In this post, I will summarize Anthony Kenny’s description of his approach to history of philosophy, as given in the general introduction to his massive one volume history of philosophy, A New History of Western Philosophy.
Kenny first distinguishes his approach to history of philosophy from that of philosophers who view the history of philosophy as leading up to their own system, as, for example, Aristotle and Hegel did. Kenny says that he lacks the “supreme self-confidence as a philosopher” to approach history of philosophy like that, and for that matter, he thinks it is legitimate to question whether philosophy makes progress at all.
Kenny says that philosophy can be compared either to science or to art. If we compare it to science, we will see philosophy as producing an ever expanding body of scholarship that has surpassed the great philosophers of the past, like Plato. If we compare it to art, we will see a great work of philosophy as a product of individual genius that never gets outdated.
The view Kenny himself adopts, however, is in between these two views. Philosophy is not a matter of acquiring new knowledge but of organizing what we know, and this is so difficult that only a small number of geniuses can do it. The rest of us are forced to look up to them and take what we can from their ideas.
Kenny claims that philosophy is the discipline that the sciences emerge from, and that “a discipline remains philosophical as long as its concepts are unclarified and its methods are controversial.” He gives two examples. First, the issue of whether our ideas are innate or learned from experience was originally philosophical, but then was partly taken over by psychology, with certain issues pertaining to a priori knowledge remaining philosophical. Second, Aristotle believed that there was a branch of philosophy called “theology,” but “when we read what he says of it today, it seems to us a mix of astronomy and philosophy of religion.” Philosophy has no distinctive subject matter, only a set of methods.
At this point, Kenny considers the view that philosophy only has the therapeutic role of untangling confusions that people have gotten themselves into. To emphasize that this view is consistent with the existence of philosophical progress, Kenny gives the example of when Plato clarified Parmenides’ mistake over two senses of the verb “to be”:
Plato, in one of his dialogues, sorted out the issues so successfully that there has never again been an excuse for mixing them up: indeed, it now takes a great effort of philosophical imagination to work out exactly what led Parmenides into confusion in the first place.
Progress of this kind is often concealed by its very success: once a philosophical problem is resolved, no one regards it any more as a matter of philosophy.
Another example of philosophical progress that Kenny says is consistent with the therapeutic view of philosophy is making new distinctions; for example, philosophical discussions of free will are now required to take compatibilism into account, not merely phrase the issue as a dispute between libertarianism and hard determinism.
Another example of philosophical progress Kenny gives is reinterpreting classic works of philosophy, and he claims that one example of this is recent progress in scholarship on Aristotle and Plato. Here he makes a couple of points about history of philosophy. First, a historian of philosophy has to be a philosopher, because otherwise he would not be able to paraphrase past philosophers and fill in gaps in their reasoning as is required to do history of philosophy. Second, a historian of philosophy has to know about the historical context in which past philosophers wrote. He also points out that original philosophy requires engaging with the history of philosophy, as when Frege spent the first half of his book The Foundations of Arithmetic discussing rival theories.
Kenny next discusses exegesis. He distinguishes between internal exegesis, which attempts to provide a coherent and charitable interpretation of a philosophical text, and external exegesis, which attempts to relate one philosopher’s views to the views of other philosophers in order to bring out their significance. He also distinguishes between historical philosophy, which attempts to look for the justifications of the ideas in the text, and history of ideas, which looks for the motives that led a thinker to put forward the ideas that they did. He points out that a good original philosopher can be a poor exegete, as when Wittgenstein attempted to explain Augustine’s theory of language in the beginning of Philosophical Investigations.
Kenny points out that the skills of the historian can be more important than the skills of the philosopher or vice versa, depending on the purpose of the inquiry in question. The relative importance of these skill sets also varies depending on the area of philosophy in question. For example, ancient metaphysics will seem pointless to someone without a deep concern for the philosophical issues it addresses, and ancient political theory will probably be misinterpreted by a philosopher who projects democracy in its modern form back onto Plato or Aristotle.
Finally, Kenny concedes that he knows much less about the details of the philosophers he is discussing than a specialist on those philosophers would, but argues that it might still be valuable to provide a bird’s eye view of the history of philosophy.