also the terminological license makes the reader, especially the neophyte, think that there is some kind of falsity or groundless claim inherent in the objects of historical inquiry.  If we make the threefold distinction of the senses involved in the term 'history' that I have proposed, we may dispense with any appeal to 'pseudo' authors in Gracia's sense; all we know about the past depends upon the surviving memoria and that is no more inherently fallacious or problematic than observing that all we know about a present-day crime is what the surviving evidence indicates.


If we follow the sage advice of Cicero, himself a considerable historian of philosophy as well as a source of information about ancient Greek philosophical teaching, philosophy is well described as the knowledge of all things human and divine, involving the knowledge of the underlying causes of all things (Cicero, De finibus, II.1.1)  Yet never far from Cicero's mind is the practical as well as the theoretical value of philosophy: philosophy is the knowledge that allows us to live happily and fruitfully -- we would say 'flourish -- as individuals and as a community; that is the chief reason why Cicero insists that knowledge of philosophy be found in the ideal orator that he constructs in his De oratore: such a person will speak well on all subjects but with a depth of wisdom not to be found in the commonplace speaker.  To teach, please, and persuade along the lines suggested by Cicero became, in the hands of St. Augustine in his De doctrina christiana, the ideal for the Christian sage and, indirectly, the ideal for the medieval theologian.  It is curious to note that Cicero only allows one other subject besides philosophy and its study to be labeled a magistra vitae in his writings and that is history.

But, as Gracia points out, we seem to be confronted with a dilemma when trying to relate philosophy, understood as universal knowledge of all things, to history: philosophy is either entirely concerned with what is present to all and ever present, but then the views of past philosophers are largely, if not wholesalely, irrelevant, or philosophy is mainly or wholly constituted by its historical unfolding, but then there can be no perennial questions and answers -- rather instead merely historically conditioned and conditional attempts to answer historically contingent questions.  Some historians of philosophy gladly embrace the latter alternative, claiming the job of the historian of philosophy is merely descriptive, not normative or evaluative.

The first of horn of this dilemma Gracia calls 'incompatibilism' and its basic claim is that the history of philosophy is as irrelevant to the practice of philosophy as the history of astronomy is to the research of contemporary astronomy or the history of chemistry to current research in chemistry.  Arguments for this position can be readily produced; first, the observation that the propositions formulated in the history of philosophy are concerned with particulars of time and place expressed in the past tense, whereas knowing who advanced what view of a given philosophical issue is of no concern for those treating a philosophical problem; and second, the independence of philosophical from historical discourse  -- the former is not concerned with historical evidence, but the features of things and our experiences, in marked contrast to the focus of the latter.  As Gracia notes, moreover, this attitude towards the study of philosophy's history is one associated with positivism and its allied movements in twentieth century philosophy, though it is also found in early modern rationalists such as Descartes as well as many contemporary philosophers in analytic circles and even strands of neo-Thomist traditions.[3]  Some among the last mentioned would seem to be proud of their ignorance of much of philosophical history, always exempting certain favorites in that history of course, striking an attitude reminiscent of Tertullian's remarks about Athens and Jerusalem: what, pray tell, has history to do with philosophy?

The second horn of the dilemma posed, which Gracia labels 'historicist', has equally plausible claims on our attention.  Quite obviously, philosophical discussions, however current they may be, are part of the res gestae as soon as they are conducted and cannot be intelligibly divorced from their immediate context, that is to say, writings or conversations belonging to the recent history of philosophy.  Indeed, anyone who has attended a general philosophical conference in the last thirty years well knows this phenomenon: one enters a large room in some city's hotel filled with a number of persons working on some problem in contemporary philosophy, but unless one has read the most recent articles on, say, Jones's reply to Smith's reformulation of the Gettier problem, whereby Jones has made it out, in terminology all of his/her own invention of course, that Gettier's barn example only defeats certain versions of reliablism and evidentialism, he or she cannot hope to follow the paper being presented, let alone its subsequent discussion.  The problem here is not merely one of technical terminology  -- philosophy cannot reasonably be expected to get along without it -- but rather that the recent history of philosophy, to wit, the Jones-Smith dialogue, is entirely germane and essential to following the present discussion.  The historicist seems justified, accordingly, in arguing that no such discussion can be held, in principle, without referring to historical sources, even though they were produced last week.

