Problems of the History of Philosophy
by Theodore Oizerman

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain

This book shares similarities with other books by Oizerman on the history of philosophy, but it also pursues certain topics that his other books in English translation do not. As is characteristic of his other books, Oizerman's historical treatment is valuable up to his treatment of Hegel. Beyond that, he is good at pinpointing the weaknesses, especially with respect to perspectives on history of philosophy, of competing bourgeois philosophies, but he fails to treat their philosophical work in sufficient detail to explain how their rational content can be salvaged from their otherwise faulty commitments. This is concomitant with Oizerman's arguments that Marxism-Leninism resolves the main problems of philosophy and its relations to society and other forms of knowledge. His propagandistic conclusions mar the otherwise valuable portions of his book. (See my review of Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov.) This is unfortunate, because there is much in Oizerman's perspective on the nature of philosophical problems and progress in philosophy worth considering. It seems that Soviet Marxism-Leninism put limits on the development and application of his ideas. Further concretization is needed, especially in applying his perspective to detailed analysis of philosophies developing over the past century and a half.

I will focus on specific sections of the book, following the table of contents. The first chapter pursues a distinctive but important topic, the love of wisdom and its relationship to the development of philosophy as a field of inquiry. I have singled out the section Problem of Wisdom as a Real Problem. This section gives me an 'in' to the pursuit of a problem that grows out of issues debated concerning popularization of philosophy and the relevance of philosophy to everyday life. If you disregard the obligatory political propaganda, you will see that the author is at least cognizant of a key issue: what is the relation between wisdom and abstract thought? While abstract, theoretical thought may not be an exact synonym for philosophy, "philosophy" as professionally practiced involves formal intellectual traditions. "Wisdom", however, connotes something we value in everyday life, but whose relation to formal knowledge remains unclear. What is the relationship (intersection or disjunction) between wisdom and (formal) knowledge in our day and age? Oizerman does not pursue this question, but his historical material is of interest.

I skip now to chapter 3, which hones in on philosophy as a specific form of cognition. Section 3 focuses on the value of intuition, distinguishing the estimable role of intuition in the overall scheme of cognition and scientific development from the doctrinal intuitionism of irrationalist strains of philosophy, such as Bergson's. Another subtopic is the relation between theory and science. Theory is a broader concept. Not all theories can be scientific theories; idealist philosophies preclude their inclusion as scientific theories. "The scientificality of a theory is determined not so much by its form as by its content." However, even under the best of circumstances, "there is still a difference between scientific philosophy and the specialised sciences," hence there remains a distinction between theoretical (scientifico-philosophical) and scientific knowledge (p. 175).

Chapter 4 is on the definition of philosophy as a philosophical problem. A few points of interest. Some modern philosophers have attempted to single out elements of truth in various philosophical doctrines.

But Hegel goes much farther in his teaching on the dialectical unity of the diverse philosophical doctrines, which constitutes the basis of his historico-philosophical conception: he sees them as temporally developing stages, principles of one and the same encyclopedic philosophy, diverse in content, which arrives at its ultimate perfection in his own philosophical system.

Hegel obviously exaggerated the element of identity and played down the element of difference (contradiction) in philosophical doctrines, although he often stressed that difference, contradiction, is no less important than identity, and is inseparable from it. Nonetheless, according to Hegel, errors in the development of philosophy occur only through absolutisation of universal truth (absolute knowledge), which every philosophical system presents to the world. Moreover, in saying this, Hegel does not consider it necessary to trace the cause of this absolutising, despite the fact that it is treated as law-governed.

In general, Hegel portrays the development of philosophy as the harmonious process of the advance of knowledge in which "the latest philosophical doctrine in time is the result of all previous philosophical doctrines and must therefore embrace in itself principles for all of them". But the actual relationship of any philosophical doctrine to its predecessors is far more complex: continuity, progress, the development of philosophy through the critical impropriation of previous advances of philosophical knowledge, all this does not preclude irreconcilable contradiction between philosophical trends, incompatibility of philosophical doctrines, since these doctrines reflect various historical situations, demands, interests and take different attitudes to religion, science, and so on. The relationship of continuity between philosophical doctrines is not a relationship of determinism. Like any other form of social consciousness, philosophy is conditioned ultimately by social being.

