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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Arouet
Arouet
1 year ago

An initial thought: I find it difficult to believe that any philosopher has ever rejected the GTRC and thus difficult to believe that the “contextualist revolution” pivoted around whether philosophers should accept or reject this principle. To reject the GTRC would be to think that it’s acceptable for historians of philosophy to “attribute claims or ideas to historical figures without concern for whether or not they are ones the figures would recognize as their own.” But even the most extreme of the “rational reconstructionists” show *some* measure of concern for getting the views of historical figures right. Their problem is that they “attribute claims or ideas to historical figures without [sufficient] concern for whether or not they are ones the figures would recognize as their own,” not that they do so without such concern at all. From this point of view, a key difference between the two camps is that the one (the “rational reconstructionists”) sets the bar for sufficient concern rather low, while the other (the contextualists) sets it much higher. Accordingly, it seems to me that the revolution in EMP has had more to do with a shifting standard of how concerned we should be about getting things right, than with a shift from thinking that we shouldn’t be concerned about getting the figures right to thinking that we should be concerned about that. (It also seems to have involved a decrease in interest in whether the views of historical figures are true or plausible or relevant to contemporary concerns.)Report

Daniel Greco
Reply to  Arouet
1 year ago

I think Kripke’s “Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language” is a pretty clear case of a work that rejects the GTRC. As he puts it in the preface: “…largely my method is to present the argument as it struck me, as it presented a problem for me, rather than to concentrate on the exegesis of specific passages.” Moreover, I think the book is fascinating; I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a grad seminar this fall.

Perhaps the flatfooted response will come that Kripke was not doing history of philosophy, precisely because he was so unconcerned with getting Wittgenstein right. If so, then I’d be inclined to say that while it’s fine to stipulate that we’ll use “history of philosophy” to refer only to work that accepts the GTRC, there can be valuable work that is inspired and informed by historical philosophers, and is presented as offering interpretation sof historical philosophers, which isn’t itself history of philosophy. Report

Arouet
Arouet
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 year ago

Kripke: “I also recommend that the student (re)read the Investigations in the light of the structuring of the argument proposed in this work. Such a procedure is of special importance here, since largely my method is to present the argument as it struck me, as it presented a problem for me, rather than to concentrate on the exegesis of specific passages” (viii). Paraphrase: I’m telling you what I think Wittgenstein’s argument is, but you won’t find a detailed discussion of the relevant texts from the Investigations here, so students should (re)read that work for themselves in light of the interpretation I propose.

Kripke goes on to say this: “In my view, the real ‘private language argument’ is to be found in the sections preceding §243. Indeed, in §202 the conclusion is already stated explicitly: ‘Hence it is not possible to obey a rule “privately”: otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.’ I do not think that Wittgenstein here thought of himself as anticipating an argument he was to give in greater detail later. On the contrary, the crucial considerations are all contained in the discussion leading up to the conclusion stated in §202. The sections following §243 are meant to be read in the light of the preceding discussion; difficult as they are in any case, they are much less likely to be understood if they are read in isolation” (3). Surely this is evidence that Kripke was concerned (to some degree) with getting Wittgenstein right, despite the absence of detailed exegesis of texts.Report

Kevin Harrelson
Kevin Harrelson
Reply to  Arouet
1 year ago

Kripke is a contextualist. These passages are good evidence of that, as are many passages in “Russell’s Notion of Scope” and many other such places. The issue is not how much space he devotes to exegesis but rather how much he respects the intentions and context of the authors he treats. In his case, of course, the authors are always relatively recent. But his style and mindset, in my view, are like that of the contextualist historian.

Of course the commenter above can come in and say that they just chose a bad example, and indeed they will find many examples of people who are not contextualists.Report

Laurence B. McCullough
Laurence B. McCullough
1 year ago

Arouet writes: “I find it difficult to believe that any philosopher has ever rejected the GTRC and thus difficult to believe that the “contextualist revolution” pivoted around whether philosophers should accept or reject this principle.” This is a perilous argument form, because it has no response to the criticism: Well, try harder. Trying harder quickly produces an example of a philosopher who made no effort to contextualize historical texts: Russell on Leibniz. Russell get Leibniz on relations wrong because he fails to situate Leibniz’s account in the nominalist-realist debate on common nature in the later Scholastics, with whose work Leibniz was very familiar.Report

Arouet
Arouet
Reply to  Laurence B. McCullough
1 year ago

I didn’t say that I find it difficult to believe that any philosopher ever failed to “contextualize” historical texts. I said I find it difficult to believe that any philosopher ever thought it was acceptable to attribute a view to a historical figure without concern for whether that was actually the figure’s view. Russell may have made no effort to contextualize Leibniz’s views on relations, but he certainly did show concern for getting Leibniz’s views right. Just look at how extensively he quotes Leibniz in support of the views he ascribes to him.Report

Paul
Paul
1 year ago

“I’m concerned and you’re not.” “No, I’m less concerned.” “No, that’s not concern.” “Yes, it is.” “No, it isn’t.” “Yes, it is.” “No, it isn’t.” . . .

