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.


  1. There is a more direct argument for some of the same conclusion: When doing history of philosophy, we regularly look to an author's other writings to evaluate not just whether a particular work is correct but also what that work means. For example, it's not illegitimate to ask about Utilitarianism when reading On Liberty. So why shouldn't it be legit to invoke the racist bits of Kant's corpus when interpreting the bits about freedom?

  2. Ah true I do think that argument will reach to the same conclusion! But I just want to note that I don't think the argument offered here really depends on it being historical interest guiding one's study of the figures -- the premises are just as true in the context of trying to work out what contemporary authors are up to, or what the consequences of their arguments are, and can be done where one cares only about whether or not to endorse the idea/argument in question without any intrinsic interest in historical matters.

  3. Nice piece, Liam.

    I have a couple of questions. Or, at least one question asked in multiple ways.

    You say "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."

    Could you say more about what you mean by "important interpretive guidance"?

    I ask because, though I think historical knowledge about an author might be helpful in some cases, I think it could hinder me in others. If someone reads a paper by me on a new version of the OIC principle and finds out I grew up in a project how does that (or should that) change their view of the principle? WHat has been gained by my interlocutor by gaining this info. Or maybe you had different historical info in mind and not class? Regardless, I'd be curious to hear more about how this historical stuff helps when trying to understand or work with my new OIC principle.

    I think historical info is helpful when assessing, say someone's moral responsibility. How one came to do X matters to how we hold them responsible. But it's more difficult to see how historical info can help me *interpret* a particular argument or principle if my goal in interpreting isn't focused on giving some sort of error theory for the author. So again, maybe you can give an example of how history helps in interpreting a text (especially a recent text) such that it ma change my interpretation of the principle when I get this further knowledge about the author or the context in which their piece was written.

    FWIW, I tend to give more weight to a claim by an individual who is more familiar (as in they have lived their view or theory) with the issues they are writing about, all things being equal. So history seems to affect my credence level when compared to other writings on the same topic. But I'm not sure I can justify the practice. Ok, I've ranted long enough.

    Thanks again for the post, it was thought-provoking.

    1. Ah I don't take the claim to be that biographical information is always relevant, only that it sometimes is -- I really don't like the taste of onions, but I doubt that anybody would gain much help in interpreting my work if they found that out. Whereas, yeah, I can imagine it being relevant to learn that I resented the authoritarian disciplinary structure of my secondary school when it comes to interpreting some of my work. So it's just some, not all, biographical facts that I take to be of interest. (Without knowing more about you or your work on the OIC principle I cannae say much on that case!) The position that Appiah lays out would, if applied in this case, after all imply that all such biographical facts are irrelevant -- so it is to that strong claim that I am responding, since I think at least some in our community would claim as much.

      As to the moral responsibility point -- I agree, but whereas I take the claim made in the OP to be widely disagreed with, I'd take that to be very widely agreed with. I take it that lots of people think that biographical details can mitigate responsibility for otherwise morally unpleasant acts, and likewise if it turns out that the author was placed in a scenario that gave them every reason to believe something we now know to be false we may think this a sympathetic error theory for them. Quite so, I certainly agree. But I meant to promote the more controversial thesis in the OP, that the biographical details of the author help us understand their ideas/arguments better, not just that they help us assess the author better.

    2. I get all of that. And I agree that most would agree with historicism with regards to moral responsibility but not for interpreting philosophical arguments more generally as you explain in your OP.

      Apologies for coming across if I may have thought otherwise. Let me try to ask my question a bit more straightforwardly.

      So, against the strong thesis, can you point to a example where it has helped you interpret an argument differently? And, what went differently with your interpretation? Did you interpret the argument as trying to say X but now you see it as saying Y? Did the arguement interpretation go from one of seeing it as good then seeing it as bad or vice versa? Lastly, what details help us to understand their arguments better?

