Photo of Margaret Atherton

How Does One Do History of Philosophy? Margaret Atherton’s Dewey Lecture

At the APA’s 2017 Central Division Meeting in Kansas City, Margaret Atherton (Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee) delivered The John Dewey Lecture titled “My History: Becoming an Historian of Philosophy”.

Atherton started by suggesting that she had “an uneventful life in the backwaters in philosophy”, in an area that wasn’t always counted as philosophy.  She didn’t seem to be fooling anyone in the audience, though–many of whom were admirers of her work in early modern women philosophers–especially when she spoke of the thrills entailed in making new discoveries that can shift our understanding of philosophy, like twisting a kaleidoscope and finding new and unexpected connections and perspectives.

Atherton had what she discovered was an “old-fashioned education” at Bryn Mawr College where she developed the vague assumption that one couldn’t be a philosopher unless one was dead, due to the fact that her introduction to philosophy consisted of historical figures and there were no esteemed contemporary philosophers at her college at the time.  Atherton soon realized that students weren’t being taught to do history of philosophy in the analytic tradition, nor was there an established method.  Intrigued by this, Atherton started to explore the ground rules to figure out how to do history of philosophy, and shared a few of her rules with the audience, such as:

  1. Respect the text: Atherton recalled a humbling moment when she was teaching Locke.  Another philosopher sitting in on her class pointed out that Locke wasn’t saying what everyone thought he was saying, and also wasn’t saying what she was teaching.  She returned to the original work, and realized that her colleague was right.
  2. Respect the context: Reflect on the age in which the works were written.  Good criticism requires understanding, and understanding requires knowledge–including knowledge of the context.  There’s not one right way to look at the context, but there are best practices, which is like an elaborate dance sorting through the sea of materials that illuminate the texts and vice versa.
  3. Read the whole book–from beginning to end, even when it’s arduous–and ask yourself: Why did the author write this book?  What was the motivation for it?  Are there theological motivations behind it? How does this book fit in with the rest of the author’s work?  Some of these answers might be found in the author’s correspondence, so it’s important not to neglect letters.
Photo of Margaret Atherton
Kathleen Cook (left) and Margaret Atherton (right) at the APA Central Dewey Lecture

Turning to the future of the history of philosophy, Atherton noted that there are a few dilemmas that a historian of philosophy must face.  For example, are historians of philosophy rightly to be considered philosophers too? (Yes, because they need philosophical skills to figure out claims on the basis of arguments and to clarify them.)  And what can historians of philosophy offer philosophy departments?  (They can provide guidance to others to avoid dead-ends and add support to arguments taken today and bring to light hidden or neglected ideas, such as those of early modern women philosophers.)

One of the most contentious points that Atherton raised–and which was hotly debated in the audience–is that a philosophy course ought to focus on exploring three or four key texts in depth, from cover to cover.  Atherton’s view is that this approach will support students in developing important skills in doing philosophy, as opposed to survey-style courses which tend to emphasize knowledge of content by drawing upon excerpts from a wide variety of philosophers, and which run the risk of taking the philosopher and philosophies out of context. Acknowledging the difficulties and challenges of her recommended approach, she reminded us of Baruch Spinoza’s wise words:

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Note: The Dewey Lecture was recorded by the APA Blog, and a transcript is forthcoming.  This is a summary of some of the highlights of the speech.

Margaret Atherton is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She is best known as a historian of philosophy, specifically for her work on Berkeley, Locke, and women philosophers of the early modern period.  She is a former member of the APA’s Board of Directors and a former President of the APA’s Central Division.  The Dewey Lecture was chaired by Kathleen Cook (University of Pittsburgh).  

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