The history of philosophy has evolved like history in general; the meticulousness brought to the search for sources would not be explained without the will of the historian to arrive at what is individual, irreducible, personal in the past; his researches would be quite useless, if it were a question, as formerly, of determining types or laws; what good was a new copy of an already known type, if the copy did not have its price in itself and in what distinguishes it?
This taste for the individual, which is perhaps still the dominant feature of our literary criticism, makes us see the past from an entirely new perspective; it is no longer either “sects” as in the Renaissance, nor “systems” as in Cousin, nor “collective mentalities” that the historian aims to reach; they are individuals, in all the nuanced richness of their spirit; Plato, Descartes or Pascal are neither expressions of their environment nor historical moments, but true creators. What is striking at first sight is the discontinuity of their efforts; there is, Windelband remarks, no continuous progress “since each of the great systems gives the problem a new formula and solves it as if the others had not existed.”
It should be added that these two reasons, the requirements of the philological method and the search for the individual, although both are opposed to historical synthesis, do not lead the mind in the same direction. The philologist has a tendency to seek the relationship of thoughts and formulas; this tendency is sometimes exaggerated, if it is not tempered by taste and by the sense of living thoughts, to the point of making a new doctrine a mosaic of past doctrines, to the point of confusing the inventor with the compiler. By an opposite turn of mind, the critic wants to seek in doctrines only their variegation and he makes the history of ideas as an impressionist, having more taste for the variety of minds than for the profound unity that it can conceal.
To the purely doctrinal diversities of the ancient and medieval age, the modern age adds another, it is the diversity of national spirits which give its particular nuance to each of the English, German or French philosophies. We must also think of the immense complexity of modern culture which is in the process of dissolving, as Auguste Comte foresaw and feared, into a series of special and technical cultures, each of which absorbs the life and means of a man. The philosopher, limiting himself to one of the facets of this culture, is today a logician or an epistemologist, a philosopher of mathematics or a philosopher of religion, without there being any very clear correspondence and even less unity between a point of view and another. We oscillate between a general culture, which is superficial, and an in-depth culture, which is narrow.
Are there not many doctrinal diversities irreducible to reason: diversities due to differences in personalities, national character, fashion and degree of culture? How will the historian place doctrines of such different origins on the same line?
Also we see the best historians of our time hesitate on the method to follow. It is for example Victor Delbos who, without renouncing the idea of a rational sequence between the successive aspects of philosophical thought, sees his desire for unity balanced by the fear of not being exact and of let slip the very substance of the story. And, in fact, this vigorous spirit left an admirable series of monographs, the very title of which indicates the difficulty, perhaps insurmountable, that he had to find in writing a general history of philosophy.
Same hesitation, but more concealed, in Windelband. The development of philosophy, as he acknowledges in his preface, derives from three factors, and, one might even say, from three juxtaposed histories: 1) Pragmatic history; it is the internal evolution of philosophy based on the disagreement between the old solutions and the new representations of reality: 2) History in its relation to the history of culture; philosophy receives its problems from the ideas which dominate the civilization of an epoch; 3) Finally, history of the people. Under the first aspect, history does have a sort of law of development; but just how important this aspect is in relation to the other two, which make the course of spiritual life depend on many chances, is what the author does not allow to foresee.
Is this the definitive state of the history of philosophy? Should it abandon all hope of being philosophical itself, to become a chapter of philology and literary criticism? Is it condemned to perpetually oscillate between the mosaic method and the impressionist method, unable to do better than temper these two methods with each other?
No doubt, and despite appearances, there remains something of the ideas of a Comte, and of a Hegel. They taught us to see in the philosophical systems of the past better than closed sects or individual fantasies, aspects of the human spirit. They have learned to take the intellectual past quite seriously and have understood better than others the intellectual solidarity of generations. However, we cannot claim to remedy the crisis that is affecting the history of philosophy by returning to one of those general formulas of development dear to the positivists and the Hegelians. Everything that has been attempted recently in this direction has either failed or at least been premature. Like the first two problems we posed, this third problem can only be solved in an approximate and provisional way, with all the uncertainties that history entails.
It should be noted, first of all, that philological erudition, if it has, as we have noted, brought down the Comtist or Hegelian construction, puts us on the path to a positive solution. As one progresses more in the intimate and detailed knowledge of the past, one sees better the new doctrines take their point of insertion in the doctrines of the past, and one establishes continuities and passages, where one saw at first only radical originality and absolute opposition. General formulas like those of Comte or Hegel, for whom development must proceed by frank and clear opposition, did very little to account for the nuanced reality that history shows us. On the other hand, this continuity of minds revealed by historical criticism cannot be expressed by a general law and must be the subject of a thousand detailed investigations. The idea of studying, in their continuity and their genesis, the systems of the world from Plato to Copernicus could not have occurred to historians imbued with the idea of the radical opposition between antiquity and the Middle Ages; and it took the marvelous erudition of Duhem to find through this time the continuity of two or three themes of thought. The legitimate revival of favor which the history of medieval philosophy has recently found is not founded only on motives extraneous to the interest of history, but also on the real discoveries which show its union with modern philosophy. The abandonment of the a priori method, far from harming the idea of the unity of philosophy and intelligence, has therefore made it possible to give it a fuller and more concrete meaning, although more difficult to translate into formulas; for it is not the unity of a plan which is realized little by little, but a series of original efforts and multiple inventions.
