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February 2016

Some Reflections on the History of Philosophy

Smith explains the views of Kant and Hegel on the history of philosophy, and explores whether moral judgments should be applied to the realm of ideas.

René Descartes once observed that no one can become a competent mathematician by merely memorizing the proofs that others have demonstrated; he must learn to solve problems on his own. Likewise, we may memorize the arguments of Plato and Aristotle and other great philosophers, but we will never qualify as authentic philosophers unless we are able to assess arguments and analyze philosophical problems on our own. We may read as many philosophers as we like, but if we fail to exercise independent judgment our knowledge will be historical rather than philosophical.

Immanuel Kant made a similar point. The person who has learned a system of philosophy, however thoroughly he knows it, “possesses really no more than an historical knowledge of the…system; he knows only what has been told him, his judgments are only those which he has received from his teachers.”

Kant distinguished between two perspectives on philosophical knowledge: objective and subjective. A reasoned system of principles and arguments is objective philosophical knowledge; but if it is accepted second-hand without comprehending the justification for the principles and their logical connections, then, subjectively considered, we possess only historical knowledge, not philosophical knowledge.

To illustrate: The philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Kant’s standard, qualifies as objective, because it is supported with arguments. (Of course, this does not necessarily mean that her arguments are valid.) But if an admirer of Ayn Rand accepts her arguments passively and uncritically, then he is functioning as an historian, not as a philosopher. He knows her ideas as he would know any historical data—as the particular thoughts of an individual named Ayn Rand—rather than as the universal principles of an authentic philosophy. As Kant put it, such intellectual second-handers “remain in a state of pupilage all their lives.”

Kant believed that philosophy, strictly speaking, cannot be learned, memorized, or taught. At most, we can learn to philosophize; i.e., “we can only exercise our powers of reasoning in accordance with general principles, retaining at the same time, the right of investigating the sources of these principles, of testing, and even of rejecting them.”

A different view of the relationship between philosophy and history was expressed by Hegel. Hegel did not draw a bright line between the history of philosophy and philosophy per se; instead he had an organic conception of their relationship. According to Hegel, “the history of a subject is necessarily intimately connected with the conception which is formed of it.” This means that we can undertake historical investigations of philosophy only with certain philosophical presuppositions which focus our attention on this rather than that, and which provide the general framework, or point of view, for interpreting and understanding the facts of history.

Historical investigation is an active process, not a passive one. The historian must actively engage the thoughts of past philosophers if he or she is to write a history of them. Or as Hegel put it, “the study of the history of Philosophy is an introduction to Philosophy itself.”         

Hegel emphasized the importance of understanding a philosophy as an integrated system of ideas. The great philosophers were system-builders; and if we are to understand their systems, we must do more than understand their component parts separately. We must place ourselves within a system and view it internally, thereby comprehending its structure and internal logic—why it developed as it did, how this part relates to that, and so forth. Or, to put it in more Hegelian terms, we must comprehend the spirit of a philosophical system: its soul or animating principle, that which gives it life and movement, that which makes it worthwhile to ponder long after its originator has died.

Whereas Descartes and Kant might say that we can learn the history of philosophy without comprehending particular philosophical systems (thus distinguishing history from philosophy), Hegel would say that we cannot truly grasp the history of philosophy without comprehending philosophy itself. A true history of philosophy must be internal, not merely external. To study the history of philosophy is itself a philosophic enterprise; and, conversely, to philosophize truly, we must know something of the historical problems and theories that have shaped one’s own thinking and the nature of philosophy itself. 

Hegel’s approach proved extremely influential, especially throughout the nineteenth century when many historians of philosophy, including those who rejected Hegel’s metaphysics, accepted his view that a history of philosophy should not consist of a laundry list of different ideas that were developed and defended by different thinkers, as if in isolation. A good history of philosophy should deal with the complex interactions among different systems of philosophy, as when one philosopher pursued the logical implications of an idea developed by another philosopher, even if the original source was unaware of those implications.