(Also something about how contextualism is or isn’t necessary for concern, same form.)Report

ehz
ehz
1 year ago

This may be a naive question, as I’m not very familiar with history of philosophy scholarship, but isn’t there a difference between asking what, e.g., Descartes the person thought and asking what Cartesian philosophy entails? I would think that both could be worth pursuing. Historians of philosophy would probably be more interested in the former, and (non-historian) philosophers more interested in the latter. You might say that one cannot answer the latter without answering the former first, but why would that be so?

(This also brings out an ambiguity in the phrase “getting things right”: between getting (e.g.) Descartes right, and getting Cartesian philosophy right. Although this ambiguity is not present in Mercer’s principle, the label has a normative ring to it, and suggests that one would be wrong not to endorse it. Who would say that they reject getting things right?)Report

PNR
PNR
Reply to  ehz
1 year ago

Not a naive question. The distinction you’re pointing to (sc., between asking what X thought and asking what follows from X-ian philosophy) is both an important one and one that is often drawn in the history of philosophy – especially where “schools” are involved (e.g., Plato and Platonism, Aristotle and Aristotelianism, Thomas Aquinas and Thomism, etc.). Whether the distinction between those two questions tracks a distinction between the historian of philosophy and the philosopher is less clear, at least to me.

Proclus definitely cared about getting Plato right – at least as much as he cared about drawing new conclusions on the basis of Platonic principles – but it seems wrong to call him a historian of philosophy. Averroes definitely cared about getting Aristotle right – at least as much as he cared about drawing new conclusions on the basis of Aristotelian principles – but it seems wrong to call him a historian of philosophy. João Poinsot definitely cared about getting Aquinas right – at least as much as he cared about drawing new conclusions on the basis of Thomistic principles – but it seems wrong to call him a historian of philosophy.

Maybe you could say that to the extent that someone is concerned with the exegetical question, they’re engaged in the history of philosophy, while to the extent that someone is concerned with the exploratory question, they’re engaged in philosophy. And then you might say that the reason we don’t call Proclus, Averroes, and Poinsot historians of philosophy is because we value their exploratory work more than we value their expository work.

But even that strikes me as off. Exegetical questions play a key role in plenty of contemporary philosophy papers (e.g., in order to prove that philosopher X is wrong about position Y, I usually have to start by (a) showing that X held Y, and (b) accurately explaining why X held Y). So it can’t simply be exegesis vs. exploration that makes the difference between the historian of philosophy and the philosopher.

For myself, I’m inclined to think that the difference lies in whether exegetical accuracy is pursued for its own sake, or for the sake of the (philosophical) truth. If I’m trying to figure out what X said simply to provide an accurate report, then I’m engaged in history. If I’m trying to figure out what X said because I want to take seriously the possibility that X might be right, then I’m engaged in philosophy. So what matters is whether I’m pursuing the truth.

Is that too old-fashioned?Report

Kevin Harrelson
Kevin Harrelson
Reply to  ehz
1 year ago

To repeat your distinction: what you say is exactly correct but it’s way more complicated than you mean it to be. In ordinary speech if you have a clearly demarcated utterance you may distinguish between what a person means and what they say. It’s just that the situation with philosophy is messier. Descartes wrote a lot of things, which are neither clearly demarcated as ‘a philosophy’ (though some philosophers lend themselves to clearer demarcation than others) nor clear in their meaning. In the latter case you have to add problems of translation, both in terms of natural language and technical terminology (how much philosophy since Descartes do you want to allow into the translation manual for the philosophy, assuming you are not writing a Latin commentary but one in contemporary English with analytic categories?). In the former case you need to consider how much things Descartes said (maybe in a letter to a friend, perhaps a certain princess) permit you to make inferences about the meaning of the philosophy.

