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:
- Historical Contextualization
- Textual Exegesis
- Critical Interpretation & Evaluation
- 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”.