Philosophy Teaching by Examples

22 December 2010



A quote quite frequently attributed to Thucydides is that history is philosophy teaching by example. The source of this quote does not seem to be Thucydides himself, though the idea could certainly said to be implicit throughout his work. The sophistication of Thucydides’ perspective suggests a philosophical subtlety, and Marcellinus tells us that Thucydides studied under Anaxagoras, as well as studying rhetoric with Antiphon. In any case, the source for this pseudo-Thucydidean quote seems to be Dionysius of Heraclea, Thus:

The contact with manners then is education; and this Thucydides appears to assert when he says history is philosophy learned from examples.

Dionysius of Heraclea, Ars Rhetorica (XI, 2, p. 212), (Tauchnitz edition)

Perhaps Thucydides said it, and tradition carried the saying to Dionysius of Heraclea, or perhaps Thucydides wrote it in a text now lost, but whatever the case the saying is clearly associated with Thucydides, even if we can’t trace it to an extant text.

In several posts I have touched on the possibility of historical falsification of ideas (cf. e.g., Confirmation and Disconfirmation in History), which also suggests the possibility of the historical verification of ideas, and the verification and falsification of ideas would constitute perfect instances of history teaching by examples.

In other posts I have also discussed counter-factual conditionals in relation to history, and it occurs to me today that counter-factual conditionals are simply the opposite perspective on history teaching philosophy by examples. With counter-factual conditionals we have events that did not in fact happen, but the fact that they did not occur but might have occurred has a lesson to teach us. With history teaching philosophy by example, we have events that did in fact happen, but which we understand might have been otherwise. Each illuminates the other because each is implied by the other. And in so far as each is implied by the other, the two are twin or parallel concepts.

I take it as a philosophical virtue to make parallel formulations explicit, and if we can find the appropriate linguistic formulation for the concepts we can demonstrate their parallelism all the better. For example, we could contrast counter-factual conditionals to factually-consonant conditionals, and then it becomes clear that all history is conditional. This was a theme that S. J. Gould emphasized on several occasions. I quoted him to this effect in The Immiserization Thesis.

In so far as any history, counter-factual or factually-consonant, accords with our ideas, whether validating them or falsifying them, is a matter of our ability to explicitly express these ideas in concrete terms. We can never specify all of the details that might emerge with the translation of ideas into facts and facts into ideas (something I discussed in Putting Ideas First), but we can certainly do better than we have in the past. And the closer we approximate the complexity of facts by filling out the complexity of our ideas beyond their usual abstract and schematic form, the closer we can get to speaking with any degree of precision of historical validation and falsification. And if I am correct that counter-factual conditionals and factually-consonant conditionals are parallel concepts, each shares in the difficulty of the other, even while an improvement in the formulation of the one suggests parallel improvements in the formulation of the other.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that, even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs. We may know, for example, on an intellectual level that terrorizing civilians does not win wars, much less win hearts and minds, but when we find ourselves with our backs to the wall in an existential struggle, we may nevertheless choose to act upon tactics of mass terror — perhaps for revenge, perhaps to see the hated enemy suffer, perhaps out of sheer desperation or for lack of alternatives.

Similarly (again, a parallel formulation), even when an idea seems to be confirmed beyond any degree of rational doubt by actual historical events that appear to bear out the validity of that idea, we cannot allow ourselves to become smug about it, assuming its permanence. I am sure that almost every person who have lived in a stable society comes to believe in the permanency of the institutions of this society (which is what Sartre called the Spirit of Seriousness), only to be given a rude jolt when the seemingly permanent comes crashing down in a strategic shock or a revolution.

The validation and falsification of ideas by history are parallel concepts, just as countering or conforming to facts are parallel ideas. Extrapolating parallel concepts by applying advances with one idea to a parallel idea, mutatis mutandis, is one way to systematically extend the theoretical framework of our knowledge.

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