I’ve recently been making my way through Robert Pasnau’s Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671—it’s a great book, by the way—and started thinking about a claim that he makes several times with respect to the canonical seventeenth-century philosophers understanding of scholasticism. Here is how Pasnau puts it the first time the matter comes up:
One can also learn a great deal about the scholastics from reading their seventeenth-century critics. Although I will periodically complain that one or another criticism is misguided, I think in general that the famous figures of the seventeenth century get their scholastic forebears largely right, and that indeed they know this material better than we know it today. After all, they grew up with it. (p. 12)
Similar claims have been made in other domains. For example, in Christian scriptural exegesis Patristic scriptural interpretations are sometimes appealed to along with the claim that their interpretations should be privileged because they are much closer in time and culture to the authors who wrote the Christian Scripture. We might formulate the principle as follows:
- If interpreter I1 is closer than interpreter I2 in time/culture to the context in which a given text was written, then, all else being equal, I1 has a privileged perspective in interpreting the text and her interpretation should be respected accordingly.
My sense is that this principle or something like it does some work in Pasnau’s interpretations both of scholastic figures and seventeenth-century figures such as Descartes and Locke. I’m also sympathetic to the principle, at least as I formulated it. The “all else being equal” clause, of course, takes a lot of the bite out of the principle. Perhaps Pasnau accepts a stronger version of the principle. He does not think that particular interpretations by a cultural contemporary need always be favoured, as the above quotation makes clear. But maybe there is some overall sense of a philosophical worldview where he thinks the cultural contemporary will always be in the advantage. He says in several places that the seventeenth-century philosophers understood the scholastic material “better than anyone does today.”
Questions about precisely how to formulate the principle aside, I’m not convinced that the seventeenth-century philosophers understood the scholastic material better than anyone does today and that’s because I don’t think that all else is equal. Here’s another principle that seems plausible to me:
- If interpreter I1 is sympathetic to the positions taken in a given text while I2 deems the text worthy of little more than ridicule, then I1 is more likely to come to a good understanding of the text.
But, as we all know, many seventeenth-century philosophers love to write caustic diatribes about the scholastics who “cover their ignorance with a curious and inexplicable web of perplexed words, and procure to themselves the admiration of others by unintelligible terms, the apter to produce wonder, because they could not be understood” (Locke, Essay III.x.8). I, too, am acquainted with authors who I suspect are covering their ignorance with “curious and inexplicable web of perplexed words.” But even if my suspicions are correct, it seems to me that future authors would be rash to privilege my interpretations of texts by such authors on grounds that I am from the same time period and am broadly of the same culture. Similarly, it seems to me that many seventeenth-century philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes—whatever other virtues they may have had—lacked sufficient sympathy for scholastic philosophy to have a privileged perspective on it. In other words, I’m inclined to think that Pasnau himself understands scholastic philosophy better than Locke or Hobbes did.
But I’m curious what others think about this.