Philosophy: Historical Scholarship

Philosophy is distinctive among the areas of the humanities and social sciences for its interest in texts from its own distant past and for its investigation of that past. Historical scholarship is an important aspect of philosophy and includes discovering and editing texts by philosophers of the past, writing expository and explanatory commentaries on these texts, and discussing these texts in an evaluative, critical or even polemical way. While an undergraduate in another subject, such as sociology or psychology, might take a one- or two-semester course on the history of the discipline as part of a specialization, and while students of literature are expected to have some familiarity with a long tradition of literary criticism, philosophy students commonly read works by writers from ancient Greece or China, from medieval Muslim, Jewish or Christian sources, or from 17th or 18th century Europe as part of their systematic study of the field. In addition, the specialist in the field has usually taken several courses covering a number of periods in the history of the subject during an undergraduate program.

This focus on the history of the discipline as part of the discipline is reflected in the great effort given by scholars in philosophy to the proper interpretation of historical texts and to the fair evaluation of their contents. Canadian philosophers have played a major role in this work during the period following the end of the 19th Century. The sections to follow will outline the reasons for the high profile accorded to the history of philosophy in philosophical studies, the causes for Canadian concentration in the subject, and the extent of the Canadian contribution to it.

Why Do History of Philosophy?

Some philosophers have held that the history of philosophy is not essential to the doing of philosophy. This observation provides a clue as to why that history is at least very important, if not absolutely essential to the study of philosophy. Philosophers like to consider a number of possible positions on the matters they care to discuss. That some thinkers have held that past philosophy should have little or no role and have offered reasons for that position makes that stand - now a part of the history of the subject - a matter of current concern.

Philosophers who hold that an examination of the work of past thinkers - even of thinkers from the remote past - is important to the present practice of philosophy do so for a variety of reasons. Some see philosophy as a perennial search for timeless truths, for answers to questions which have changed only by way of refinement in precision since the endeavour began. These thinkers hold that the examination of classic texts in the field aids in the proper understanding of these enduring questions by displaying the insights which have yielded good provisional answers to them, and which have laid the groundwork for more sophisticated current issues to be addressed by the philosophers of the present.

Others see the study of historical sources as a way to get a new perspective on current issues by escaping from well-worn patterns of thought. This new perspective is realized by considering how a question, usually taken up under a contemporary set of assumptions, might have been addressed by those who thought through a similar matter.

There are some philosophers who have wanted to make even more ambitious claims for the historical character of philosophy. They have held that it is a form of reflection on a culture which itself develops over time. This reflection develops in response to a number of factors, which, of course, include environmental and economic factors, but also include that culture's response to the influences of neighbouring and preceding cultures and to tensions internal to the culture itself.

Important among the items upon which the philosopher must reflect are the previous reflections on culture provided by the philosophers of the day and those reflections which have been adopted (and adapted) from the cultures to which the philosopher's culture has responded. This view of philosophy makes it essentially historical: the product of an historical situation which includes a representation of other, earlier products and which operates on those products.

For such philosophers, the philosophic task of understanding our liberal-democratic approach to social questions requires an understanding of a figure such as Locke, the culture which produced him, and his own perceived impact on subsequent culture. One historically important exponent of this approach to philosophical questions was the 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, a thinker who attracted the attention of many Canadian philosophers, particularly in English Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Some reasons for a strong interest by philosophers in the past of the discipline are pedagogical: the past can be mined for instructive errors, or it can be a source of useful interpretative and analytical exercises. The errors to be found may be obvious or not-so-obvious errors in reasoning. They may include faulty assumptions or ones, now known to be false, which have led those who have made them down dangerous paths. The exercise in this case is the discovery of the error in its camouflage of truism, apt deduction, and sophisticated manoeuvre. The analytic exercise consists in the dissection of arguments so well-known that their structures are thoroughly understood.

In addition, the past can teach by example. If there is a mode of inquiry that is distinctively philosophical, or an attitude or concern that marks the philosopher in some important way, then the best way to discover it in action is to examine the lives and works of past philosophers. The best way to teach such a philosophical mode of inquiry can often be through a display of the results of that investigation.

At least one thinker who had great influence on Canadian students of the history of philosophy believed in teaching in this way. He was the great French mediaevalist, Etienne Gilson, a dominant figure at Toronto's Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, where he taught for part of the academic session for many years. In Gilson's opinion, the past could be searched both for examples of the philosophic virtues and for paradigms of success in the philosophic venture. While he held that many of the truly great accomplishments were to be found among the works of Aristotle and his followers in the Middle Ages, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, these thinkers were not alone in their successes and certainly not alone in their devotion to the reasoned quest for fundamental truths.

How To Do History of Philosophy?

