Draft 1B; Please don’t quote.

Eric Schliesser


Philosophic Prophecy and the Methodology of Coining Concept


I.                   Introduction and Summary


Introducing and articulating qualitative concepts that can guide philosophic inquiry is the main task for scholarly philosophers in the analytic tradition. Or to put the point slightly more poetically, philosophical historians must coin concepts that disclose the (near or distant) past and create a shared horizon for our philosophic future. The aim of this paper is to explain and defend this claim.[1] In particular, it also aims to show the idea behind the claim in practice.


The more narrow aim of this paper is to introduce a series of concepts, “Newton’s Challenge to Philosophy” and, especially, “Philosophic Prophecy,” that are suitable to philosophers that engage with early modern philosophical texts in scholarly fashion. “Newton’s Challenge” is a concept that focuses attention on the (contested) authority of science and its various manifestations within philosophy. “Philosophic Prophecy” is a concept that focuses on the ways philosophers can help shape possible futures. Elsewhere I have indicated how “Newton’s Challenge” is rooted in early modern tensions over the authority of natural philosophy.[2]


In what follows, I, first, offer a brief characterization of “philosophic prophecy.” In order to illuminate the concept, I contrast it with self-fulfilling and self-refuting predictions. I offer a detailed textual exegesis of the opening lines of Spinoza’s Theological Political Treatise that inspired me to think about this concept. Second, I offer a brief and hopefully fresh founding narrative about analytic philosophy. My story focuses on Ernest Nagel, who is the philosophic prophet of analytic philosophy. I oppose his understanding by way of an interpretation of the views of Moritz Schlick, the founder of the Vienna Circle.[3] I draw on his early and late writings in doing so. I call attention to his bold and unappreciated vision of the task of philosophy suitable to scientific age(s). I focus on his distinction between quantitative and qualitative concepts and his identification of philosophic legislation with qualitative concepts. I show how this responds to “Newton’s Challenge” in creative fashion. I explain and adapt Schlick’s vision for scientific philosophy. In my hands, Schlick and Nagel are exemplars of philosophic prophets. Finally, I explain why I reject an alternative model for scholarly philosophers; one that is often associated with the early writings of Quentin Skinner. In particular, I polemically reject what I call the “cult of contingency” and the antiquarian impulse that treats past philosophers and their texts as strange lands.




ii.                  Philosophic Prophecy[4]

In this section I characterize philosophic prophecy. I introduce the concept, first, by explaining how it relates to two other concepts -- the self-fulfilling prophecy and the self-refuting prediction -- to which it bears a close family resemblance. Then I give a list of characteristics of philosophic prophecy. I conclude this section with briefly contrasting philosophic prophecy to Noble lies and Straussian esoteric readings.


According to sociologist of science, Robert K. Merton, “The self-fulfilling prophecy” is “in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”[5] By contrast, self-refuting predictions start out as a true description of the situation that evokes behavior that makes the originally true conception eventually come out false.[6]


Self-fulfilling prophesies and self-refuting predictions take it for granted that publicly expressed ideas can have a meaningful impact on the world. This is, of course, not always the case. Planetary orbits are generally not meaningfully impacted by the claims we make about them (although that could change). Even in the social sciences there is a class of theorems that show that there are successful, non-trivial predictions that need not change the underlying system.[7] Let’s leave aside, for the moment, writings that do not have an impact on the subject-matter of which they speak.


Here I focus on a further class of writings that can impact the world. Philosophic prophecies are structurally related to self-fulfilling prophecies except that the outcome is a contingent fact, i.e., the existence of a philosophic prophecy is necessary, but not sufficient for an intended outcome. In order to characterize it, I distinguish nine features in it:

A)    It is ‘secular’ prophecy. By this I mean to distinguish it from biblical and other religious prophets. It is prophecy by philosophers.[8] Having said that, the content of philosophical prophecy may well be religious (on a suitably broad understanding of it) or even theological in character. For example, Bacon’s New Atlantis offers a narrative of an island society that is indirectly controlled by a secret scientific community; the whole narrative is infused with religious themes and motifs.

B)    In particular, philosophic prophecy is not primarily about offering predictions but about intending to help create a possible future. Of course, predictions can enter into the content of a philosophic prophecy. One can even imagine negative predictions that are intended to produce an alternative outcome. For example, consider Adam Smith’s claim in the Wealth of Nations that “To expect, indeed, that the freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain is as absurd as to expect that an Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it. Not only the prejudices of the public, but what is much more unconquerable, the private interests of many individuals, irresistibly oppose it.”[9] While this can be taken as a mere statement of fact, it is more likely intended to rouse (part of) the public so that they overcome the private interests of some. One reason to doubt that Smith (who taught rhetoric) is making a purely factual claim is that other than here, there is no evidence that he thought that there ever was a genuine “freedom of trade” in Great Britain. Moreover, he is explicitly contrasting it with projects (by Harrington and More) that are very different in character than his (although, perhaps, species of philosophic prophecy, too). Smith’s policy proposals all are incremental changes from the then-present situation.

C)    Philosophic prophecy is a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient condition) for the prophesied future (and, thus, resolutely teleological).

D)    It appeals to the imagination often by way of narrative, history, travel reports, mythic history, or the introduction of novel vocabulary. (Think of what is conveyed by the Platonic category muthos). Here I use this as a contrast to rational persuasion by way of (formal/deductive/structured) argument (viz. Platonic logos). I do not mean to suggest that the content of the philosophic prophecy is irrational or in opposition to reason. On the contrary, in general philosophic prophecy is meant to enhance the claims of reason. In particular, philosophic prophecy often simultaneously intends to promote the cause of reason as well as justice, humanity, etc. The motive, if discernible, behind philosophic prophecy is a kind of philosophic philanthropy. A nice example of this is Kant’s Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.[10]

E)     One reason why I refer to the “imagination” in the previous point is that philosophic prophecy often consist of claims that are beyond knowable at the time of articulation, but that avoid (obvious) falsehoods. A prominent example of this is offered by Spinoza’s “tenets of universal faith” (TTP 14).

