To some extent, we are bound to read past philosophers in the light of our own philosophical culture, which in turn makes some features of their works apparent to us and others invisible. What we find is shaped by who we are. However, there are many ways in which our existing interests can guide interpretation, and a striking feature of much current history of philosophy is what I shall call its teleological flavour. Although it is rare for commentators to adopt a wholeheartedly teleological approach and explain particular historical events or processes by citing an end to which they contribute, we can detect a teleological flavour when the work of a past philosopher is assessed in the light of contemporary values and praised for anticipating them.--Susan James (2016) Why Should We Read Spinoza? (111)
In her fascinating and characteristically incisive contribution to the recurringly renewed historiographic debates, Susan James cleverly naturalizes so-called teleological or Whig histories and, thereby, provides a kind of error-theory of such Whig history (116). She does so by drawing on Spinoza's philosophy both as the object and the subject of her inquiry. With Spinoza she diagnoses to "two contrasting pleasures" (114) that drive historical research:
There is the anthropological pleasure that historians of philosophy take in the strangeness of the philosophical past and its lack of relation to our own outlooks, an excitement in the discovery of ideas suppressed and paths not taken. On the other hand, there is the satisfaction of recognizing ourselves in earlier traditions, thus sustaining our sense of philosophical continuity and progress. These pleasures are not exclusive (we identify difference as a departure from continuity, and continuity as a departure from difference) and philosophers who engage with the past typically feel the pull of both. But while the anthropological pleasure acts as a brake on teleological interpretation by focusing our attention on rupture and untranslatability, the pleasure of recognition inclines us to view the past in a broadly teleological spirit. To satisfy it, we look to history for anticipations and affirmations of ourselves; and from there it is a short step to explanations and evaluations of the broadly teleological kind that we have so far been examining. (114)
It is pretty clear in what follows that according to James's Spinozism, the pleasure of recognition generates different distortions and even intellectual factions by way of sympathy and antipathy (120). (Strikingly, intellectual factions can be explained purely in psychological terms without appeal to institutions and incentives). These distortions involve "projections" from present to past, and they make us affirm "our own superior outlooks and values." (121) Crucially, our present philosophical "way of life" provides "the happy ending." (122) Susan James offers a creative reading of Spinoza in which such projections and status quo confirmation are "not blameworthy," but, James notes in her concluding sentence, "it is not philosophy." (125) This is a nice reversal of the ordinary dialectic in which the status of contextualist historians as philosophy is sometimes problematized.
As it happens, I am explicitly offered as a recent example of such teleological history (113), although my views are not discussed. She discusses the two Jonathans: Bennett and Israel. Cést la vie. Yet, it is also peculiar, because, as it happens I am also a (methodological) critic of Bennett and Israel. More important, it's also a missed conceptual opportunity, because while all Whig history is too teleological, not all teleological, historically informed 'philosophy' is Whig history.
For, some teleological philosophers turn to history because they want to (i) learn from the past in order to (ii) combat the philosophical status quo. Rather than feeling superior to the past, such historians acknowledge the existence of philosophical insight and expertise unavailable now. Figures from the past, thus, can become (to explicitly use James's Spinozistic framework) exemplars for strategies, content, insight, and ends. Now James is right that relying on such exemplars does not itself constitute being engaged in philosophy.
But James ignores the fact teleological philosophers also try to recover the past for present and even future use. In so doing, teleological philosophers may discover that we already participate in, often unknowingly, in the teleological projects of past philosophers. This allows us to learn something crucial about ourselves and, thereby, to decide, if not legislate, to advance these projects as our own ends or reject them. Now, I am not going to offer a definition of philosophy, but to know oneself and one's historical situation and to be able to choose how to shape its tradition is philosophy enough for me.*