Monday, 8 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (4). Contextual History


It is sometimes said that there will always be work to do in the history of philosophy, if only to reread past philosophy in terms of (ever-changing) current problems and standards. And indeed the themes addressed by historians of philosophy often relate to topics currently favoured in philosophy more generally. Thus, Woodbridge’s naturalism, together with Cohen’s presence at City College, gave the philosophy of the sciences a presence at Columbia, where Burtt produced a history of early modern metaphysics and science. In the first half of the twentieth century, sense-data epistemology was a major contemporary topic, and many of the great philosophers, including Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, were treated as sense-data theorists. Many philosophers held that if a theory of sense-data as the primary objects of knowledge were combined with realismabout ordinary physical objects, it would be difficult or impossible to avoid scepticism about the external world, and early modern philosophers from Descartes onward came to be seen as sceptics or sceptic-slayers.37 Finally, philosophy of mind and cognition have been popular in recent decades, and of late the history of theories of mind has been undergoing a renewal.

The mere fact that contemporary interests are brought to bear in historical interpretation does not by itself cast doubt upon the interpretation. Each case must be examined on its own, to determine the extent to which current tastes are simply influencing the topics chosen for examination, and the extent to which past texts are being bent, stretched, or discarded to fit a Procrustean bed. Certainly, we can easily expose as distortion any interpretation that has Descartes setting as his primary problem that of inferring the external world from sensory impressions. Similarly, a careful reading of the first edition of Kant’s first Critique indicates that, contrary to common assumption, he originally saw Hume as an ally who needed help, rather than a sceptical enemy who needed defeating.

The doing of history cannot be insulated from the influence of the present, nor should it be; the past remains the past, and we are in the present.None the less, much is to be gained by setting as a goal for history of philosophy as that of accurately portraying the philosophical motives and positions of past authors. This goal involves what I have called ‘understanding past philosophy on its own terms’. Even if, owing to the inevitability of historical distance, we cannot fully attain this goal in some absolute sense, it can be approached by adopting some methodological principles. We can read widely, including the major and minor works of individual authors, as well as major and minor predecessors; we can ask what intellectual and philosophical aims individual philosophers had in producing their work; and we can then seek to assess the effectiveness of a philosopher’s arguments by the standards of his or her time. These precepts are not intended to be exclusionary; other questions, including purely present-oriented questions, may surely be asked. Rather, these precepts are intended to suggest ways of giving oneself over to the problems and projects of past philosophers in order to establish a basic reading of their works, after which further questions may be posed.

Earlier historiographical writers, including Passmore, identified the ‘philosophical problem’ as the relevant scale of analysis for a contextual approach. These adherents of the problem-centred approach were not committed to the thesis that there are eternal or unchanging philosophical problems, existing as it were outside history. Rather, they suggested that in interpreting each philosopher, one should seek to discover the problems that motivated his or her philosophizing. This is good advice: it suggests trying to ‘get inside’ the philosophical activity of a past author, to ‘rethink’ the problems that motivated him or her. I have incorporated this advice in my precept to consider the aims of past philosophers.

Philosophical aims may have a larger scale than the typical philosophical problem. Philosophers may have projects, within which problems cluster, or out of which they arise. Descartes had as a main aim the founding of a new physics (a comprehensive science of nature). Within this overall project, he worked on a number of problems, including characterizing the essence of matter, establishing the relation between mind and matter, and analysing the functioning of the senses. Similarly, Kant had as one main project assessing the possibility of metaphysics. Within this project, he identified a number of problems, including discovering the characteristic structure of metaphysical knowledge (it is synthetic a priori), analysing the possibility and limits of such knowledge, and explaining the persistent antinomies in the ontology of nature.

A historian might on one occasion focus on projects, and on another might use knowledge of the overarching project as a context in exploring a past philosopher’s response to a specific problem. In either case, recognition of the past philosopher’s overall aims and projects will aid interpretation.

More generally, contextual history of philosophy can look at a wider or narrower context. The minimum aim for a contextual approach must be to consider both the major and minor works of a chosen philosopher, the major and minor predecessors against whom the philosopher reacted, and the contemporaries who formed his or her audience. At least this much is needed in order to read early modern philosophical works with genuine comprehension. The relevant context spreads beyond works that we now consider ‘philosophical’, to early modern science, mathematics, medicine, law, theology, and letters more generally, and it can extend even further to include social structure, cultural movements, and political events.

The breadth of the relevant context cannot be fixed ahead of time, and the type of context may vary, depending on the aims of the interpreter. History of philosophy focuses on the philosophical aspects of past texts: it examines the coherence of authors’ positions and seeks to understand how authors sought to establish the cognitive force of their positions or theses. It focuses on the intellectual and the cognitive. Even for that purpose, wider aspects of the historical context may need to be taken into account. Some portions of Descartes’s published works (and more of his correspondence) cannot be interpreted without knowledge of seventeenth-century Roman Catholic doctrines and their relation to Aristotelian thought; examples include his discussion of the properties of surfaces of bodies (with implicit or explicit connection to the Eucharist) and his discussion of the ‘real union’ of mind and body. His characterization of planetary motion in the Principles of Philosophy (Part III) may be illuminated by knowledge of the Church’s proscription of the Copernican hypothesis and its condemnation of Galileo. If we turn to moral and political philosophy, then cultural, social, and political contexts are even more deeply involved. Beyond these types of appeal to a wider context, interpreters sometimes invoke ‘external factors’ to explain how a
philosopher could hold to a position on the basis of weak or nonexistent cognitive grounds. As I have suggested, this is not the only situation in which the wider context is relevant. Indeed, I suspect that cases in which cognitive factors play no role are rare. More frequently, aspects of the social and cultural context may set part of the philosophical problem space, in which case the philosopher’s response is subject to evaluation as philosophy, in terms of coherence and cognitive force.

In any event, each instance of contextual work need not address the wider context. It may instead focus on a single text or part of a text, simply to establish a historically and philosophically viable reading, drawing on contextual background knowledge, as required. There is need for work at a variety of scales, directed at a variety of audiences. Some work will be written for other specialists in the history of philosophy. But that should not be the exclusive or ultimate audience for historians of philosophy. They should usually strive to make their work accessible and interesting to the larger group of philosophers, and often to readers more generally.


Source : Sorell, Tom and G. A. J. Rogers.(2005), Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

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