Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seeing what's not there

Leading a fresh crop of students through David Hume's 1757 essay "The Natural History of Religion," I realized anew how deeply my approach to the history of ideas (and other things) is indebted to Jerry Schneewind.
It was from Jerry that I really learned how to do history of ethics - our cohort of graduate students at Princeton were lucky enough to be able to work through the just-published anthology Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant put on by Princeton's Philosophy Department (though none of its students stayed in the class...!), as Jerry was putting the finishing touches on The Invention of Autonomy.

My Schneewindianism came out today reading the very first sentence of Hume's work: there are two questions in particular, which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning [religion's] foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Hume's focus will be on the latter, and everyone now sees that the former was a foil, needed to conceal his skeptical project from the censors. But what's most interesting is what's not there. Has religion no foundation beyond reason and human nature? Revealed religion has lost the game before it even starts.

What we learned from Jerry was that some of the most eventful shifts in thinking happen when someone simply drops what had been a standard part of a problem. (It's like when modern ethicists argued that there are no duties to God, just duties to others - without mentioning that, for centuries before, it was thought there were three sets of duties: to God, to self, and to others.) They usually don't say that they're dropping it, so a reader has to know what came before to appreciate what's just happened -
especially in game-changing works which have shaped the subsequent direction of thought.

Not every dropping is the same. Sometimes it's polemical, sometimes it's sneaky, often it makes explicit a change in the topography of thought which is already well underway, maybe even as good as done. As Dewey said somewhere (or was it Rorty?!), philosophical problems are not solved but forgotten.

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