Historical Consciousness and the Identity of Philosophy

It is now widely accepted that philosophers should be historically self-conscious. But what does this mean in practice? How does historical consciousness change the way we philosophize? To answer this question, I examine two philosophers who put historical consciousness at the heart of their projects: Richard Rorty and Paul Ricoeur. Rorty and Ricoeur both argue that historical consciousness leads us to see philosophy as fragmented. It leads us to view our thinking from multiple perspectives at once, perspectives that are often in considerable tension. But Rorty and Ricoeur reach radically different conclusions about how we should respond to this fragmentation. Their disagreement, I argue, is closely connected to their views of identity. Rorty and Ricoeur have different understandings of what it means for something to be unified, and thus different ideas about what it would take for our perspectives on ourselves to be brought together. My argument for this claim has four parts. First, I try to identify the problems that historical consciousness raises for philosophy, and explain why the most common response to them is unsatisfactory. Second, I discuss Rorty's claim that historical consciousness ought to make us ironists about our philosophical views, and to abandon truth as a goal of inquiry. Third, I contrast Rorty's position with Ricoeur's. Ricoeur argues that we can be historically self-aware and still see philosophy as a rational enterprise that aims at truth. I argue that Ricoeur's optimism on this point is rooted in his view of identity, and specifically in his distinction between idem- and ipse-identity. Finally, I ask what all of this shows about the options available to historically minded philosophers today.