What is the Value of Historical Thinking?

According to a certain way of thinking about history and present-day life, historical research has little to no practical value, since its subject matter (the past) is, by definition, “dead and gone.”* From this perspective, historical inquiries concerning the emergence of written language, or the French Revolution, have no contemporary relevance; they are merely divertissements for those peculiarly curious about them.

Jacques Louis David - "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" (1803)

Jacques Louis David – “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” (1803)

This way of thinking is profoundly oversimplified. We human beings are “always already” historical beings, in the sense that we are always oriented to the past in one way or another.** And how we are so oriented, makes a difference to our everyday conduct. A person who believes that the French revolution was motivated primarily by economic interests will behave differently than one who believes it was motivated by moral ones; and this is the sort of question that careful historiography helps to clarify (generally in the form of making-more-complex one’s initial imagination of the past). Granted, this difference is sometimes quite subtle: of the magnitude, for instance, of the difference it would make to the average U.S. Citizen’s day-to-day behavior, if he or she believed that the continent of Europe was situated in the Southern rather than the Northern Hemisphere.

This orientation takes place through (1) the present-day conditions that the past has brought about, as well as (2) through our ideas about what the past has been like, and finally through (3) our ideas about how present-day conditions have been brought about.*** It is precisely this orientation to the past that historical inquiry and, above all, well-crafted historical argument, stands to destabilize and change.

A deeper and more nuanced historical sensibility about some set of past events enables a deeper and more nuanced orientation to those parts of the present world that these past events affect.


*I borrow the phrase “dead and gone” from Allan Megill, who employs it as the name of one of four modes of historiography in Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (Chicago U.P., 2007).

**The term and concept of a state in which something “always already” is, is borrowed from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 1965 [1927].

***For a brilliant analysis of the variety of (interconnected) ways in which the past, and our awareness of the past, affect our present, see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (1960).

The Question(s) of Human Nature

There is more than one question of human nature. As has often been noted, discussants of “human nature” employ the term in a wide variety of different ways, and this ambiguity easily leads to confusion.*

*Such confusions have been noted and discussed by many: for instance, in David L. Hull, “On Human Nature” (1986), reprinted in Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (U. of Chicago Press, 1987); Susan Oyama, Evolution’s Eye (Duke U., 2000), Evelyn Fox Keller, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (Duke U., 2010), Helen Longino, Studying Human Behavior (U. of Chicago Press, 2012); Roger Smith, Being Human (Columbia U.P., 2007).

For instance: When asking “What is human nature?,” are we asking for the human essence (nature as Wesen or ousia) – that is, those features or qualities that are only and always true of human beings? Or are we asking for an identification of that part of human life that is attributable to nature (as opposed to the non-natural)? And, if this last is our aim, what is our intended contrast class – that is, the “non-natural”? For instance: do we mean the natural as opposed to the cultural, or as opposed to the super-natural, or something else? Or, yet again, are we asking for a description of the general or typical tendency of human beings (something like nature as physis)?** Or are we asking for a tally of human universals – those aspects of human life (if any) that appear regardless of geographical, cultural, or other peculiarities whenever or wherever human beings live their lives? And, if this last, how do we determine what cases to include or exclude from such universal claims? What unusual cases – feral children, for instance – do we exclude or at least qualify by ceteris paribus clauses or similar devices as we draw up our tally – and how, precisely, do we do this?

** In an essay on essentialism from 1980, Elliot Sober analyzes this sense of “nature” under the heading of the “natural state model,” appropriately associated with Aristotle’s views of natures (physis).

Conflating these senses leads to comical inferential non-sequiturs, as in the following passage, appropriately ridiculed by Hull (1986): “[O]ne trait common to man everywhere is language; in the sense that only the human species displays it, the capacity to acquire language must be genetic” (Eisenberg 1972, 126, cited in Hull 1986, 386). Hull’s own commentary on the passage makes the problem entirely clear: “In the space of a few words, [the author] elides from language being common to man everywhere (universality), to the capacity to acquire language being unique to the human species (species specificity), to its being genetic” (Hull 1986, 386-7).

Due to such ambiguities, it makes more sense to speak of the “questions” of human nature than the question of it. But this ambiguity has another important consequence: the question appears, for this reason, deceptively difficult to resolve. Answers that appear decisive from a precisely articulated point of view – for instance, the question of a biologically-supported concept of an essential human nature in Hull’s article – nonetheless fail to foreclose “the” question insofar as they fail to satisfy inquirers concerned with other aspects of the conceptual constellation that has formed around the term “human nature.”

