The Current State of Early Modern Philosophy

“While no one was looking, contextualism replaced rational reconstructionism (also known as ‘appropriationism,’ ‘presentism,’ and ‘collegialism’) as the dominant methodology among English-speaking early modern historians of philosophy.”

Sturtevant, “Beuys La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi”

So begins “The Contextualist Revolution in Early Modern Philosophy” by Christia Mercer (Columbia University), published in the current issue of the Journal of the History of Philosophy. She continues:

In this paper, I expose the contours of this silent revolution, show that rational reconstructionism is a thing of the past among early modern historians, and examine the current state of early modern scholarship. As the contextualist revolution has increasingly widened our perspective and revealed the period’s philosophical diversity, it has encouraged early modernists to develop new skills and expertise. I propose here that current early modern historians are devoted to maximize understanding of an increasingly broad range of texts and topics and that their differences reside only in the projects selected and skills used to attain their goal…

The contextualist revolution that gained significant momentum in the 1980s and the methodological disputes those gains engendered pivoted around a single question: should philosophers accept or reject a principle, which I dub the “Getting Things Right Constraint” (GTRC)? As a first approximation, I render the GTRC as follows: historians of philosophy should not attribute claims or ideas to historical figures without concern for whether or not they are ones the figures would recognize as their own. When philosophers reject the GTRC, they do things like the following: they interpret historical materials with the sole intention of making them relevant to contemporary philosophy; they pluck claims or ideas from texts without concern for their textual or contextual circumstance; or they approach writings without intending to articulate the authentic views of the historical figure. Although I consider any historian committed to the GTRC to be a contextualist, I take there to be very different means to the goal of getting things right. 

This paper has two main objectives. The first is ecumenical: instead of continuing to argue about second-order methodological differences, we should acknowledge that excellent work in early modern philosophy can result from any approach that is consistent with the GTRC. The quality of our work has less to do with any specific method we use and more to do with the proper fit between the projects we select for study and the skills we apply to them. Although this may seem an obvious point, it is not one that is widely acknowledged. Thus, a second objective of the paper is to make evident what has been hiding in plain sight, namely, that current early modernists seek to maximize our understanding of the period’s philosophy and that our differences reside in what skills and expertise we use to attain that goal.

The article is the subject of recent posts at three different philosophy blogs:

Charlie Huenemann (Utah State University), at Huenemanniac, writes:

I think the bigger question that lies below Mercer’s discussion of methodological disagreements is the question of whether philosophy, and history of philosophy in particular, is to be counted among the humanities. It is a question about the sort of scholarly activity philosophy is: is it in the same general category that literature and history fall within, or is it something else? Historians and scholars of historical literature do work that often overlaps. An historian studying early 17th century London and a literary scholar studying Shakespeare will read each others’ works with great delight and profit, and can expect to have interesting disagreements. Some historians of early modern philosophy will be able to join in this discussion, especially those who are studying Francis Bacon in contextual fashion. But many others will twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines until a properly philosophical topic comes up for discussion, like the adequacy of empirical induction as a basis for science. The first group places philosophy within the humanities, and is interested in reading literature and learning history in order to deepen their understanding of the philosophers of the period. The second group cannot find much of interest in all this talk of guild formation and Atlantic trade routes. Their concern is over something the historian and literature scholar are ignoring: namely, whether Bacon (or whomever) managed to come up with anything of genuine philosophical interest, and not “merely” of historical or literary interest.

Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam), at Digressions & Impressions, writes:

To her credit, Mercer argues persuasively that GTRC  is compatible with many different kind of techniques and even methods. To make that seem common sensical is a great (rhetorical and methodological) advance. But the way she operationalizes the criterion strikes me problematic for three reasons worth articulating.

First, her constraint is author or people-centered (“the historical figures would recognize as their own”) Now, one doesn’t have to be enthralled by Roland Barthes or data-meaning, to recognize that to get the past right may involve features of the past that the authors would fail to recognize because of their biases (in a statistical or cognitive sense) or because of their shared philosophical commitments… Second, what the first point reveals is that there is more to “understanding” the past than getting the views and ideas of it right.  For example, if one is interested in the philosophical roots of patterns of exclusion — for example, why were Olympe de Gouges and Sophie de Grouchy almost entirely ignored for almost two centuries after the 1790s (despite being famous in their own day) — one may well discover features about their views and texts, but one is more likely to discover that mass democracy was bad for women (philosophers)… Third…[the] criterion cannot be salvaged because when one spells it out it relies on (unrecoverable) counterfactuals that cannot be grounded in the historical record. How can we historians know whether historical figures would recognize certain views as their own unless they explicitly say so?

Martin Lenz (Groningen), at Handling Ideas, writes:

Why is early modern philosophy such a success? Is it really owing to contextualism? My hunch is that the opposite might be true: If any methodological approach is involved in its institutional success, it’s rational reconstructionism. 

Why do I think so? Christia Mercer claims that rational reconstructionists and contextualists started out as opposed camps, but ended all up as contextualists for the reason that even rational reconstructionists started caring about historical accuracy… While this might be true, I worry that Mercer’s portrait of the disagreement is flawed in one respect. Mercer reconstructs the disagreement between rational recostructionists and contextualists as a debate among historians of philosophy. As I see it, the debate is at least initially one between philosophers and historians of philosophy. Arguably, authors like Brandom and Bennett started their careers as philosophers and used history somewhat instrumentally. In fact, there is an ongoing debate as to what extent history is even part of philosophy.** Now, whatever you think about this debate, the simple fact remains that that there are more philosophers and jobs for philosophers than for historians of philosophy. Thus, I am inclined to believe that the success of early modern philosophy is owing to philosophers being interested in early modern authors. Some famous philosophers advertise their historical heroes and, before you know it, scholarship follows suit. Spinoza is now “relevant”, because a number of famous philosophers find him interesting, not because someone discovers an unknown manuscript of the Ethica in an archive.

Discussion welcome.

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