J.B. Schneewind (Philosophy, Johns Hopkins) has a quite interesting review of a new collection of essays about "analytic" philosophers and history of philosophy. This part, discussing the contribution of Daniel Garber (Princeton), is especially provocative I thought (and resonates with some of the topics I discuss in my introduction to The Future for Philosophy volume):
Historians of philosophy are sometimes criticized for making their study relevant to current issues at the cost of being anachronistic, of reading the past through today's conceptual spectacles. If they avoid this, they may be criticized for being mere antiquarians, loving study of the past for its own sake (that is, for being historians)....Daniel Garber, who insists on contextualizing past writings to avoid anachronism, passionately embraces antiquarianism. And he argues that it is from antiquarian history that problem-solving analytic philosophers have the most to learn. Not because the past is a source of arguments and positions that may be helpful in current debates -- though it is that -- but for a more important reason.
Analytic philosophy, Garber holds, has moved from its initial heady insistence on solving problems by logical analysis to its current watery demand for precision and rigor. It is currently in a state of crisis. Its practitioners are doing Kuhnian normal philosophy but the paradigm itself is coming unraveled. What properly and fully contextualized study of the past can do is to show us the many different things philosophers were doing in working on the problems we take as central. Descartes was undermining Aristotelian philosophy, and with it the established university curriculum, and with it the universities and their role in supporting the church, and with this threatening a major source of social stability. We need not confine context to the corpus of a favored author's works or to the predecessors we know the philosopher considered. We can make it as broad as we choose. History gives us fresh views of what philosophy has done and so can do -- of what it was and so can be. And this is what is needed by problem-solvers today.
So far we have been urged to see history of philosophy as showing us arguments, distinctions, and theories we may use today, as aiding us in becoming more fully aware of our unconscious presuppositions, as useful for teaching beginners, as making us more fully reflective about our own activities than we have been, as showing us how to avoid past conceptual muddles while using the data of science, and as giving us visions different from those current of what philosophy is and does. Contextualized history seems to be the favorite; Hatfield and Garber seem to me to give the best statements of the case for its importance. Everyone agrees, moreover, that the benefit of the study of history for analytic philosophers is instrumental: they should study history because they'd find it a useful tool....
We hear much about what analytic philosophers miss if they ignore history, but nothing of damage to historical work from being oriented to problem-solvers' uses of it. No one here asks why, and even whether, historians of philosophy should care about the response of problem-solvers to their work. Is it only because the problem-solvers largely control hiring, promotions, and raises?
There is much here to which I'm sympathetic. Far too much time and energy (not to mention too many faculty lines) are probably being invested in the latest "hot problem" that has a shelf-life of 3-5 years, and which will soon be superseded by a new "clever" take on the next "hot problem". (I am also reminded of Jason Stanley's interesting discussion of "catch-all" solutions to philosophical problems.) Study of historical figures (those who have passed the proverbial "test of time" standard) is one way to guard against the "Chmess" phenomenon diagnosed by Dennett some time ago.
In any case, I'm interested in hearing from philosophers what they make of the Schneewind/Garber analysis of the philosophical situation and the value of history of philosophy. No anonymous postings; posts may take awhile to appear, so be patient.
UPDATE: Jason Stanley replies to this posting here, and has opened comments there. It might be best to pursue the discussion there. I will try to review the comments at various intervals for approval to keep things moving along.