F)     Another reason why I refer to the “imagination,” is that philosophic prophecy is, thus, (ultimately) accepted on faith. Philosophic prophecies are a species of magisterial authority. They are often designed to context the magisterial authority of other schools, narratives, etc.

G)    Characteristic F is related to a very useful criterion to discern if one is dealing with an author that engages in this genre: nearly always s/he articulates a dialectic or rhetoric between “true vs false” philosophy or “true vs false philosophers/teachers/experts.” A prominent example of this rhetoric can be found in Hume’s Treatise.[11] Sometimes, however, the dialectic is more implicit when the opposed view is systematically unnamed or even effaced. For example, in “On Scientific Method In Philosophy” Bertrand Russell does not name “Hegel's modern disciples” (note the implied magisterial relationship) in the main body of the text, and when he quotes one of them, "Reality is not merely one and self-consistent, but is a system of reciprocally determinate parts" the author’s  name (Bosanquet) only appears in a footnote. Bradley never gets mentioned.

H)    The nub of “philosophic prophecy” is that our present or even our future once-unforeseen actions can be the intended outcome of past design. So, while the content of philosophic prophecy can be rich in detail it need not anticipate the exact and variety of ways in which history unfolds. Rather, what philosophic prophecy entails is a kind of shared horizon between the prophecy and the often implied prophesied future.[12] To put this in slightly less poetic terms: the way some political (or philosophic) problems or issues are conceived today may be indebted to how issues were framed in some philosophic prophecy. So, this fully allows all manner of contingency because the author of such a prophecy need not anticipate in what technological manner issues are debated, or who is included in the debate (and in which language), etc.

I)       The philosophic prophecy works often by introducing a set of conceptual oppositions that help delimit how philosophic problems/controversies/questions are treated subsequently. I have in mind something akin to a Kuhnian paradigm or a Gadamerian horizon. This is, I think, Hobbes’ state of nature has shaped the subsequent tradition even in works that aim to refute or get around it.

J)       This characterization is an ideal type.


Finally, Plato’s dialogues are to the best of my knowledge the origin of philosophic prophecies:[13] the Sophists are generally the false teachers, and Plato’s characters use narratives that are full of claims that are not knowable false to enhance philosophic doctrine. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasizing that philosophic prophecy is not the activity of offering noble lies (which engage in know-ably false claims). I also mean to distinguish the application of this concept from the practice promoted by some of Leo Strauss’ followers of locating, unstated esoteric doctrines in a text. While it is, of course, not impossible that some esoteric doctrines are conveyed by means of philosophic prophecy (Hobbes and Spinoza come to mind), this need not be the case.[14] To put the matter succinctly in philosophic prophecy the exoteric text is what is doing the work on shaping the thought of future generations.  


In what follows, I engage in some philosophic prophecy by retelling the history of analytic philosophy. In particular, I critically examine and reject an earlier, extremely influential attempt at philosophic prophecy, Ernest Nagel’s attempt to find the nature and boundaries of analytic philosophy. I then turn to Schlick to promote an alternative vision of analytic philosophy.




iii.                Ernest Nagel: The (false) Prophet of Analytic Philosophy[15]

“A stranger frequently hears important truths at the fireside”—Tocqueville


If we are going to reform the way ‘we’ do history of philosophy in a manner that is exciting philosophically (and by that I mean a way that will actively shape the future of philosophy), then we need to understand the ways in which we are prevented from thinking of history as doing philosophy. In particular, we need to disarm philosophic practices that insulate today’s philosophy and philosophers from the activity of history of philosophy that have deep roots in analytic philosophy. That will be my main aim in this section. In a later section (v) I target practices (promoted by Quentin Skinner) of historians of philosophy that make the history of philosophy irrelevant to the way of philosophy is shaped.


The way we think about the origins of analytic philosophy can be traced to a remarkable two-part narrative published in 1936 by the American philosopher, Ernest Nagel.[16] Ostensibly it is an informal report from his tour of the continent.[17] Nagel was probably the first to coin “analytic philosophy” in the sense that became influential the next decades;[18] he was the first to pick out the schools of thought that came to be associated with it (the Cambridge of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Moore; the Vienna Circle with special focus on Carnap, who was then in Prague; and the Polish logicians in Lwow and Warsaw). In particular, Nagel deliberately “excluded mention of the men whose thought does not bear directly on questions of logic and method.” (1936a, 5) He also emphasizes what the different schools “have in common, methodologically and doctrinally” (1936a, 6). He writes that:

In the first place, the men with whom I have talked are impatient with philosophic systems built in the traditionally grand manner. Their preoccupation is with philosophy as analysis; they take for granted a body of authentic knowledge acquired by the special sciences, and are concerned not with adding to it in the way research in these sciences adds to it, but with clarifying its meaning and implications. Philosophy for these men holds out no promise of settling questions which only the empirical sciences are competent to settle; nor does it assume the function of legislating what sort of things it is permissible or possible for the empirical sciences to investigate. Those who seek in philosophy a substitute for religion or a key to social salvation will not find it here. The intellectual temper cultivated by these men is that of ethical and political neutrality within the domain of philosophic analysis proper, however much they may be moved by the moral and social chaos which threatens to swallow the few extant intellectual oases upon which they stand.” (1936a, 6; emphasis in original)


Nagel then goes on to emphasize the common concern with “method” which “dominates all these places” as well as the fact that “students whose primary interest is the history of ideas will find that, with some important exceptions, they will profit little from talking with these men.” (1936a, 6) Finally, he ascribes to them a (minimal, but non-trivial) a “common doctrine, the men to whom I refer subscribe to a common-sense naturalism. They do not believe that the everyday world is an illusion, or that science or philosophy reveal a contrasting reality.” (1936a, 7) I trust this characterization is familiar to most contemporary readers; this is despite much revisionary philosophical scholarly literature,[19] how we have been taught to think about analytic philosophy (even if has been changing since).


