Archive for September, 2012

The Ladder of Historicity

The following is offered somewhat tentatively; I am not fully satisfied with the way I wind up putting everything, but hopefully some feedback and discussion will help me move towards clearer articulation and understanding.

As someone who came to historical philosophy mid-way through graduate school, I can still remember a sort of confusion I experienced when I was first taking history seminars.  I didn’t know exactly what we were up to, and how it related to what we did in my non-historical classes.  So, on the assumption that some of the students I teach are in a relevantly similar position, I try to address this explicitly when I teach seminars.

Part of my aim is to undercut a false dichotomy that many people subscribe to (tacitly or explicitly), that the question, “What are we doing, when we do historical philosophy?”  can be answered either by “history” or by “philosophy”, and that those answers are mutually exclusive.

This semester, as I was addressing this issue, I laid out an array of different projects one might have—or better, components of projects.  I wound up calling this array of project-components “the ladder of historicity”.  Part of what I think is really nice about historical philosophy is that there are a plurality of different project-types that people pursue, which employ these components in different combinations.  I think it is somewhat helpful to arrange them along this metaphorical ladder.  I want to flag that I am not merely open to suggested revisions/amendments to this ladder, I actively desire feedback on the ladder.  My perspective, like anyone’s, is limited, and part of my goal in sharing this is to get a better appreciation of things I may be overlooking.  So here’s something of a rough-draft of the ladder:

  1. Historical Contextualization
  2. Textual Exegesis
  3. Critical Interpretation & Evaluation
  4. Reconstruction/Expansion
  5. Philosophical Inspiration

Starting with the top rung (i.e. the most historical rung), we have what I am calling historical contextualization Basically, whatever aspects of a given project are concerned with situating a philosopher’s thought into the broader historical narrative (interpretations of thinkers as reacting to the social and political climate of their day fall under this heading, but it would also include debates about, for instance, the adequacy of a rationalist vs. empiricist narrative for the early modern period).  The next rung down is textual exegesis, or the project of articulating what the views and arguments are that are being presented in a given text.  The next rung down is critical interpretation and evaluation, in which concerns or objections to those views and arguments, as well as implicit or explicit replies to those concerns, are considered and assessed.  After this is reconstruction/expansion, where the aim is to extend the views of a thinker to issues they did not address, or reconstruct a superior variant of their views, in light of something they couldn’t (or at least didn’t) appreciate (e.g. “what so-and-so should have said” projects).  Lastly we have philosophical inspiration, in which one is in some sense reacting to the historical text, but their concern is less with whether the idea they have is attributable in any sense to the historical figure, and instead about the utility/interest/relevance of that idea to contemporary debates.

Now, the point of the ladder is not for people to look at it, and pick a single rung as their approach to historical philosophy, nor is the point of the ladder to help categorize scholars or even individual papers as occupying a particular rung of the ladder.  My take on things is that pretty much nothing one does in historical philosophy would fall entirely under a single rung of the ladder.

My hope is that the ladder helps with two things: (1) to draw out the variety of things that are often going on in even a single paper in the history of philosophy, and (2) to make it easier to articulate a brand of pluralism about method in history of philosophy that recognizes the variety of worthwhile types of projects that people pursue, all under the umbrella of “history of philosophy”.

Feedback welcome.

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Graphs of Spinoza’s Ethics

I am teaching Spinoza in my undergraduate early modern course today, and I was wondering off-hand whether anyone had graphed the dependencies among the various propositions, axioms, and definitions of the Ethics, in case I wanted to illustrate that for the students.

It turns out that Alexander Pruss has done a very nice job of producing some graphs exactly like what I had in mind, about a year ago.

Pruss’s blog post has links to separate graphs for each of the five parts of the Ethics, but I’ll link to the mega-graph for the whole of the Ethics here.

All right. I am off to go prep for class and contemplate the geometric nature of the universe under the aspect of eternity.


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Here is the schedule for the upcoming Locke seminar, being held at Washington and Lee, organized by Jessica Gordon-Roth.  I should note that if you are organizing a workshops, conferences, etc., of interest to modernists, and would like me to post about them on the blog, I am more than happy to do so.  Just drop me a line.

Friday October 26

4:00 PM — 6:00 PM
Invited Speaker: Antonia LoLordo (University of Virginia)
‘Three Problems in Locke’s Ontology of Substance and Mode’

Saturday October 27

8:30 AM — 10:00 AM
Emily Crookston (Coastal Carolina University)
‘Making Sense of Mixed Modes: Reconciling Locke’s Metaphysics and His Moral Philosophy’

Commentator: Ruth Boeker (Bowling Green State University)
Session Chair: Jessica Gordon-Roth (Washington and Lee)

10:15 AM — 11:45 AM
Jan-Erik Jones (Southern Virginia University)
‘Locke, Essences and Ontology’

Commentator: Patrick Connolly (UNC Chapel Hill)
Session Chair: James Mahon (Washington and Lee)

1:30 PM — 3:00 PM
Benjamin Hill (University of Western Ontario)
‘A Better Argument for Content Externalism in Locke’

Commentator: Matthew Priselac (Virginia Tech)
Session Chair: Jessica Gordon-Roth (Washington and Lee)

3:15 PM — 4:45 PM
Lewis Michael Powell (University at Buffalo, SUNY)
‘Locke’s Problems with Copulation and Conception’

Commentator: Shelley Weinberg (Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
Session Chair: James Mahon (Washington and Lee)

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In preparing to talk about Descartes on machines and animals and human beings the other day, I set out looking for information about seventeenth-century automata.

One really interesting thing is Jessica Riskin’s article “Machines in the Garden” in Republics of Letters. This has a lot of information about “lifelike machines” of two sorts: religious ones – “the muttering Christs, the horn-playing angels, the eye-rolling devils, the teeth-chattering heads” – and a great variety of hydraulic machinery in the gardens of the rich and powerful.

There are also multiple online versions of Salomon de Caus’s 1615 book, Les raisons des forces mouvantes, avec diverses machines tant utiles que plaisantes, auxquelles sont adjoints plusieurs dessings de grotes & fontaines. The image below is one example of the machines illustrated, and is described as a machine “Pour faire representer le chant d’un oyseau en son naturel, par le moyen de l’eau”.

Image from de Caus, Les raisons des forces mouvantes

One online version of the book is at http://cnum.cnam.fr/SYN/FDA1.html. For another version, and more description of the book’s contents, see http://architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr/traite/Notice/Caus1615.asp?param=en. Or alternatively, for just the illustrations, see http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b2100042f/f1.planchecontact.

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