System and History in Philosophy:
A Review

by Ralph Dumain

Peperzak, Adriaan Theodoor. System and History in Philosophy: On the Unity of Thought and Time, Text and Explanation, Solitude and Dialogue, Rhetoric and Truth in the Practice of Philosophy and its History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. (SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy) vii, 172 pp.

A fundamental question in understanding intellectual life, and philosophy in particular--the most abstract and self-conscious form of intellectual inquiry--involves the relationship between working out one's own systematic ideas and involvement in the thought systems of the past. There is of course the question of originality, and assimilating as a prerequisite some assemblage of ideas that can not be re-invented from scratch during the course of each individual lifetime. Still, some philosophies are more historically invested than others, and it is important to know how this can be. The overarching question pursued in this book is that of the interdependence between thematic or systematic philosophy developed at one point in time and philosophy's past. For there can be no systematic philosophy without taking a position regarding the philosophies of the past, and there can be no meaningful historical understanding of philosophy in the absence of a systematic perspective in the present from which one interprets the past.

On this latter point, Peperzak's thesis is that:

... a thinker's most fundamental perspective also determines his study of history. If this is true, we can understand why an original thinker is incapable of comprehending another original thought exactly as it is presented by the other thinker. When he attempts to integrate the other's viewpoint into his own questioning and thinking, he inevitably transforms the other's perspective, The complete openness demanded by the absolute neutrality of an "objective" history is not compatible with the particularity of a philosophical (super)perspective. [p. 8]

The author also insists that the deployment of formal logic alone cannot obviate these issues: "the questions preceding the separation of form and content can neither be asked nor answered by logic alone." [p. 12] To be more specific:

As a rigorous experiment in thinking, formal logic should be seen from the broader perspective of the basic philosophical question concerning the unity of, and the difference between, thinking and reality. Modern logic cannot be a starting point unless one realizes from the outset that its transcendental and ontological conditions of possibility must be thematized elsewhere -- before and after logic. [p. 12]

An obvious prerequisite to doing history, or using the heritage of the past to develop one's own ideas, is learning, and of course this is relevant to any student of philosophy as much as it is to would-be productive philosophers. Peperzak also examines the learning process, and some of his remarks should be of interest to everyone.

Philosophizing is a unity of appropriation and alienation. We must go outside ourselves and enter into other thoughts, but we must also transform them into our own. The process, however, does not constitute a dialectical synthesis whereby everything else is assimilated into the identity of one main philosopher. Rather, it creates a unity wherein the otherness of different thinkers is recognized and preserved in a specific way, which has yet to be determined. The relation of the Other and the Same is not a fusion." [p. 41]

One conclusion is that the full history of philosophy can never be written, and one must be aware of this incompleteness. Another is that nobody can write a good history of philosophy without being a good philosopher. Perhaps it takes an equally great philosopher to be able fully to grasp a great philosopher, but then there remains the danger that in the process of interpretation the latter philosophy becomes absorbed into the former. Another is that every history of philosophy is in some fashion an expression of thematic philosophy, thus the philosophical historian must be aware of his presuppositions and perspectives. The students and consumers of histories of philosophy must have this awareness as well. Implicit, hidden authorities must be challenged in the process. [pp. 44-45]

The problem of "unmasking" philosophy in terms of other motives, as analyzed by the social sciences, is complicated by the potential circularity of all such endeavors, which are themselves subject to the same sort of skeptical scrutiny. All anti-philosophies generate metaphilosophies, and their conclusions must also be subject to philosophical analysis. [p. 54]

Biography may be considered in evaluating a philosophy, but selectively [p. 54].

The author admits of the validity of a totally partisan, apologetic approach to the philosophical past as long as it admits to its own partiality and does not purport to be the history of philosophy. How does one accomplish this without crossing the line over into an "imperialist" metaphilosophy? [p. 67] The author explores possible approaches.

Moving on to the area of philosophical debate, the author explores the ethics of polemic. Forcefulness and intransigence are traits of great philosophies. In the spirited defense of truth, rhetorical violence is not at all out of place, but there is an art to deploying it scrupulously. [pp. 90-91]

Regardless of the pre-philosophical ideological ground upon which thought-activity stands, there is an ineliminable individual responsibility in the process of argumentation: speaking is not reducible to force [p. 119].

