Thursday, 11 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (6). Expanding contexts, seeking Historical themes

The ‘context’ for reading early modern philosophy can be as narrow as the text surrounding a passage (or the corpus containing a work), and (in the limit) as broad as human history itself. Initial steps in expanding the context of early modern philosophy came from taking seriously the aims of philosophers as expressed in their works. Such ‘internal’ contexts would have been sufficient (even if other evidence were not available) for expanding the context of early modern metaphysics and epistemology to include relations to mathematics, physics, and other scientific areas such as biology, physiology, or psychology. An internal context is also sufficient for expanding consideration of early modern theories of mind to include theories of the senses, of cognition more generally, and of the passions and emotions. Further extension from within is in order. Religion and theology are major presences in early modern philosophical texts. Rather than seeing them as encumbrances to be overcome (one common view), or as sources of arguments to be retrieved by today’s believers (another trend), one might make the relations among philosophy, religion, and theology an object of investigation in its own right.

There is more to history of philosophy than taking the contexts of individual works or authors into account in reconstructing or explaining their positions. Other units of investigation can be defined, including ideas and themes. One sort of thematic investigation would follow key philosophical ideas or subject areas over decades or centuries. These might include basic philosophical notions, such as conceptions of knowledge and its forms, technical notions, such as ‘a priori’ and ‘a posteriori’ or ‘analysis’ and ‘synthesis’, or general categories, such as ‘metaphysics’ or even ‘philosophy’. Such basic work in ‘philosophical history of ideas’ is needed to support contextual work in the history of philosophy. But it can be of interest in its own right, in uncovering conceptual changes and their philosophical significance. Louis Loeb’s examination of causation and substance in early modern philosophy is a recent example of this sort of thematic history.

Other work can attend to the ways in which philosophers have been read or ‘received’. To understand seventeenth-century Aristotelianism and its opponents, an interpreter must distinguish the local Aristotelianism from the historical Aristotle. The same goes for every major figure. Histories of how the works of key figures were received, initially and over the centuries, are of great interest. Kant’s own presentation of his critical philosophy was altered as he responded to its initial reception. His works have been constantly studied since their appearance, with differing emphases. The historical work of untangling these threads can provide distance from today’s locally received readings of Kant, as well as presenting various possibilities, live or not, for interpreting or adapting his work.

Additional historical and thematic connections should be sought across the boundaries of traditional periods. The relation between early modern philosophy and nineteenth-century philosophy might be taken beyond obvious connections such as that between Kant and German idealism, or between Locke and Hume and the two Mills. By the early twentieth century, the gross structure of periods and themes used in presenting the history of modern philosophy (into the nineteenth century) had solidified. Looking back now from the early twenty-first century, we may reconsider these received views and ask how the story continues. The impact of Darwinism on philosophy might be studied more fully. Links between the flourishing American philosophy before 1930 and the philosophy and science of the preceding century might be investigated. The development of history of philosophy in America throughout the twentieth century deserves further exploration.

In moving beyond contextual readings of individual texts or authors, the history of philosophy will develop historical accounts and explanations of larger movements of ideas. As history of philosophy, these accounts will focus on internal intellectual factors. As history of philosophy, they will, as needed, relate these factors to wider historical factors and trends.

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



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