Yet, there is plenty of evidence in Nagel’s narrative to suggest that we’re in the realm of philosophic prophecy. Let me offer two pieces of evidence. First, Nagel is not a dispassionate bystander. On the contrary, he contrasts “the shining sword” of “analytic philosophy” favorably with unnamed opposing schools described as “a romantic irrationalism that has completely engulfed Europe;” (1936a, 5) and its “community of seers;” (1936b, 6). Or again “traditional speculative philosophy frequently cultivates mystification and conscious irrationalism.” (1936a, 9) That is, he initiates what I have describes as a dialectic between true and false philosophy, but with two interesting twists: i) within his account of analytic philosophy there is a further contrast between the “gentle force of a luminous mind” of Carnap (1936b, 44) and the secretive, homo-erotic cult surrounding Wittgenstein.[20] (This is not the only such implied contrast; for example, within the discussion of the Vienna Circle, “Schlick and Waismann” are treated as a foil for Carnap; their own views do not receive sustained scrutiny.) ii) Though he admires analytic philosophy greatly (and he wants to further its progress as part of a scientific philosophy against the American followers of traditional philosophy),[21] Nagel is also a critic: For example, “it seems to me that a better knowledge of the history which they contemn would have saved many of the analytical philosophers from serious error; for, it will be seen, the latter frequently discuss the traditional problems however disguised they may be by a different terminology. Moreover, the historical approach, when wisely cultivated, can frequently produce the same kind of intellectual catharsis and dissolution of pseudo-problems as does the analytic method.” (1936a, 7)


Second, Nagel offers enough hints that he is aware that he is drawing the domain of analytic philosophy rather narrowly. So, despite the fact that he treats analytic philosophy as hostile to the history of philosophy, Nagel is fully aware that one of the main heroes of his narrative, Lukasiewiez, is deeply immersed in the “history of logic” and has made important contributions to modern logic because of it (1936b, 50). Because he excludes anything other than “logic and method,” Moore’s work in ethics is passed over in silence; nevertheless, Carnap’s views on ethical statements are treated extensively and found wanting (“perhaps the least satisfactory part of Carnap's views is his analysis of the propositions of ethics and esthetics.” 1936b, 48ff).


But the exclusion goes deeper than history of philosophy and ethics. Nagel addresses the issue in the first footnote “I am excluding Broad from this account, partly because being the only philosopher at Cambridge who publishes at any length Broad is adequately known through his writings, partly because discussions at Cambridge do not for the moment center around him, and partly because I myself am only mildly interested in the themes with which he is at present occupied.” (1936a, 10, n. 1) We may have forgotten, but between 1925 and 1935 Broad published major books in the philosophy of mind, free will, ethics, history of philosophy and even an extensive engagement with McTaggart’s metaphysics.[22] But this was once “adequately known.” Nagel then concludes the note with, “For lack of space I must also forego comment on the Peircean-pragmatic turn which the discussions of induction and probability have taken in the cases of Braithwaite and the late Frank Ramsey.” This omission is significant for two additional reasons: i) if he had included Braithwaite and Ramsey, he would have had to pay attention to what we may label analytic philosophy of social science not just in Cambridge, but also at Vienna (e.g., Neurath); a focus on Ramsey would have forced him to consider the ways in which analytic philosophy and Cambridge political economy in the wake of Sidgwick overlapped. (Moore and Russell were students of Sidgwick.) In Hooke’s 1930 narrative, by contrast, Reichenbach one of his two heroes -- the other is Hartmann --, is fully engaged with the views of “Keynes and Broad” (159).[23] The contrast with Hook helps us see that Nagel’s grouping and the way it is given cohesion internally and externally was a contingent matter.[24] But once set in motion and with the, perhaps unexpected, aid of forced exile and death of many leading lights of Nagel’s analytic philosophy, the narrative became self-reinforcing (especially because Nagel became a leading organizational and philosophical figure in the Unity of Science movement and North American philosophy more generally).[25]


ii) It prefigures one of the primary tacit themes of Nagel’s two-part essay: the continuity between Peirce and analytic philosophy (e.g., “Much of this reads like a page from Peirce” 1936a, 18.) In particular, “Without being aware of it, they have taken seriously Peirce's advice that expert knowledge of some empirical subject-matter ought to be part of a philosopher's equipment.” 1936b, 30; see also, 37.) Nagel is in favor of scientific philosophy,[26] and believes he can make common cause with the analytic movement he has delineated. I very much admire Nagel’s focus on the “wise cultivation” of history that makes self-awareness as well as “intellectual catharsis and dissolution of pseudo-problems” possible. And I return to his positive conception for history of philosophy below. But, first, I offer an alternative to Nagel’s vision of analytic philosophy and that recovers its ongoing relevance.



iv.                Schlick and Coining Concepts: A counter-history of Analytic Philosophy