Secondly, the abandonment of the idea of fatal progress, which dominated the history of philosophy until around 1850, was no less favorable to an exact appreciation of philosophical development. The idea of an incessant and continuous march is completely contrary to historical reality. Bacon saw more correctly than his eighteenth-century disciples when he mentioned, alongside periods of progress, periods of regression and oblivion, followed by rebirths. The truth is that the curve of intellectual life, if one may so speak, is extremely complicated, and only detailed studies can give an idea of its meanderings. Yet it is that they can give the idea, and, here too, the work of philological criticism is not destructive, quite the contrary. It only shows us several possible patterns of development, where historical apriorism saw only one. Sometimes there is a march of thought towards a greater disagreement, towards a dissipation into a dust of sects which oppose each other, as in Greece, in the period which followed the death of Socrates, sometimes on the contrary march towards unity of thought, towards almost complete agreement, as in the second half of the 18th century when English empiricism dominated. Sometimes philosophical thought becomes moving, suggestive, is transformed into a method of spiritual life, into a mental direction as in Socrates or in Plato, sometimes it takes the form of a decisive doctrine which has a ready answer to all questions and claims to impose it by an irrefutable dialectic, as in the time of scholasticism. There are times when intellectual thought, as if tired, gives up asserting its own value and gives way to doctrines which claim to reach reality by intuition, feeling or revelation; for example, the intellectualism of the eighteenth century, with its confidence in reason, is closely followed by the romantic orgy; very instructive alternation which, perhaps, is a general law of the history of thought. We see by these examples how criticism alone, without the slightest a priori, will make it possible to classify, to order the systems.
History will even allow us to judge them to a certain extent. Indeed the value of a system is not independent of the spiritual momentum it has created. Philosophical doctrines are in fact not things but thoughts, themes for meditation which are proposed in the future and whose fecundity is never exhausted except in appearance, mental directions which can always be resumed; the ideas of which they are made are not the inert materials of a mental edifice which could be demolished and whose materials could be reused as such in other constructions; they are germs which want to develop; they claim to be a “good capable of being communicated”. However, historical research must allow us to grasp the original impetus and the way in which it develops, how it ceases, how sometimes it resumes: history is not finished, this is what must never be forgotten historian of thought; Plato or Aristotle, Descartes or Spinoza have not ceased to be alive. One of the greatest services that history can render is undoubtedly to show how a doctrine is transformed; in a very different way depending on the case. It sometimes happens that the doctrine, in becoming permanent, hardens into a dogma, which imposes itself: thus, after three centuries of existence, Stoicism, in Epictetus, is a faith which no longer needs be demonstrated. It also happens that a philosophical theme, in seeking to become fixed in doctrine, to realize itself in dogmas, ends up exhausting itself in a kind of complication and mannerism, which makes one think of the brilliant decadences of the artistic schools whose formula is worn out. For example, the Ionian philosophy of the time of Plato is reduced to the stammerings of the last Heracliteans who, for fear of fixing the moving river of things, no longer want to use language. Or again, the description of intelligible things, among the last neo-Platonists like Proclus and Damascius, arrives at such meticulous precision that one is forced to feel in it all the artifice of a professional technician and to see the lack of sincerity; and the same could be said of the last forms of the systems of Fichte or Schelling. We thus see the birth of historical categories, moving, modifiable, general themes of thought which must replace the massive categories which eclectic or Hegelian historians used in the past.
These very brief indications exclude the possibility of ending this introduction by formulating anything resembling a law of development of philosophical thought; it is not a question of constructing, but only of describing. What we can no longer do is write history as a prophet after the fact; as if one wanted to give the impression that philosophical thought was born little by little and gradually realized. We can no longer admit like Aristotle, the father of the history of philosophy, that history is oriented towards a doctrine, which it potentially contains. The history of philosophy teaches us that philosophical thought is not one of those stable realities which, once found, subsist like a technical invention; this thought is constantly called into question, constantly in danger of losing itself in formulas which, by fixing it, betray it; the spiritual life is only in the work and not in the possession of a so-called acquired truth.
Source: Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie – Tome premier: L’Antiquité et le Moyen âge, Librairie Félix Alcan, Paris, 1928. Tanslation and adaptation by Nicolae Sfetcu © 2022 Multimedia Publishing