I’ve been thinking about Lewis Powell’s helpful and thought-provoking post on The Ladder of Historicity. My thoughts seemed a bit too unwieldy for a comment, so I thought I would share them as a separate post.
Lewis’ ladder imagery suggests, perhaps unintentionally, a single axis along which we could situate various manners of doing the history of philosophy. On one end, there is historical contextualization. On the other, philosophical inspiration. In between, there are various combinations of historical and philosophical work. (I think these are what the two most distant rungs represent, although to call the one end “history” might be to suggest that it is not philosophy, which Lewis might not have intended, just as “philosophical inspiration” might still be recognizable as history.)
When I think about these matters, and when I discuss them with my students, I try to suggest a variety of axes along which we could consider how various authors approach the history of philosophy. I’m teaching a Hume seminar this semester, so we are discussing, for instance, interpreting the Treatise in light of the Enquiry or not, and whether we need to read Locke or Bayle or Malebranche or Clarke or Baxter or Reid to understand what Hume is doing.
As I try to think about these matters in a general way, here are some of the various continua along which I place various authors (or more often, articles, books, or sections of each). I should note that although I occasionally find myself having strong opinions about which end of each spectrum historians of philosophy should fall on, in most moods I am a pluralist who values writing that falls at different points along each axis.
- philosophy as done at the time vs. illuminates current philosophical debates
Some historians of philosophy (HOPs) don’t feel that an argument is complete without showing how their work illuminates a current debate or opens a new space in the contemporary literature. The other end doesn’t assume that their work doesn’t have contemporary interest or reject the need for it, but it doesn’t play a major role in their choices of what to read, what to think about, or what to write about. (Indeed, if only one person is interested in the topic it still shows that there is contemporary interest, just a very limited one.)
- historical context fixes meaning or illuminates the text vs. face value
Some HOPs seek out textual, historical, or etymological information, working on the assumption that doing so should help us understand the text. Others are more content to let the text talk to us across the ages. (Or perhaps they just prefer others to do that work.)
- discover author’s intentions vs. go with what he or she said
Some HOPs work carefully through biographical information or non-published sources such as letters to get inside the author’s mind and figure out what he or she intended. Others tend to work with what’s on the page alone. (Perhaps this should be separated out? Non-published/published on one axis, and intentional/nonintentional readings on the other?)
- specifiers vs. totalizers
Some HOPs prefer to work through a particular text in isolation from other things an author wrote, waiting until quite late in their work to see how the specific passage relates to other things written by the author. Others prefer a total view (the “X’s view is” approach), drawing from many places.
- developmental views vs. stasis views
Some HOPs emphasize the way an author’s views change over time, while others tend to treat the author’s views as a consistent whole. This could take the form of gradual changes (perhaps changes in editions of Locke’s Essay) or sharp breaks (early atomist versus late idealist Leibniz, for instance).
- eternal debates vs. the questions and problems are not the same
Some HOPs think that the questions being asked by philosophers in the 17th or 5th century (about free will, say) are the same as those we are asking now. Others deny this. Those who deny this might prefer an earlier formulation of the problem (like Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”) or they might not.
- grand narratives vs. no narratives
Some HOPs like to tell a single story uniting many different authors (think: grand Hegelian stories or rationalism/empiricism, but also more specific ones like Yolton’s Thinking Matter). Others think such narratives distract from a careful reading of the texts or gloss over important differences.
- isolated reading vs. overall consistency
Some HOPs prefer to interpret a passage using the most plausible reading where making the disputed passage consistent with other texts has low importance, while others place a high importance on working across many texts. (Leibniz studies almost have to take this latter approach, given the brevity of his many, mostly unpublished, writings.)
Obviously, these various axes interrelate, although I think that the ways in which they interrelate are perhaps not as obvious as they first appear. For instance, Thomas Holden’s The Architecture of Matter is a model of careful, historical, contextual work, but he ends with a section on how the actual parts doctrine informs the current debate on gunk. That might surprise someone who assumed that “historical context illuminates the text” is not likely to be found with “illuminates the current debate.”
These are all still a work in progress, and I’m not completely happy with how I’ve stated them. (When I decided to write this post, I thought there would be only three spectra, which could be nicely plotted along X, Y, and Z axes. Clearly that didn’t happen.) They are also nowhere near exhaustive (but perhaps a bit exhausting). Feel free to share thoughts or better formulations or other differences that matter to you but that I missed.
Postscript: I also want to note that in addition to the introductions in the excellent books by Sleigh, Adams, Garrett, Bennett, and others, in which they lay out some of their principles for doing the history of philosophy, the Journal of the History of Philosophy has been publishing previous editors’ thoughts on the journal and on the state of history of philosophy. Richard A. Watson’s piece is most relevant to the topics here.
Update: I keep thinking of additional relevant issues: does one read outside of philosophy (in theology, literature, law, etc.)? does one take plausibility into account (or what constitutes plausibility)? what does “a principle of charity” mean and how should it be applied? should we provide reconstructions of an author’s views that go beyond the available evidence?