So your initial distinction gets fuzzy. It’s still there but you have to negotiate it at every step. Generally it’s contextualists who emphasize “what Descartes the person thought” and presentists/ appropriationists who are after “what the Cartesian philosophy entails.” And generally the latter group are less interested in methodology because they’re invested in the idea that they can take their object (Cartesian philosophy) and their translation manual (usually a bunch of principles common to 20th/ 21st C. Anglophone philosophy but not shared by Descartes) as clearer than the contextualists will allow.

You can see from the last point that I take the situation between the camps for necessarily confused. If you take the de re/ de dicto distinction as apparent – as it often is in the isolated utterance with a familiar person on live speech – you may go for the de re reading as you suggest. Human conversation depends on this being so. But contextualists tend to see the situation as murkier resulting from the fact that Descartes lived a long time ago in vastly different circumstance and what he was saying is not so assimilable to what you might at first take him to mean. If you focus your attention on these aspects, it won’t seem legitimate to distinguish the person from the philosophy from the outset as you suggest.

I’d differ from Mercer however in characterizing anyone as less concerned with getting things right. But I also note that looking at things in the way you wish – which appeals to ordinary intuitions about language and conversation – doesn’t quite cut it.Report

Laurence B McCullough
Laurence B McCullough
1 year ago

Arouet: Equating getting the texts right to quoting passages is risible. The texts must be read in the context in which they were written, as best as scholarship can unearth that context. Russell makes no effort to do so and he is far from alone in subsequent attempts to ascribe views to Leibniz that he would not recognize, e.g., reducibility of relations to non-relations. Russell did not understand that Leibniz was a 17th-century philosopher, not Russell’s contemporary, who held an ontology that included individual relations in the category of individual accidents of substances. This was standard fare in 17th-century second-Scholasticism, in which Leibniz was steeped.Report

Arouet
Arouet
Reply to  Laurence B McCullough
1 year ago

This is twice now that you have crudely misread me. It would indeed be laughable to equate getting the texts right with quoting passages. But that’s not what I did. I offered Russell’s practice of quoting Leibniz, specifically in support of the views he ascribed to him, as evidence that he was concerned with getting Leibniz right. Obviously, to say that Russell was concerned with getting Leibniz right is not to say that he actually did get Leibniz right.

“Russell did not understand that Leibniz was a 17th-century philosopher, not Russell’s contemporary ….” Really? Then how did he manage to write this: “Leibniz was educated in the scholastic tradition, then still unbroken at most of the German universities. He obtained a competent knowledge of the schoolmen, and of the scholastic Aristotle, while still a boy; and in his graduation thesis, De Principio Individui, written in 1663, he still employs the diction and methods of scholasticism” (The Philosophy of Leibniz, p. 6)? You may think (as I do) that he underappreciated the importance of these Scholastic influences for understanding Leibniz’s thought, but to suggest that he understood Leibniz to be a contemporary and not a 17th century philosopher is precisely the kind of caricature of the “rational reconstructionists” that I’m pushing back against.Report

Steve
Steve
1 year ago

I’m always struck by the way in which some famous dead philosophers – of the sort one might study in history of philosophy- seem to have scant regard for getting their predecessors right. For example, whenever Kant mentions the Ancients it seems to be some broad brush gesturing at a certain sort of position, with no concern for accuracy. So, here’s a meta-puzzle: would our predecessors find our concern with getting them right odd? Do we better respect them by treating them as they seemed to treat their forebears?Report

PNR
PNR
Reply to  Steve
1 year ago

The scope of “some” in your first sentence might be rather more restricted than it seems you take it to be. For most of the history of philosophy, getting one’s predecessors right was extremely important – just consider how commentaries (and super-commentaries) were a dominant literary form for doing philosophy in the late ancient Greek, classical and post-classical Arabic, and medieval Latin worlds. Sure, philosophical commentaries were always about mucc more than getting the thinker commented upon right, but that was always an important component. And failure to do so always left one open to subsequent criticism.

