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In which I chomp on some bait.

November 28, 2009, 8:10 am

Oh, Holbo.  I know you’re not baiting me, but it feels like you are.

John has a problem that everyone who has to teach history of early modern has to face.  The standard story explains 17th and 18th century philosophy as a debate between two epistemological factions.  The rationalists Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz meet the empiricists Locke, Berkeley, and Hume in the octagon!   Who will emerge victorious?  KANT!  Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The virtues of the standard story are these.  Having a narrative that unites the whole period and builds towards contemporary thought helps give a survey course some thematic unity, which is important given the difficulty of the readings.  It’s also the standard story that almost every practicing philosopher has encountered, which makes it both very easy to teach and the conservative option.  Given that the students are almost certainly going to forget about most of the particulars after the final exam, if they’re left with a vague idea that Descartes is like the Matrix and Hume is like modern science and Kant said something but damned if I was doing the reading a week before finals, there’s not too much harm done.

The vice of the standard story is that it’s false.  As Holbo notes, Descartes’ philosophy, far from springing full-born from the head of Socrates, has much in common with the musty medieval theologians he criticizes.   None of the rationalists shunned empirical study, and the empiricists include Berkeley (which always struck me as a stretch of the framework.)  Making the whole period about warring factions in epistemology also means that certain writings of the moderns that don’t fit easily into that framework tend to get ignored.

So, Holbo’s solution:  frame the class on “Everything I Am Supposed To Teach You About [Early Modern Philosopher] is Wrong”, and mix contemporary treatments of similar problems into the early modern syllabus. He asks for inexpensive reading suggestions.

My criticisms and suggestions, mostly constructive but not sparing the snark, after the jump.

EIASTTYAEMPIW is an extraordinarily bad frame for this course.  Look, the students are taking an introductory survey course presumably because they don’t know anything about the moderns and they hope to learn something.  (That, or it fits their schedule.)  This means that they’re not coming in with a well-developed story about Descartes ascendant and Hume triumphant and Kant rampant; which means a smug frame about how what you’re supposed to teach them is either going to be over their heads or you’re going to have to teach them a bunch of false things in order to show how clever you are in rejecting that frame.  Moreover, EIASTTYAEMPIW really only works (as Holbo notes) for Descartes, Locke, and Hume, because they’re the only ones with an entrenched popular academic reading.  It doesn’t work for Spinoza or Leibniz, presumably because they’re not taught as often because they’re too hard (and to be frank the standard story doesn’t do them any favors to begin with) so they haven’t developed a popular analogue, and because people drawn to write dissertations and books on them tend to be exceedingly careful bastards.

I sympathize with the impulse.  The rationalist/empiricist framework is mostly junk but it’s pervasive elsewhere in the discipline.  The thing is, you can tip your hat to the traditional framework and then largely ignore it for the rest of the semester.  That’s not a frame, though, that’s ten minutes in your introductory lecture, and two minutes here and there.

If you want to keep the standard syllabus (which it doesn’t seem that Holbo does, and I’ll get to that), I’d recommend tracing various metaphysical themes.  Whether the philosopher accepts the principle of sufficient reason (implicitly or explicitly) is a good one, because it helps categorize them (Spinoza on one extreme, Kant on the other), and it also provides an avenue for criticizing their arguments.

Except that you should totally make sure they know that “cogito ergo sum” is not found anywhere in the Meditations.  There is some smugness whose expression cannot be denied.  Sum res cogitans, bitchez.

Drop the contemporary readings. Holbo’s plan here seems to be to mingle the moderns with contemporary treatments of similar problems.  If you liked the dream argument, you’ll love the Matrix!  Grue is the new induction!   There is a value to this approach.  (Since it relates the core arguments and concerns, or at least the Reader’s Digest version, of the early modern period to contemporary philosophy, it sidesteps a bunch of worries about why we’re reading these old dead white guys anyway.  See, a bunch of live white guys are still worried about these problems! (Erm.)

This approach, however, doesn’t help Holbo undermine the traditional narrative, as anyone who is using the moderns as a jumping off point to talk about skepticism or causation probably is working from the potted version of the history of philosophy.  His specific concerns aside, this approach undermines the value of the history of philosophy.  First, if all Descartes is doing is presenting an argument for skepticism, it’s hard to defend the value in reading him instead of reading one of our contemporaries, who can respond to e-mail requests to clarify his position, and who probably isn’t trying to squeeze in God and certainly isn’t writing to princesses.

