Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: Philosophy and "Relevance"

The temptation of "relevance," which today in academia, I'm afraid, is becoming more and more equivalent to "money making" and corporate ties, is addressed interestingly in this column from The New York Times by philosopher Justine E. H. Smith, particularly with regards to today's much-misunderstood discipline of philosophy. If the history of theology or "religion" has anything to say about this, it's that he's on the right track. The painful pandering to the fluid and fashionable idea of "relevance" drained the formerly "mainstream" Protestant churches of their distinctiveness and depth (or, dare I say, "relevance?") throughout the 20th century. Thus the oddness of the continued title "mainstream," which I put into quotes because the so-called mainstream Protestant churches are anything but mainstream today, having been reduced to the relative fringes as those Protestant Christians who retained any distinctive Christian identity drifted over to the [at least relative] orthodoxy maintained by evangelical and fundamentalist denominations or communities.

Philosophy, still recovering, as Smith notes in his essay, from the surprise divorce by what we today call the natural sciences, has some lessons to learn here. As a theologian (and an historian, and, by some reckonings, a philosopher, I suppose) I am very much in sympathy to Smith's underlying value or point, which is "the unity of truth" or of knowledge. There's just one Reality here, and the sometimes idiotic separation of the study of that into our various disciplines with their distinct methodologies has led too many to forget that, thus wasting our time on similarly idiotic illusions like the so-called "science vs. religion" conflict. That's part of the refuse of the past, whether or not most people know it today.
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The Flight of Curiosity

May 22, 2011, 5:35 pm

Must one be endowed with curiosity in order to become a philosopher?

Today, in the academic realm, at least, the answer is surely and regrettably “no.” When a newly minted philosopher goes on the job market, her primary task is to show her prospective colleagues how perfectly focused she has been in graduate school, and to conceal her knowledge of any topic (Shakespeare’s sonnets, classical Chinese astronomy, the history of pigeon breeding) that does not fall within the current boundaries of the discipline.

But how were these boundaries formed in the first place? Did they spring from the very essence of philosophy, a set of core attributes present at inception, forever fixed and eternal? The answer to that latter question, is also “no.” What appears to us today to be a core is only what is left over after a centuries-long process by which the virtue of curiosity — once nearly synonymous with philosophy — migrated into other disciplines, both scientific and humanistic. As this migration was occurring, many curiosity-driven activities — such as insect-collecting and star-gazing, long considered at least tributaries of philosophy — were downgraded to the status of mere hobbies. This loss of curiosity has played an important but little noticed role in the widespread perception that professional philosophy has become out of touch with the interests of the broader society.

Let me rush to qualify what no doubt sounds like a harsh assessment of the state of my own discipline. I am certainly not saying that, as individuals, philosophers will not often be “curious people,” in the very best sense of that phrase, but only that they are habituated by their discipline to make a sharp distinction between their sundry interests and what they do professionally, as philosophers. The distinction is as clear as that between Richard Feynman’s contribution to theoretical physics and his enjoyment of Tuvan throat-singing.

Today’s natural scientist easily distinguishes his own work not only from his hobbies, but also from the activity of his pseudoscientific counterpart. When we look back in history, however, it becomes difficult to keep this distinction in view, for it has often happened that false beliefs have produced significant experimental results and have led to real discoveries. It is no less difficult to separate the history either of science or of pseudoscience from what I will dare to call the “real” history of philosophy, for until very recently, what we now call science was not merely of interest to philosophers, but was in fact constitutive of philosophy. In fact, it was not called science at all, but rather natural philosophy.

Thus, tellingly, among the articles in the Philosophical Transactions of 1666, the first year of the journal’s publication, we find titles such as “Of a Considerable Load-Stone Digged Out of the Ground in Devonshire,” and “Observations Concerning Emmets or Ants, Their Eggs, Production, Progress, Coming to Maturity, Use, &c.” Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers studying the properties of magnetism continued to refer to their area of interest as “the magnetical philosophy,” and as late as 1808 John Dalton published “A New System of Chemical Philosophy.” A year later Jean-Baptiste Lamarck brought out his “Philosophie zoologique.” Yet by the early 20th century, this usage of the word philosophy had entirely vanished. What happened?