“Professor Schlick's lectures were delivered in an enormous auditorium packed with students of both sexes, and in his seminar a stray visitor was lucky if he did not have to sit on the window sill. The content of the lectures, though elementary, was on a high level; it was concerned with expounding the theory of meaning as the mode of verifying propositions. It occurred to me that although I was in a city foundering economically, at a time when social reaction was in the saddle, the views presented so persuasively from the Katheder were a potent intellectual explosive. I wondered how much longer such doctrines would be tolerated in Vienna.” (Nagel, 1936a, 7-8)


As is well known, Einstein dramatically changed the shape of physics at the start of the twentieth century. In doing so he also caused a crisis in neo-Kantian, ‘scientific philosophy,’ which was perceived to have committed itself fatally to the a priori necessity of Euclidian geometry and the Newtonian science of motion. This episode (or series of episodes) instantiate in dramatic fashion the significance of what I have called “Newton’s Challenge to Philosophy.” In the most general sense I mean by this that “science” is authoritative in settling debates within philosophy--an attitude that became increasingly significant in eighteenth century philosophic debates as the authority of Newtonian science was used to refute or silence philosophic opponents.[27] (I understand Kant’s Critical philosophy as a response to the eighteenth century version of “Newton’s Challenge,” but that is a different story.)


One of the great martyrs of philosophy, Moritz Schlick (who was assassinated in 1936),[28] took these developments so seriously that at one point he even admitted that “I am not writing for those who think that Einstein's philosophical opponents were right.”[29] This is an exemplary instance of “Newton’s Challenge” in practice. (The dogmatic embrace of what is known as “Scientism” is a sign that one is dealing with [the aftermath of] “Newton’s Challenge.”) In context, Schlick is using the example of Einstein to introduce and defend his brand of verificationism (which he calls “true positivism”) in response to criticism by C.I Lewis, who according to Schlick mistakenly attributes to the members of the Vienna Circle a false “solipsistic” positivism (which Schlick, in turn, associates with Vaihinger).[30] Here I am not interested in Schlick’s defense of verificationism.


Rather, I call attention to the fact that even though Schlick promoted a scientific philosophy, Schlick also embraced a vantage point for philosophy that could reflect on science from without, without accepting its claims merely on authority. The mature Schlick did so as an “unrelenting” or “true” “empiricist.”[31] In particular, he explicitly contrasted his “true” empiricism with the presumably false empiricists, who are “theoretically minded men who take their stand within science,” (emphasis in Schlick 1935: 69). These “false” empiricists embrace a “rationalist attitude” that mistakes science for reality.[32] (In context, the target is Hempel.)[33]


In response to Einstein and with an appeal to Socrates’ practice, the mature Schlick sharply distinguished between two intellectual enterprises: Science should be defined as the "pursuit of truth" and philosophy as the "pursuit of meaning," (emphasis in Schlick—scholars will recognize that he adapts a Spinozistic distinction between the goal of biblical hermeneutics, which is aimed at meaning, and the goal of natural philosophy, which is aimed at truth (see TTP 7)!)[34] Schlick introduced this distinction in order to be able to insist that great scientists are properly philosophical when they discover new and proper meanings of concepts (his favorite example is Einstein’s analysis of simultaneity). These concepts are about possible circumstances.[35] But while the later Schlick was right to recognize something philosophical in scientific activity, I prefer to adopt an earlier distinction of Schlick: in one of his earliest writings (1910), where he sharply distinguishes between the development of quantitative and qualitative concepts.[36] According to the young Schlick, the former are concepts of science, the latter of philosophy.[37] Once a field of inquiry is capable of deploying quantitative concepts in a stable, theory-mediated measurement practice it becomes well on its way to being a science.


So, to put all of this in terms of some slogans: according to my reading of Schlick coining concepts is a distinct philosophic activity that can take place within and outside the sciences. When the concepts are quantitative they are part of a possible of science; when the concepts are qualitative they are part of a possible philosophy. This, I submit, is the lasting legacy of analytic philosophy (while not denying that that is also available to other traditions). This focus on designing concepts is very close to Carnap’s conceptual engineering (even if Carnapian explication may have different aims).[38] I understand much of the canonical works in early analytic philosophy as well as the near canonical works by Ramsey and Neurath as exemplifying the coining of concepts with great deal of philosophic precision, sophistication, and lasting influence.


I have set Schlick’s verificationism aside; I am also disinclined to follow his narrow way of conceiving philosophy. But even so he may be thought to be an unlikely hero of my story.[39] For, it might seem that Schlick sharply distinguished between philosophic (concerned with truth of past systems of thought) and historical enterprises (concerned with the beauty, brilliance, and historical significance).[40] Schlick’s particular conception of the historian’s task will be rejected by nearly all contemporary historians. Even though I have some sympathy with Schlick’s rejection of the appeal to history as an argument for skepticism, I have no desire to revive either Schlick’s particular understanding of history or the merely instrumental role that “knowledge of the past” has in his particular vision for the progress of philosophy. Rather, I am claiming that we can practice the history of philosophy by way of coining qualitative concepts that help shape not merely our understanding of philosophy, but also our future.



v.                  Against Skinner’s Cult of Contingency and the Royal Road to Me.[41]


In 1969 Quentin Skinner published a famous article that promoted the idea that in doing history of philosophy (or political theory) we really encountered "alien" ways of answering philosophic questions.[42] We find an echo of Skinner's view in Bernard Williams' famous advocacy that history of "philosophy that can help us in reviving a sense of strangeness or questionability about our own philosophical assumptions.”[43] (To be sure, Williams' distinction between the history of ideas and history of philosophy is not Skinner's.) Skinner does not just deny that there are perennial questions in philosophy, but he insisted that there were only individual answers to individual questions. In fact, together with the writings of Foucault, Skinner is the locus classicus for what I call “the cult of contingency.” Skinner believes it is a "general truth" that there are no "timeless concepts" in the history of philosophy or in describing our social institutions (although he allows this may not be so in mathematics.) Skinner's embrace of the cult of contingency is interesting because he also extracts from it a Socratic moral, that is, "history" provides a "lesson in self-knowledge," if not the Kantian message that "we must learn to do our thinking for ourselves."


