And, herein lies, I think, one of the great things about doing philosophy through historical figures like Leibniz. Whilst it’s very hard to leave your ego at home, there is less personal at stake when trying to discuss what you think Leibniz thought about x than when trying to say what you think about x. For one thing, everyone knows deep down, it would be crazy to think that they understood Leibniz an sich, and, for another, we all know he was a lot better at philosophy that we will ever be! And yet the joy of thinking philosophically is ever present.--Paul Lodge.
If I am granted the (extremely) controversial claim that studying Leibniz is no different than studying any other canonical, and would be canonical, author,* then in the quoted passage from Paul Lodge, one can read (at least) four claims about being a historian of philosopher:
- One's ego is less involved in studying a canonical philosophy than philosophizing directly.
- The people we study are "a lot better at philosophy" than "we will ever be."
- It is nearly impossible to fully understand a canonical philosopher.
- Being a historian of philosophy is a joyful activity.
Claim (1) will come as a surprise to those only focused on the often minute squabbles among historians of philosophy. Even so, there is an important element of truth to (1). This is not because historians of philosophy are by nature less ego driven or vain -- Schliesser is exhibit A to the contrary --, but because part of the training of becoming a historian of philosophy is a disciplined bracketing of one's ego. For, whatever one's ultimate goal(s) in being (momentarily) a historian of philosophy (and there are huge disagreements over this), an attempt to grasp another thinker(s)'s text is a key part of it. One central benefit of this disciplined exercise in understanding another is to become self-aware of one's presuppositions that one brings to the text. When historians of philosophy complain about anachronism, what they really worry about is the unthinking, un-methodical, even unconscious imposition of the reader's thought-world onto the text. This unconscious thought-world is a whole series of expectations about how words, concepts, meanings, terminologies, grammar, values, as well as political and cultural practices (etc.) relate to each other. We can become aware of such hard to detect expectations of our ego, when we systematically confront utterances by others that do not fit our expectations in usual even uncanny ways.
So, the historian of philosophy is increasingly skilled at being self-ware of central, usually hidden, features of her own ego while she gets increasingly skilled at entering into another person's text. So, the disciplined student of the history of philosophy is following the Delphic injunction to know herself. Along the way she learns to 'bracket' her own ego in the midst of grasping the text of another. In practice, this 'bracketing' of one's ego is always imperfect, which is why, say, the writings of historians of philosophy tend to reflect the ruling fashions of the generations of their teachers (give or take). Either way, one way to understand Lodge's claim is to see that when one philosophizes 'directly' (without mediation of historical texts) the hidden life of one's ego is, even if one has a naturally modest nature, not as systematically bracketed all else being equal. In practice, of course, all else is not equal, and there are lots of other philosophical and social practices that can generate some such bracketing of one's ego (say disciplined by formal technologies, or by dissonances through one's cultural back-ground, etc.). Having granted that last point, so many of the worst social incentives in philosophy reward the hyper-projection of one's ego onto metaphysical or social reality; the previous sentence is not as cryptic as it sounds. Here's a small example: status in our discipline tracks rapid come-backs, witty put-downs, and bold conjecture (backed up with plausible enough systematic analysis); we rarely reward, in our public esteem, sympathetic colleagues that are incredibly good at listening to another and bringing out the best feature of their interlocuter's views. (Obviously, when we are drafting a paper we very much appreciate having the sympathetic colleague.) Being trained as a historian of philosophy is to be trained into becoming a sympathetic colleague. (Again, this is compatible with the further thought that a historian of philosophy is uncouth, listens to bad pop music, a jerk, etc.)