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The following remarks are a revised version of Martha Bolton’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.

My reflections on this topic take the form of remarks about how work in the history of modern philosophy has changed in the course of my experience. The observations are impressionistic, but in an effort to provide some objective basis for them, I collected a little information. The endeavor consisted mainly of a literature search. It yielded a list of articles on history of modern published in The Philosophical Review over the past fifty years. Because this is a non-specialized journal widely thought to publish some of the very best work in philosophy, it seems an appropriate barometer of changes in the history of modern in relation to philosophy more generally.

The survey covers issues spanning the fifty years from 1953 through 2013. Articles on Kant are counted as in the field, because during much of this time German idealism was not a separate and active area of research as it is now.   A couple of articles on Newton are on the list, as well as several on the political philosophy of Hobbes, which was much discussed in the early decades of this period. Let me repeat that my observations are from a personal perspective; don’t mistake them for a history of the development of the field during the last fifty years.

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The following remarks are a revised version of Don Rutherford’s presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Modern Philosophy, held at the 2014 Pacific Division meeting of the APA.

When Lewis Powell announced the formation of the Society for Modern Philosophy, I must admit my initial reaction was to ask myself, “Do we really need another organization of historians of modern philosophy?” We have societies, conferences and journals dedicated to major individual thinkers, as well as a host of meetings, venues and publications that feature work focusing on broader topics in seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy. So what more do we need?

Then Lewis invited me to make this presentation, and I was forced to give the question more careful consideration. I couldn’t accept the invitation if I was going to argue that the plan for the Society was ill-conceived or without point. On reflection, I decided that this was far from my view. In fact, I have come to see the Society’s formation as a very good idea. In these remarks I want to explain why I think this is so and also share some more far-reaching thoughts on the discipline of the history of philosophy. I apologize in advance if the latter seem tangential to the immediate business of the Society. In my mind, they address—in a preliminary and abstract way—some of the larger issues about our enterprise that warrant greater discussion. I look forward to your comments on them.

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Society for Modern Philosophy Update

The Society for Modern Philosophy now has a listserv and a website:

http://modphi.com

I am going to be out of town for a bit over a week, and I don’t know how much access I’ll have to the internet, so there likely won’t be any big progress or changes until I get back from out of town.  And I need to approve people’s requests to join the mailing list, so if you sign up and don’t get confirmation right away, that’s why.

Spread the word!

Edited To Add:

I have been asked what precisely I have in mind by the designation “Modern Philosophy”.  Trying to come up with a precise range of dates or figures to include is, of course, a whole can of worms.  In complete honesty, my main motivation for going with “Modern Philosophy” rather than “Early Modern Philosophy” had to do with Kant.  In my experience, some people use “Early Modern” to refer to work spanning from, roughly, Hobbes/Descartes up to, but not including, Kant.  I am sure that some people use the phrase “early modern” to encompass Kant as well.  I intended for the society to include Kant, at the least.  I also intended for the society’s scope not to exclude, for instance,Frege (or those who come after Frege).  This is not because I dislike Frege, but because the Analytic school and 20th century philosophy in general, seem to me outside the scope of “Modern Philosophy.”

Of course, this leaves a sizable collection of philosophers between Kant and Frege that are, as far as my intentions were concerned, neither definitely to be included nor definitely to be excluded.  As much as I love to just decide things by fiat, I figured it might be a good idea to open this up to some discussion.  So, please, share your thoughts in the comments!

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A Society for Modern Philosophy!

A few months ago, I posted the idea to start a Society for Modern Philosophy. This post got some good responses and a lot of people expressed interest. Then, I promptly did nothing about it. Doing nothing about it kept me busy for quite some time, but now I am ready to take a break from doing nothing about it.

So, I hereby declare that this is going to happen. Step one would seem to be getting a list of people who would be interested in being in such a society. Those people should send me an e-mail (lewispow@buffalo.edu), with “Society for Modern Philosophy” in the subject line (and while there’s nothing specific you have to say in the body of the email, it would be kind of weird to just send me a blank e-mail, I think, so put something in the body).