Efforts to develop a full “philosophy of human nature,” or what is sometimes called a “philosophical anthropology,” seem to have foundered on the sheer magnitude of the task, producing analyses that are disappointingly thin*** or unrealistically concise and principled. (The latter error appears to affect nearly the entire tradition of reflection on the question from Aristotle forward.) Nonetheless, if various meanings of the question of human nature are carefully distinguished, the effort to answer each of them individually would not be an absurd one. Both the picking-apart of the questions, the careful attempt to answer them, and the evaluation of other thinkers’ attempts to answer them, would appear to be legitimate pursuits for philosophers.

*** Unfortunately, this weakness characterizes much of the contemporary introductory literature on this topic – for instance, Howard P. Kainz’s Philosophy of Human Nature (Open Court, 2008), Joel J. Kupperman’s Theories of Human Nature (Hackett, 2010), and Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman’s Ten Theories of Human Nature (Oxford U.P., 1998). On this topic I much prefer the shorter and denser treatments of Richard Schacht, “Philosophical Anthropology: What, Why, and How,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1990) and Sami Pihlström, “On the Concept of Philosophical Anthropology,” Journal of Philosophical Research (2003), as well as the literature listed in the first footnote above.

Here I’d like to contribute to such a project by seeking to carefully discriminate some of the various senses in which human nature might be asked about. The procedure I will employ loosely follows Roger Smith’s in Being Human (Columbia U.P., 2007): a distinction between meanings of the English word “nature,” which will then be read into the question of the meaning of “human nature” itself.

1. Nature-as-opposed-to-non-nature

If the question is about the natural-as-opposed-to-non-natural components or aspects of human life, the answer requires some standard for estimating what is and is not a part of nature. Of course, the latter question is controversial. Many would say that everything that happens is part of nature. Such a position entails that everything human beings do or are is part of human nature in that sense.****

**** This, incidentally, was the all-inclusive sense of nature that Descartes distinguished, in Meditation VI, from the more restricted, Aristotelian sense of nature as usual (“normal”) tendency. Meditations, Objections, and Replies (Hackett Publishing, 2006 [1641]), 47-48. Descartes construes the Aristotelian conception as “extrinsic,” that is, “merely a designation dependent on my thought,” whereas the other is “really in things and thus is not without some truth” (48).

Yet, for non-naturalists and some “qualified” (say, “non-reductive” or “soft”) naturalists, “natural” descriptions and disciplinary perspectives form only a subset of all epistemically-acceptable descriptions and disciplinary perspectives. For such thinkers the question, “What part of human existence, life, and behavior is natural?” could be rephrased as the question, “What part of human existence, life, and behavior is treatable by (or appears within) naturalistic disciplinary perspectives?” For instance: What aspects of human forms of life are epistemically accessible to physics, chemistry, and biology? How do human beings appear from within these perspectives? These questions lead intuitively to a further question, which presents a strategy for delimiting naturalism itself: What real aspects of human forms of life, if any, are not epistemically accessible to naturalistic perspectives (or, to particular kinds of naturalistic perspectives), and why?

How are we to decide between the broadly naturalistic and non-naturalistic perspectives just described? I’m not at all sure. My point is just that there is a legitimate future for the question of human nature beyond the kinds of semantic ambiguity, coupled with metaphysical disagreement, just recounted.

2. Nature-as-physis

Another of our identified senses of the human nature question is the one wherein “human nature” is synonymous with “typical tendency, barring other intervening factors.” Note that despite the association of this notion of nature (nature as physis) with Aristotelianism and hence essentialism, there is nothing self-contradictory in supposing that nature of this kind is changeable or transformable. Even under the assumption of nature as physis, there may be changes of nature (for instance: changes of gene-frequency, or changes of typical function) as well as changes that override nature (as when a natural tendency is diverted or destroyed, and thus the mode of existence of the changed thing or organism ceases to be classifiable as “natural”). Human nature may be largely an empty set in that human life may have no “typical tendency” or character; or it may be that a great deal of its “typical” tendencies or characters are nonetheless also changeable.

3. and 4. Nature-as-essence

Finally, one might mean human nature-as-essence. The question of human essences is really a combination of two questions, however: 3. What is distinctive about human beings? and 4. What is common to all human beings? The former question is a long-standing concern of comparative psychologists (which I will discuss in more detail in a later post); the latter, of cultural anthropologists and historians of (relatively) exotic civilizations.

As is well-known, universal claims have the peculiar logical feature that they can be refuted by a single counter-instance. We might seek to immunize a theory of human universals against such counter-instances by construing human universals as a long series of conditional statements such as, “When the number of commodities of a certain kind brought to market is relatively low, and the demand is relatively high, the price of those commodities will be relatively high,” or “Suicides are (ceteris paribus) more common in times of peace than in times of war.”*****

***** These examples are inspired by economist Alfred Marshall’s supply and demand curves, and sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous book on suicide, respectively.