I call it a “cult” for two reasons. First, after the so-called “linguistic turn” in history it became a dogma that history can only be charactized as contingent. The method of case-study facilitates this perspective: among practitions, each and every case is viewed as unique, and no general claims can be inferred from these. In context one can understand the desire to use this strategy as a wedge against Marxist claims of determinism. But if one wishes to negate determinism, one can also, say, advocate (epistemic) uncertainty (among other strategies).[44]


Second, Skinner proceeds by ridicule. Here is his supposed  argument: "if we are to learn from Plato [notice how thin THAT claim is--ES], it is not enough that the discussion should seem, at a very abstract level, to pose a question relevant to us. It is also essential [why?--ES] that the very answer Plato gave should seem relevant and indeed applicable (if he is "right" [who requires THAT?--ES]) to our own culture and period. As soon as we begin to study Plato's actual arguments, however, the sense in which the participation is the same for himself and ourselves dissolves into absurdity. What we are most likely to learn [sic!] from Plato is that the cook should not participate because he is slave." (Skinner 1969, 51-2).


Somehow, Skinner skips right over Thrasymachus' challenge to Socrates. But even if Skinner were right about the claim that there really are no timeless concepts, what matters to my purposes is that we find plenty of philosophically significant figures who regardless of their immediate contexts were also in creative dialogue with their pasts and futures and may well have been committed to the existence of timeless concepts. Skinner’s stance makes it extremely difficult to take such an enterprise seriously on its own terms. So, to return to Bacon’s New Atlantis briefly. Much can be learned about by placing it in its historial, political and philosophic context. But from the title forward Bacon signals that Plato is an important interlocutor (if only, perhaps, that Bacon is aware about the nature of philosophic prophecy in Plato, and so teaching us how to read both Plato and Bacon). And without careful study of Bacon’s writings (and, perhaps, interpretations of Plato he could have been familiar with) we cannot rule out in advance that Bacon might share some concepts with Plato. To give a less academic example: by denying meaning in history the Skinnerian approach comes at a very dangerous cost: for it cannot fully comprehend claims of meaning in history by nationalists and religious; instead it will treat these as fanatical, unintelligible, or irrational. The strangeness one finds elsewhere may also be a sign of one’s own parochialism.


One last remark about Skinner’s position: by treating the past as essentially strange, it also makes the history of philosophy almost irrelevant to the present. In the first instance it promotes quietism: on the Skinnerian view the past is not related to us, so we can leave well enough alone. That is to say it pretends as if the historian stands outside history; to put this a bit ironically, it promotes a ‘positivist’ understanding of history to be sorted by the historian.[45]

And in doing so, it is in no position to decide what facts matter to the history of philosophy, except those taken from the pre-existing tradition.[46] Now Williams thinks that the encounter with strangeness will make us question our own assumptions; as a psychological fact this is almost certainly extremely rare. But even if we grant that the encounter with the past will make us question our assumptions, there is no reason to accept that this questioning will motivate a change in our perspective. By contrast the position of this paper is that if we are motivated to change the future of philosophy we will engage the past more critically and more creatively.


Now in his paper, Skinner briefly discusses and dismisses an alternative view (which he associates with Hegel) that the best way to write history of philosophy is from the "present" which is, after all, the most highly evolved. Scott Soames' massive (2003) Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century heartily embraces that Hegelian perspective. In a forthcoming paper, drawing on some distinctions from the historian of mathematics, Ivor Grattan-Guinness (1990), Michael Kremer has adopted the phrase “a royal road to me” for that kind of presentist history "which aims to provide an “account of how a particular modern theory arose out of older theories instead of an account of those older theories in their own right,” thus confounding the questions “How did we get here?” and “What happened in the past?” (Kremer is quoting Grattan-Guinness, in part). Kremer goes on to suggest that "philosophical history is always in some sense a “road to me,” but only becomes objectionable if it is treated as a “royal road to me.” Properly carried out, philosophical history will shape its practitioner philosophically." That is to say, in effect Kremer criticizes Soames for writing a history of his [and Kripke's] prejudice(s), or to put this more politely (and closer to Kremer's own words) Soames does not merely mis-characterize the past, in Soames' approach we cannot be surprised by the past (Kremer quotes Williams on this point).[47]


Kremer's point is not to bemoan that we forgo on an exciting emotion by following in Soames' footsteps. Rather his point is that Soames' self-congratulatory history of progress (the royal road to me) is not properly a philosophic activity. As opposed to Soames style "royal road to me," Kremer embraces "untimely" history of philosophy (quoting Williams, who is echoing Nietzsche) that is a kind of "road to me." In particular, untimely history of philosophy either upends present philosophy (this is why surprise matters so much to Williams) or makes the past useful to one's present (by making one revise/improve one's philosophic orientation/doctrine, etc.).