Here are some modest (and potentially less modest) proposals for what such a society might do.

Modest:

Organize group-program sessions at the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association. Personally, my ideal format for these sessions would be to have papers by people who are somewhat more early-career, and commentary by people who are more established, but who knows if that is what would wind up happening. As a boorish American I know nothing of your international organizations, and how those conferences work, but plausibly, similar strategies could be pursued for big professional organization conferences all over the place.

A web-site hosting resources for modernists. This would include things like, recommendations of which editions are worth owning of various works for research purposes, listings of anthologies for use when teaching modern philosophy. Sample syllabi that help shake up the standard narrative (and, for instance, include more women philosophers from the period). Links to other assorted great things (like those graphical representations of the dependency relationships in Spinoza’s Ethics, and so on).

Assist in organizing (or at least connecting people) who are interested in doing skype-based reading groups. Because, if you are like me, even if you have some colleagues who would maybe be interested in talking about Hume or Descartes, you have a shortage of local colleagues who would be really excited about a Bayle’s Dictionary reading group or a reading group on Anne Conway, etc.

Less Modest:

A Modern Philosophy Podcast! I love Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Podcast, but I may be retired by the time he gets anywhere near the 18th century. And besides, there is plenty to talk about when it comes to Modern Philosophy. (h/t Timothy Yenter for this idea)

Book Reviews!

A Journal?

And many more!

Ok, so, step one, as mentioned, is for people who are interested to get in touch with me. Membership will be free.

Step two is going to involve the creation of some organizational bureaucracy (I know, super exciting, right?)

We’ll worry about step three when we get there.

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It seems to me that the trend for professional societies, when it comes to History of Modern Philosophy, is societies focused around specific figures (such as the International Hume Society, the North American Kant Society, the International Berkeley Society, to name just a few). I saw some announcement, shortly before the Pacific APA, about plans to organize a Descartes Society.

As a member of the Hume society, my experiences have been strongly positive. The annual conferences are rewarding philosophically, and have given me the chance to meet many great people. Hume Studies is a great journal and a valuable resource for Hume scholars. I could go on, but suffice it to say, I have nothing against figure-specific professional societies.

I think, though, that there might be room for something less specific, as well. I’ve noticed the success of the recently formed “Society for the Philosophy of Agency,” and I wonder if early modernists wouldn’t benefit from something similar. The SPA’s model appears to be based around i) free membership and ii) organizing group-sessions at the APA’s divisional conferences. Now, the Hume Society collects dues, which is part of what enables them to organize international conferences, run a successful journal, and so on. But SPA’s success reveals that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of benefits to people working in the field that wouldn’t require a dues paying membership, or the administrative hassles of organizing free-standing conferences.

There are two main benefits I see from having a society organized more generally around early modern philosophy, rather than only having a number of societies dedicated to individual figures. The first is that it seems like it could help foster interactions between people working on different figures, by creating more opportunities for interaction. I take it this is a relatively straightforward benefit, so I won’t dwell on it.

Second, it can help to overcome the various pressures that push towards the narrowing of the range of figures and topics that are discussed. The Hume Society’s benefits accrue, for the most part, to Hume scholars only. The North American Kant Society’s to Kant scholars. It is great that such benefits and support are available, but if the benefits that there are only accrue to people working on a small sub-set of the figures from the early modern era, the incentives wind up disfavoring work that isn’t on those figures. I could be wrong, but it seems like Hume scholars just have a vastly greater number of opportunities to present work, get feedback, and interact with other scholars compared to, say, Locke scholars. And that’s talking about Locke, who is thought of as a central figure in the early modern period; this is even more pronounced for someone working on figures like Malebranche, Cavendish, Astell, and so on.

My impression is that such a society, even with the modest aims of mostly organizing group sessions at the APA, would help capture some low-hanging fruit in the way of benefits to people working in a wide variety of areas and on a wide variety of figures. If successful, it might make sense down the line to consider expanding beyond those initial aims.

So, I figured i would share this idea with the community to see if other people have any thoughts on this, and/or whether there would be interest in such a society.

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