My last two entries for the column What’s hot in medieval reasoning are really a two-parter on the History of Philosophy and the History of Logic. It’s both a bit personal and more than a bit silly – but I am a rather silly person, so…
It’s not strictly medieval, but it might be of interest.
[Pt. 1 The Reasoner vol. 13, n. 2 (February 2019)]
[P]hilosophers’ convictions about the eternity of problems or conceptions were as baseless as a young girl’s conviction that this year’s hats are the only ones that could ever have been worn by a sane woman.
This passage in Collingwood’s An Autobiography (Oxford 1939, p. 65) has always resonated with me. The thing is, I am not entirely convinced that Collingwood was right, but he might have been onto something – besides women’s fashion. As a historian of medieval philosophy (and a casual historian of fashion), my professional identity is an odd beast, like a unicorn or a chimera. Not in the sense that historians of philosophy are mythical monsters – you can find a few of us wandering around departments of philosophy and it doesn’t look like we are particularly close to extinction, yet. But in the sense that we have multiple natures: we are historians and we are philosophers. On the one hand, the historian within me knows that Lady Philosophy has changed a lot over her long life. My inner historian likes to picture her as an old lady who’s had a few plastic surgeries too many and has lost a few bits here and there – oftentimes to replace them with more or less eccentric prosthetics, only to occasionally switch them over again, to keep pace with the ever-changing fashions of the day. Or perhaps my inner historian entertains the idea that Philosophy is not quite a lady, but rather a barely sketched vaguely written role interpreted by different actors; or even better an artificial person, like an institution: what that institution is and does changes with the people inhabiting it, its practices, its reformations and, overall, the times, and yet the institution itself is still in some sense the same. Some days, my inner historian thinks of Philosophy as a bit of both – the old lady and the institution – , i.e. the same sort of patchwork creature that we, her historiographers, are. Long story short and out of metaphor, a good chunk of philosophical issues and conceptions, that were essential at some point or another in the past, doesn’t count as philosophical at all in our eyes – think, for example, of some of the things historians of ideas, theology, or even science are interested in. The converse would probably be just as true. At the end of the day, my inner historian acknowledges the data and interprets it, trying to tell a coherent story of the hows and whys of this historical development. On the other hand, the philosopher within me is more conflicted, which is not surprising. My inner philosopher wants to believe that philosophical questions and theories, for the most part, are not unsolvable conundrums or unchanging truths – the very same we have been dealing with since the dawn of our discipline – that we have been doomed to address until the end of time, with no real hope of resolution. What a boring and utterly hopeless endeavour would philosophising be then! Yet, my inner philosopher has a recognition that there is some sense in which the stuff she is doing is the same kind of stuff that the philosophers of the past were doing, i.e. philosophy. That recognition might however be misguiding, or even delusional, not merely because my inner philosopher might be that bad at philosophising, but because the recognition itself comes with a preconception – very much shaped by our time and curricula – of what philosophy is supposed to look like. My inner philosopher, then, wonders about whether there is some deep core to philosophy, i.e. a set of essential features making something into “philosophy”, i.e. a common denominator shared by anything that was, is and will be philosophy, across ages and continents. It’s a tempting thought, of which my inner philosopher – fancying herself to be as nominalist as they come and being good friends with my inner historian – is pretty weary. The problem is even more evident as far as logic and its history are concerned.
[Pt. 2 The Reasoner vol. 13, n. 3 (March 2019)]
Just as with Lady Philosophy – or possibly even more so – several of Logic’s more or less committed lovers entertain the notion that their beloved remains eternally beautiful and true, i.e. that there is some unchangeable set of core features that make up Logic. Maybe this common attitude in thinking about Logic is due, at least in part, to the normative persuasion that Logic has always seemed to have. Or perhaps it’s because of the mathematical attire that Logic has put on in her modern incarnation. And certainly the fact that those devoted suitors of Logic often seem to believe her to be a young lady, born around 1879 or a handful of years earlier, reassures them in their belief of her unchanging nature and eternality – no matter how said belief is at odds both with Logic’s supposed young age and with the numerous deep changes that she has undeniably gone through during her presumedly short life. Philosophy is undeniably a silver fox, or a snake who has shed her skin and reinvented herself a few times too many; but as of now there aren’t many radical ongoing disagreements about what Philosophy is or is supposed to be – not so much about Logic, though. Even without committing to a form of logical pluralism – or especially then – many may even agree about Logic being in some sense normative. However, they disagree a lot about what the actual norms are, and overall about what Logic really is. At the end of the day, paraphrasing Anandi Hattiangadi, we are not even able to provide an adequate account of what we disagree about when we disagree about logic. (If you are curious about logical disagreement and want to go through a recent overview, go check out her chapter in C. McHugh – J. Way – D. Whiting (eds.), Metaepistemology, Oxford 2018). To complicate matters even further, if we look back at those long centuries between roughly Aristotle’s time and the publication of Frege’s Begriffsschrift, we find a bunch of folks claiming to be doing logic and debating about what that is as well as what it’s supposed to be. At this point, Logic’s fashion sense is on a different wavelength: she appears draped in a regimented version of ordinary language and sometimes she goes a little heavy on the ontology. Yet, she is still mainly about figuring out what follows validly from what, she is conflicted about what counts as formal, as well as what she should be doing with herself. Overall, traditional Logic is both recognisable enough for a modern reader to perceive her as something very much like a three-for-one deal combining Logic, metalogic and philosophy logic, or as what we would call reasoning at the very least. But traditional Logic is also other and different enough that sometimes we don’t really grasp what’s going on and have no idea about what to make of it. Many historians of medieval logic in particular are quite convinced that the object of their studies is not logic at all, but something else entirely that happens to be “logic” in a merely equivocal sense – see, for example, Laurent Cessali’s “What is Medieval Logic After All? Towards a Scientific Use of Natural Language” and ”Postscript: Medieval Logic as Sprachphilosophie” in Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 52 (2010), respectively p. 49-53 and 117-132. Personally, I think that there are several historical and philosophical reasons to be weary of this kind of approach – but this is a topic for another issue. Overall, I much prefer Paul Vincent Spade’s way of framing the problem (paraphrasing): “They called it logic, and they were there first”. Taking the self-proclaimed logicians of the past seriously – at least insofar as they claim to be logicians! – we might actually try to asses whether Logic is neither as young as she is often made out to be nor a series of identity thieves stealing one name to carry on very different lives. Over the course of her long existence, Philosophy has had a few drastic makeovers but has remained – for the most part – recognisable in her evolution, without any harsh breaks in continuity. While it would be unwarranted to claim that Logic has simply put on a fancy new dress embroidered with mathematical symbolism, she might have gone through a more radical and extreme version of the process Philosophy went through, with some breaks in continuity, to the point that she doesn’t look like herself anymore, but rather like a distant cousin. Who knows, maybe reconstructing the details of what Logic was and her changes over time could help us deal with our own disagreements and figure out what else Logic could be. It would probably still be better than holding onto the conviction that Logic is eternal: “if logic is eternal, then it can wait” (attributed to Oliver Heaviside), but a lady should never be left waiting!