I find Michael Kremer's defense of philosophic history as a species of philosophy very congenial. It is not just that the product of philosophic history (Kremer's felicitous term) is philosophical for him, but so is the activity. Philosophical history just is philosophy. In particular, Kremer's philosophical scholar gets transformed by the practice of history. (It is no surprise that Skinner and Kremer acknowledge Wittgensteinian roots to their argument.) This is what Nagel presumably meant when speaking of “intellectual catharsis.” Even so, I draw three contrasts with Kremer in order to elucidate and reiterate my position:


First, I do not want to deny that that the past can be strange or surprising initially. But we should also be willing to scratch beyond the surface, and try to locate similarities. In particular, second, we can coin concepts that make shared horizons between the past and our future possible. These concepts can be rooted in the past. But, third, these concepts must also make a shared future possible for us and our past--it is a historical-philosophic fact that many of the best philosophers of the past have coined concepts that our present activities articulate and, in doing so, help generate our futures (and not just the present). Or, to put it a bit more paradoxically: even if this way of proceeding need not be the only avenue for philosophical historians some concepts can if we are wise give us a ‘new’ past that is worth articulating and clarifying for the sake of our future.


Eric Schliesser

Philosophy & Moral Sciences

Ghent University


October 21, 2011




I started thinking about philosophy prophecy because of the opening lines of Spinoza’s TTP (quoted in Curley’s translation).


[1] “Prophecy, or Revelation, is the certain knowledge of a thing, revealed to men by God.”

[2A] “a Prophet is one who interprets God’s revelations to those who cannot have certain knowledge of them, and who thus [2B] can only embrace the things revealed by sheer faith…

[3] “it follows that natural knowledge can be called Prophecy…”

[4] “But in the certainty natural knowledge involves, and in the source from which it is derived, viz. God, it is in no way inferior to prophetic knowledge…”

[5] “[A] But though natural knowledge is divine, nevertheless those who spread it cannot be called Prophets. [ADN. II] [B] That is, interpreters of God. For an interpreter of God is one who interprets God's decrees to others to whom they have not been revealed, and who, in embracing them, rely only on the authority of the prophet.

[6] But if the men who listen to prophets became prophets, as those who listen to philosophers become philosophers, then the prophet would not be an interpreter of the divine decrees, since his hearers would rely, not on the testimony and authority of the prophet, but on revelation itself, and internal testimony.

[7]Thus the sovereign powers are the interpreters of the law of their state, because the laws they pass are preserved only by their authority and depend only on their testimony.” [End NOTE]

[5A] For they teach things other men can perceive and embrace with the same certainty and excellence as they do, and not by faith alone. (TTP, 1; 1-4; III/16-7; translated by E. Curley)


1-4: philosophers can, in principle, possess the gift of prophecy in virtue of their access to natural knowledge.

From 2: philosophers can be prophets if they teach things by magisterial authority (i.e., teaching accepted on faith)

Now 5A denies that natural knowledge is prophecy, but still allows that philosophers can be prophets

5B: equates prophets with God’s interpreters

From 6 if one’s teachings rely on magisterial authority (that is on imagination, not natural light) à prophet

(So, 7: for example, Hobbesian sovereign is a prophet in this sense.)


So, if philosophers rely on magisterial authority (6) and they interpret God (5B) in virtue of their rational/natural knowledge (1-4) then they are philosophic prophets (See also Lodewijk Myer’s Introduction to Cartesian Principles of Philosophy.)[48]


[1] When I presented drafts of this material to audiences in Brighton and Madrid several audience members called my attention to important similarities between my project and projects they were familiar with within continental philosophy associated with Walter Benjamin, Althusser, and Deleuze. In the future I hope to explore these.

[2] Eric Schliesser (2011) “Newton’s Challenge to Philosophy: A Programmatic Essay” HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of

Science, 1(1): 101-128; http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/658906

[3] M. Schlick, (1936) “Meaning and Verification,” The Philosophical Review, 45(4): 339-369, especially 343 (and his invocation of responsibility—on responsibility, see also M. Schlick WHEN IS A MAN RESPONSIBLE?

[4] This section draws on material I published before in Eric Schliesser (2011) “Four Species of Reflexivity and History of Economics in Economic Policy Science,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 5: 425–444

[5] Robert K. Merton (1996, reprint) On social structure and science Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 185.

[6] George Soros has renewed interest in this issue. For a lucid presentation of his views, see The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, New York: Public Affairs; (Revised edition 2009), pp. 25-80.

[7] The important paper by E. Grunberg & F. Modigliani (1954) “The Predictability of Social Events,” Journal of Political Economy 62: 465–78, and J.F. Muth’s (1961) “Rational Expectations and the Theory of Price Movements,” Econometrica, 29: 315–35, as characterizing precise (and rather infrequent) circumstances in which this can take place. As Wade Hands points out, Herbert A. Simon (1954) “Bandwagon and Underdog Effects and the Possibility of Election Predictions” Public Opinion Quarterly 18: 245–253 does something similar. See W. Hands (1990) “Grunberg and Modigliani, Public Predictions and the New Classical Macroeconomics” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, 7: 207–223.

[8] Leaving aside to what degree the Old or New Testament as a whole are philosophical, very few of their characters are thought to be philosophers these days.

[9] "Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. I ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, vol. II of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Chapter: [IV.ii] CHAPTER II: Of Restraints upon the Importation a from foreign Countries of such Goods a as can be produced at Home

Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/220/217458/2313890 on 2011-09-21"

[10] See “[Conceptualized history] can serve not only for clarifying the confused play of things human, and not only for the art of prophesying later political changes (a use which has already been made of history even when seen as the disconnected effect of lawless freedom)…That I would want to displace the work of practicing empirical historians with this Idea of world history, which is to some extent based upon an a priori principle, would be a misinterpretation of my intention. It is only a suggestion of what a philosophical mind (which would have to be well versed in history) could essay from another point of view,” (Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784). Translation by Lewis White Beck.

