Jonathan Rée, "Philosophy and the History of Philosophy"

A Summary by Cynthia Freeland
Jonathan Rée, "Philosophy and the History of Philosophy," in Philosophy and Its Past, ed. Jonathan Rée, Michael Ayers, and Adam Westoby (Brighton: Harvester, and New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978), pp. 1-39.


I came to this article by way of Eileen O'Neill's article, "Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History," in Philosophy in a Feminist Voice: Critiques and Reconstructions, ed. Janet A. Kourany (Princeton, 1998), pp. 17-62. Her notes 101 and 104, p. 61, list various sources.

This is a short book consisting of three long chapters. Rée's is the first, entitled "Philosophy and the History of Philosophy." The other two also look interesting: Ayers' is "Analytical Philosophy and the Philosophy of History" (it includes a section entitled "Russell on Leibniz.") Westoby's is "Hegel's History of Philosophy" (it includes sections on Thales, Heraclitus, Socrates, and Kant).]


The Rée article has three major sections indicated below with bold and Roman numerals.

Introduction (pp. 1-3)

1. History of philosophy is peculiar. We take our history more seriously than scientists do. Art takes its history seriously, but artists are different from art historians. We are unusually engaged with our history-the history of philosophy supplies an implicit definition of philosophy.

2. The bases of history of philosophy are seldom systematically thought about or criticized, and there are MANY problems with how philosophers practice their history: they project onto the past a notion of professional academic specialism; they do not explore other historical sources than philosophical writings; they don't know if they should deal with great or rather with influential philosophy; "they never consider general problems about the interpretation of philosophical texts"; they are so preoccupied with controversies that they ignore areas of agreement or of silence; "their interpretations are false in countless ways: they not only attribute to people beliefs which were not theirs, but also, often, beliefs too nonsensical to have been held by anyone) (p. 2).

3. Here he will identify and examine the unexamined presuppositions of history of philosophy.

I. Histories of Philosophy and the Form of Philosophy-the idea of the Warring Schools (pp. 3-18)

1. The initial modern histories of philosophy began around 1655. Many of the moderns (Bacon, Descartes, Pascal) were very dismissive of the past.

2. The first true history was a multi-volume book by Jakob Brucker (last volume published in Leipzig, 1744). We get here a sort of summary of Enlightenment conceptions of this history: (a) it was the self-conscious activity of individual philosophers (not something with broader roots, like religion); (b) the form of discussion was as a warring battle of certain sectarian "isms". This led the modern philosophes (Diderot, Voltaire, Hume, etc.) to ridicule and downgrade it.

3. Kant saw in the history of philosophy an overall pattern of nonsectarian development: it was progressive and dialectical. Subsequent Kantians used his views to sort philosophy's autonomous history out rigorously from empirical inquiries.

4. Hegel thought it was ridiculous to see philosophy as sectarian battles over unchanging questions. The questions relate to periods, outlooks, systems. Successive systems don't just reject a position but subsume, incorporate, or transcend it. Philosophy is not just the product of individuals but the highest expression of the spirit of an age.

5. Marx saw philosophy as determined by causes other than thought. Here Rée suddenly interjects a discussion of Althusser's Marxian form of history and criticizes it. Rée thinks Althusser over-emphasizes discontinuities. Rée says "Without continuity, there could not be discontinuity, still less theoretical advance." (15)

6. Academic Philosophy: In the 19th century they returned to a view of philosophers as self-conscious and isolated devotees of a certain autonomous discipline. There were only certain positions as options, and people were fated to adopt one or the other of them (the pathos of philosophy). The choice among positions is like a personal choice (he mentions here Renouvier and Russell) (17).

7. Summary: We still have basically these same two conceptions:

a. The 'conservative' conception: modern philosophers must take up their own views on age-old issues (Lenin, Russell, Althusser).

b. The 'revolutionary' conception: Old-style philosophy must be abandoned and replaced by a new subject or by silence (Wittgenstein, Vienna Circle, Husserl).


We can wait until I've sent the rest of the summary, but it might be good to get going just on this part. I'd suggest that we consider these two sections closely of Ree's argument:

Introduction section 2, his criticisms of how history of philosophy is practiced: How do these criticisms link up to feminist criticisms of the traditional canon?

Conclusion of Section I, number 7, sections a and b: Are his two options ('conservative' vs. 'revolutionary') about how we still see fit to view our history a correct description? For example, do they correspond with how YOU were taught to view the history of philosophy in graduate school? Remember, his article was published in the late 1970's-20 years ago.

II. Histories of Philosophy and the Content of Philosophy: philosophy as theory of knowledge

1. In the 14th century they invented the idea of a break between "medieval monkish mystification and the clear light of an heroic new philosophy." This was repeatedly brought up to date to postpone the turning point to Descartes.

2. Descartes was treated as the father of modern philosophy up to the 18th century primarily due to his reductive mathematical physics.

