Rule 2 for history of philosophy: respect the text

Posted on 12 September 2014

Rule 2: Respect the text

This is my version of what is sometimes called the "principle of charity." A minimal version of this rule is that we should assume, in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense. This holds not only for outstanding famous thinkers but also for lesser lights: even if they were not earth-shattering innovators, they usually didn't just write rubbish. Here it's also worth bearing in mind that until very recently (the last century) any text that has survived to get into your hands has already been through a process of selection by earlier readers. So they are likely to be reasonably good. But even without this observation, it still seems obvious (to me at least) that useful history of philosophy doesn't involve looking for inconsistencies and mistakes, but rather trying one's best to get a coherent and interesting line of argument out of the text. This is, of course, not to say that historical figures never contradicted themselves, made errors, and the like, but our interpretations should seek to avoid imputing such slips to them unless we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip.

Axkielito 12 September 2014

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Hey, that´s nice! but i´m more a friend of truth than a friend of philosophers. Have you read Skinner and his mythologies?

Peter Adamson 12 September 2014

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That classic paper by Skinner can be found online here. So are you thinking that what I say above falls under the heading of the "mythology of coherence"?

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1) The link is not working (I found a working one here: http://140.116.13.2/chinese/attachments/article/291/6Quentin_Skinner_Me… )

2)... This one is quite hard; I would say that it does not, but I would also say that doing the history of philosophy, I tend to view as a more along the lines of carpentry or cooking than precision engenering. No rule can be truely broken, if the result holds up.
I've always found that going into a text with the assumption of a reasonable author and a well constructed argument is the best start, then the idea can be revised, if other sources of error such as bad translations (I'm a native Danish speaker - we don't get that many high-class translations), my lack of understanding of the context or inherent dislike of the idea, can be elimintated, then the last assumption to fall must be that the text is coherent. But this is an opinion - and also an opinion which may be contrary to Skinner's.

3) Further; in my reading of Skinner's text, the assumption he finds problematic is that a 'philosophy' is coherent and covers all 'relevant' areas of philosophy, rather than the assumption that a text is coherent and actually tries to argue, what it states that it tries to argue; which I find to be the charitable reading of Skinner.

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Thanks for the fixed link. I agree with you on point 3 - I don't think he's arguing against a basic principle of charity so much as the attempt to make all texts from an author cohere into a single intellectual picture (often ignoring chronological shifts).

And also I agree on point 2; as I say above we may sometimes be forced to decide that a philosopher (even a "great" one) has simply made an error, even a crass one. But that's something of a last resort. My main point is that we shouldn't go into texts looking for slip-ups.

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I have encountered it most often with students, so of course there I can pretty much instruct them that this is not the point; but more generally (also with students, since pulling rank isn't really very philosophical!) I think the best way is simply to show them alternative readings that are more satisfying.

Thaddeus 16 September 2014

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Being a bit more continentally trained I can't help but remind me of Ricoeur's (who I look forward seeing discussed on this podcast some decade or so from now) distinction between the hermeneutics of sympathy and the hermeneutics of suspicion, where the hermeneutics of suspicion develop a strict set of principles which they then use to test whatever they're put in front of whereas the hermeneutics of sympathy seeks to in some way work with the text, willing to put aside some knee-jerk objections in order to have their worldview expanded or tested. Obviously, like all such strict dualistic distinctions there's a lot of nuance lost - and I doubt that one can ever really do without one or the other - but it was a distinction that stuck with me in an impressionable time and I think erring on the side of sympathy has been part of what has made my own explorations into the history of philosophy so rewarding.

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Thanks, I don't know the Ricoeur (as you say, I guess I will someday!) but that does sound right on target, and I agree with you that it is the right way to lean.

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