The role of unintended consequences in the realm of ideas was a major and recurring theme in Hegel’s history of philosophy, and that theme reverberated through the twentieth century to the present day. Consider, for example, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937), a book written by the distinguished Catholic scholar and Thomist Etienne Gilson. Although we might not expect an Aristotelian like Gilson to draw heavily from Hegel’s theories (even though Hegel himself acknowledged his considerable intellectual debts to Aristotle), Gilson kicked off his historical account of the “problem of universals” in medieval philosophy by quoting from Hegel’s Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind. As Gilson pointed out, Hegel insisted that knowing a philosophical system involves more than knowing its purpose and its result. The subjective purpose, or what the philosopher intended to do, is often vague and uncertain, and it may be nothing more than an unrealized intention. As for the result, Hegel compared this to “the corpse of the system which has left its guiding tendency behind it.” What is really important is to understand the “inner necessity of knowledge.”

What Hegel was getting at was described by Gilson as the “inner history of ideas” and their “inner necessity.” This inner logic of ideas refers to the fact that ideas tend to take on a life of their own, quite apart from the intentions or desires of their creators. Ideas, like actions, have unintended consequences. As Gilson so elegantly put it:

[I]n each instance of philosophical thinking, both the philosopher and his particular doctrine are ruled from above by an impersonal necessity. In the first place, philosophers are free to lay down their own sets of principles, but once this is done, they no longer think as they wish — they think as they can. In the second place, it seems to result from the facts under discussion, that any attempt on the part of a philosopher to shun the consequences of his own position is doomed to failure. What he himself declines to say will be said by his disciples, if he has any; if he has none, it may remain eternally unsaid, but it is there, and anybody going back to the same principles, be it several centuries later, will have to face the same conclusions. It seems, therefore, that though philosophical ideas can never be found separate from philosophers and their philosophies, they are, to some extent, independent of philosophers as well as of their philosophies. Philosophy consists in the concepts of philosophers, taken in the naked, impersonal necessity of both their contents and their relationships in the history of philosophy itself.

It is by tracing the inner logic of ideas in the history of philosophy that we come to understand how a seemingly minor and innocuous theory can develop over time into something far more significant and radical. Unintended consequences have exhibited themselves throughout the history of philosophy. The logical implications of a theory, even if not intended or foreseen by the theorist, will frequently be developed by others. Of course, Hegel regarded the progress of ideas as historically necessitated by previous ideas through his famous dialectical process, but (as I suggested above) one need not embrace Hegel’s metaphysical system to appreciate many of his insights, which may be adapted to fit into one’s own philosophical system. This is an important point to keep in mind. One need not agree with the fundamental principles of a philosopher in order to learn from that philosopher. For instance, I have learned a great deal from reading Kant, despite my profound disagreements with his basic approach to epistemology and ethics. The same applies to my reading of Aquinas, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and many other great thinkers.

I now turn to some thorny problems that attend the consequences, whether intended or unintended, of philosophical theories. I base my commentary on a text from last week’s essay in which I quoted Ayn Rand’s infamous remark that Immanuel Kant was “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1971). Although thinkers of the highest caliber have said absurd things on occasion, Rand’s comment is so absurd that to label it absurd does not quite do it justice. This is absurdity sui generis, absurdity elevated to a fine art, absurdity so quirky and outrageous that it could only have come from the mind of a brilliant and original thinker whose self-confidence was off the charts. To say that Richard Nixon was the most evil man in mankind’s history would have been stupid. To say that Karl Marx was the most evil man in mankind’s history would have been ignorant. To say that Confucius was the most evil man in mankind’s history would have been silly. To say that Hitler or Stalin was the most evil man in mankind’s history would have been credible. But to say, as Rand did, that Immanuel Kant was the most evil man in mankind’s history was not stupid, nor was it ignorant, nor was it silly, nor was it credible. Although Rand misunderstood some important features of Kant’s philosophy, her misunderstanding has little relevance to the absurdity of her remark about Kant. For let us suppose that her understanding of Kant’s philosophy was correct in every respect and in every detail. The mystery is how Rand could move from Kant’s philosophical errors, however serious they may have been, to consigning Kant to the basement of the lowest rung of Evil-Doers’ Hell. The Kafkaesque absurdity of Rand’s judgment lies in how deftly and confidently she moved from premise to conclusion, as if the reasons were virtually self-evident. It is as if Ayn Rand were a girl playing King of the Hill, standing atop a mound of dirt at a construction site, fists clenched and eyes flashing, daring any other child to challenge her.