[11] See Donald W. Livingston (1998) Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), Chapter 2, especially. Of course, Livingston is not averse to philosophic prophecy in order to undo the Civil War outcome.

[12] Obviously, not all theories of meaning can accommodate this claim because it implies that the meaning of a statement can be unfolded over time and go beyond strict context. So much the worse, for those! To be clear: even if one were to accept Skinner’s arguments that intentions are fixed in light of context (and allows for the sake of argument that ‘context’ can be defined non arbitrarily), meanings need not be so fixed. (Cf. Q. Skinner (1969) “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, 8(1): 3-53. In particular, philosophic prophecy once successful ‘shapes’ meaning into the future.

[13] The Book of Job may be another possibility.

[14] I do not share the prevalent hostility to Straussianism. Persecution of various types is an enduring problem faced by philosophers and it is endemic to the Early Modern period. But this is not the place to argue the case; either way, while there is quite a bit of dumb, vulgar Straussianism there is also quite a bit of unthinking, silly outright rejection of Straussianism.

[15] This section is very indebted to ongoing criticism from Dennis Des Chene and Jeff Bell.

[16] Ernest Nagel (1936a) “Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe I,” The Journal of Philosophy 33(1): 5-24 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2016895; (1936b) “Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe. II” The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 33(2): pp. 29-53 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2016015. These papers are not unknown in the burgeoning, historical literature of the origin of analytic of philosophy (e.g., Alan W. Richardson (2002) Engineering Philosophy of Science: American Pragmatism and Logical Empiricism in the 1930s Philosophy of Science 69, (S3): S36-S47, but I know of no work that treats it as a source of study in its own right. I thank Greg Arnold-Frost for repeatedly calling my attention to these.

Nagel’s piece is not much cited, yet I know of no alternative source that could be the origin of our common conception of analytic philosophy.  See note 23 below for more on this.

[17] Nagel insists that he is “reporting less what certain European schools of philosophy profess, and more what I got out of a year’s study abroad.” (1936a, 5)

[18] “Analytic philosophy” had a different meaning/use familiar to Nagel’s readers. Nagel’s essay is almost certainly responding to Sidney Hook (1930) “A Personal Impression of Contemporary German Philosophy,” The Journal of Philosophy 27(6): 141-160. By "analytical" (152) or "analysis" (142; 149) Hook doesn't mean what Nagel (and thus, we) mean by it. It's not just that Hook identifies Husserl's program with analysis (on 152ff). But also Heidegger is treated as somebody who engages in "analysis" (154), as do the students of Dilthey (153). Rather to be an analyst in Hook's lingo means, besides adopting a taxonomic (or whatever you wish to call it) method, that one keeps one's eyes on "the object" (152). Nagel’s essays set a whole new group of different conceptual opposition in motion.

I thank Jeff Ball for calling my attention to Hook’s piece. See his blogs, <http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/10/cc12-hooks-impression-of-german-philosophy-circa-1930.html> and http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/10/schools-and-traditions-or-husserl-and-realism-pt-i.html.

[19] See, especially, Michael Dummett (1994) Origins of Analytic Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

[20] Cf. “It is easy for anyone at Cambridge to perceive excellent reasons for the fascination that both men [Moore and Wittgenstein] exercise upon their students. It is not easy, without lapsing into the personal and impertinent, to convey those reasons to strangers to Cambridge.” (1936a, 10) And “While I was at Cambridge a letter from a friend in Vienna assured me that in certain circles the existence of Wittgenstein is debated with as much ingenuity as the historicity of Christ has been disputed in others. I have seen Wittgenstein, though only casually, and therefore feel competent to decide that question. I did not receive his permission to attend his lectures, and since except to small, exclusive groups at Cambridge and Vienna his present views are not accessible, I feel extraordinarily hesitant in reporting on the doctrines he holds. For various reasons Wittgenstein refuses to publish; and even among his students of years' standing there is considerable doubt as to what his beliefs are on crucial issues. My information about Wittgenstein's views depends upon certain notes on his lectures which are in circulation and upon conversations with students and disciples both at Cambridge and Vienna. Mystery and a queerly warped personality lend charm to many a philosophy which otherwise is not very significant; but in spite of the esoteric atmosphere which surrounds Wittgenstein, I think his views are both interesting and important.” (1936a, 16-17)

[21] See Alan Richardson (2003) "Logical Empiricism, American Pragmatism, and the Fate of Scientific Philosophy in America" in Logical Empiricism in North America edited by A. Richardson and G. Hardcastle, U of Minnesota Press.

[22] A quick glance at Wikipidia reveals this list: The Mind and its place in nature. London: Kegan Paul, 1925; The Philosophy of Francis Bacon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926; Five types of ethical theory. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1930; War Thoughts in Peace Time. London: Humphrey Milford, 1931; An examination of McTaggart's philosophy. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1933; Determinism, interdeterminism and libertarianism. Cambridge University Press, 1934!

[23] Hook, who shared much in intellectual common with Nagel,

[24] This being so, it helps explain why subsequent generations have had such hard time giving necessary and sufficient definitions of “analytic philosophy.”

[25] Nagel’s efforts were contested. See, for example, Mortimer Taube (1937) “Positivism, Science, and History,”

The Journal of Philosophy 34(8): 205-210. Dennis Des Chene has objected that the paucity of citations to Nagel’s piece undercut my claims about its significance. I agree it is important to identify possible transmission mechanisms, including oral traditions in graduate education. (For a nice example of this see A. Carus (2007) Carnap and twentieth-century thought:  explication as enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 265 n. 13, where Howard Stein is reported on Carnap’s teachings.) For example, Arthur Pap's (1949) Elements of Analytic Philosophy, which was widely discussed and cited, could well be one of the crucial transmission mechanisms for Nagel’s views. According to Wikipedia, Pap was a PhD student of Nagel.  

