Posts Tagged ‘method’

The other day I was reading Stephen Gaukroger’s book on Francis Bacon, and he said something that struck me. He said

just how one goes about writing philosophical works seems to become problematic (outside the Scholastic tradition) in the early decades of the seventeenth century (55–6)

Now, of course, Gaukroger is right about this. One need only look at Descartes’s works to seem him experimenting with all sorts of formats (the confessional, the textbook, the essay). But what I’m interested in is how this experimentation with the format of philosophical writing seems to track large revolutions in thought. So, for example, we have not only the early moderns, but also the transition to post-Kantian idealism (e.g Novalis’s fragments, and Hegel’s progressive narrative in the Phenomenology), continental reactions to German idealism (Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are the obvious choices here), British Island reaction to idealism (Moore and Russell), the reaction to British analytic philosophy (Late Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy), and post-structuralism (Derrida and company).

In between each of these periods there is some stretch of time in which philosophical writing is fairly static in it’s structure (this is analogous to Kuhnian “normal science”). We seem to be in one of those periods now, in fact.

So I’m curious about a few things. First, whether anyone thinks that there is anything more than a superficial connection between writing form and these revolutionary periods in thought. Second, whether – in the early modern era in particular – change of (or at least experimentation with) writing form was an integral component of the philosophical (and not just the polemical) break with scholasticism and Aristotelianism. Analytic philosophers tend to think of good writing style as one which is concise and transparent with respect to its arguments (e.g. see the Leiter discussion here). Since it’s the content that’s valued this means that style can pretty much only negatively affect one’s argument. But this, or so it seems to me, is a flat-footed way of looking at writing, and separates styles rather narrowly into easy-to-read vs. hard-to-read.

There is likely a library full of books and papers on this topic but it strikes me that the typical early-modern survey (and presumably also the more in-depth courses on rationalism or empiricism) doesn’t spend all that much time on why it is that the early moderns wrote the ways that they did, and whether this had much effect on their arguments (or itself was part of their argument). In terms of early modern scholarship, Descartes’s Meditations seems to get the lion’s share of attention in this regard. I’d be interested in hearing otherwise.


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