December 21, 2003
finding an old essay
In between work on youth civic engagement, I'm writing a book about moral philosophy, using Dante as the main text. I recently remembered a relevant but unpublished article that I had written about 1991--when I was approximately 24 and finishing graduate school. Although I couldn't find an electronic copy of the essay, I did manage to dig up an old dot-matrix printout of it, with corrections pasted over the mistakes to save printer paper. I remembered nothing about the content, so reading it was like reading someone else's work, except that I happened to own the intellectual property rights. I'm not sure that I want to reuse any of it in my current work, because the argument is now rather unfamiliar to me, and I haven't decided what I think of it. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that I cannot do philosophical work that's much (or any?) better than that article today. This is disturbing, to say the least, because I don't think of myself as being much of a scholar ca. 1991. I certainly had difficulties getting things published in those days, and probably for good reason. Yet I have no confidence that my current book-in-progress is any better than that old article. At any rate, it starts with a good quote (from the preface to Dewey's Philosophy and Civilization, 1931):
philosophy, like politics, literature and the plastic arts, is itself a phenomenon of human culture. Its connection with social history, with civilization, is intrinsic. There is current among those who philosophize the conviction that, while past thinkers have reflected in their systems the conditions and perplexities of their own day, present-day philosophy in general, and one's own philosophy in particular, is emancipated from the influence of that complex of institutions which forms a culture. Bacon, Descartes, Kant each though with fervor that he was founding it anew philosophy because he was placing it securely upon an exclusive intellectual basis, exclusive, that is, of everything but intellect. The movement of time has revealed the illusion. ... Philosophers are part of history, caught in its movement; creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past.