benjamin hill

Benjamin Hill

Assistant Professor/Department of Philosophy

History of Early Modern Philosophy, Epistemology

At University of Western Ontario

Intellectual Autobiography

I began my intellectual career as a mathematics student. I had some aptitude for it, which was why I studied it, but I found it rather boring. The patterns exemplified by the number system were rigid and one-dimensional, I thought, because of the fixity of its conceptual hierarchy. (Which goes to show just how much I knew as a 20-year-old: Had I applied myself more, had I pushed myself deeper into fractals, which I found interesting, and been directed to the right questions about them, or had I been introduced to transfinite mathematics, perhaps I would have found mathematics more to my liking. C’est la vie. But even so, I never was, and probably never will be, that interested in the manipulation of formal systems once I understand the basic operations and patterns of those formal systems.) I was also a history student, interested mostly in broad intellectual history and 18th and 19th century American history. Regrettably, I was apathetic, if not antagonistic, toward poetry and literature, except for an enthusiasm for Shakespearean theater. Theater, I enjoyed as a kind of escapism, but intellectually I dismissed poetry, literature, and theater as false, or phony, or irrational emotivism – merely allegorical at best – which is how weaker minds must confront certain truths or facts. This callow attitude continued with me into graduate school, but at some point in graduate school I began to recognize not only the intellectual significance of such endeavors, but their necessity. I am now a pluralist about understanding. Not that poetry, literature, and the theater identify different truths than philosophy, history and science, but that they illuminate those truths in different and complementary ways. These differences are incommensurable, yet necessary for a proper understanding. So I am now a reader of poetry and fiction as bona fide intellectual endeavors, and not merely as diversions.

I was introduced to analytic philosophy in an introduction to ethics course taken to satisfy a breadth requirement as part of a liberal arts education. I found it amusing but didn’t really think about pursuing it seriously. But my professor must have seen something, for he continued to encourage me and press me to take more classes and consider becoming a philosophy student. Once I satisfied my mathematics requirements and most of my history ones, I did. To a large extent, my interest in philosophy was piqued by this professor’s intellectual character – irreverence and independence of thought, rigorous and intense analysis, constant dissatisfaction with current understandings and incessant drive to uncover deeper connections, conjoined with good humor, bonhomie, and a recognition of the value of “real” life. “Amidst all your philosophy, remember still to be a man.” Being befriended by this professor left a profound and lasting impression on my life, for which I am forever grateful. But perhaps more than anything else, he taught me the importance of the Socratic aspects of being philosophical: following truth and truth alone; perseverance in the difficult search for truth; speaking truth to power; persistence in one’s considered judgment even if (especially if) it runs counter to popular sentiments; and hope in the rationality of ourselves and our fellow man. Much of my own mature intellectual character has been shaped by him and is the result of striving to emulate him.

When I began graduate school, I was more interested in the metaphysics of morality and persons. In my first year, however, I realized that this was not the direction ethics was heading, and I wasn’t really interested in the sort of work that was dominating ethics at the time. I had, however, a natural interest and background in intellectual history, and my attention began turning more and more in that direction. Another special professor played a significant role in my turn toward the history of philosophy and my development as a historian and philosopher. During my first year I took a course on Locke’s Essay. I had read it as an undergraduate, but found it rather trite and boring, a conventional and unimaginative version of crude empiricism. I had, in other words, a fairly conventional understanding of Locke’s thought. During this class, however, I was pushed to question and challenge this conventional understanding. I was pushed to take seriously Locke’s denials of the skeptical consequences of his empiricism and the legitimacy of his commitments to substance, necessary connection, and mind. (Such denials are much clearer and more emphatic in the correspondence with Bishop Stillingfleet, which I was introduced to during this class. “How could what Locke says about the origin of our ideas of substance or the nature of sensitive knowledge be made compatible with the reality and legitimacy of the idea of substance or the denial of skepticism?” he would ask, and my philosophical imagination would get to work trying to expand, change, or reshape the conceptual space to fit these seemingly obvious contradictions together. The professor’s emphasis on incorporating non-canonical texts and his encyclopedic knowledge of the primary literature opened my eyes to new possibilities for the structure of Locke’s conceptual space, as well as provided additional constraints on those possibilities. But even more than that was the depth and rigor of his own analyses of these texts. More than anything else, he showed me that to do the history of philosophy is to actually do philosophy. It’s more than simply reporting on what a text says or what a dead philosopher believed, much more. It’s a philosophical investigation into conceptual space itself, as originally seen by a historically significant thinker. The texts are suggestive of philosophical visions – fundamental principles and underlying assumptions – and it is the historian’s job to uncover those visions. This sort of intellectual task appealed to me largely because of its multiple dimensionality. To do the history of philosophy as my advisor did requires not only a thorough knowledge of the primary texts, but also a philosophical depth and imaginativeness, and recognition of the interconnections between and among thinkers and texts. That is perhaps my favorite aspect of doing the history of philosophy in this way, juggling these dimensions and seeing the convergence of the patterns discovered at each level. Add to this the need to constantly self-reflect to eliminate the danger of contaminating one’s historically-driven philosophical judgments with one’s own philosophical judgments, and the need to articulate and explain these historically-driven judgments to contemporary philosophers who share an often radically different conceptual framework, and the task of the historian of philosophy suited my mentality and ambition quite well.

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Why am I a Historian of Philosophy?

Simply put: to do philosophy. For me history of philosophy is just as much a properly philosophical endeavor as metaphysics or the philosophy of language. In the hands of some, perhaps, it is a kind of intellectual journalism, but not in mine. Through our historical study, we ought to be making genuinely philosophical discoveries – i.e. discoveries about the conceptual structures of the world and/or our engagement with it – and not simply discoveries about a text’s semantic meaning or an individual’s beliefs.