Most philosophers study the history of philosophy in a manner quite different from that in which the historian of ideas or the intellectual historian would choose to study the works of the same thinkers. Philosophers are not generally concerned with the tracing of patterns of thought through periods of time in order to discover continuities or breaks and to speculate upon those continuities or breaks. Neither do philosophers wish to spend a great deal of time on the economic, social, or intellectual contexts in which various theories were produced, nor on the uses to which these theories were put. Instead, philosophers' concerns have been either appropriative or antiquarian. These approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do tend to go with different aims in studying the discipline's past.

Appropriators are primarily interested in connecting past work to current concerns. Many who seek instructive examples or enduring insights work in this manner. Such philosophers try to connect past work to current concerns by trying to modernize the idiom of their subject, by drawing parallels between their readings of various texts and positions advanced recently, or by looking for precedents. With precedents from the history of philosophy, old ways of proceeding and old results achieved are found to be applicable for procedures in new contexts and are found to answer questions new in detail but familiar in structure.

An appropriator will read an author, say Spinoza, in order to see what he can say to us. Many Catholic philosophers, both in Québec and in English Canada, have attempted to use Aristotle and Aquinas in this way. Some historians trained in post-war English philosophy - for example, Jonathan Bennett of the University of British Columbia - also do so.

Antiquarians prefer an approach to historical texts which interprets them in roughly the way they would have been understood when they were new. They edit texts to eliminate late additions and changes. This is an especially difficult task when the texts were originally only in manuscript form, and when the earliest copies we have available were made many years after the original. Often these copies were made from copies which were themselves made long after the original. Moreover, these copies were often made by scribes not too concerned with accuracy.

Antiquarians also compare the texts in which they are interested to other works by the same author and to the writings of that author's contemporaries. The comparisons with another writer can be very helpful when that writer is a student or a teacher of the author in question, or when he or she corresponded or engaged in controversy with that author.

In Canada, an early important centre of antiquarian historical study was located at the University of Toronto. This approach received favour both in the university's main department during the period in which G. S. BRETT and his successor Fulton Anderson were heads (1920-63) and at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, located at St. Michael's College. The approach came to dominate the research concerns of other humanities departments at the university as well, with the result that it was alleged that a Toronto school of intellectual history had grown up. This allegation was not always offered as a compliment. Since the early 1960s, however, the Toronto department has become less emphatically antiquarian, while the scholarly methods associated with the approach have become common elsewhere.

Why Canadians Have Studied the History of Philosophy So Extensively

There are two levels of explanation for the strong Canadian emphasis on the study of the history of philosophy. One is institutional and focuses on the economic, social and cultural domination of Toronto, Montréal, and - within Québec - of Québec City on the intellectual and academic life of the Anglophone and Francophone communities. Tendencies at the University of Toronto, Université Laval, McGill University and eventually at the Université de Montréal were communicated from these metropolitan centres to the outermost regions of the country, where new universities were sometimes founded as offshoots of the old ones, were often staffed by graduates of the old ones, and always had to respond to the intellectual agendas of the old ones, at least by way of reaction.

This institutional explanation, however, does not account for the important role accorded to historical studies at the older schools nor for the fact that many of these schools chose to value those studies so highly. A number of cultural explanations have been advanced for these patterns. Of course, the importance in Québec of the Roman Catholic Church in all fields of cultural endeavour until the early 1960s explains much of the interest up to that time, and for some time after, in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and in certain other medieval philosophers. Some scholars detect a strong communitarian and traditionalist tendency especially in English Canadian culture and associate it with a form of idealism practiced by thinkers such as John WATSON of Queen's University. These thinkers saw historical study as a central part of their philosophical work - as did their readers and students.

Although the scene has changed since 1960, and neither the old institutions nor the old cultural assumptions retain their original hegemony, there remains a significant residual effect of these traditional approaches in current academic culture in both Anglophone and Francophone areas. The focus has shifted: new figures are studied, for new purposes, using new methods. Nevertheless, in both linguistic communities, there continues to be a recognition that historical studies in philosophy are worth doing and worth the application of an important part of one's scholarly career. Philosophers in both communities have gone to historical sources to guide their contemporary practice of philosophy, and have been supported in these efforts by their colleagues in the universities and CEGEPs, and by a range of granting agencies.

