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Lewis Powell

I tend to be a sort of pluralist about methodology and aims in historical philosophy/history of philosophy.

While my own practice trends anachronistic (or at the very least, the approach that I favor is one that I think sensible to employ when investigating a figure, regardless of whether they are historical or contemporary), I think there are a lot of good projects worth doing, and that differing methodologies make sense, provided the approach someone is employing is fitted to the objectives of their project.

I think that the methodology Adamson seems to be outlining with his rules is certainly a good fit for certain projects, but agree with you that limiting ourselves to that approach would exclude a lot of work that is, truly, *good* historical philosophy.

Samuel Rickless

I'm confused about your Newton example in 1 and sceptical of your comment in 2.

1. a. The question is *why* we are drilled to believe that Newton simply assumes absolute simultaneity. If it's because we think he needs it for some argument he's running, then there is nothing anachronistic about the assumption. It's only if we think he needs it because *we* think it's needed and then project what *we* think onto Newton, that we engage in anachronism.

1. b. I fail to see the benefits of a *policy* of methodological anachronism. Sure, sometimes anachronism will lead to insights. But sometimes getting hit by an apple, or taking a long bike ride, or doing a crossword puzzle, will yield insights. It seems to me that anachronism is at best only *accidentally* linked to insights. Indeed, I would think that anachronism is more likely to mislead than not. One of my favorite (admittedly controversial) cases of anachronism is the claim that Plato could not possibly have thought that the Large is literally large or that Justice is literally just, because these claims do not make sense *to us*. So we should read Plato as not accepting self-predication or as adopting a restricted version of self-predication (it's ok to say that the One is one, e.g.). I just don't see the insight here, nor do I see even the hint of an insight. Of course, this is only one example, but the examples could be multiplied. So why bother with anachronism if it's more likely to get things wrong than it is to give us the insight we need?

2. Yes, historical figures are writing for posterity, but they are ignorant of what we've learned since their deaths (e.g., in science) and they are completely unaware of the new conceptual frames that did not exist during their lifetimes. If what we are interested in is getting them right, then I don't see the point of reading back into their work assumptions that they could not possibly have known (or, in some cases, understood). Of course, we might not be interested in getting Cavendish, or Locke, or Plato, or Wollstonecraft right. We might be interested in using their texts to gain contemporary insights. If *that* is why we read their work, then there is no harm in anachronism. (Perhaps this is what Lewis is getting at with his pluralism talk, I don't know.) But in that case I just don't see work in pursuit of this goal as the history of philosophy any more. Insights *can* be obtained by reading our own presuppositions into contemporary material too. If the history of philosophy means anything, I think, it means accurately capturing what the relevant historical figures were trying to say.

Eric Schliesser

Thank you for useful numbering of your comments.
1a. You should ask Mach, I suppose. I have no idea how this got started.

1b. If methodological anachronism does not work for you, you shouldn't use that recipe. What you are objecting to, by the way, is not methodological anachronism but the principle of charity (which I am also not a big fan of, but Adamson endorses, so your beef is whith him not me)--so your refutation does not even get off the ground (because misdirected).

2. One can write for posterity and know one will be ignorant of what can be learned after. Later readers can know this, too. I have explained how this works in practice in a paper that I link to, but I am certainly not the first to recognize these basic facts. (Your list of what we can do with old texts is not exhaustive, by the way.)

Finally, Sam, thank you for sharing what you think is the history of philosophy. Unfortunately, you don't get to legislate what the "history of philosophy means." I know we disagree over this (and I recognize that our disagreements can easily become unpleasant), but really, you lack that authority.