While rejecting the metaphysical juxtaposition of philosophical doctrines which is characteristic of scepticism, one must make certain essential amendments to Hegel's understanding of the relationship between them. According to Hegel, it is in the final analysis the "absolute spirit" which philosophises and never makes mistakes, so all the mistakes arise only out of the historically limited human form of expressing this absolute self-knowing self-consciousness. Correct understanding of the interrelationship of philosophical systems (and different definitions of the concept of philosophy) must overcome not only the metaphysical conception of the history of philosophy, whose untenability was brilliantly proved by Hegel, but also Hegel's own idealist monism, in the framework of which the historical law of the unity and conflict of opposites could not find adequate expression. (pp. 188-189)

How would one comprehensively classify definitions of philosophy? The fundamental opposition between materialism and idealism would not adequately serve as the fundamental classificatory principle, because certain definitions would be shared, if interpreted differently, by opposing philosophies (p. 190). In section 2 the author discusses a diverse collection of definitions of philosophy. I will only summarize them here:

(1) study of being (ontology);
(2) not study of being, but of cognition, morality, man, etc.;
(3) study of all that exists (e.g. Hegel);
(4) study of that which does not exist in reality, but of normal consciousness (Windelband, Husserl);
(5) theory;
(6) not theory, but logical clarification, dissolution of metaphysical problems (neopositivism, Wittgenstein);
(7) a science;
(8) not a science;
(9) world view (e.g. Dilthey);
(10) not a world view.

Chapter 5 delineates the nature of philosophical problems. Oizerman objects to the retrograde view that philosophy naturally restricts itself to everyday experience, as if that could be isolated from accumulated scientific knowledge. (His position is summarized on p. 254.) On approaches to philosophical problems, Oizerman states:

The interrelation of real, imaginary and misstated problems reflects, though far from directly, the fundamental dichotomy between materialism and idealism. It would be a tremendous oversimplification to present the situation as if real problems have been dealt with only by materialist philosophy. No matter how hostile materialism and idealism may be to one another, these dichotomies are dialectical, since materialism and idealism usually discuss the same questions, from which it should not be inferred, however, that the questions themselves are neutral and bear no relation to their possible solutions. Philosophical problems are not simply sentences that end in a question mark. They may be assertions or denials, they are not free of certain assumptions and quite often they represent a tentative formulation of a certain principle that demands substantiation. The opposition between materialism and idealism manifests itself not only in the different answers given to questions that are common to both philosophical theories, but also in the existence of opposite—materialist and idealist—sets of problems, in the existence of materialist and idealist ways of stating these problems. From this standpoint it may be said that materialism, like idealism, has special questions of its own. Specifically idealist questions are partly pseudoproblems and partly wrongly stated problems with a perfectly real content.

The metaphysical juxtaposition of philosophical and scientific problems is just as bad as ignoring the qualitative difference between them, described above. This qualitative distinction depends not so much on the specific nature of philosophical problems as on their content. (p. 257-258)

Oizerman, in addressing the evolution of philosophy and science, accepts the ongoing legitimacy of "why" as well as "how" questions, whose meaning and applicability change as scientific knowledge progresses (p. 261). Furthermore:

Analysis of the form of the philosophical question discloses the specific content that cannot be reduced to the subject-matter of the specialised sciences. In other words, it is not a particular way of stating the problem that makes it philosophical, but its content. Hence even non-philosophers, when they come up against these problems, also philosophise. This shows that philosophical problems cannot be solved by mathematics, physics or chemistry, although mathematics, physics and chemistry may contribute to their solution. Even so, such questions as—What is law? What is truth? What is the nature of the most general laws? Why is the world knowable? Why is knowledge a reflection of objective reality?—like all other philosophical questions, cannot be answered by any of the specialised sciences because they are related to the content of all the sciences. Therefore, while rejecting the idealist proposition that philosophical problems are above science, we maintain that they can be solved only scientifically. This means that the solution of philosophical problems is founded on the sum-total of scientific data, but the actual solving of these problems, at least in their direct form rests with philosophy.