In Québec, the work on traditional Catholic philosophy which flourished between the wars and characterized thinkers such as Louis LACHANCE, Charles DE KONINK, Benoit Lacroix and Vianney Décarie gave way to an interest in French thought of the early and mid-20th century. This focus on thinkers who were part of, or readily appropriated by, the Catholic tradition (Henri Bergson, Maurice Blondel, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier) gave way to an increasing interest in Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and the existentialist and phenomenological approaches of the inter-war and early post-war years. These changes occurred as Québec expanded economically, secularized and developed a sense of national identity on other than religious grounds in the period which began in the 1950s and culminated in the first PARTI QUÉBECOIS government, elected in 1976. The seeds of this development were sown by non-academic reviews, such as PARTI PRIS and LIBERTÉ, which served as a radical voice in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the university system in Québec expanded and lost its clerical connections after 1960, these secular interests moved into an academic milieu and professional standards developed. In recent years, there have been excellent studies on classical Greek philosophy by Yvon Lafrance, Luc Brisson and Léonce Paquet. Work of a high standard has been done on modern philosophy. The work of Olivier Reboul on Kant, of François Duchesneau on Leibniz, and of Guy Lafrance on Rousseau, Durkheim and Bergson provide a few examples of the first-rate work done in the subject. The high standards of Québecois scholars in the field are reflected in the pages of Philosophiques (1974-), the official periodical of the Société de philosophie du Québec.

In English Canada, the university expansion of the 1960s and early 1970s has led to a relative decline in the influence of the University of Toronto on Canadian scholarship, even as the philosophy department in that institution expanded to meet vastly increased enrolments (The department grew most rapidly during the headship of Thomas A. GOUDGE, 1963-68). Moreover, there has been a shift in focus even at the University of Toronto: those hired during the growth period became interested in systematic approaches to philosophical problems as well as in the study of major thinkers of the past. Now, historical scholarship has become widespread and diversified in area of study, approach, and institutional base. It is now possible to study Aristotle at the University of Alberta, Indian philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Hegel at McGill, early modern philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, or recent continental thought at Trent University in Peterborough. Equally important, it is possible to work with scholars of international repute at all of these, and many other, centres.

What is considered to be more the systematic work of many contemporary Canadian philosophers draws heavily on historical sources. For example, Torontonian Ian Hacking's work on the human sciences and on the use of statistical techniques and Charles TAYLOR's increasingly important political philosophy involve reflection on the work of many modern thinkers, both prominent and obscure. Organizations and publications devoted to the study of Hume, Leibniz, Kant and John Stuart Mill find many members and contributors in English Canada, while the international networks of scholars in Greek and mediaeval philosophy have strong Canadian representation.

Participation in international networks is important to scholarship in the late 20th century, and Canadian experts on the history of philosophy follow the trend. Conferences on historical topics which are held in Canada may involve scholars from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy or other nations. A current production of a critical edition of the work of the 19th century American philosopher C.S. Peirce is based in Indiana, but draws on the expertise of Peirce scholars located at the universities of Waterloo and Toronto. Collaborative projects on Leibniz and Descartes have involved contributions not only from several Canadian centres, but also from scholars from Germany and France, respectively. A number of English Canadian philosophers have also made substantial contributions to new reference works on various aspects of the history of philosophy. These efforts have been assisted by lively communication via electronic mail and by the capacity to post work in progress on the INTERNET.

This use of information technology for communication among scholars is one aspect of the second major trend in recent scholarship: the use of computer applications to advance the work. This use of technology began late in the 1970s as an aid to writing and data organization. Concordances were produced for the work of Kierkegaard and of Wittgenstein under the direction of Alastair McKinnon at McGill University. A concordance for the Gerhard edition of Leibniz's work was produced by a team of scholars at Brock, Toronto and in Germany. A machine-readable edition of the Adam and Tannery collection of Descartes's philosophical works emanated from Toronto in the 1990s. Now, the technology aids both paper publication and the circulation of new work in non-print media.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Canadian scholars both from the Anglophone and the Francophone philosophical communities examined the development of philosophy in their own communities. This work reflected a growing national self-consciousness in both communities. The development was particularly noteworthy in Québec, where the pioneering work of Roland Houde was followed by the solid historical studies of Yvan Lamonde on the teaching and institutionalization of the subject in the academic life of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The study of the development of ideology in Québec, which was carried out by Denis Monière using a Marxist approach, was followed by Maurice Lagueux's award-winning study of the impact of Marxist thought on Québecois ideology during the 1960s. An example of more recent efforts is Yvan Cloutier's micro-historical examination of the patterns of influence of the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre on the opinion of Québec's leaders in the immediate post-World War II period.

An emerging interest in the history of ideas in English Canada has replaced the early work of the Toronto philosopher John IRVING with major studies by the historians Carl Berger and Brian McKillop, and by more strictly philosophical studies by Leslie ARMOUR and Elizabeth Trott. An important work in progress is a detailed history of the teaching of philosophy at the University of Toronto, now being prepared by John Slater. This study will draw heavily on both university and provincial archives and on extensive taped interviews with Toronto philosophers in order to set the work of that department in its social context. Also noteworthy is the biographical study by William Christie of English Canada's best-known public philosopher, George GRANT.