More to the point, the kind of concept matching Holbo is proposing strips history of one of its great virtues.  Academic philosophers, due to the requirements of the academy and publishing, today tend to specialize in one subdiscipline of philosophy.  Someone who focuses in metaphysics probably doesn’t know a thing about metaethics.  There are benefits to specialization, but one of the drawbacks is that philosophy can look like brainteasers for adults, with philosophers concerned with finding the coolest move or trick so they can be patted on the back heartily by their colleagues and then break for wine and cheese.  (The faint sound you hear is the baby Leibniz weeping.)

This generally isn’t the case with the early moderns.  Descartes isn’t advancing the problem of skepticism because he got up one day in his toga and wondered if he could be sure he wasn’t being deceived; he does it to try to clear away some of the Aristotelian foundations of the academy of his time so that he can motivate his new approach to science.   It wasn’t just a puzzle for him; it was a matter of practical concern so he could do physics.   Spinoza’s book is called the Ethics and starts off with a discussion of metaphysics.  Why?  Because if people were going to understand how they should treat each other and organize themselves into political communities, they would need first to understand what people are like  and what reality is like.  Leibniz hoped that men instead of going to war would sit down and calculate in order to resolve their differences.

None of these men treated their philosophy in isolation from the rest of their concerns, and breaking out the problems to match them with easier-to-read contemporary treatments of those problems robs the period of its great strength.  In my experience, students like seeing how all the pieces matter, and I realize there are many approaches to the history of philosophy, but I think plucking out the arguments to show that there are contemporary treatments of similar problems does a huge disservice to a history class.  (And I suspect Holbo would recognize this if the course were about Plato.)

Onto some practical suggestions.  (Wealth, flutes, and in general instruments.)

Read some of the women. Down in the CT comments (see what I go through for you?) someone suggests that Holbo read some of the female philosophers of the time period.  Holbo’s response is typical; it’s a noble project to look at what the female writers said, but he’s not the man to do that.

He’s not alone in this kind of response. (As a side note, ancient philosophy courses can be really bad for this.  There’s not enough by women to even mention the poor dears; now, onto the pre-Socratics, including these guys whose writing has been lost to history….)

Lately my thinking has come around to: why the hell not?  One doesn’t have to be an expert in Descartes to read Elisabeth of Bohemia’s criticism of his arguments.   Lady Mary Shepherd’s criticism of Hume’s causal theory is excellent (and easier to read than Kant.)  This is not merely being PC; this is good, solid philosophy that’s usually ignored.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s asking for suggestion on his blog of stuff he hasn’t read that would help him make a better history of early modern philosophy course.  I presume he’s not going to limit himself in these suggestions to stuff he has already mastered; he’s going to do what anyone called on to teach a course outside of her area of research is going to do: read, distill, and fake it till ya make it.   So what’s the hang-up here?  It’s essentially the same kind of thing he’d be doing by picking a contemporary philosopher and using that to explain the Canonic Seven.  I promise their ovaries aren’t going to get in the way.

Better still, here’s the anthology I’d recommend.  Margaret Atherton compiled this anthology of female philosophers with an eye to its role in supplementing the traditional early modern syllabus, so most of the selections are letters or essays in response to specific topics or problems raised by the usual suspects.

I think this anthology would fulfill all of the requirements Holbo has:  it’s rare to assign the female philosophers, so in doing so one has to punt the traditional narrative to the curb at least somewhat.  It also makes the professor look clever and renegade (“the typical class doesn’t assign these philosophers, but I do!”), which I take it was part of the appeal of EIASTTYAEMPIW.  The anthology is also inexpensive: $10.

Other options: Thomas Reid.  Better than Kant, not in the standard narrative, clear and clever and full of common sense.   Descartes’ work on the emotions instead of the Meditations.   Pair Spinoza’s political thought with Locke’s.   I wouldn’t try all of these at once, because a) he probably doesn’t have a ton of flexibility in the syllabus and b) no need to make a ton of work for oneself.   Even one or two changes, however, could really change the feel of the course, and this can be done while working within the period.

One other suggestion: earlymoderntexts.com.  This is a collection of primary texts whose language has been updated and simplified by Jonathan Bennett.  One barrier to the period is the language and the style and while I would still assign primary texts (because language is important! and so is reading things in different styles!), this site is free, not dumbed down, and useful for students who otherwise couldn’t get into the material at all.

largely
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