So if you’re right about Kant, then Kant isn’t especially representative.Report

Laurence B McCullough
Laurence B McCullough
1 year ago

Arouet: Russell then ignores the Scholastic context of Leibniz. Key concepts such as common nature, individual accident, and nominalism and key figures such as Suarez (whose influence, as well as that of other second Scholastic, on Leibniz was life-long) are not mentioned in Russell’s book. Russell’s approach is ahistorical in this crucial respect. And so he gets Leibniz on relations wrong, as do many who have accepted Russell’s interpretation of (an imagined and not actual) Leibniz’s writings.Report

Arouet
Arouet
Reply to  Laurence B McCullough
1 year ago

I don’t object to any of that, but none of it conflicts with anything I’ve claimed either. “Russell ignored the Scholastic influences on Leibniz and consequently got Leibniz wrong on relations” does not entail “Russell showed no concern for getting Leibniz right.” My claim, to repeat, was that “even the most extreme of the ‘rational reconstructionists’ show *some* measure of concern for getting the views of historical figures right.” That’s consistent with the fact that Russell and many others ignored important contextual factors in their interpretations of historical figures.Report

Jessica Gordon-Roth
Jessica Gordon-Roth
1 year ago

I’m usually very uncomfortable with self-promotion and online controversy, but
I wanted to highlight a recent paper I co-authored with Nancy Kendrick where we deal with some similar issues–though likely from a very different perspective, “Recovering Early Modern Women Philosophers: Some Tensions”:
Abstract:
Feminist work in the history of philosophy has been going on for several decades. Some scholars have focused on the ways philosophical concepts are themselves gendered. Others have recovered women writers who were well known in their own time but forgotten in ours, while still others have firmly placed into a philosophical context the works of women writers long celebrated within other disciplines in the humanities. The recovery of women writers has challenged the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy, but it has not eradicated it. What, we may ask, is impeding our progress? This paper argues that so often we treat early modern women philosophers’ texts in ways that are different from, or inconsistent with, the explicit commitments of the analytic tradition, and in so doing, we may be triggering our audiences to reject these women as philosophers, and their texts as philosophical. Moreover, this is the case despite our intention to achieve precisely the opposite effect.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/meta.12357

We also take up broader methodological issues in a forthcoming volume piece titled, “The Visible and the Invisible: Feminist Recovery in the History of Philosophy,” (Recovering Women’s Past volume, University of Nebraska Press, Women and Gender in the Early Modern World series, Ed. Severine Genies-Kirk (submitted/under contract))–which may be shareable. I would need to check.

Finally broader questions about the humanities and philosophy are ones I will take up as a McKnight Land-Grant professor at the University of Minnesota over the next two years: http://www.scholarswalk.umn.edu/awards/mcknight/mcknight_landgrant.html

I’m glad these issues are being discussed!

Please note that I’m recovering from 2 surgeries and thus won’t likely return to this for a bit, if at all. Thanks. Report

Kristen Irwin
Kristen Irwin
1 year ago

There was a relevant debate that took place at SEMPY (Society for Early Modern Philosophy @ Yale) back in May 2015 between Dan Garber and Michael Della Rocca, with Dan defending something roughly like the contextualist position, and Michael defending something roughly like the rationalist reconstruction position (though perhaps they’d object to those characterizations!).

Caveat observator: the debate is in five VERY LONG parts — here’s the link to part 1:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gF12F8Vp0kQ&list=PLb9N6sSbEu2fzsVnxLO_hVSktHDX12ZTb&index=1Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Kristen Irwin
1 year ago

The Garber-Della Rocca debate has also been published in JHP, July 2015. Not as much fun as watching but maybe quieter.

In support of Jessica’s remarks, it takes a firm commitment to contextualism to get the most out of early Modern women philosophers and other little studied figures because their background assumptions are often very unfamiliar. Even sympathetic readers approaching them with an eye to the present can make nothing of them and as Jessica says fall back on biography or worse, condemn them for being in sufficiently feminist.Report

Martin Lenz
1 year ago

Jessica Gordon-Roth’s and Nancy Kendrick’s paper exposes an important of problem for the rejection of rational reconstructionism, as for instance advanced by Christia Mercer. In some contexts, such a rejection might nourish the suspicion that there is nothing rational to be reconstructed. They write:

“What is impeding our progress in eradicating the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy? […] What we argue is that so often we treat early modern women philosophers’ texts in ways that are different from, or inconsistent with, basic commitments of analytic philosophy and our practices as historians of philosophy working in the analytic tradition. Moreover, this is the case even when we consider the practices of those who take a more historiographical approach. In so doing, we may be triggering our audiences to reject these women as philosophers, and their texts as philosophical. Moreover, this is the case despite our intention to achieve precisely the opposite effect.”
Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Martin Lenz
1 year ago