But each of these “universals” will have exceptions, themselves not easily captured (without exceptions of their own) by any single set of conditional statements. As a heuristic formal description, the series-of-conditionals model helps us understand the kind of reasoning some advocates of human universals would like to engage in. But its difficulties raise the question of whether an exhaustive tally of such descriptions can fairly be expected, and, if not, why we should hold out hope for a theory of human universals at all, except in some appropriately qualified sense. A similar problem threatens the prospects of many universalisms, whether naturalistic and Darwinian or more purely logical (as in the case of, say, Hegel or Lévi-Strauss). Given this difficulty, one might relax the requirement of a “universal” characterization of human beings to the requirement of a “general” characterization.****** In any case, the intended meanings of our claims about universal characteristics of human life are often more nuanced and qualified than is represented by universal statements, or any set of conditional statements, so rigorously construed.

****** Some resources for thinking about the logic of general claims like these are provided by the first few chapters of Michael Thompson, Life and Action (Harvard U.P., 2008).

Anthropological and Historical Definitions … and the Question, “What is Philosophy?”

As a professional philosopher, I’m often expected to have something to say about definitional questions. When it comes to those definitional questions that concern human practices or disciplines – questions like, “What is Art?” “What is Science?” and “What is Philosophy?” – I find it useful to distinguish between what we might call “anthropological” and “historical” strategies of definition.* I’m unsure whether this distinction applies to other concepts as effectively, and/or what kind of changes to the distinction might be necessary to make it apply (but see my recent post on “natural kinds” for some thought on this). In this post, I will attempt simply to clarify the distinction as it applies to human practices, taking the familiar (at least to me!) case of “philosophy” as my example.

* I came to notice this distinction, by the way, in the process of reading Stephen Davies’ and Cynthia Freeland’s excellent introductory texts in the Philosophy of Art: here and here, respectively. What follows may be read as a distillation and commentary on a distinction they recognized before me, as well as an extension of that distinction to definitional questions other than that of “Art.”

The historical strategy of definition attempts to track the changing status and role of a practice throughout its history. “Etymological” definitions are an attempt of the “historical” sort, but obviously incomplete from the standards of full historical consciousness: the origins of something do not include or necessitate that their course or their end will be any particular way. Employing this strategy also involves issues of historical reconstruction, and therefore hermeneutics, when we attempt to ‘recapture’ and make sense of this history.

The anthropological strategy of definition attempts to say what the practice in question “essentially” is: What, if anything, are the common roots, causes, and types of the practice? Of course, “essentialism” (whether Aristotlean, Kripkean, or otherwise) is a problematic and controversial position. It also raises the possibility of a critique of one or another instance of the practice in question, on the basis of those allowable features (per its “essential” definition) that it does not instantiate. Again, there is a hermeneutic dimension here.

Having distinguished these strategies of definition, I’d like to propose two controversial theses about them. First, that efforts to define human practices today will find that both of these two strategies of definition are indispensable. Second, that neither strategy may successfully be employed independently of the other. Anthropological commitments have a rightful claim to inform historical views; historical views have a rightful claim to inform anthropological ones.

As promised, we will now take “Philosophy” as an example.

I. Criteria of a Satisfactory Answer to the Question, “What is Philosophy?”

Following the first of the controversial theses, I would argue that any satisfactory answer to the question, “What is Philosophy?,” will include orientation to anthropological commitments about what kind of practice philosophy is, and to an historical account of the traditions that issue in what we today call “Philosophy.” It will also involve a hermeneutic dimension in regard to both strategies, a fact that could be captured in saying that it will be both creative and constructive activity (that is, the definition itself will be partly a recommendation and proposed organization of semiotic space), and it will be evidence-responsive – including, for instance, the interest in paying due consideration to the following:

(1) the motivations for asking the question, which force attention to “common language” and historical tradition aspects of meaning-fixation

(2) the principle-of-parity, which forces inclusion of extra-traditional elements into the tradition and thus suggests the existence of at least some cases wherein “anthropological” strategies of definition make fair claims of authority to revise definition arrived at by “historical” means alone

(3) Those evidence bases and commitments (natural-scientific, religious, political) that we don’t want to (otherwise) abandon, or could only abandon here on pain of contradiction.

