Summer Project: Old Books and Oddities

In addition to the long, long list of things I have to get done this summer (with applying for a new job at the top, followed by revising my little ethics book for a 2nd edition), I’m also working as a volunteer/intern at my university’s library. My first real project for them is the weeding of the Philosophy collection, something that really needs to be done in the wake of the closure of the Philosophy and Religion program. It’s an interesting hands-on education in collection management/development, if perhaps a little bittersweet — I’m working on getting a case study paper out of it, taking a look at what needs to be done for a small college library when programs are prioritized out of existence (a hot topic now, unfortunately).

I’ve only just started, but half of the fun (bittersweetness aside) is taking a look at some of the older books. They provide a curious snapshot of what used to be included in a collection of this kind. Take, for example, this sadly water-damaged and profoundly malodorous gem from 1868, written by George Eliot’s “soulmate”:


The text is divided into two main periods — Ancient and Modern — within which the material is further organized by “epochs” addressing a selection of major figures. Medieval philosophy is treated as the “transition period” between the Ancients and the Moderns (which tells you something about how Lewes thought about philosophy in general), belonging to no epoch of its own; we come to properly Modern philosophy with Bacon, who is set up as the foundational figure for “the Inductive Method.” Hobbes and his ilk (specifically Locke and Leibniz) apparently dealing with “philosophy reduced to a question of psychology” in their own ways and then there’s a tug-of-war involving idealism and skepticism until we reach the Tenth and Eleventh Epochs, like so:


It’s striking that the next step after Hegel et. al. is into phrenology, of all things, as the turning point moving modern philosophy from psychologism to “true” science:

From the time when Philosophy itself became reduced to a question of Psychology, in order that a basis might, if possible, be laid, the efforts of men were variously directed, and all ended in skepticism and dissatisfaction, because a true psychological Method did not guide them. The history of the tentatives towards a true Method has been sketched in various chapters of this volume, and with Gall [the phrenological pioneer] that Method may be said to have finally settled its fundamental principles (768).

Ultimately, Lewes’ conclusion is pessimistic. His study of the history of philosophy concludes with the following cheery paragraphs:

Modern philosophy staked its pretensions on the one question: Have we any ideas independent of experience? This was asking, in other words, Have we any organon of philosophy?

The answer always ends in a negative. If any one, therefore, remain unshaken by the accumulated proofs this History affords to the impossibility of Philosophy, let him distinctly bear in mind that the first problem he must solve is, Have we ideas independent of experience? Let him solve that ere he begins to speculate (789).

One imagines Mr. Lewes firing that last line off with a bit of a triumphant flourish, a sort of ink-spattering gestural QED. When this book entered the then-college (now university) library collection in 1934, it served the needs of what was essentially a Presbyterian religious community college/academy (the institution was finally accredited by the North Central Assoc. in 1952); the Religion program didn’t become a Philosophy and Religion program until much later in the institution’s history, and the school has never hosted a serious graduate program in either field. The inclusion of the text in the collection roughly coincides with the period in American philosophy that saw the labor of philosophical inquiry begin to become thoroughly professionalized in the hands of university scholars rather than independent intellectuals (see Bruce Kucklick’s A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000). While Lewes himself apparently moved away from the Positivist bent that drove most of his History, his book did its work in an intellectual world in which its original pessimistic conclusion was somehow important to or representative of a kind of philosophical labor quite different from his own. He was not a “professional,” in the sense meant by Kuklick. He made a living writing about a number of different subjects (literary/cultural criticism, philosophy, etc.), and did not hold any official institutional post while he did so. He was, in his odd way, simultaneously obsolete and current, which makes his book an interesting thing to include in a small college collection of the kind found here.



About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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