Rethinking histories in philosophy: RED and ESD

In recent times, there has been a shift in our understanding of Early-Modern philosophy and a great amount of this scholarly shift is moved by the research group based in the University of Otago. It has long been contested (at least since the 1980s) that the story of philosophy which is taught in undergraduate classes and repeated in intro textbooks goes something like this: first came the Rationalists like Descartes who opposed Aristotelian Scholasticism, then came in a sort-of dialectical fashion an eminent empiricist (Locke), then rationalist (Spinoza/Leibniz), then empiricist (Hume) (this goes on for however far one likes) then Kant comes to the scene. This story of philosophy basically wants to enforce not only the seperateness of these ‘rationalist’ and ’empiricist’ camps, but also a narrative that many of these 17th and 18th philosophers are basically reaching the ‘great’ revelation that rationalism and empiricism are both true in some sense, through Kant’s unique melding of the Transcendental Idealism thesis.

This narrative has many consequences, one thing is that many historians critique in specific areas of scholarship to the end of basically saying ‘this philosopher is a failed Kant’. It is acknowledged by a great many people that a common prejudice is that Kant is the superior philosopher when historically reading into the works of previous philosophers, but in such a way that presumes familiarity with Kant. This is, in my view, an anachronism par excellence. Whether it is or is not a good or a true criticism is immaterial. Methodologically speaking, one is not looking at the philosophical arguments and terms with regard to the contemporamous context. The Otago group have made a great effort to challenge this prevailing historical narrative, and their work is absolutely fascinating. The Otago group provide a certain amount of justifications against this traditional story:

  1. The Rationalist-Empiricist distinction ignores the relationship with natural philosophy and the early-modern figures. Descartes was a great experimentalist in his day, for instance. The Rationalist-Empiricist distinction (RED) ignores the history of science in relation to the history of a more metaphysics-epistemology heavy narrative. It also does not properly acknowledge the extent to which the ‘Rationalists’ were experimental philosophers doing natural science.
  2. When considering the RED, the Otago group consider wherein the distinction lies. I remember once an historian of ancient philosophy said that the proto-RED distinction goes back to the presocratics (but I need a citation more than my poor memory), but a concrete distinction can be found with Hume. In Kant’s First Critique, he distinguishes between Empiricists against other kinds of groups (such as ‘noologists’), but never specifically ‘rationalists’ which suggests he does not seem to have a strict division of that kind.
  3. Alberto Vanzo points to evidence that the RED originates from a 19thC commentary commentator which underpins the typical historian’s Kant-prejudice in Early-Modern history of philosophy. The suggestion to the effect is that our reading is influenced by Tenneman’s notion (which has basically been imbibed by every repeater of the story since) rather than reading it from the text.
  4. A more interesting story can, and should be told, namely that of a more significant way of understanding this period of philosophy. Instead of distinguishing between rationalists who believe in the powers of the mind, and empiricists, who think experience only is the arbiter; we introduce a distinction between Speculative and Experimental philosophies (ESD). The Experimental-Speculative Distinction, the Otago group would contend, cuts deeper than RED: philosophers speculated, and they experimented. This also has the benefit of including a wider range of figures in this historical narrative, namely scientist-philosophers such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. The ESD highlights how philosophers in this period were integral to the development of scientific experimental method, and highlights the aspects of rationalism that typically captures the metaphysical capture of reality.

The 4th thesis seems to be the one most difficult for people to acknowledge in the Otago groups recent research. The two distinctions of RED and ESD are pitted as if they are competitors as a narrative rather than two different narratives for the same complicated and muddled history. What I find most interesting is the distinction between ‘experimental’ and ‘speculative’ philosophy has a contemporamous manifestation today, if it is even just in a superficial way. As many readers of this blog know, there is a recent movement of using experimental psychology methods in philosophy (xphi) which seemingly now has more continuity with the Early-Modern than it did with simply an RED reading. Another movement which is growing and taking across a lot of countries is a movement known as Speculative Realism, which has roots in Post-Kantian German Idealism, originating from recent philosophical figures such as Meliassoux.

The Otago group have a most fascinating research project, not only are they attempting to restructure the historical understanding of this period in philosophy, but their method is very-metaphilosophical, in terms of challenging the prejudices of the area; the methodologies are very interesting in that they don’t just focus on a single philosopher (e.g. Kant, Leibniz etc), but the commentaries and make a cross-period comparison which is almost never done on this kind of level. It’s fair to say in the history of philosophy literature, x-scholars don’t contribute as often to debates of y-scholars and this completely mixes it up to show the error of that kind of methodology. It also makes me think about the role of canonical histories in intellectual history, I was reading last year for instance that there was a movement to distort the non-German influences of Kant by Nazi/German nationalist philosophers which in turn would affect the way we historically understood the philosopher (this allegation is from Sanford Budick). Consider also for instance, how Arab philosophers were the main guardians of Aristotle’s texts for a great amount of time until only about a generation before Aquinas started to philosophise. Our histories, even our intellectual histories, are not politically or ideologically neutral, and as such, we must take a page from the sociologists and consider our ‘reflexivity’ as readers in a cultural discourse.


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