The history of philosophy is written by the victors

A decade or more ago I was sat in the back of the audience at a large international conference. The speaker presented a view that was the same as my own: a view that they knew I had presented in print some time earlier. No attribution was made. In the Q&A, that view was then named after the speaker: ‘the N-view’. I had seen a false history of philosophy constructed before my eyes. What should I have done? Interjected that it was actually my view first? Allege an injustice? I didn’t want to make a fuss or look egocentric so in the end I did nothing.

There are, after all, far more egregious cases in which a view is attributed to a philosopher – even an argument for which they are best known – that was in reality presented by someone else first. Take Descartes, for instance, who everyone knows as the creator of the Cogito argument. But this argument appeared in Augustine’s City of God a thousand years before. Augustine wrote:

I am certain that I am, that I know that I am, and that I love to be and to know. In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force.  If they say: “What if you are mistaken?—well, if I am mistaken, I am.  For, if one does not exist, he can by no means be mistaken.  Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken.  Because, therefore, I am, if I am mistaken, how can I be mistaken that I am, since it is certain that I am, if I am mistaken?”

I recently came across a lesser known but just as startling case. I am doing some work on the history of empiricism and wondered where to start. Locke is often considered to be the founder of the movement because he so clearly articulated the empiricist principle. Yet reading Hobbes, I found exactly the same principle in his Leviathan: ‘For there is no conception in a mans mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of Sense. The rest are derived from that Originall.’ Now this might only be a coincidence, you could say. Or perhaps Augustine ‘anticipated’ Descartes just as Hobbes ‘anticipated’ Locke. But in both instances, we have a plausible explanation of how the later writers would have known the work of the earlier. In Locke’s case, this came to light only recently when evidence emerged proving that he had read Hobbes closely.

What can we learn from this? First, I’ve learned to always do my research and fairly attribute to others, as a matter of intellectual justice. Next, we should be cautious about simple historical summaries that attribute big breakthroughs to individuals. Philosophy is a collective endeavour, whether we realise it or not, where the reality involves tiny increments rather than world-changing leaps forward. What I find even more interesting, however, is what this tells us about the construction of history. Just as they say that history is written by the victors, so too is the history of philosophy. Those in a position of influence can and will use their platform to tell us the story as they see it: usually a story that promotes their interests. It is crucial, then, that we keep the receipts since it is the works of less lauded thinkers that often enable us to reappraise the dominant narrative and, if warranted, reject received wisdom.


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