Whether knowingly drawing from Nietzsche’s claim or not, from Human All-too-Human, which asserts that ‘He who strays from tradition becomes a sacrifice to the extraordinary; he who remains in tradition is its slave. Destruction follows in any case’, David Lewis’s advice to his then graduate student, Robert Brandom, was that to carry the tradition forward one needed to go back to tradition, and more precisely to its first principles. To jump forward one needs to back up and get a running start (and somewhere Nietzsche says much the same thing though I can’t find the quote)–hence, ‘reculer pour mieux sauter.’ As Brandom summarizes Lewis’s advice, he claims that
The way to understand some region of pure philosophical terrain is for each investigator to state a set of principles as clearly as she could, and then rigorously to determine what follows from them, what they rule out, and how one might argue for or against them. (Tales of the Mighty Dead, 114-15).
If I am going to understand Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, or Deleuze; or the Federalist Papers, the pragmatists, and perhaps even analytic philosophy more generally; the key in each case is to determine the guiding, predetermining principles that can account for what is said. This is how Brandom seeks to balance the de dicto and de re readings of the philosophical tradition. The de dicto readings are to be limited in their interpretations only to what a particular author is committed to as is evidenced by what they have written, and more generally to what they have read and to the problems and concerns of their intellectual milieux. The de re readings base interpretations upon what are taken to be true principles and facts that may or may not be acknowledged by a de dicto reading of a given text. Once one has backed up and found the principle or set of principles that best accounts for much of what can be found within the works of a given philosopher or a certain ‘philosophical terrain’, one then deduces the conclusions that follow from these principles, regardless of whether or not the actual, de dicto conclusions one actually finds in the texts are in line with these conclusions or not. Brandom’s historical essays in The Tales of the Mighty Dead are quite faithful to Lewis’s advice, and he applies this methodology to his readings of Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Frege, Heidegger, and Sellars, drawing along the way a number of interesting conclusions. Brandom’s leap into these texts thus involves quite a running start.
As much as I am attracted to Lewis’s advice for doing intellectual history, I find that it is only half the story. First, and most importantly, it seems to me that creative philosophical work does not begin with a set of first principles from which one then deduces their conclusions. Brandom would probably agree with this claim; after all, he refers to his reading of the tradition as an exercise in ‘reconstructive metaphysics’. But the implication nonetheless is that despite the perhaps wanton creative process associated with a philosophical endeavor, there is nonetheless a set of guiding principles that illuminates the true significance of the project, even if only after the fact (as if such principles were the unconscious directives of what is written). Such an approach is integral to identifying the critical moves in a philosophical argument, or in determining the essential relations between key components of one’s thought; however, such identifications only actualize the processes associated with the philosophical developments of a position, and the continuing and ongoing transformations of this/these position(s). What is overlooked, and this is the other half of the story, are the concepts that philosophers create. A philosophical concept cannot be reduced to a predetermining set of principles; moreover, a philosophical concept cannot even avoid giving rise to contradictions, or to intellectual mitosis as was discussed in an earlier post. I may be over-generous, but the Lewisean/Brandomian approach is indeed an important after the fact way to set forth a discursive account of the inferential premises and conclusions of a particular philosophical argument/position, but to become truly creative such an approach needs to encounter problems that resist such a reduction to principles; and for this reason, and others besides, philosophical concepts are not to be confused with first principles.