So there actually are questions that only philosophy can answer, although not without the help of the other sciences. And it is these questions that are actually philosophical problems. This apparently obvious statement (what is philosophy for otherwise?) still demands elucidation, however, since problems that for centuries were considered to be philosophical are constantly passing into the sphere of the specialised sciences and, thanks to this, acquiring scientific solutions. (Pp. 264-265)

Oizerman goes on to elucidate his schema of how philosophical questions get transformed into scientific questions, while aspects of these questions may continue in a properly philosophical form even after the specialized sciences have appropriated a portion of their original content (pp. 267-272). This section bears closer study.

The subject of Chapter 6 is the subject matter of philosophy, and the first section is the most interesting (esp. pp. 292-301). Philosophy is "concerned with idealised forms of reality, abstract objects and categories, which quite often evoke doubts concerning the objective reality of their content." (p. 292) Oizerman has more to say about the treatment of categories. Particular philosophical systems characteristically do not embrace the totality of philosophical problems. Philosophical doctrines not only differ in their approaches to common problems but in what questions they address. This is a result of objective historical, social conditions.

The first section of Chapter 7 is about the role of personality in the development of philosophy. Here as in other books, Oizerman is concerned to refute irrationalist notions of philosophies as sui generis expressions of individual geniuses or differential personality types. Neither does Oizerman claim an oversimplified determinism according to which the individual is totally conditioned by external circumstances. Rather there is an interaction between individual characteristics and the objective course of social development (pp. 358-363).

The question then arises as to the relationship between the development of philosophy and society (section 2). As usual, Hegel provides the most interesting food for thought:

Hegel's definition of philosophy as the age comprehended in thought, as the consciousness of the age, is far more profound than Russell's "realistic" conception, because it rules out in principle any ambivalent idea of partial determination.

Because Hegel is an idealist he refuses to see in philosophy any particular reflection of the historically determined social reality. But as a historian of philosophy, who attaches primary importance to facts, he constantly tries to discover the unity between philosophical doctrines and historical conditions, although from the standpoint of absolute idealism philosophy is the substantial content of the historical age, that is to say, it ranks first in importance, if not in time. This contradictory combination of historicism and idealism, or the idealist interpretation of the historical process, its reduction to an immanently developing logico-ontological concept, was inevitable in the system of Hegelian panlogism, which takes as its point of departure the identity of being and thinking.

Even so, Hegel's dialectics constantly compelled him to reckon with the historical facts and to consider philosophical systems not simply as the result of the self-motion of pure absolute thought, but as the necessary intellectual expression of radical changes in social life. These changes, incidentally, are attributed to changes in the spirit of the time, or the "spirit of the peoples". It is from these positions that Hegel considered, for example, the Sophists, Socrates, and the philosophy of Enlightenment.

Regarding the historical sources of stoicism and Epicureanism, and Roman scepticism, Hegel notes that, despite their differences, all these doctrines express one and the same tendency-the striving "to make the spirit in itself indifferent to everything presented in reality". But where does this tendency come from? Is it rooted in the self-development of philosophy or in changes in the structure of society? Hegel, as we know, is inclined to accept the latter conclusion. He points to the decline of the Roman Empire, comparing it to the decay of the living body: "The state organism had disintegrated into the atoms of private individuals. Roman life had come to such a pass that, on the one hand, there was fate and the abstract universality of supreme power, and, on the other, individual abstraction, the personality, which implies that the individual in himself amounts to something not because of his vitality, not because of his fulfilled individuality, but as an abstract individual." Some people gave themselves up entirely to sensual pleasures, others by violence, insidiousness and cunning sought to obtain wealth and sinecures, and still others withdrew from practical activity to the sphere of philosophical speculation. But even they, for all the loftiness of their intellectual aspirations, still expressed the same social phenomenon—the break-up of this particular society, because "thought which, as pure thought, became the subject of its own inquiries, reconciled itself to itself and became completely abstract. . ."