I’m not following what you are saying here, Martin. Mercer recommends rejection of rational reconstruction as a method for doing history of philosophy. How can rejecting a method raise suspicions about any particular philosopher? Nor do I see how this is supposed to follow from what Jessica and Nancy write. They are saying aren’t they that there is a tendency to treat women philosophers differently no matter which method you are using.Report

Martin Lenz
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
1 year ago

Sorry for being unclear. Let me begin with your second point: I take Jessica and Nancy to argue that rational reconstruction is the method of choice for those working in the analytic tradition. Treating women philosophers “differently” means amongst other things: refusing to rationally reconstruct their arguments. In rejecting that method for certain authors, we exclude them from the analytic tradition. This last point speaks to your first question: If I tell you that we have to read certain authors by placing their work in their biographical context rather than by analysing their arguments, you might think that these authors are only interesting because of their biography, but not because of their arguments. — (NB: I’m not saying that this is the case. I’m only saying that the methodological choice *suggests* that certain methods are not applicable to certain authors.)Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Martin Lenz
1 year ago

Ah, this may be a case where context is important. I think when Jessica and Nancy are talking about historians of philosophy working in the analytic tradition they are talking about anglophone historians of philosophy who were raised in the analytic tradition and who are also committed to Christia’s principle.Report

Berel Dov Lerner
Berel Dov Lerner
1 year ago

Beginning with the Greeks, hasn’t much of the best work in philosophy been inspired by getting earlier philosophers wrong?Report

Martin Lenz
1 year ago

“The antiquarian function of history …, in its healthy state, is, [Nietzsche] explains, a function of appropriation … And, as with the other forms of history, its degeneracy sets in when the historians themselves … notice the injustice and try to correct it.” Thus spoke Abraham Stone, on Christia Mercer’s paper: https://abestonesphilosophyblog.blogspot.com/Report

Charles Mathewes
Charles Mathewes
1 year ago

It was only this morning that I got around to reading the underlying text–Christia Mercer’s “The Contextualist Revolution in Early Modern Philosophy”–and found it equally stimulating and frustrating. Stimulating, because despite the air of Whiggish self-congratulation it exudes (“we’ve finally got this right”), it points to a lot of good work. Basically I’m on her side on this one. But I found the essay also frustrating, not just because of the Whiggish self-congratulation, but also because it seems to be representing the recent past as an abyss of Stygian darkness where everybody was a radical presentist.
This seems unfair, especially for someone who is a contextualist, I think. There was certainly a period where anglophone philosophy was rigid, procrustean, and blinkered, and I allow you can make the argument that it still is today, in many respects; but the idea that Philippa Foot, or John McDowell, or Bernard Williams never cared for history or language is too strong. (And I went and checked the review of the Williams book on Descartes by Catherine Wilson, which Mercer points to as something of an example of a contextualist scholar resisting a presentist scholar, and in fact Wilson is quite positive about Williams’s understanding of Descartes and acquaintance with Descartes’s corpus.) Anyway, maybe I just chose to read the more contextualist of the anglophone philosophers, but it seems to me that this is too simplistic.
Also there’s this sentence (p. 544): “But unlike our appropriationist predecessors who approached historical materials through the lens of contemporary philosophy and in that sense took contemporary philosophy to historical texts, current early modernists like me hope to take insights gleaned from our newly discovered historical materials and apply them to contemporary philosophy.” Two things: (a) this is a formal restatement of the central thesis of Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity (so was he or was he not an appopriationist?) and also pretty visible in the line of work running from Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” through MacIntyre’s After Virtue; and (b) I suspect that anyone who can set up this either/or needs to immediately follow it up with a footnote to hermeneutics. Presumably she’s read Gadamer: it’s a circle, not one or the other.
Anyway, a good piece but with maybe a bit too much oppositional thinking? Is that unfair?Report

Lauren
Lauren
1 year ago

As someone who is interested in both what historical figures actually meant AND also questions of how to rationally reconstruct their views for use today, the most important caveats to me are a recognition of what it is we’re doing at any particular time. I certainly have articles where I say something like “When X claims y,…” with a footnote indicating that this isn’t the place to defend that X actually DOES claim y since I am (here) more interested in the implications of y. But if someone objects that my reading of X is wrong, I certainly think I have something to say to them, and I think I ought to do so! I agree with Mercer, however, that this may not always be the goal of past philosophers (Bernard Williams is someone who comes to mind here–though he seems to confidently proclaim that X said y, he rarely seems to give any indication of why he thinks this is the case).Report