One of the charges brought against Socrates in Plato’s great dialogue, “The Apology,” is that he “speculated about the heavens above, and searched into the earth beneath.” Today philosophers are more likely to pick out the other charges — sophism, corrupting the youth, atheism — as most relevant to our understanding of the Socratic-Platonic revolution in the history of Western thought. But what are we to make of this charge of curiosity? It may be that in restyling themselves as “scientists,” natural philosophers or curiosi have succeeded in the past few hundred years in overcoming their bad reputation. Little awareness lingers at this point (excepting, say, the occasional nuclear meltdown, when we start to feel we’ve gone too far too fast) of what might have made the activity of looking into the earth and the heavens a crime.

This restyling occurred over the course of the early modern period, at just the same time as questions that were once purely speculative — concerning, for instance, the nature of life, or the causes of planetary orbits — came to be much more tractable than before, thanks to the increasing mathematization of the sciences, and to newly emerging standards for scientific observation and experimentation. Their new tractability by scientists left the philosophers to establish themselves on their own. But what exactly is left over for philosophy to do once the earth, the heavens, the animals and plants, are turned over to this new breed of scientists to explain?

There will certainly always be a place for epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. But in order for a theory of knowledge to tell us much, it needs to draw on examples of knowledge of something or other. And so philosophy agrees to a partial reconciliation with the “sciences” some years after its divorce from “natural philosophy.” Philosophy comes back to physics with the philosophy of physics, and to biology with the philosophy of biology, even though physics and biology are no longer part of philosophy itself.

Now surely it is a good thing that today there are, say, helminthologists, who can devote all their time to the study of worms without having to worry about how these creatures fit into the cosmic order, or into God’s design, as you wish. But if helminthology has cleared away the cosmological dross that weighed it down back when it was part of natural philosophy, philosophy meanwhile may have lost something that once helped to fuel it: a curiosity about the world in all its detail, a desire to know everything encyclopedically, rather than to bound its pure activity off from the impure world of worms and so on, a world philosophy might approach through that succinct preposition, of — as in “philosophy of physics,” “philosophy of law” — which permits philosophy to stand apart, and implicitly above, the mundane objects of its attention.

So long as contemporary philosophy conceives itself in this way, it is rather a difficult task to pursue the sort of research on the history of philosophy that is adequate to the material it studies, that respects actors’ categories, and that takes seriously theories and entities that have long since been rejected by reasonable people. Consider Kenelm Digby’s 1658 account of the weapon salve, or the treatment of wounds at a distance by manipulation of the weapon that caused them. Digby in fact offered a fascinating, sophisticated application of early modern corpuscularianism, yet many philosophers today suppose that to take an interest in a false theory from the past such as this one, to research it and to write about it, implies a rejection of the idea of truth itself. I myself was once dismissed as a “postmodernist” by a referee for a journal to which I submitted an article on the weapon salve.

There is no basis for such an accusation. For among the great many truths in the world is this one: a man named Digby once believed something false. To take an interest in that false belief is not to reject the truth, but only to wish to fill out our picture of the truth with as much detail as possible, and not because of some aesthetic inclination to the baroque, but rather because false theories are an important part of the puzzle that we as philosophers should be trying to complete: that of determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.

This is a project, I believe, that philosophers ought to recognize themselves as having in common with the other human sciences, and most of all with anthropology, as well as with newer disciplines such as cognitive science, which takes the substantial interconnection between philosophy and the study of the natural world as seriously as it was taken in the 17th century. The new “experimental philosophy” movement is also returning to an earlier conception of the inseparability of philosophical reflection and scientific inquiry, though curiously “x-phi” advocates describe themselves as breaking with “traditional” philosophy, rather than as returning to it, which is what in fact they are doing.