Here, as in many other parts of his lectures on the history of philosophy, Hegel not only passes judgement on the philosophy of classical individualism, which saw its chief goal not in mental knowledge of reality but in the attainment of ataraxia; he also points out the insolvency of the kind of speculative thought which makes thought itself the subject-matter of thought. But such in a sense was Hegel's own philosophy, with the one, admittedly important, difference that he transformed thought, the logical process, into absolute being and, by following up this purely speculative identity, perceived the laws of development immanent in both thinking and being.

Hegel asserts: "The particular form of philosophy is, therefore, contemporaneous with a particular form of peoples among whom it emerges, with their state system and form of government, with their morality, with their social life, with their abilities, habits and conveniences of life, with their aspirations and works in the sphere of art and science, with their religions, with their military destinies and external relations, with the collapse of states in which this particular principle has manifested its power, and with the rise and activity of new states in which a higher principle is born and develops." It is highly significant that Hegel speaks of the contemporaneity of the existence of a certain philosophy with such definite peculiarities of a given historical epoch. He seems to have been aware that the specific content of the historical epoch to which a given philosophy belongs cannot be inferred from the latter. But to an even greater extent was he convinced that philosophy, being substantial by nature, could not be determined by any "civil society", which appeared to him to be the alienated sphere of the "Absolute Spirit" whose creative activity is again speculative thought. Contemporaneous existence is a kind of historical parallelism, the basis of which Hegel seeks in the "spirit of the time", the "spirit of the peoples", and ultimately in the "Absolute Spirit", whose highest expression is once again philosophy. The development of philosophy is an immanent process of the self-cognition of the "Absolute Spirit" and Hegel, as Marx aptly remarked, was inconsistent in that, while regarding his philosophy as the ultimate perfection of absolute self-cognition, he did not regard himself as the subject of this process, that is to say, the "Absolute Spirit" itself.

Hegel is equally inconsistent in his estimation of the role of philosophy in the development of society. Assuming that thought, particularly in its philosophical (authentic) form, is all-powerful, Hegel nevertheless treats philosophy as a peculiar epiphenomenon of the contemporaneous historical epoch, since this epoch is a definite stage of alienation of the "Absolute Spirit", and only to the extent that it overcomes this alienation can it find its adequate expression in philosophy. But in this case philosophy, naturally, cannot be one of the spiritual potentialities that form the epoch, since it always appears later. "When philosophy," Hegel says, "begins to trace its grey paint upon the grey, this shows that a certain form of life has grown old and with its grey upon grey philosophy cannot rejuvenate it but only understand it; the owl of Minerva does not take wing until the twilight." This conclusion, which follows inevitably from Hegel's whole system, is quite often disproved by his own historico-philosophical researches, which show philosophy blazing the trail to a new social structure and taking a direct part in its development. But Hegel does not formulate the conclusions he draws from concrete historico-philosophical research as theoretical principles. This was also because, as a bourgeois thinker of the early 19th century, Hegel placed his whole faith on the spontaneous development of society, which was drawing Germany into the capitalist process of production regardless of and even, as it seemed to Hegel, despite the conscious attempts at social reform, most of which struck him as subjectivist interference in a process, objectively reasonable (whatever its appearance), of social development that was realising the substantial aim of world history. (Pp. 368-373)

While Feuerbach criticized the speculative idealist conception of philosophical development, he proved unequal to the task of understanding historical development (pp. 373-375).

In section 3 Oizerman analyzes the ideological function of philosophy. While philosophy is a specific form of ideology, several questions remain, and the conception of scientific ideology must be elucidated (p. 386). The Soviet Marxist-Leninist conception of ideology differs from most Marxist treatments in the West. Ideology does not have the negative emphasis that predominates in other conceptions, and there is a strong emphasis on a positive sense of ideology—scientific ideology—which begins with a positive sense of ideology inherited from Lenin and is melded apologetically into Soviet Marxism-Leninism (pp. 387-391). Curiously, the lack of the term 'scientific ideology' in the work of Marx and Engels is taken as a sign for their adherence to this very notion in the form of the scientific expression of the proletariat (pp. 394-395). While the positive notion of ideology is a dubious one in my view, the author's exposition is worth examining for students of the concept of ideology. The ideological function of philosophy is shared with other forms of social consciousness, but philosophy is not reducible to this function, as it contains technical content which has a relationship to the development of scientific knowledge as well. Hence there is a "dialectical unity of philosophy and ideology", a relative independence as well as interpenetration (pp. 404-405).