      Again, and FWIW, I see biographical information as helping me be more or less confident that the author may be on to something (i.e., a writer discussing the ethics of eating meat that spent time working for a factory farm, or, a writer that has lived through social oppression and is writing about social oppression.) but I don't think this is the point you are trying to make, or is it? Either way I'd be curious to hear more how it can help us "interpret arguments"

      (I only used the OIC case as an example of how gaining any info about me would help one interpret that philosophical principle (whatever that principle may be))

    3. I think in trying to understand Lockean theories of property it has helped me to think about what sort of things he was trying to rule in given his life projects (seizing land from the Native Americans) and what sort of things he was trying to rule out (having land seized by the King). I cannot, mind you, point to specific alternatives I had in mind and then ruled out in light of these considerations -- but I can report that in reading the arguments concerning our emerging from the state of nature, keeping these things in mind was useful to me in coming to understand the claims. I think I came to see it as less plausible in light of this, because I realised that trying to balance between these desiderata was liable to distort -- not sharing the project, aspects of not just his theory but anything descended from it now seem both comprehensible and unmotivated to me in a way they may not had I not been aware of the constraints Locke was operating within. (Without this knowledge I may have been inclined to think I was just misunderstanding the claims.) Does this help?

    4. Yes, it does, I think. Thanks!

      So if I understand, in keeping in mind facts about his life, that he was trying to rule certain things in and certain things out, regarding just property acquisition, this helped you realize his claims were less plausible regarding his views on property more generally?

      I wonder if we would want this to be common practice in philosophical methodology though. That is, using biographical info of an author to assess or inform our take on a philosophical view. My guess is that most folks would be against it. Not because doing so can NEVER be useful, but rather because doing so can often hinder our acceptance of certain views that may be useful to some shared goal.

      "That person was a good person so this view must be better than my initial reading". Or vice-versa, "that person is of THAT skin color or lived in THAT neighborhood? No wonder why I didn't like her view. Or, "they were trying to hold THOSE practical views" with "THAT VIEW"? NO way, that view must be off or less plausible than I had previously thought. These scenarios seem off to me.

      I agree that at least SOME in our profession would adopt the strong thesis. I'm just trying to figure out if I am one of them, hence my engagement with you on this thought-provoking post.

      As of now I think I am leaning toward adopting the strong thesis, that biographical info has no place in analyzing a philosophical theory, though I do admit that biographical information can be helpful in trying to find what went wrong with a theories application, which is still *philosophy* by my lights so I'm not sure where that leaves me.

    5. So I guess at this point I don't see the counter-argument. Why rule in favour of the strong thesis just because if one were to allow for such things a person might misuse the opportunity? Sure, if somebody brought in irrelevant details about a person as a basis for an objection then that is bad practice -- but nothing I am saying liscenses that! On the contrary, if they are indeed relevant features to understanding and thus assessing the point, on what grounds would you say the sort of statements you outline be objectionable?

  4. I agree, there is no 'anything goes' feel to anything you're saying. I'm ruling in favour of the strong thesis (*weakly* I suppose, as I never had a horse in this race but since you got me thinking...) for 2 reasons:

    (1) because I'm just having trouble seeing how the historical approach gets us anything above and beyond what other methods cannot. I here your story, but I think what you're describing sounds more to me like understanding why LOCKE himself would hold a view or go a certain route rather than his history as telling of anything wrong with his theory, other than it may show how it has been applied rightfully or wrongfully so.

    (2) even if it does give us some data, it seems that that data could be used to both support or criticize a position. So you seeing the two life pursuits of Locke could push you to reject the view if you do not like one of the pursuits. Thus, I feel like the more historical stuff we let in the more likely it is that stuff that shouldn't be part of the discussion in some contexts, (stuff like race or gender) will sneak in. I guess I'm concerned with the "I don't think we should consider X's view because he was black" or because he was ________, (fill in the concept that bother you most). It can and historically does detracts our focus from the argument we care most about.

    Now, as I said earlier I do believe history matters for lots of philosophical inquiry but I'm less inclined to think it adds to an understanding of how to interpret a principle or a specific claim made by a philosopher UNLESS we are doing scholarship on that individual or trying to tell a narrative about the concept itself.

    1. Sorry about the long reply time! I think you saw my Facebook announcement the other day, so I hope you understand that I have been busy and distracted as late! But I have been thinking about this more, so I guess I'd be interested to hear where you think the following breaks down.