3. Descartes' status was eclipsed by Bacon and in the 18th century and after (when they rejected his method of physical science). The only reason he kept his title as father of modern philosophy was because he was NOT seen as a scientist-rather, more as an epistemologist. This led to a somewhat grandiose picture of mythic (and national) rivalry between Cartesians and Newtonians.

4. But this view that positions Descartes as concerned with abstract issues about the sources of knowledge and not with empirical scientific inquiry is a subsequent MYTH that distorts his real concerns (see 21-22).

5. Kant modified and furthered the myth with his contrast between dogmatism and scepticism, propounding his own view as a compromise.

6. Initially, "materialism" wasn't used to signify an epistemological view, but denoted mechanism or even atheism. When Leibniz used the term 'idealism' to describe Berkeley's immaterialism, these words got embroiled into an epistemological context. Descartes, who was formerly viewed as a materialist, now had to be recast as an idealist (by someone like Kant). Even Marx casts philosophy as largely a debate between idealism and materialism.

7. Later there was similar regimentation after the fact to distinguish rationalism from empiricism. "It took some time for historians to decide which philosophers belonged with the Newtonian empiricists, and which with the Cartesian rationalists." (25) (For example, Hegel viewed Locke as a rationalist. "Locke was not normally called an empiricist until the 1860's." (25).) People like Russell and C.F. Morris (131) more or less solidified this contrast between rationalism and empiricism so that it has "been one of the unquestioned heirlooms of philosophy ever since." (26)

8. Modern philosophers still identify positions open to them in reference to "the old warring schools-materialism, idealism, realism, scepticism, rationalism or empiricism" (26). Descartes' position as father of all this is mythic and unchallenged, and epistemology takes precedence over all other problems such as religious, ethical, political and social or psychological and physical theory. "A dubious eighteenth-century view of the content of Philosophy insinuates itself into modern ideas disguised as an innocent classification of the Great Dead Philosophers." (27)


On Part II:

1. Look at Rée's claims in point 8 below. Is it true that epistemology is still considered philosophy's central field-justified and supported by a mythic picture of our discipline's modern history and Descartes' role in it? How would this epistemology-centered focus affect the discussion of feminist issues or of the inclusion of women in the canon? (O'Neill's article will definitely be relevant to these questions.)

2. If Rée is wrong about what the central paradigm is that defines philosophy, or if it has changed in the past 20 years, what is the new central paradigm? What myths of history (if any) does it rely upon, how does it position itself vis-à-vis historical antecedents ("fathers"), and what are its consequences for feminist theorizing and for the inclusion or exclusion of women from the canon?

III. History and Philosophy

1. Study of philosophy's past has not been very popular recently, for two main reasons:

a. People regard philosophy's past as an embarrassment: a series of pointless destructive sectarian battles over "isms". "The writings of past philosophers then appear as the flotsam and jetsam deposited onto the beaches of history by retiring tides of incautious speculation." (28)

b. People approach philosophy's past with a thoroughly unhistorical conception of "philosophical positions." Studying the past is a diversion from "real philosophy". This is the "History of Philosophy" conception. Paradoxically, this is deeply anti-historical.

2. For example, Russell's book on Leibniz segregates philosophy from history; to discuss "real" philosophy you must abstract from the context, the "psychology," or the "history" itself and just look at "the philosophy" by itself (the "reasons"). ***Ree thinks this separation is "THEORETICALLY IMPOSSIBLE" (30).*** You can't just describe the past, what someone said and believed, without philosophical understanding; nor can you describe their philosophy without a context of historical knowledge. You need more information about things like communicative practices and the historical figures' conceptions of intellectual boundaries, current state of arguments, etc. (30).

Suggestions for Discussion on Part III

Here I think section 2 below (referring to Rée's p. 30) is the most important. He argues you cannot separate history from philosophy (it is "theoretically impossible"). The reason history is relevant to philosophy is that you can't describe or understand someone's philosophical views correctly without grasping their communicative practices, current states of arguments, conception of intellectual boundaries, etc.

Again, how is this point (if plausible) related to feminist criticisms of the canon?

CONCLUSION The Ideological Function of the History of Philosophy

1. See summary first para. this section (31): "If I am right, then the orthodox History of Philosophy is a fabric of illusions and distortions."

2. One defence of the implicit methodology is something like Hegel's method, you record past insights once you've specified the concepts and principles which constitute philosophy.

3. Problems with this putative defence:

a. We can't really provide any definition of philosophy's principles, because the field "encompasses almost any kind of abstract, conceptual puzzlement or consternation that people may happen to feel" (31).

b. If you did this kind of history it wouldn't really be history "of philosophy" since it wouldn't explain real historical development-it would show only victors not defeats.

4. Rée has a very good concluding paragraph (32). He basically points out ways in which history of philosophy falsifies the complexity of material forces and uneven development of the field in relation to a whole variety of kinds of questions, concerns, paths, and so on; the discipline is represented instead as eternal, abstract, and autonomous, a continuous product of professionals.

Return to Feminism and History of Philosophy Page

Return to SWIP Home Page