Gracia thinks such observations, though certainly true, actually don't advance the case of the historicist very far, for the claims about present-day discussions of the sort described would warrant only the study of the most recent portions of the history of philosophy, and such a limited approach to philosophical history is not what most historicists are interested in supporting.[4]  To show how the position of the historicists may be advanced further, Gracia cites the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor who wants to argue that philosophy is ineluctably tied to its history inasmuch as contemporary thought always presents a problematic whose terms can be called into question only in and through understanding their historical origins and the history of philosophy more generally.[5]  Though, as we shall presently see, Gracia finds this more refined and broader version of the historicists' position wanting, too, our own inquiry will return in some ways to their views, for perhaps their diagnosis of philosophy's situation indicates something essential about philosophy after all.

Arguments for historicists' positions are to some extent tied to conceptions of philosophy emphasizing dialectic, dialogue, or cultural context for the articulation of, or unfolding of, the history of philosophy.  All three of these are considered by Gracia as grounds for the historicists' approach to philosophical history, but are rejected because, first, the concept of dialectic in such a context is itself committed to certain metaphysical positions, i.e., Hegelian ones, that cannot be considered normative a priori for philosophical history as a whole; second, the concept of dialogue invoked is fundamentally flawed because bilateral exchange, a pre-condition of genuine dialogue, is not possible when one party cannot reply; and, third, cultural context, though acknowledged as important for properly historical investigations, would seem to entail a relativism inconsistent with the discovery and articulation of philosophical truth.[6]

What Gracia ends up maintaining is a view of the relationship between philosophy and history grounded in what he terms a modified culturalist position, one that views history as useful to philosophy, but not merely pragmatically useful:

The justification and value of the history of philosophy, then, rests primarily on the cultural dimensions of the philosophical enterprise, which are revealed in the relative and particular character of some philosophical propositions and in the cultural nature of language.  Of course, the pragmatic justifications given earlier also underline the value of the study of the history of philosophy.  There is no question that the study of the history of philosophy can serve as a practicum for the art of reasoning, as a source of philosophical information and truth, and may help us see areas where we may have gone wrong.  And we must accept too that the history of philosophy can serve as inspiration to philosophers as well as add persuasive support to philosophical arguments and views. ... But it is ultimately in the need to transcend cultural provincialism and to understand the terms we use in discourse that we find the indisputable grounds of the importance of the history of philosophy for philosophy.[7]

Once again Gracia affirms the outstanding utility of the history of philosophy for philosophy, but, given the need to transcend provincialism that he acknowledges and the vicissitudes of philosophical discourse at any one time and place, this means that philosophers must select elements of philosophy's history upon which to focus their attention since "... their aim is not the complete reconstruction of the philosophical past, but the advancement of philosophy."[8]  In light of what he says elsewhere, moreover, that 'reconstruction of the philosophical past' must be done by historians of philosophy who take a properly philosophical approach, as opposed to a historical approach, to philosophy's history.  Consequently, even philosophers who are, so to say, pure philosophers or ones entirely contemporary in their concerns stand in need of the support of another set of philosophers who make their primary object of study philosophy's past, albeit the latter's work is not to be understood as philosophy properly speaking, though it does serve philosophical purposes.

Well, why can't we make do with this picture of philosophy and its relationship to history?  There is certainly a role within it for the history of philosophy, a role that makes such history an important part of the philosophical enterprise in some sense, though not an absolutely necessary one.  Furthermore, this outlook eschews any form of cultural and historical relativism and keeps philosophy focused upon the perennial questions that are, in any sound view of the matter, the substance of what philosophy is about.