II. Attempt at Substantive Answer to the Question, “What is Philosophy?”

From an etymological-historical perspective, philosophy began with the ancient Greeks, where it was identified with the project of learning for the sake of learning. The effect to carry out this project soon raised procedural questions, however, which transformed the identity of the practice in question. These questions included, “How does one or how can one best learn in the most comprehensive and effective, or ‘best,’ sense? Indeed, how should we determine what is ‘best’ here?” These procedural questions were soon deemed as fundamental to the project as its pre-procedural, substantive aims (since the value and effectiveness of the pre-procedural aims were seen to be dependent, in a way, on how the procedural questions were answered – see Plato’s Republic for support of this claim and others in this paragraph). At this point, various features that are still identifiable in contemporary representatives of philosophy, took shape within the tradition:

(1) A comprehensive hunger for knowledge.
(2) Concern with “meta” and “reflective” (what I’ve so far called “procedural”) questions.
(3) Commitment to responsiveness to “reason” – that is, to objections brought from any quarter
(where “any corner” is meant both sociologically and ideologically)

This practice was then carried, self-consciously (as tradition) through a variety of instantiations, including the Hellenic, medieval (Arabic, Jewish, and Christian), early modern, and late modern phases. In the views of various contributors to philosophy, these three features were differently emphasized or distributed, but all three were retained as strong possibilities within the tradition. Thus, medieval philosophers toyed with the idea of a domain of reasons that was fundamentally non-rational – what is variously called “faith” or “revelation” – while retaining, at an institutional level, the open-endedness of this particular question. Modern empiricism, various “subjectivisms,” and Lebensphilosophie did something similar. Regarding “comprehensiveness” of attention, some philosophers retained this in a very deliberate and explicit way (for instance, Hegel), while others combined this kind of commitment with a strong sense of the finitude of human life, thus adopting a “generality” and (inevitably relatively superficial) “breadth,” rather than full comprehensiveness. Hume, for instance, once wrote of a personal distaste for everything besides “philosophy and general learning,” which distaste was sufficiently strong to motivate him to live modestly on a modest inheritance and avoid the necessity of working. Philosophy and general learning are thereby, in the taste and language of the Edinburgh philosopher as in other places, very closely associated. Sketching a degree of comprehensiveness, generality, and rigor somewhat intermediate between Hume’s and Hegel’s, Wilfrid Sellars once described the philosophers’ characteristic concern as with “how things, in the widest sense of the term, hang together in the widest sense of the term.”

My suggestion is that these three features are a reasonable “cluster-concept” characterization of the practice of Philosophy, anthropologically defined, where Philosophy is understood as whatever is (i) linguistically and historically continuous with this tradition; or, (ii) was linguistically identified as “philosophy” at one or another time in the past; or, (iii) is or was sufficiently anthropologically analogous to our own conception, to support (via parity arguments) our own contemporary identification of the instance in question as one of Philosophy. These three features are selected, specifically, as ones that a wide variety of present-day practitioners, as well as the most plausible and widely-recognized predecessors or ancestors of the present-day practice, would recognize as philosophical. These criteria have been roughly shared among quite a wide range of practitioners, for several thousand years – namely, wherever Greek civilization made a mark and the accounts of philosophy in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenic commentators served as a constraint on the interpretation of the meaning of φιλοσοφια. Until the 19th century, this included at least groups in Europe, broadly construed, and a substantial part of the Middle East. Today it includes groups of people all over the world.

The historical narrative that connects us to the baptismal origins of Philosophy eventually comes – in the course of developments spanning the 17th and 19th century – to the point of enabling the identification of practices in non-Western contexts as also instances of Philosophy. In other words: The history of Philosophy itself includes a moment wherein the history is discovered to be insufficient to define and delimit the concept of Philosophy itself. Philosophy is discovered to be an anthropological as well as a historical phenomenon. Those who were familiar with Philosophy, within the so-called Western tradition, came to know of texts, traditions, and practices largely historically unconnected to this tradition, and to identify these practices as also “philosophical” by virtue of their similarity to the practices familiar in the West. Thus Schoepenhauer, as is well-known, was impressed by the philosophy of the ancient Indian Upanishads. The existence of a Chinese philosophical tradition was another early realization along these lines. Since that time, African and Native American traditions, among others, have also been recognized and studied. (See, for instance, the work of Kwame Gyeke on the Akan conceptual scheme; Claude Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée Sauvage [The Savage Mind]; and Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places on the Apache.)

Undoubtedly, further awareness of these formerly disconnected historical and cultural situations in which philosophy had taken shape, had an effect on the subsequent history of philosophy itself. To some extent, these various traditions have had the opportunity to merge into a single tradition, albeit (of course) one that remains relatively easily capable of demarcation into a great variety of separate conversations.