Judging the history of philosophy, how does one conceive of a possible collective convergence on truth in the end, in relation to the plurality of viewpoints? Because thinking is irreducibly an individual and lonely discipline, pluralism cannot be eliminated in favor of final judgments. Even the common elements of a shared (intellectual) culture do not eliminate the individuality of the thought processes caught up in a given social configuration, no matter how identical the thoughts thought may turn out. Hence there is a restriction to what degree philosophy can be considered a product of teamwork, let alone an impersonal social force. [pp. 134-135]

The necessity of individuality also necessarily renders truth many-sided, hence not all truth can reside in an individual thinking, and no individual is competent to become the absolute judge. What follows looks like an implicit criticism of Hegel's thinking about geist:

The complete truth, however, cannot rest in an individual thinking, because -- even if it is pure -- it is necessarily perspectivized and made one-sided by its individuality. On the basis of the relativity of all philosophies, this book has defended an irrevocable (but not relativistic) pluralism, while both philosophy and its history have been interpreted as an unending dialogue. "The truth" is never the property of one philosopher, who can judge all the others. Truth comes to be out of the interplay between the various philosophical constellations. Not as though the history of philosophy were a gradual construction of the one and the whole truth, however, because such a notion presupposes a clandestine spirit's using history as an instrument for the gradual building up of its most adequate knowledge, or a History that is itself Providence. How could a human being reveal the plan of this providence if he did not himself coincide with it? The actual production of (more or less) truth by philosophy in the course of its history forms a contingent constellation, which could also have turned out differently -- unless one could prove that all the stages of its factual evolution have been a necessary unfolding of the preceding ones. If a philosophy of history could carry out such a proof, with reference to all known philosophers, it would abolish all discontinuity and present all thinkers as moments in the continuous unfolding of one initial thought. [p. 151]

Here as elsewhere the author attempts to negotiate a balance between intersubjectivity and the attainment of objective truth. Similarly with the tension between democratization and "elitism". Here the individual is always prioritized over the collective, and the integrity of thought guarantees the integrity of the participatory process. The problem of popularization is also introduced:

Does the qualitative, "elitist" and aggressive notion of truth-seeking argued for in this book not testify to an authoritarian contempt for the vulgar herd? One is best protected against this by the impersonal norm of the ideal evaluation given by truth itself, not by the dictatorship of a "collective." A good elite (allowing this pleonasm here) keeps places open for dissidents in the search for truth, even if their voices are scarcely audible amidst the deafening, and soporific, disputation of all against all. It has happened that "the truth" was on the side of the exceptions and met its death with theirs. Later they were commemorated as heroes of the truth, but the popularization or democratization of their message cannot take the place of our own thinking. The authority of the best lies in the degree to which they provide others with food for thought. Since authentic thought is independent, the best thinkers are good as long as they make others ever freer to discuss things with the best and with each other. Up to the present time, the history of philosophy has been a history of several aristoi and their schools. Not everyone must become a philosopher, but the only ground for exclusion lies in the prerequisites that the nature of philosophical thinking involves. Aside from a love of truth, facility in language and reflection are also necessary -- skills that are not yet universally possessed. A philosophical people's democracy, then, seems Utopian. It is a pity that many will always be denied the quality and enjoyment provided by philosophy, and it is a loss for philosophy that many individuals cannot bring their perspectives and styles into the philosophical debate. But even if they could, philosophy would still not be an all-encompassing truth. The collection of those who participate in the history of philosophy remains as fortuitous as the stellar constellations in the heavens. The number of participants does not change this; even the collection of all people would be a contingency. [p. 154]

In sum, the four chapters of this book cover four overarching themes: the viability of thematic philosophy, philosophy as learning, philosophy as discussion, philosophy and truth. In the manner that Peperzak conceptualizes these problems, the philosopher, the historian of ideas, the professional, the student, even the amateur, are all in the same boat, as they must all negotiate their efforts at thinking systematically with their appropriation of the philosophical heritage. The author's treatment of the essential issues is general and schematic but still thought-provoking. I have isolated some of his more interesting points.

Written 25 November 2000
© 2000 Ralph Dumain

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