But for the most part philosophers prefer to keep their distance from the world, to do philosophy of this or that, and to disavow any interest in reckoning up the actual range of ways in which people, past or present, have explained the world. For some historians of philosophy, this makes things difficult, since we find we cannot live up to the expectation of our colleagues to show the immediate “philosophical” pay-off of our research, by which of course is meant the relevance to the set of issues that happen to interest them.


I believe it is imperative, indeed that it amounts to nothing short of respect paid to the dead, that historians of philosophy resist this demand for relevance. Scholarship in the history of philosophy must not aim to contribute to the resolution of problems on the current philosophical agenda. What it must do instead is reveal the variety of problems that have in different times and places been deemed philosophical, thereby providing a broader context within which current philosophers can understand the contingency, and future transformability, of their own problems. In this way, historians of philosophy contribute to the vitality of current philosophy, but on their own terms, and not on the terms dictated by their non-historian colleagues.

Recently I have noticed, when holding forth on, say, G. W. Leibniz’s interest in the pharmaceutical properties of the Brazilian ipecacuanha root, the way in which the term “erudite” now serves in some philosophical circles as a sort of back-handed compliment. What it really says is that the compliment’s recipient cannot quite cut it as a real philosopher, which is to say as a producer of rigorous arguments, and so instead compensates by filling her head with so much historical trivia. Rigor has decidedly won out over erudition as the reigning philosophical virtue, yet it is with a curious lack of rigor that philosophers assume, without argument, that there is a zero-sum competition for space in our heads between rigor and erudition. As Laurence Sterne said, in a related context, this is like assuming that you cannot hiccup and flatulate at the same time.

It is noteworthy in this connection that in 1682 a journal was founded in Leipzig, as the German response to the Philosophical Transactions, with the title Acta Eruditorum, or Acts of the Erudite. This journal, too, contained much on the generation of maggots and other such matters. Now the figure of the eruditus was in the 17th century very close to the curiosus, and it is around the same time that we also witness the foundation of societies of natural philosophers with names such as the “Societas Leopoldina Naturae Curiosorum” (the Leopoldine Society for Those Who Are Curious about Nature).

It was before the members of this very society that Leibniz, in 1695, at the very peak of his innovation as a metaphysical thinker of the first order, presented what he described as his most important contribution to learning so far: a treatise entitled “On the New American Antidysenteric,” namely ipecacuanha, better known today through its derivative product, “syrup of ipecac.” It had already been known that this root, first described in Willem Piso’s “Natural History of Brazil” of 1648, could be used to stop diarrhea, and indeed its usefulness in saving Louis XIV from a bad case of dysentery was legendary around Paris when Leibniz lived there in the 1670s. But in front of the audience of German curiosi 20 years later Leibniz could claim for himself the credit for discovering the emetic properties of the root, and again, he would, evidently without hyperbole, compare this discovery favorably to everything else he had yet accomplished, and for which he remains so widely known today.

This is, to put it mildly, very curious. It shows at the very least that Leibniz conceived of his life’s work, as a learned man, as a curiosus, and as a philosopher, very differently than we conceive of it today, and very differently than philosophers today conceive of their own work. And this different conception matters to the historian of philosophy, since to take an interest in Leibniz’s pharmaceutical endeavors (or his mine-engineering endeavors, or his paleontological endeavors…) might, just might, reveal to us something we would not have noticed about what matters to us had we limited ourselves to the canonical “philosophical” treatises. And it might, finally, force us to reconsider the adequacy of our current list of philosophical problems. And even if it doesn’t, something else from philosophy’s past that has fallen off the list eventually surely will.

As a historian of philosophy I believe it is a terrible thing to attempt to fit figures from the history of philosophy into the narrow confines of a conception of philosophy that has really only emerged over the most recent centuries. Such confinement fails to do justice to the scope and richness of their thought. Perhaps more importantly, it deprives us of the possibility of rediscovering that spirit of curiosity that fueled the development of philosophy during its first few millennia.

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, and is currently a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His most recent book is “Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life.” He is a contributing editor of Cabinet Magazine, and he also has a blog, which he has given up trying to keep secret.
Tags: academia, new york times, nonsense in academia, philosophical, scientific, theological methodology, theological notebook

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