      Ok so I presume the following is all shared ground between us. People nowadays put forward arguments on various topics which are interesting but may be unclear. If we know them personally, we can ask them what they think about stuff, to clarify key terms, to show how the argument would play out if applied to such and such a case, and thus get a better understanding of what they are saying. With a better understanding of what they are saying in hand, we are better able to make the most of engaging with them, in terms of developing their thoughts, borrowing elements while rejecting others, deciding we straightforwardly agree or disagree, etc. To some extent we can simulate this in ourselves (work out what they would say, think about how one could charitably clarify their terms, etc) but since people are usually their own best advocates (especially in cases where we are initially inclined to disagree with them), have usually thought about their claims more, and in any case have different experiences and modes of thought, we gain in understanding their arguments -- and thus, indirectly, the world or matters their arguments concern -- by seeking them out as interlocutors.

      I assume all that is shared because it seems to me to be a very normal part of the social life of the philosopher. The above characterises a lot of our actual professional interactions with each other, for the most part they go pretty well, and nobody seems to think this is pointless or not worth doing. We don't call for eliminating conferences, say, on the grounds that after all we can now just upload papers to central databases and never have to communicate with the authors.

      But, then, as I am sure you can see coming, I don't see why grant the above but disagree with the OP. The historical work is not just understanding why Locke thought what he thought -- but rather very closely analogous to all that social work we do with living philosophers drawing out from them how to interpret their work. Alas we can't ask Locke what he meant -- but maybe others did and his correspondence reveals as much. We can't ask how Locke would apply his arguments to this or that case -- but we can examine how he in fact behaved in light of his arguments in various cases. Etc. So what I think is difficult (and contra your point (1)) is to affirm the value of the social nature of philosophy nowadays but deny the historical claims of the OP. Does this dilemma make sense?

      Sorry again for the delayed response, and thank you for engaging so helpfully!

  5. In the Jan/Feb issue of The Federal Lawyer (the publication of the FBA) I wrote of the issue of historicism versus essentialism in a different context. This may interest you. Beginning on p. 2 of the pdf here:

    1. I've been busy! (as next post will explain) but I just wanted to thank you for bringing this to my attention. Cheers!

  6. I think that there is an important distinction here between interpretative vs evaluative contexts.

    If I am acting interpretatively, trying to understand what someone meant by something that they wrote, then any information might be relevant. Most obviously their other writings, but also their biographical information, politics, and anything else could be of value. How valuable these different sources are will, of course, vary depending on the nature of the text you are interpreting. So in your example, I would agree that Locke’s historical and political context and actions may be helpful in understanding his doctrine of property; they are probably less helpful in understanding his doctrine of substance or of primary and secondary qualities.

    When evaluating whether we think a doctrine is sound, interpretation is clearly a key step, as understanding must proceed evaluation, but it should be equally clear that merely pointing to biographical or historical information about an author doesn’t provide an argument for rejecting a philosophical claim – any more than one should accept claims because their author is saintly or admirable.

    Neither does one doctrine that the an author may also have held (e.g. Kant’s racial hierarchy) constitute a reason for rejecting another (e.g. Kant’s ethics) unless it can be shown to be logically entailed; if it can be shown to be logically entailed then the author’s holding it (while it may be relevant to our empirical process of identifying this entailment) isn’t relevant to the actual evaluation. In other words: if we could show that some easily refuted racial theory was a logical consequence of Kant’s views on ethics then we could advance this argument anyway, without needing to adduce a view on whether Kant held this other theory or not.

    The infinite human capacity for inconsistency is an obvious obstacle to interpretation, and an argument for caution in evaluation.

    1. As above, I just wanted to thank you for this fascinating post and apologise for my failure to reply in a more timely fashion. That said, I agree with all you say here -- I take it what is going on is that the information gained via biographic study helps inform how I interpret the claims, and my assessment of the truth/falsity or belief/endorsement worthiness of the claims is then carried out... by whatever means one normally decides whether or not philosophical claims are true/false or belief/endorsement worthy/unworthy. It will rarely be the case that the character or behaviour or not strictly related claims made by the author will be relevant at this latter stage; it was only a moderate form of historicism that I meant to endorse. So I think I am in full agreement with what you say here!


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