“[T]hat the crux of a philosopher’s doctrine is to be found in those passages where he defends an unpopular thesis; his defense of accepted theses has no informational value,”—Attributed to Malebranche by Catherine Wilson [Wilson’s Dictum]
There is a point of diminishing returns in efforts to unearth or to reconstruct a philosopher's views about matters that he or she does not address directly and at some length. Such efforts may display impressive learning about the books a philosopher is likely to have read, about the ideas that were in the air when he or she wrote, but they generate conclusions that must be regarded as highly tentative. That is because the philosophers who demand our attention are precisely those who do not simply absorb influences and transmit them to posterity.—Matthew Stuart, (p. vii)
A discordant note creeps into an otherwise generous review by Ben Hill of Matthew Stuart, Locke's Metaphysics (Oxford 2013): “Stuart is also disappointingly dismissive of contextualist analysis…Stuart's analyses would have benefited in several places from paying more attention to the historical context…” Hill then attaches a footnote to the paragraph from Stuart’s text quoted above. I have not yet read Stuart’s book. Intrigued, I wrote Hill and he responded with material that I quote below (with permission).
Now, in context, the quoted paragraph from Stuart is intended to defend the choice of topics and he uses a proportionality thesis: “I devote my attention proportionally to the topics to which Locke devotes his.” (vii) Hill is not objecting to this proportionality thesis. The proportionality thesis is reasonable, but it may in some cases show a lack of judgment for (at least) two reasons: (i) contemporary or future readers might benefit from disproportionate attention to some topics rather than other topics. That is to say, slavish adherence to the proportionality thesis avoids making judgments about one’s own philosophical landscape; so, it is curious to see somebody defend the idea that there are philosophers that “demand our attention,” but then pretend that acceding to this demand is disconnected from our interests and judgments.
There is a second, more significant reason to reject the proportionality thesis. It is often a terrible guide to the relative historical significance of the material under review even by the lights of the author that “demands” one’s attention. As Wilson’s Dictum (see the epigraph above) suggests, what matters is when an author defends an unpopular thesis. If the thesis is really unpopular she may do so very briefly. This is not esotericism; Wilson’s Dictum applies to the explicit text. Of course, some positions are deservedly unpopular, but if an author under study is willing to embrace an unpopular position this is, especially when one deals with a systematic thinker, often very telling about a whole range of other commitments. In fact, sometimes a historical author calls attention to his awareness that the proportionality thesis may be misleading; here’s Adam Smith: “Seneca, though a Stoic, the sect most opposite to that of Epicurus, yet quotes this philosopher more frequently than any other,” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments)!