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History of Philosophy - Indifferentism

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Indifferentism is plainly summed up in the message on the Princeton office door. But this label does not tell all, for indifferentism's vociferous defenders are anything but indifferent about what philosophy (as an ahistorical discipline) is, and about what philosophers ought to be doing. Most likely, the indifferentist would like to see philosophy come forward as a science, to adapt a phrase of Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804), and believes that it can do so by simply focusing on an appropriate, rather narrow set of questions. In the twentieth century, these were questions arising in the analysis of language and the methodology of science, and so it has been with some justice that indifferentism has commonly been associated with analytic philosophy.

Around the turn of the twenty-first century, though, most philosophers working in this tradition had come to recognize the usefulness to their own work of the history of philosophy, and particularly of the history of analytic philosophy itself. It has become rare that a philosopher of science or language who does not also have some competence in the history of these subdisciplines will find a job. Some of the best contemporary analytic philosophers choose to congregate at meetings of the History of the Philosophy of Science group to discuss, among other things, the revision of our understanding of the very notion of "analysis" as it was understood in early analytic philosophy by, for example, Rudolph Carnap (1891–1970) or Otto Neurath (1882–1945). What is sometimes described as "post-analytic philosophy," then, might better be thought of as analytic philosophy after its historical turn, and is in any case a sure sign that strict indifferentism is on its way out.

Indifferentists tend to believe that philosophy, like any other discipline, has seen some progress over the past few millennia. One standard example is the resolution of the paradoxes of Zeno of Citium (c. 335–c. 263 B.C.E.) with mathematical tools that had to wait until the nineteenth century to see the light of day. On another understanding, though, what happens when a philosophical question is "solved" is that it ipso facto ceases to be a philosophical question at all and becomes a mathematical or scientific one. Thus, any philosophical question is by definition unanswerable, and the history of philosophy becomes but the prehistory of science, the initial recognition that a problem exists without any clue as to how to render it scientifically tractable. It may be impossible to say which perspective is right; but those who believe that the mathematization of Zeno's paradoxes was an instance of philosophical progress will likely think that there is no reason to dwell too much in the past. Why waste our time on those who hadn't yet figured out as much as we have? We may be grateful to past philosophers for having discerned the problem and taken some initial stabs at solving it, as a twenty-first century astronomer might appreciate Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100–c. 170), but there is no pressing need to figure out the details of their theories and how they came up with them.

Those who believe philosophy is cumulative and progressive, then, will likely incline toward indifferentism in some degree. Others, though, believe that what makes philosophy unique is that it never really gets anywhere. There may be personal progress that comes from studying it and learning how complex the problems it addresses are, but the discipline as a whole witnesses no real progress over the course of centuries. On this view, history will be of tremendous value, because it is only through the study of philosophy's history, the way it keeps circling back around the same challenges, always coming up with solutions from within a limited range of options, that one can experience personal progress out of an adolescent optimism, or even arrogance, about these problems' facile solvability.

History of Philosophy - Appropriationism [next]

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