If one has, as I do, a high regard for Rand’s intelligence and philosophic abilities, her extreme assessment of Kant, precisely because it is so extreme, enables us to isolate important elements that appear in all similar but more moderate judgments of philosophers and their ideas. In what sense, if any, may we speak of ideas and theories per se as being moral or immoral, good or evil? Did Oscar Wilde have a point when he famously said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.”? Applied to books on philosophy, this would suggest that philosophical theories per se cannot be either moral or immoral. Those theories may be expressed clearly or unclearly, they may be justified or unjustified, they may be based on rational or irrational reasoning, their key terms may be defined or left undefined—but to apply moral concepts and judgments to philosophical ideas and theories is to use language incorrectly.

Moreover, even if we decide that normative moral judgments may properly be applied to the realm of ideas, we are left with a host of other problems in determining who should bear responsibility for the consequences of evil or immoral ideas. And here we confront head-on the issue of unintended intellectual consequences. This is an especially interesting problem in Rand’s moral condemnation of Kant, for Kant was an important classical liberal who defended the moral autonomy and equal rights of every individual, a limited government that is restricted to the retaliatory use of force, and a system of objective laws. Even conceding some problems in Kant’s theory of the state, we might expect that his well-reasoned defense of freedom and limited government would shield him from the ferocious onslaughts of Rand’s moral wrath.

Rand dealt with this type of issue in a distinctive if peculiar way. She declared that a philosopher’s metaphysical and epistemological theories constitute the foundation of other aspects of his philosophy, and that those other aspects, such as a philosopher’s political theory, will flow logically from that foundation. But what if a philosopher defended a political theory that Rand deemed inconsistent with his metaphysics and epistemology? There are variants of this possibility, but let’s take a look at how Rand’s approach—which says, in effect, that premises will out—assisted her case against Kant.

If we give pride of place to Kant’s political ideas, then it will be virtually impossible to tag Kant as evil at all, much less condemn him as the most evil man in the history of mankind. What I presume to be the official Randian detour around this problem is found in Leonard Peikoff’s book The Ominous Parallels (1982). After conceding that Kant “accepts certain elements of individualism,” Peikoff maintained that Kant embraced those individualistic elements “not because of his basic approach, but in spite of it.” In truth, “Kant did not grasp the political implications of his own metaphysics and epistemology.”

Thus did Peikoff attempt to diminish or destroy altogether the theoretical and historical significance of Kant’s individualism, which had a profound influence on the development of classical liberalism in Germany and other countries. It is as if Kant’s defense of a free society—a “Kingdom of Ends” in which people are free to pursue their own goals according to their own judgments so long as they respect the right of others to do the same—should count for nothing when assessing the overall influence of Kant’s ideas. A one-woman jury had already determined that Kant was a moral monster. The supposed implications of his metaphysical and epistemological theories could leave no reasonable doubt about Kant’s complicity in the rise of Nazism, even if his political theory was quite close to Rand’s own political theory. Kant had developed a pro-freedom political philosophy, but that (in the words of Peikoff) was a mere “legacy of the Enlightenment period in which he lived,” not a logical outgrowth of his disastrous metaphysics and epistemology. Kant possibly lacked the mental ability to understand what Rand and Peikoff saw clearly, namely, that a consistent Kant would have developed and defended an anti-freedom, collectivist political philosophy in which people have a duty to sacrifice themselves and others for the good of the state. Unlike Rand and Peikoff, however, Kant failed to grasp the disastrous political implications of his own metaphysical and epistemological theories. Thus, presumably through a mysterious process of cultural osmosis, Kant ended up writing a compelling and systematic justification of individual rights and equal freedom—a task for which he deserves no credit (or minimal credit at best) and whose beneficial effects have been disallowed as counter-evidence against the charge that Kant was more evil than the worst mass-murderers and other reprehensible villains in history.

This essay has generated more unanswered questions than we started with. I shall do my best to cover those questions in my next essay. But some of those problems are extremely difficult to resolve, so I cannot guarantee that my comments will satisfy even myself, much less satisfy my readers. Nevertheless a journey of this sort, even if it fails to reach its ultimate goal, will often clarify the essential questions, and any such increase in clarity is worthwhile in its own right.

This is part of a series