My answer to the question just posed is that the nature of philosophy both as a praxis and as a techne requires that the history of philosophy be much more intimate to, indeed constitutive of, philosophy than Gracia's portrayal allows.  Philosophy is, in a certain sense, a performance, a praxis, much in the way that a musical or dramatic performance is a praxis.  Furthermore, as historians of philosophy have often remarked, pre-modern philosophy usually expresses its self-understanding in terms of a parallel with or extension of its own account of the arts and crafts, in Greek technai.  Whether we wish to think of philosophy's product as a performance or as external works, such as philosophical poems, treatises, commentaries, classroom disputations, or written dialogues, we are committed to saying that philosophy has built into its very notion the learning of techniques, procedures, and expressions that can only be done and learned in and through entering into a certain training (paideia) through which the techne that is philosophy is mastered.  Such a mastery of the art of philosophy is naturally expressed in and productive of outstanding performances and their literary and historical products, if any, but it cannot be acquired, if this view of philosophy's nature is even approximately correct, simply by isolated study and thought on the part of individuals.  There is an irreducibly social or communitarian aspect to the acquisition and perfection of philosophical knowledge, a communitarian aspect that encompasses not only our present-day fellow philosophers, but the philosophers of the past.

We may see the point being made here easily enough if we consider momentarily the well known example of Aristotle's writings: in the case of all of his major philosophical works, witness the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, the Physics, the De anima, and the Metaphysics, he begins with reviewing the outlook of his predecessors.  Stating his own philosophical positions, which are in terms of the histories he reviews for his readers quite distinctive, Aristotle finds to be impossible without couching them in terms relevant to his predecessors and near-contemporaries.  The analogy with the arts is quite pertinent and strong in this regard: imagine trying to learn and practice carpentry, music, or painting, locked up in your own room and not bothering with the effort, discipline, and practice gained through association with a master carpenter, musician, or painter.  Originality is, to be sure, achievable in certain regards, but it is expressible and intelligible only in reference to the standard practices of the art.  The art, moreover, is entirely communitarian in nature and, to the extent it endures through time, traditional in the ancient sense; its standards and canons of excellence are nothing other than the built up wisdom of predecessors, subject to change and modification in various ways but not able to be wholly replaced without loss of the thing that is the art.

Like all analogies my own is, of course, defective, even if it also instructive.  Certain philosophers, especially modern ones, would be declined to deny their dependency upon predecessors or earlier ideas, at least in any positive vein.  Theirs, it would seem, is an outstanding genius that simply begins with their own novel ideas.  We might think in this connection of Descartes, who would insist upon this point, or perhaps Rousseau.  Yet careful consideration of such cases, through an exercise in the history of philosophy, yields up a conclusion opposed to their claims.  To take the more egregious case mentioned, Descartes's major works borrow generously from earlier philosophers, though without explicit acknowledgement.  As Gilson showed over a century ago,[9] very little in the Discours or the Meditationes is not indebted to a whole range of authors, mainly Scholastic ones though more remotely Arabic and ancient ones; Descartes's originality, which is quite real, consists in his manner of organizing and deploying these materials rather than in the invention of the arguments and principles involved.  The aims of such utter originality may be quite high, but the humble origins are quite evident to someone willing to do some careful historical investigation.

So where does that leave us in terms of the dilemma posed by Gracia?  What I am counter-proposing is a trilemma: yes, we can think of philosophy as an abstract form of knowledge, formulated in propositions and prescinding from historical expressions and context, but that is like saying that music is just a series of mathematical relations and formulae  -- no actual musician would learn to play music that way, though admittedly I did know a pianist, actually a good friend of myself and Fr. Kurt, who would in his more obnoxious moments pretend this was the case by yelling out cardinal numbers for notes and even chord patterns; yes, we can think of philosophy as just its historical manifestations and socially concrete settings, but that is to pretend that the perennial issues that philosophers deal with just incidentally recur and have nothing essentially to do with each other; or we can think of it in the third manner I have suggested: as analogous to a craft that, on the one hand, has its own canons of excellence that are of overarching importance, but on the other hand is always in the world in its historical manifestations and particularity.  If we take this third approach, the history of philosophy is essential to understanding philosophy much as the historical ways of doing the arts are part of what it means to learn the art.  This need not entail cultural or theoretical relativism any more than learning music in a given historical situation entails that the same type of chord progression with the same musical form cannot be reproduced by another musician in another culture a hundred years or more later.

The History of Philosophy

In the proposed perspective, the history of philosophy has a clear enough role; in learning its history, young philosophers are learning the very substance of their subject.  That would certainly explain why philosophy, considered in the main over last two and half millennia, has kept an abiding interest in its history in a manner that other disciplines, such as modern physics, chemistry, and astronomy have largely not.  Again, an exception among contemporary disciplines here would be history, which regularly returns to master practitioners to have its younger students learn both the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches.