The historic figures that we study had a philosophical vision (sometimes broader, sometimes narrower), and their texts were written to try to convey that vision to their contemporaries. It does not follow from that, however, that these figures fully grasped that vision, or that their conception of that vision was definitive, or that their texts adequate (to say nothing of completely) convey and exhaust that vision. The historian of philosophy’s task is to recover, analyze, and assess that philosophical vision. The primary texts, the supplementary materials (e.g. journals, correspondences, drafts, etc.), the intellectual and cultural context, and so forth are guides to and constraint on that vision, and thus must all be respected, but a good historian of philosophy must also bring a “historical sense” to his study, a novelist’s sense of the figure’s psychological and intellectual character and philosophical judgment. This is the most difficult thing for a historian of philosophy, not confusing or conflating his own character and judgment with the figure he’s studying. But it is indispensible in that it is precisely that which allows us to delve deeper, past the words on the page to the conceptual assumptions and preconceptions animating an argument or vision that were often unconscious even to the historical figure. The benefit that our historical detachment permits – i.e. being able to place a philosophical vantage point at some distance in order to gain a different and usually better perspective on it while simultaneously being able to assume that vantage point in order to perceive the philosophical vision itself – is lost completely if our own philosophical vantage point it imposed on the historical figure or if the figure’s writings are reacted to simply from our own vantage point.

So the history of philosophy is the actual doing of philosophy, the articulation, explanation, and defense of a philosophical vision, from a vantage point one need not accept while simultaneously consisting of a critical analysis and assessment of that philosophical vantage point both internally (i.e. relative to the historical figure’s time and intellectual milieu) and externally (i.e. relative to our time and milieu). The historian’s task, then, is to articulate, explain, and justify these visions to his philosophical contemporaries.

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What Kind of Historian am I?

If one follows current historiographical debate, placing “contextualist” historians of philosophy (those whose historical work primary consist of placing a figure within his intellectual context, at the extreme consisting merely of the archeology of ideas) on the left and “analytic” historians of philosophy (those whose work primary consist of philosophical reconstruction of canonical texts, at the extreme regardless of even supplementary materials to say nothing of the broader intellectual context) on the right, then I am somewhere close to the middle. Contextual analysis and placement is a necessary condition of good history of philosophy, but not a sufficient one. Necessary too is genuinely philosophical analysis. But that philosophical analysis has to be from within the figure’s intellectual milieu. External analyses and assessment are certainly valuable and in many ways necessary in the presentation of the results, but they are not part of the historical research project properly speaking. So, I view the contextualist orientation as a means to doing good history of philosophy, invaluable but of limited value when divorced from critical analysis and assessment.

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Why am I that kind of Historian of Philosophy?

That primarily has to do with what I see as the value of the history of philosophy and its place within philosophy. Its value lies in its contribution to our philosophical imagination. Properly done, it allows us to understand and appreciate philosophical vantage points that are often quite different from our own. The “and appreciate” in the preceding sentence is quite important – not only should that disabuse us of any surety in our own minds about the superiority of our own philosophical assumptions and preconceptions, it should also open up new avenues for gaining the critical distance required to more thoroughly and accurately analyze and assess those assumptions and preconceptions. To put it bluntly – often philosophical discussions and debates degenerate into disagreements about “intuitions,” but a more robust philosophical imagination might permit us to push beyond these “intuitions” by both identifying their underlying conceptual sources and providing new vantage points from which to assess them and/or their sources; the history of philosophy is one way of providing just such new vantage points; but more than that, the history of philosophy strengthens and hones our abilities for creating ex nihilo such vantage points. So perhaps there are people with so much philosophical imagination and talent that they could, in principle, always create such vantage points ex nihilo, but I’ve not yet meet any. We, as individuals, need to practice this skill in some historical like endeavors, and we, as a profession, need historians to provide rich accounts of such alternative vantage points to jump start, if not guide, our philosophical imaginations.

So my conception of the understanding of history’s place in philosophy is quite strong, stronger even than Sellars’ conception of history’s place. Sellars famously considered the history of philosophy the lingua franca of philosophy and indispensible for understanding the philosophical problems we are grappling with. I don’t quite agree with that in that many areas of philosophical speculation are as a matter of fact quite divorced from their historical development. But I think that Sellars’ practice as a philosopher reflected the place of history I am advocating. For Sellars, an understanding of the history of philosophy helped to frame philosophical problems because the visions of the historical figures contained principles and conceptions foreign to our own, and bringing those principles and conceptions out into the open, in all of their foreignness, illuminates to a large extent our own philosophical visions. I see Sellars as putting the history of philosophy to use in ways that goes beyond his famous maxim regarding its role in philosophy, and it is in Sellars’ use that I find myself in agreement with him (albeit with the following caveat: his acontextalist historical methodology was inadequate and as a result his historical analyses and understandings too crude – but these are largely quid facti differences and not quid juris ones when talking about the place of the history of philosophy within philosophy.

I hope that this gives you a sense of what kind of historian of philosophy, and what kind of philosopher, I am. Like Sellars, I’m an advocate of “doing philosophy historically,” which means pretty much that philosophical reflection and investigation should be supported by deep historical analysis. Not only will the richness of the philosophical reflection be enhanced by the greater sensitivity to one’s own often unconscious and hidden assumptions and preconceptions, the need to compare and defend the very basics and basis of one’s own organization of conceptual space against the different historical vantage points is invaluable. This is what first brought me to the study of the history of philosophy and is why I consider myself to be more than “merely” a historian of philosophy, and it is at this level, this point of intersection between the history of philosophy and the contemporary practice of philosophy, that I hope to contribute to the profession.

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