Rule 4 for history of philosophy: respect the context

Posted on 18 September 2014

Rule 4: Respect the context

Podcast listeners will know that I put a lot of emphasis on the wider historical context within which philosophy was produced. To some extent it should be obvious how necessary this is: how can we understand, say, Plato and Aristotle's political philosophy without knowing something about the political situation of Athens in their day, or understand Hobbes without knowing about English history? But historical context can be relevant in more surprising ways; my favorite example of this is the parallel between early Islamic debates over the eternity of the universe and the contemporary debate over the eternity or createdness of the Koran. (Actually, though I've drawn this comparison in many places including the podcast, I don't know that anyone agrees with me about it, but I still think it's right.)

There are at least two worries we might have here. First, that history of philosophy is turned into something that is more history than philosophy. Sometimes people speak dismissively of the "history of ideas," in which philosophical theories are nothing but reflections of other historical events. But I strongly feel that history of philosophy is both a kind of history and a kind of philosophy. Understanding the historical context will help us understand philosophical arguments, but going through and evaluating those arguments is still a philosophical enterprise.

Second, that this rule makes it nearly impossible to do the history of philosophy. Are we really supposed to become experts, not only on all these philosophers, but also on the whole context they lived in, taking into account everything from political events to social circumstances, economic factors, etc? My answer would, basically, be yes. There is no point at which you can say, "ok, I've learned enough about the historical context, nothing I learn further will help or be relevant." In principle, it is always worth looking at the context more carefully, no matter how well you understand it, just as it is always worth reading the philosophical texts themselves one more time. The limits are imposed by what we can manage in terms of time and expertise -- like some of the other rules I'm proposing, this rule is intended as an open-ended encouragement to strive for an ideal which is not practically reachable.

Jaime Valles 25 September 2014

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Did you listen to Sally Sedgwick’s discussion on ‘Elucidations’ as to Hagel’s criticism of Kant and, in particular the view that it is almost an act of hubris on the part of many philosophers to think that their work emanates from a pure application of reason, unaffected from historical content? Common sense really but surprising how often it is overlooked even on University Courses! The history of philosophy, therefore, has a pivotal role to a proper understanding any particular philosophical position. Keep up the good work!

Máté Veres 26 September 2014

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What about the following approach (to which I admit to have been in a sense indoctrinated): whenever you try to understand why a certain philosopher made a certain claim, you try to look for philosophical reasons within the domain available for that particular philosopher, and you look for a contextual explanation only if you cannot do so? In that case, contextual explanation serves only to point out certain peculiarities which are in that sense historically contingent, and enter the philosophical reading as a merely complementary and second-best approach.

If you object by asking for what one might take to be the domain of "philosophical reasons", I would say that even if no strict definition is available, we can definitely count as such e.g. reasons following from arguments s/he put forward; claims s/he did not explicitly argue for but follow from, or are compatible with, what s/he did argue for; claims s/he might have accepted in virtue of belonging to a certain school or intellectual tradition.

Also, one could maybe differentiate between how certain philosophical theses were arrived at in the first place (e.g. political ideas in certain historical contexts), and how they are to be defended once that historical context is left behind. Also, maybe various sub-disciplines of philosophy call for different measures of contextualization.

So my question is - what's wrong with this attitude? What is lost if one proceeds this way, besides an intellectually interesting background story?

Máté Veres 26 September 2014

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(After sending my previous comment, I realized that your response to the first worry raised in your post is actually an answer to my question. Please feel free to disregard my question if you think it's called for.)

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I do think you're raising a new question, and it's a good one. Probably the easiest answer is to refuse your dichotomy between philosophical and historican explanation, but I tend to think you are right that there is such a distinction. However I'd propose a similar response which is that a given view could easily be motivated both philosophically and by contextual reasons. The contextual reasons, in fact, will more often than not give philosophers a reason to look for an argument for a certain claim, rather than just making them state the claim. And then, as you say, the claim stands or falls on the basis of the argument given (or other arguments that might be given).

But then you might say that the historical account does no work in our philosophical understanding. But remember that this is at least partially about avoiding anachronism. My main point is that one won't even necessarily grasp what the philosopher's claim is, or what was meant by it, without understanding the context well enough. And the same goes for premises that might be used to defend the claim, and how the philosopher sees this claim as relating to other claims they make. Reading without historical context is much like reading a single passage without looking at the rest of a book: you're focusing your attention so narrowly that you may not be able to see what you are looking at, so to speak. I don't want to claim that this is always going to be the case, but I think it is very often the case.

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