History or Philosophy?

I had an interesting and uncharacteristically abstract conversation recently about which is the more overarching discipline: history or philosophy. In defense of philosophy, I said that history cannot have meaning and provide useful insights on the hierarchy of knowledge, moral truths, what it means “to know,” and the like, without being grounded in philosophy and without being reinterpreted philosophically. That is, for its own legitimacy, it depends in some sense on a philosophy of history, which makes philosophy more prior and more necessary for historical understanding.

By itself, history cannot know the extent of its ignorance, that is "to know what it does not know" in the manner of philosophy, which strives after this ideal of classifying the extent of our own knowledge. In this respect, philosophy is superior to the other discipline.

While both history and philosophy can be applied to understand other academic disciplines in a way that mathematics, natural science, and even theology cannot, only philosophy is the knowledge of knowledge, the thoughtful deconstruction and analysis of the assumption at work in all human endeavor. More important, philosophy, by its nature, aims to obtain a true insight into the nature ot things, that is, the ideal of "seeing the world in its true form" as opposed to its reflected form in various traditional understandings, opinions, superstitions, and unreflective inheritances. Philosophy aims to transcend the appeal to authority and intuition and obtain grounded knowledge that attains knowledge indirectly by cordoning off "the knowledge of what one does not know." This may sound oddly unconservative and optimistic, but, iin this sense, I am returning to my classical political philosophy training and, in a certain measure, emulating the voice of Leo Strauss.

My interlocutor said that all knowledge is historical. That is, it comes into being historically by particular historical participants who influence its creation, transmission, and modification. These participants cannot divorce themselves from their own particular positions in time and place. Kant was, whatever else, a German, a philosopher, a recipient of the European tradition, etc. Following John Lukacs and advocating his peculiar balance between the extremes of subjectivism and objectivism--Foucoult and von Ranke, if you will--he even said that apparently self-contained disciplines like physics, for example, cannot be properly understood outside their own history.

I can't say I disagree with the latter statement per se. Knowledge is historical. Evolving disciplines are where they are at this moment in time because of a string of accidents. Newtonian Physics, recall, works functionally (and still works) but was overtaken in its apparent finality by the Quantum Revolution. But in these kinds of disciplines--engineering, science--the new understanding transcends and wipes out the old one in a manner that is distinct from the kind of development that takes place in philosophy. Old philosophy is still worth reading and still capable of providing truthful insights, in a way that an old history, science, or engineering text is not--other than as a curiosity or historical artificat. Because, in all of these fields, the known facts are always changing in a way that permits superceding developments, whereas for philosophy the relevant knowable facts for moral life or understanding peculiarities of language were known equally well some thousands of years ago.

In other words, Kant, the pre-Socratics, or any other philosopher for that matter, are not simply historical artificats. When Kant writes about "Perpetual Peace" or when Descartes writes about "Reason," he really is saying something about those subjects that can transcend time and place and speak meaningfully to those interested in teh issue, not just then, but today.

Lukacs is not historicist, of course. He does not think that Kant is incapable of being understood other than as a reflection of our own views, in a sense with each of us creating a new text as we read him, each with our own unique position radically separated from all others. Nor does Lukacs think that history is subject to certain discoverable laws that a properly rigorous historical discipline will some day discover. He instead argues for a middling position that is hard to fully get my hands around. And this is perhaps because he's saying something that is ultimately irreconcilable with itself. Lukacs is not by temperment a relativist of any kind. At the same time, he's reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of a knowledge that is, in some measure, outside of history because it is final, definitive, proven. Not all knowledge need be certain. But knowledge is more than mere assertion and opinion by nature, if it is, in fact, authentic knowledge. Only philosophy can discover the metes and bounds of any of the particular human idioms of understanding, including that of history, because only philosophy aims at knowledge of the whole and specifically at the hierarchy and interrelationship of these different idioms of understanding.

It seems to me that something like philosophy can both be subject to history--with its present day participants influenced and directed by historcal influences--but still be potentially unbounded, insightful, and a realm of pure thought. I think this is most apparent in the most abstract disciplines, metaphysics or mathematics. That is, a modern day "philosopher" is not simply called upon to study the history of philosophy; he can still participate in philosophy as such, striving for wisdom grounded in a rigorous understanding that is outside and above a particular culture, time, place, etc. It is this quest that has defined so much of the intellectual vigor of western civilization. And it's this quest that conservatives should be aiming to preserve from attack originating in different quarters, which range from the populist right to the multicultural left.

Posted by at November 23, 2005 6:30 PM