Lewis Powell


What I mean by pluralism is something like this. There are many questions we could ask about Hume's views on, e.g., space and time in the Treatise:

1) What views about space and time did Hume assert in the Treatise?
2) How do the views about space and time asserted in the Treatise relate to the views about space and time asserted in the Enquiry?
3) How do the views about space and time asserted in the Treatise relate to the views about space and time that were dominant when Hume was writing the Treatise?
4) How did the Treatise's discussion of space and time influence later discussions of space and time?
5) Where does Hume's discussion of space and time in the Treatise fall in a larger narrative of philosophical thought about space and time?
6) Are the arguments offered in the Treatise as supporting the views asserted about space and time arguments that we should find compelling?
7) Are the arguments offered in the Treatise as supporting the views asserted about space and time arguments that fit with the methodological plan of the Treatise?
8) Are the arguments offered in the Treatise as supporting the views asserted about space and time arguments that Hume should have found compelling?
9) What contemporary category of views about space and time would be most appropriate for classifying the views about space and time asserted by Hume in the Treatise?
10) Were Kant's objections to a certain class of views about (ideas of) space and time directed at the views of space and time asserted in the Treatise?
11) Were Kant's objections to a certain class of views about (ideas of) space and time objections that would require someone undertaking the project of the Treatise to worry about?
12) Were Kant's objections to a certain class of views about (ideas of) space and time objections that cause trouble (from our perspective) for the views asserted in the Treatise?
13) Had Hume been familiar with [more recent empirical finding X], would he have asserted different views in the Treatise?
14) Why did Hume assert the views about space and time that he asserted in the Treatise?
15) Did Hume accept the views about space and time that he asserted in the Treatise?

There are a lot more questions, and types of questions, that I could include here, but this range, I think, shows that the sorts of questions we might ask in historical investigations are highly varied. Some of them are straightforward questions about the motivations of persons from history. Some of them are more abstract philosophical questions. Some of them are mixtures of the two. I don't want to oversimplify and suggest there are only two dimensions of variation here, and I think a lot of them are interwoven with each other, but my position is that they differ enough in the sort of question they are asking that it is reasonable to expect variations in the ideal methodology for tackling some of them. Some of those methods would require a great degree of attention to historical context, and others much less so.

Samuel Rickless

Hi Eric,

1b. OK, methodological anachronism doesn't work for me and I don't use it as a recipe for gaining insights. But that's neither here nor there. The question, I take it, is whether there is something good about methodological anachronism (MA) that would justify recommending it to others, as you do. I *think* I am claiming that MA, as you describe it, will mislead more often than it will lead to insights. I really don't know why you think my criticism of MA as a policy is misdirected. I'm reacting to this:

"Rather there is also a good kind of anachronism... what one might call a methodological anachronism. That is one has anachronism self-consciously do work in one's historical-philosophical task. I offer two partial reflections on this: Sometimes one discovers that by exploring what seems like an anachronistic reading of a text, the author or earlier generation of readers hit upon a similar interpretation or run into similar problems. After all (by Adamson's first rule 1), we should allow that good ideas can be rediscovered more than once. Moreover, even if an interpretation is anachronistic it may still lead to very fruitful insights about the conceptual structure of a text."

I take myself to be criticizing what you describe as MA here, namely "having anachronism self-consciously do work in one's historical-philosophical task". I'm not going to repeat my criticisms here. They were stated earlier.

Finally, I'm not sure why you think I'm criticizing the principle of charity. Perhaps I'm criticizing a principle that says that our interpretations should not foist onto historical figures propositions that *we* think are obviously false. But the problem with this version of the principle of charity is that it is anachronistic! On the other hand, if the principle of charity says that our interpretations should not foist onto historical figures propositions that *they* think are obviously false, then I have no beef with this at all. The problem, of course, is to *identify* the propositions that the historical figure takes to be obviously true. If that requires using the principle of charity, then we're off and running in a circle. But this problem is completely different from the problem I was trying to raise in relation to MA.

2. I'm just not understanding how the fact that historical figures write for posterity is supposed to provide us with reason to adopt MA when interpreting their works. Here's one way the argument could go. Historical figures anticipate what we think; so it's reasonable for us to bring our own presuppositions to bear on the interpretation of what they wrote. But if that's the argument, then I reject the premise. Although historical figures write for posterity in the sense that they want to be read and taken seriously by us, they haven't actually anticipated what we think. If you have a different argument for MA based on the fact that historical figures write for posterity, it would be nice to know what it is.

