Monday, February 20, 2017

Defending Moderate Historicism

There was, some time ago, an entirely silly controversy in Britain over what some students at SOAS were alleged to be demanding. It was claimed that they wanted to stop teaching certain named Ever So Famous philosophers -- Plato, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant -- because these people were white. In fact, the students had said no such thing. In fact the interpretation of the students as demanding this was silly on its face: students at the School of Oriental and African Studies say they want to read more authors from Asia and Africa, and the only explanation of this puzzling fact the media can think to run with is that they just hate white people? No other salient guesses at why people who have chosen to specialise in Oriental and African studies might be interested in reading about Asian and African philosophy? None. But it fit so nicely into the British press' fact-lite media narrative of Political Correctness Gone Mad that everyone ran with it, and many a slow news day was enlivened thereby.

In any case, somebody at the Guardian has now come along and done a decent write up (it is very rare that I say nice things about the Grauniad so, like, enjoy it while it lasts, liberals). If anybody remembers this story and wants an account grounded in what the students actually said, why they said it, and points at which one might disagree for various reasons -- written up by somebody who has actually done relevant background reading -- I recommend.

So much for the issue du jour, what brings me here is pretty tangentially related. During the Guardian's write up this claim is made:
Soas academics and students argue that Enlightenment thinkers had a highly restricted notion of freedom; freedom as “the property of propertied white men”, as Meera Sabaratnam puts it. John Locke is widely regarded as having provided the philosophical foundations of modern liberal conceptions of tolerance. Yet he was a shareholder in a slaving company. Immanuel Kant, often seen as the greatest of Enlightenment philosophers, clung to a belief in a racial hierarchy, insisting that “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites” and that “the African and the Hindu appear to be incapable of moral maturity”.
And while it is not quite directly discussed, the issue is clearly raised: how relevant are such biographical details to interpreting these thinkers ideas? The piece focusses more on whether or not their being white is relevant, and on the whole comes down in favour of a negative answer. Not meaning to dispute that, I think there is still a case for paying attention to things like having actively wrote in defence of racial hierarchy, or owning stocks in a slave trading company, or coauthoring the constitution of a slave state. And it's a case that can be made purely from the point of view of the instrumental value of such things in helping us assess whether or not the claims being made by the author on matters of direct philosophical import are true or worth believing. So in the rest of this post I will give a brief defence of paying attention to such biographical details of the authors we study.

The basic intuition one might have that such biographic details are irrelevant in philosophy is nicely summarised in the piece by Appiah: ``When people speak, they speak ideas, not identity. The truth value of what you say is not indexed to your identity. If you’re making a bad argument, it’s a bad argument. It’s not bad because of the identity of the person making it.''  Now, in context, Appiah is responding to the idea that authors being white might be relevant and rejecting that, so I am not sure he would agree to the generalisation. But whether or not Appiah personally would, one could easily imagine extending the thought to other biographical details about the authors whose ideas and arguments we study -- when we are studying Locke's argument about the acquisition of knowledge, it simply does not matter what shares he owned, or when we are studying Kant's arguments against masturbation, it simply does not matter what he said about racial hierarchy, -- we are studying the arguments, not the person who put them forward, and the ideas can be considered on their merits, independently of other ideas the same person happened to produce, or other activities they happened to be (strictly immobilising themselves before getting into bed to avoid) engaging in. One might think this is analogous to mathematical proof: one can usually well understand mathematical proofs quite independently of the biographical details of the mathematician who put it forward, and usually even independently of other proofs they produced.

I think this is a tempting but quite mistaken view. Here's why. In philosophy we are very often (i) directly concerned with the social world and modes of living, (ii) we produce arguments whose proper interpretation(s), along with full logical consequences and ramifications, are rather opaque, and (iii) even when we are not directly concerned with the social world and modes of living, our arguments can have consequences therefore. I take the first two of these to be obvious from familiarity with the discipline. But to illustrate that latter point: many epistemologists are interested in quite abstract matters concerning the nature and analysis of knowledge, and need not be concerned personally with the consequences of this for social life. But when one considers the role of knowledge attributions in legal contexts, in the political sphere (``what did the president know, and when did he know it?'') and even just in day to day activities of weighing testimony and competing claims from different people, it is immediately apparent that one's beliefs about what exactly knowledge amounts to can have significant social ramifications.

Grant me the extra premise that (iv) philosophers are often concerned to maintain some degree of consistency or integrity across different contexts, and I have enough now to make my point. Biographical details, concerning salient social activities the author engaged in or other arguments they produced in different contexts, give me information about what somebody who was intimately familiar with the argument, who thought about it and its consequences a lot, thought was consistent with, or even demanded by, their own arguments. Given (ii), even as somebody just interested in assessing the truth of the idea or argument, I often need help working out exactly what that truth would amount to, that I might better discover potential confirmation/counter-examples. Given (i) and (iii) one source of potential consequences for me to assess derives from what the ideas or arguments mandate or cohere with in social or ethical life. Given (iv), by learning about biographic details of the author I am gaining important interpretive guidance from somebody who is expert on the argument and who was especially well motivated to consider its full consequences. Some further interpretative work will be necessary to get from one to the other (one cannot just read off the Carolina constitution how Locke thought this interacted with this arguments concerning political liberty), but that was always necessary; the point is just now that I have further pertinent information to guide my own thinking and assessment of the ideas and arguments. In essence, the author's life can form their own secondary literature.

That's it, that's all I got here. But my impression is that my colleagues generally do think that learning `mere' biographical detail, or even learning about the philosopher's stated ideas and arguments on apparently unrelated matters to one's research or teaching concern, is not relevant to the task of a philosopher properly considered, even if such matters are of interest to historians and biographers. We can and even should learn from Locke without learning all that much about Locke, the thought goes. So while I take the above to be a pretty simple thought, I do take it to be widely disagreed with, and would be interested to know what people have to say in response.