Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What has history to do with me?

I think it's in Heart of Darkness that Joseph Conrad describes a book so clearly, usefully, and unpretentiously written that it shines. I was reminded of this by Samuel Fleischacker's A Short History of Distributive Justice. It's short, elegant, scholarly, fascinating, and moving.

In the epilogue, Fleischacker asks what the point has been of his journey through the history of an idea. His answer, roughly speaking, is this:

  1. history is interesting
  2. studying the history of the idea of distributive justice reveals its complexity (so history is an analytical tool)
  3. the burden of argument in current debates is more easily seen against the historical background (the belief that property rights are absolute is relatively recent, and so needs more justification than it might if it were a timeless truth universally acknowledged)
  4. greater sympathy for the poor came from imaginative work by people such as Adam Smith and writers of literature. "The importance of imaginative literature here, and the priority of changes in sensibility to changes in belief, suggest an intriguing model for how progress in ethical matters comes about. And that model might lead us to think twice about how helpful the sort of thing that today passes for "applied ethics" really is to the solution of ethical problems." (p. 126)
  5. moral intuitions are both necessary for moral thinking and largely inherited. We cannot do without them, but they can be harmful, and so we should pay attention to their origins.      
I agree with this, at least broadly. It doesn't seem obviously Wittgensteinian, but the origin of our ideas is certainly made prominent in Philosophical Investigations section 1. Stephen Mulhall has discussed the question of inheritance, too, of course.


  1. I always find historical accounts of concepts interesting and illuminating (Raymond Williams' "Key Words" springs to mind).

    And I think there is a link to Wittgenstein here. Because he saw our concepts as part of our natural history he considered himself to be taking an "anthropological" approach to philosophy. He didn't actually need to do anthropology (or ethnology), however, because invented histories would suffice for his purposes.

    But that of course suggests that using real histories might be an alternative means to the same end.

  2. Yes, it might. I thought about mentioning natural history, but I suppose it's not quite the same thing as history proper. I agree that there is a link with Wittgenstein, though, even if he didn't write in an obviously historical way. History shows possibilities, as you say, which are always good to think about when doing philosophy.

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  4. I definitely think tracing the history of a concept or idea can help loosen its grip by undermining the temptation to think it inevitable or necessary. Nietzsche does that in his Genealogy of Morals. Peter Hacker also seems quite keen on it - he uses history where Wittgenstein might use thought experiments about strange tribes.

    Here, for example, is his essay on the history of consciousness. Genuinely fascinating stuff, I think.

  5. Thanks! That does look fascinating.

  6. Sure enough, it is indeed well worth reading. I wonder what members of the consciousness studies community would say about it? I hope not just that Hacker is a Wittgensteinian and we all know they are just a cult. I don't agree with every word, but I do think that Hacker is mostly right here.