Gracia's book has a remarkably comprehensive account of the range of approaches taken by those studying the history of philosophy, listing among the philosophical approaches to the history of philosophy the nostalgic, the romantic, the scholarly, and the doxographical in addition to historical and polemical approaches.  His account of these approaches is quite useful and propaideutic to his own presentation of what he deems to be a proper approach: one focusing on the formulation, development, and solutions to a philosophical problem or issue.  Naturally, his example is the metaphysical problem of individuation, a problem that he has studied for over forty years.[10]  Indeed, his presentation of the philosophical approach to philosophical history picks out just its essential characteristics: narrationes, to use our terminology, written in a philosophical history of philosophy should concentrate on articulating philosophers' arguments and ideas, necessarily evaluating them for validity and soundness, pointing out where key premises are questionable, and exploring implications for them that go beyond the explicit wording of philosophical texts.  Here Gracia is quite critical, rightly so in my judgement, of those who see philosophical historians as merely describing historical expressions of philosophy.  In fact, I could add a further example to his own of the phenomenon of properly philosophical evaluation that enters into the primary objects of the historians of philosophy; quite often, in deciding which reading to take from several witnesses to a philosophical text the correct decision rests on the philosophical grounds of what makes the arguments advanced in the text work, for the witnesses all serve up a reading that makes grammatical sense and hence could be taken in principle.  Evaluation enters, then, into the very documentation of the memoria for philosophical history in the form of critical editions.

For our purposes, however, what would be more suitable than presenting a model approach to philosophical history is to give some examples of how the study of the history of philosophy has had a positive impact on the practice of contemporary philosophy, while its neglect has had the opposite effect, before we conclude with some general remarks about how philosophy conceived as a praxis impacts how we think about the history of philosophy.

When I took my first philosophy course over forty years ago, myself and the other students in the class were put through a book entitled Philosophical Problems and Arguments: An Introduction (originally published in 1968; ours was the second edition of 1974) by Professors James W. Cornman and Keith Lehrer, both fairly high-level analytic philosophers of epistemology.  The book in retrospect is curious; that alone shows the positive influence of the history of philosophy upon philosophy.  The book starts out with a solid 30 pages of formal logic: the inferential rules of sentential logic with truth tables in footnotes, if I recall, and fairly simple arguments to symbolize and 'critique', i.e., to determine which follow or not the rules of formal logic.  Thereafter each of the problems of philosophy is treated in turn: the existence of God, knowledge and skepticism, free will, the mind-body problem, and the problem of a justifying an ethical standard.  In each of these cases, students were expected to analyze extremely short excerpts from historical figures, such as Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant, or contemporary philosophers by applying the rules of the formal logic learnt and encouraged to find something problematic in the texts. No philosophical text longer than three paragraphs was anywhere to be found.

While perhaps this was not the worst possible introduction to philosophy, it is certainly not one I would recommend.  What is heartening is that no one would consider today dealing with the history of philosophy even in an introductory textbook with such short shrift.  Take the first problem we studied: the existence of God.  Even the most analytically inclined contemporary treatment of such a problem would feel obliged to consider not only Prof. Plantinga's work, but several interpretations of St. Anselm's arguments, thanks to the work of Prof. Hartshorne, a number of versions of St. Thomas's proofs, and in a better volume some version of the sort of modal argument one finds in the writings of Duns Scotus or Leibniz.  Such a 'historically-oriented' approach would have been frowned upon thirty or forty years ago, but the historically uninformed or underinformed approach is now itself recognized as unprofessional, which, indeed, it was.  But the point is the 'was'.

Philosophy's history has furthermore gotten quite a bit of 'press' from the work of well known philosophers late twentieth century philosophers who regularly draw upon historical sources for the formulation of their own views.  Prof. Taylor's work is an example already introduced, but Prof. MacIntryre's writings have create, I think it fair to say, a whole revival of contemporary interest in the history of traditional ethical thinking precisely as a resource for doing moral philosophy in the contemporary setting.