The nature of philosophical debate is discussed in Chapter 8. The most interesting topic in this chapter is the "dialectical principle of the relative opposition between truth and error" (see esp. pp. 412-413).

My conclusion regarding this book as other books by Oizerman, is that its greatest virtue is the provision of a framework by which to affirm the progressive nature of historical development in philosophy, as part of an overall rational perspective on philosophy, oriented toward objective knowledge without artificial restrictions on subject matter. Oizerman preserves rather than tosses away the stages of historical progression, and thus interrelates different stages of philosophy into an overall view making sense of the enterprise and the concepts it generates at each stage. The key developmental issues this book focuses on are wisdom, philosophical questions, categories, and the role of individual personality. I would say the unique contribution of this book lies in the perspective on the evolution of philosophical questions and their transformation as science progresses. Oizerman's strongest angle of attack, besides historical explanation in itself, is in his critical approach to bourgeois philosophy; his weakest angle, his affirmations of Marxism-Leninism.

Stray Notes (page references)

226: Fichte vs. existentialism: Fichte rises above transient human existence; existentialism succumbs to it.

314: The Sophists' and Socrates' repudiation of cosmological problems, in favor of a turn to strictly human problems, was actually an affirmation of the very same intellectual need that generated philosophical cosmology. It was an anti-mythological tendency.

319: The central problem of mechanistic materialism is the problem of the human subject.

442-3: "Hegel, who declared that the philosophy of nature should not be based on natural science, because the "mode of exposition employed in physics does not satisfy the demands of the concept", which develops out of itself the definitions of external nature, at the same time opposed the arbitrary constructions of natural philosophy, of which, as we know, there were a good many in his own philosophical system. "The philosophical mode of exposition," he wrote, "is not a matter of whim, a capricious desire to walk on one's head for a change after walking for so long on one's feet. . . ." What Hegel considered to be arbitrary natural philosophical constructions were theoretical propositions that did not agree with the philosophical principles of his system. And yet if we analyse from the standpoint of these not quite consistent statements of Hegel's his own natural philosophical errors, it turns out that some of them (the majority, in fact) spring from his speculative idealist system, while the others—surprising though it may seem—arise from the limited natural scientific notions of his time, which had been uncritically accepted by this profound critic of empiricism. [This has been pointed out in Soviet historico-philosophical studies, particularly in the third volume of the History of Philosophy, published in 1943: "Reading his Philosophy of Nature, one sees how often he was led astray by bad empiricists. Thus, when defending the conversion of water into air and vice versa and allowing the formation of rain out of dry air, he relied on the empirical observation of Lichtenberg and others. When he maintained that water does not decompose into oxygen and hydrogen, but that the latter can be formed only through electrification, Hegel was relying on the observations of the Munich physicist Richter, and so on.]"

"The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science." — Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring

Problems of the History of Philosophy (Extracts) by Theodore Oizerman

Problem of Wisdom as a Real Problem by Theodore Oizerman

2003 Reading Review

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov

Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy by T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov, review by R. Dumain

Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy (Extracts) by Theodore Oizerman

The Main Trends in Philosophy (Contents) by T. I. Oizerman

Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy (theses or arguments?)
by David J. Chalmers

Philosophy and the Art of Dividing
by Jean-Claude Bourdin

Soviet Philosophy from Progress Publishers: Selected Bibliography, 1968-1990 (1)

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Wisdom, Philosophy & Everyday Life — Theoretical Perspectives: An Unconventional Guide


Problems of the History of Philosophy
by Theodore Oizerman

(entire book online)

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