[26] Besides the pragmatists, the then dominant Neorealists were also promoting scientific philosophy in America. For their manifesto (which anticipates the Vienna Circle manifesto in uncanny ways), see here: Edwin B. Holt, Walter T. Marvin, W. P. Montague, Ralph Barton Perry, Walter B. Pitkin and Edward Gleason Spaulding (1910), “The Program and First Platform of Six Realists” The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 7(15): 393-401.

[27] One could distinguish among the following statements: (NC1) a philosopher claims that science or mechanics/physics must be consulted in the process of doing metaphysics; (NC2) a philosopher claims that science or mechanics/physics is epistemically before metaphysics; (NC3) a philosopher appeals to the authority of a natural science that is in some sense (institutionally, methodologically) not philosophy to settle an argument over doctrine, method, etc., within philosophy; (NC4) a philosopher claims that natural philosophy/science is immune to metaphysical challenge. For more details, see Eric Schliesser (2011) “Newton’s challenge to philosophy: a programmatic essay” HOPOS : The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, 1:101-128.

[28] Say something about murder

[29] Schlick, (1936) “Meaning and Verification,” 343.

[30] Schlick (1936) “Meaning and Verification,” 358ff.

[31] Moritz Schlick (1935) “Facts and Propositions” Analysis, 2(5): 65-70.

[32] The full paragraph is fascinating: “Science is a system of propositions; and-without being aware of it-these thinkers substitute science for reality; for them facts are not acknowledged before they are formulated in propositions and taken down in their notebooks. But Science is not the World. The universe of discourse is not the whole universe. It is a typical rationalistic attitude which shows itself here under the guise of the most subtle distinctions. It is as old as metaphysics itself, as we may learn from a saying of old Parmenides…” (69)

[33] Given the subsequent ways the Carnap-Quine debates evolved, it is important that here Schlick does not defend the distinction between within and without science in terms of the analytic-synthetic distinction. Rather, he seems to rely on a distinction between the authority of first-person experience and the authority of text-book experience. The distinction is also consistently deployed in Schlick’s better known (1932) “Positivismus und Realismus”, Erkenntnis, 3: 1–31.

[34] M. Schlick (1931) “The Future of Philosophy” reprinted in  Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, ed. H.L. Mulder and B.F.B. van de Velde-Schlick, 1979, pp. 210-24. Dordrecht: Reidel, 15.

[35]Schlick’s “The Future of Philosophy” comes very close to drawing a distinction between philosophy as analytic and science as synthetic, but I would resist that interpretation. Rather (by citing Wittgenstein) he calls attention to two different activities—philosophy is a “mental activity” while science is the activity that connects (by way of measurement, etc) propositions to facts.

[36] M Schlick (1910) “Die Grenze der naturwissenschaftlichen und philosophen Begriffsbildung" translated and reprinted in Philosophical papers, Volume 1, ed. H.L. Mulder and B.F.B. van de Velde-Schlick,1978, 25-40.

[37] The Vienna Circle was founded in 1922. Some readers might object to treating pre-1915 Schlick (when he published on Einstein) as part of analytic philosophy. But that need not concern me here.

[38] See A. Carus Carnap and twentieth-century thought, op. cit., especially chapter 10.

[39] Frege is often held up by those that wish to emphasize either the so-called linguistic turn or the significance of the developments in symbolic logic; Sidgwick is often held up by those that wish to emphasize a number of intellectual virtues that are supposedly emblematic of analytic philosophy. Both Frege and Sidgwick directly or indirectly influenced a number of significant first generation analytic philosophers.

[40] M. Schlick (1931) “The Future of Philosophy” reprinted in  Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, ed. H.L. Mulder and B.F.B. van de Velde-Schlick, 1979, pp. 210-24. Dordrecht: Reidel.

[41] This section has benefitted from discussion with Michael Kremer, Dennis Des Chene, and audiences in Brighton, Groningen, and Madrid. I am especially grateful for critical comments by Susan James, Quentin Skinner, James Harris, Knud Haakonssen, Steve Nadler, and David Teirra,

[42] Skinner (1969) op cit.

[43] B. Williams (2006 [1994]) “Descartes and The Historiography of Philosophy” in The Sense of the Past, edited by M. Burnyeat, Princeton: Princeton University Press

[44] The classic reference is F. Knight, but see also Popper, Keynes, Ellsberg, etc.

[45] The philosophic mistake is that it equates (the anti-teleological) logical structure of facts with the logical structure of meanings. Cf. Spinoza, TTP 7.

[46] Even if it promotes a lot of research into minor figures, these, in turn, are chosen by way they are related to the canonical few.

[47] The "royal road to me" can produce very illuminating (or deviously misleading) history of philosophy in, say, in the hands of Leibniz or Hume. My favorite bit of royal road to me history of philosophy is Quine's little history at the start of "epistemology naturalized." It draws an interesting distinction, and then tells a surprising, yet self-serving story about it. (How many people have read or even heard of Alexander Bryan Johnson?) One can distinguish philosophic royalty from royal imposters by the character of how they portray the road to them: we should contrast a road to me that is merely the road of present philosophic prejudice (couched in terms of "progress") and the Royal road to me, which announces how an original philosopher sees the world (and then one can also be more forgiving about historical omissions). A useful proxy is to what degree the royal road induces fruitful wonder, or surprise (and, thus, starts enquiry).

[48] Of course, this has roots in Maimonides; Machiavelli, and as I have suggested in the paper, Bacon and Plato.