In the philosophy of religion and moral philosophy we find positive influences, quite general in scope, of the study of the history of philosophy upon contemporary philosophy.  I dare say such influence is salutary in the long run, even if the partisans of certain philosophical approaches find it discomfiting to be asked to address issues that they formerly neglected and believed to be well neglected.  To state clearly, however, the way one nowadays must, the moral principles differentiating deontological, utilitarian, virtue ethics, and natural law approaches to moral decision-making cannot be fairly thought to be a step backwards, though once again I believe most professional philosophers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as, for example, the late Prof. Cornman who left us in 1978, would be genuinely surprised to see the profession move in the way it has.  The 'pressure' for the change is coming directly or indirectly from the study of the history of philosophy.

But I promised, you will recall, some negative examples; these, I am afraid, are rather abundant. To keep matters clear and straightforward, let us take some notorious examples from the history of formal logic. When Lords (then Professors) Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead produced the first edition of their Principia mathematica in 1910, they put forth, among many other things, seventeen rules for what they called the propositional logic. They seemed to be of the opinion that such rules in the form laid out in their system and shown to be self-consistent was either work being done for the first time or, at most, anticipated only in part by the logicians and mathematicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth: in his Summa logicae, written no later than 1325, William of Ockham, the great Franciscan philosopher, produced a quite similar set of rules, showing how they were related, albeit in Latin and not in symbols.  Now I am not of the opinion that nothing is to be gained by symbolization, nor am I trying to claim that the aims of Ockham, who was the strictest of Aristotelian logicans, and those of Russell and Whitehead coincided -- Ockham would have had very little sympathy with their efforts to reduce mathematics to logic -- but one must admit that the fact that human beings twice had to invent the rules of what we now call sentential logic because the first achievement was forgotten is a human embarrassment, not to mention an object lesson in neglecting the history of philosophy.[11]

Unfortunately, the history of formal logic is rather rich in forgetfulness.  Take poor C.I. Lewis -- the famous American logician not the English writer C.S. Lewis -- whose work in modal logic is considered the foundation for all subsequent modern modal logic.  His series of logical systems, S1 through S5, are wonderful examples of carefully developed logical principles, capable of yielding powerful results in mathematics, science, and philosophy.  Unfortunately, they are also reiterative.  Walter Burley and John Buridan had what we call S4 and S5 described by no later than 1350, though Burley's version of S5 goes back to 1327.[12] Once again, Lewis's efforts were no doubt worthwhile; the pity is that he had to do it at all, for no one could get through Cambridge or Oxford universities in the late fourteenth centuries without knowing the very rules of inference he articulated for what, in all probability, he thought was the first time.  To take another example of formal logic, in his Dialectica, Abelard calls into question the reliability of modus ponens, trying to distinguish strict from material implication in just the way that C.I. Lewis needed to do in developing his modal systems.  Unlike Burley and Lewis later on, Abelard thought that a natural deduction system should avoid modalizing inference so he toys with the questions that logicians in the wake of Lewis will be discussing around 1950, namely, what are the implications of having an impossibility in a set of propositions and does an impossible claim entail anything or nothing.  This kind of thinking, directly related to the development of the so-called free logic, is now discussed in terms of the principle of 'explosion', a principle that Abelard mentions, though rejects, in the Dialectica, a work available in 1119 at the latest.[13]

But enough of such examples. The history of philosophy must be done and done well for the integrity and progress of the discipline; forgetfulness in this case clearly means a loss, and if my hypothesis about the nature of philosophy is correct, necessarily so.  What I am calling into question here is the whole tendency to separate philosophy and its history, to consider matters such that a term like 'systematic' picks out what is just 'philosophy' and a term such as 'history' (or more often 'historical' or, more disdainfully, 'antiquarian') is reserved for a less than properly philosophical enterprise called the history of philosophy, a distinct discipline, however useful it may be in limited respects to 'philosophers'.

