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Philosophy Then

Come Together

Peter Adamson on agreement in philosophy.

A favorite move of skeptics through the ages has been to point to the diversity of opinion among philosophers to show that there is no one truth. In fact, the original Skeptics of classical antiquity formalized this move into one of the ‘modes’ they used to undermine dogmatic belief. They introduced doubt on some issue by pointing out that people have disagreed about it – for example, although most people say that there is motion, Parmenides argues that motion is an illusion. Then they show that considerations can be adduced on both sides, ultimately yielding a stalemate

Indeed, the history of philosophy can seem to be the history of people disagreeing with one another. Almost any position you can imagine on any philosophical topic has been held by someone, and supported with arguments that they at least found plausible.

Aristotle was no skeptic, but he was alive to the diversity of views that already existed by his time (384-322 BC), and also realized that this provided a powerful instrument for refuting opponents. In his work on dialectic (the techniques of argument), the Topics, he suggested that one can draw on what he called endoxa – ‘accepted opinions’ – as material for building arguments in debate. All the opinions of ‘the many and the wise’ would be fair game, since such views often have an initial plausibility, even though they are mutually inconsistent.

But in other contexts Aristotle was not content simply to collect diverse beliefs as a kind of argumentative arsenal. He instead tried to organize the views of earlier thinkers, not just to summarize what they thought, but to show where they were right, and where they fell short. This is why several of his most important works, such as the Physics and On the Soul, begin with a survey of Presocratic and Platonic philosophy. They’re among the first attempts to write a history of philosophy, but Aristotle was not writing as a historian. Instead he wanted to take lessons from his predecessors that he could deploy in his own philosophy. For instance, he observed that some earlier thinkers believed that ‘like is perceived by like’ (so that the eye must be made of similar elements to visible objects), while others held that ‘like is perceived by unlike’ (because what is perceived must be somehow different from what perceives, so that the latter may be changed by the former). Here Aristotle split the difference: the organ of perception is indeed ‘like’ its object, but only potentially so.

Aristotle was interested in earlier theories because he assumed that human inquiry is bound to get at the truth, at least in part. In the Metaphysics Bk 1, ch.1, he compared the truth to a door you can’t help hitting when you shoot at it. Yet no one would be able to attain the whole truth alone, which is why we need to turn to our forebears. Even if some have contributed only a little, when the insights are gathered together, the result is considerable.

These are optimistic sentiments, but Aristotle did not go so far as to say it’s inevitable that the whole truth would emerge, or that his own system was a sort of revelation of that emergence. For that, we need to wait until Hegel. And we have to wait, as Hegel would say, since it was only in his age that the time became ripe for the full expression of truth in a single, fully self-conscious system (his system). Hegel saw the whole history of human thought as leading ineluctably through stages to thought’s complete fruition – at which point philosophy finds itself ‘already completed’, as he put it.

Hegel’s understanding of the history of philosophy was thus diametrically opposed to that of the skeptic, who points to the disagreements among philosophers and finds that the only reasonable reaction is to suspend judgment. As Angelica Nuzzo has written in her contribution to Hegel’s History of Philosophy: New Interpretations (D.A. Duquette, ed., 2003), Hegel sought to dispel the impression that history had seen only “a multiplicity of philosophies set one against the other – each philosophy claiming to be in possession of the unique truth, and each one being the ‘refutation’ of the truth claimed by the other.” Instead, Hegel argued, we need to understand how each phase of philosophy constitutes a step towards the completion of philosophy itself. This is why he, no less than Aristotle, was committed to the exploration of the history of philosophy. He lectured on the topic numerous times: in Jena, then Heidelberg, then every other year in Berlin for a decade until his death in 1831. We have detailed notes taken for these lectures, which explain how philosophy has developed ‘logically’ in Hegel’s sense of the term. As he said to his students in his 1820 lectures, “the succession of the systems of philosophy in its history is the same as the succession that takes place in the logical deduction of the conceptual determinations of the idea.”

This makes it sound like philosophers of all ages are, unbeknownst to themselves, somehow magically making foreordained moves in a larger conceptual development. But in fact there is nothing magical about it on Hegel’s view. His account rests on the plausible assumption that philosophers must always react to the world around them; and as reality (Wirklichkeit) itself changed, philosophy had to change in order to correspond to that reality.

This is what Hegel meant by his famous remark ‘philosophy is its own time apprehended in thoughts’ (Principles of the Philosophy of Right, 1820). But I myself am unconvinced by Hegel’s notion that philosophy has developed as the necessary unfolding of reason. This is despite my agreeing with him that the history of philosophy is deeply connected to the history of the world. It’s just that I do not think world history itself is heading towards any particular destination.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2020

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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