I shall conclude my remarks today with a point that Gilson makes in connection with philosophical history that reinforces the notion that philosophy is both a praxis and a techne.  When we start to study philosophy, we are lucky if there is anywhere in the world a master of philosophy at the time we live.  Judging our own contemporaries is doubtless a difficult task, but would any of us venture the claim that there is, among living philosophers, a mind to compare to that of Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, or Duns Scotus, to mention nothing of Plato or Aristotle?  If we are to encounter a masterful philosophical mind, then, we likely have no choice but to study the surviving writings of such a philosophical master.  Yet even the study of philosophical problems would yield an equivalent conclusion, for, quite often, a philosophical problem has lost its focus or its most plausible solutions in the course of the history of philosophy.  If we begin simply with what contemporary philosophers would say about intellectual knowledge, for example, we would start with propositions as the primary units, but that is a very questionable philosophical approach; only the careful study of philosophy's history can correct the strong propensity to take the philosophical issues of the present as the philosophical issues. Indeed, it is precisely this tendency that leads persons to ask me and other historians of philosophy 'do you have any materials in what you study that could help us with our questions'? Notice that behind such questions there is no serious interest in asking whether our questions are the right questions. The history of philosophy done in such a manner is bound to be anachronistic and distorted, taking historical materials and forcing them into the Procrustean bed of contemporary questions and their answers.  But it also means that, if we allow the contemporary scene to direct our investigations, the history of philosophy cannot teach its own lessons to contemporary philosophers, for they have inured themselves against the possibility of taking seriously any philosophers prior to the very recent past.

Some objections to what I have said should be considered, if only briefly and as preliminary for our subsequent discussion. If we take seriously the present proposal, the history of philosophy would be as important, perhaps more important, than the study of contemporary issues in philosophy. That seems odd. Furthermore, if we take this business seriously, we would have to do massive amounts of work just to be philosophically well informed.  To this second point, I would add a further refinement in support of the contention.  Ten years ago or so, I did not even know much about philosophy in the Scholastic tradition after about 1550.  Now, as we know thanks to the research of Jacob Schmutz and his website 'Scholasticon', it turns out that there are over 2,200 authors flourishing in the period from 1500 until 1800, writing mainly in Latin, continuing the Scholastic manner of philosophizing, and occasionally replying or critiquing the more well known modern philosophy found in Descartes and his successors. Does all of this not seem a bit intimidating?

The answer to this last question is 'yes'.  But to reply to the first and second criticisms at once: we must remember that philosophy is inherently a communitarian enterprise.  Not all of us have to be historians of philosophy, though all of us should read at least the major figures in the history of philosophy in order to gain a genuinely philosophical education.  The present proposal does not entail that we all make the history of philosophy our specialization; it just means that we recognize that those who do are working in philosophy as well.  Yes, taking the history of philosophy seriously does mean a great deal of work, but as our researches in that history have so far disclosed, the work is worth it and pays off in philosophical benefits.  Is it possible there is a hitherto unknown great philosopher among the 2,200 documented ones in Schmutz's collection of authors?  Of course!  That just means that we literally do not know all that can be known about philosophy's history and probably never will.  Certainly our ignorance does not allow us to be dismissive of the philosophical value of the material Schmutz has identified without ever having studied it.

Philosophy and history are, I hope I have made clear, intimately connected, though distinct disciplines.  Philosophy cannot be studied without inquiry into its history, for that history, however well or poorly known, sets in part at least the very standards for the discipline.  I close with the hope that Fr. Kurt would welcome this outlook upon history, philosophy, and the history of philosophy.

Thank you for kind attention.


[1] Jorge J.E. Gracia, Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 107.

[2] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 200-201.

[3] Gracia, Philosophy and it History, 123-129; the example of a neo-Thomist cited by Gracia is Henry B. Veatch, whose Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1974), 3, expresses disdain for the history of philosophy as opposed to philosophy.

[4] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 111.

[5] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 112; he cites Charles Taylor, "Philosophy and its History," in Philosophy in History: Essays in the Historiography of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 21.

[6] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 151-168.

[7] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 170.

[8] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 170.

[9] Étienne Gilson, Liberté chez Descartes et la théologie (Paris: F. Alcan, 1913).

[10] Gracia, Philosophy and its History, 223-337.

[11] For an overview, see Philotheus Boehner, Medieval Logic: An Outline of its Development from 1250- c. 1400 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1952), 52-75; Ivan Boh, "Consequences," in The Cambridge History of Later Mediaeval Philosophy, ed. Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, and Jan Pinborg (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 300-314.

[12] Simo Knuutila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy (London/New York: Routledge, 1993), 162-175.

[13] See Christopher Martin, "Something Amazing about the Peripatetic of Pallet: Abaelard's Development of Boethius' Account of Conditional Propositions," Argumentation 1 (1987), 419-436.