Finally, Eric, I'm not sure why you are accusing me of trying to "legislate" anything. I am not claiming the "authority" to legislate, any more than, I take it, you are claiming the authority to legislate that MA is a good thing when doing the history of philosophy. I am simply stating that, in my view, the method you are describing does not fit with the history of philosophy as I understand the nature of the discipline. What we are disagreeing about are disciplinary boundaries. It happens in life. Moreover, I am not saying that MA (or other ways of reading historical texts) are worthless or useless. Far from it. For example, when I read Kripke on Wittgenstein, there is a part of me that doesn't really care whether Kripke got Wittgenstein right. Kripke's take on Wittgenstein is interesting in its own right. When I read Rawls on Kant, there is a part of me that doesn't really care whether Rawls got Kant right. Rawls' take on Kant is interesting in its own right. In *that* sense, I'm happy with the thousand flowers blooming. I'm also happy for historians of ideas to trace X's ideas to Y's ideas until the cows come home. I'm also happy with using the ideas of the past to write poetry. (I myself am working on a book of limericks about philosophers!) There are many things one can do to and with historical texts. But one of those things is something that I think that I am not the only one to call "the history of philosophy". And, if I have understood this term correctly as it is commonly used by those working in the field, I believe that it refers to a discipline defined by its purpose or function. And I believe that the fundamental purpose of the history of philosophy (which is continuous with the fundamental purpose of history more generally) is to accurately capture what philosophers of the past were trying to say. If that's not what the history of philosophy is, then I am ready to be corrected. But then I think the ball is in your court to tell me what you think it is.

Peter Adamson

Hi, Peter Adamson here! Just want to say firstly, that my main goal with the blog posts was to generate a discussion so I'm now inclined to think, mission accomplished. Thanks to Eric for his reflections.

Second, I agree with a lot of what Sam Rickless says above - in particular it doesn't look to me like point 1 is so much using anachronism usefully as realizing that something which seemed anachronistic wasn't after all. (But maybe you mean, it's something that one would only figure out if one were pretty relaxed about thinking anachronistically?)

Anyway this discussion in general is helpful, because I was in the blog posts helping myself to the thought that anachronism is clearly a bad thing, and having assumed that for the sake of argument was moving on to the question of how to avoid it. I guess that, even if there are sometimes "good" uses of anachronism, one would still want to know how to avoid unintentional anachronisms and I think my "rules" are helpful towards that aim.

However, I also tend to think that if history of philosophy is about anything, it is about understanding historical texts accurately. This, it seems to me, is a prerequisite for then going on to do other things that have been mentioned here, like imagining what a philosopher might say to objections that s/he doesn't explicitly discuss - something I indeed do all the time in my own research. Sure, if you get a philosopher wrong by ascribing to him/her an anachronistic line of thought, then of course that might wind up being useful philosophically in other ways. This is the point made above about it being "accidentally" useful, with the text just serving as an occasion to prompt (possibly unwittingly) original thought. But to me that isn't and shouldn't be the primary goal of history of philosophy. The first goal is to understand the texts, which might be an end in itself (as it is for me) or might be a step towards doing something else afterward, like playing around with the ideas on one's own, comparing them to other ideas from history, etc.

Of course this conception of history of philosophy assumes that there is such a thing as a "correct interpretation," which a lot of people would dispute. But we aren't arguing about that now.

Samuel Rickless

Hi Lewis,

I think there is less pluralism than I think you see. I don't have time to comment on all your questions, but here are a few that will give you some sense of where I am going:

1. To me, this is close to the beginning of the investigation, not the end. Let's take another Hume example with which I am more familiar. What does Hume assert about pity and malice? Answer: Among other things, that they are indirect passions. He also asserts that pity is a kind of grief and malice a kind of joy, and he asserts that grief and joy are direct passions. So we have a puzzle. Hume has asserted things that contradict each other. Do we go home now, because question 1 has been answered? I think not. This is because we want to know whether Hume embraced this contradiction (a la Priest), whether he was confused (having perhaps forgotten what he said about pity and malice early in Book II when he got down to writing about pity and malice later in the book), or whether, on balance, the textual evidence suggests that Hume actually embraced a particular view about pity and malice (as direct passions, the interpretation I favor, or as indirect passions, the interpretation that almost everyone else favors).

2. This is a logical question. It's part and parcel of doing the history of philosophy, but the answer to it too lies at the beginning of the investigation. Suppose, for example, that we find that what Hume asserts about S&T in the Treatise contradicts what he asserts about S&T in the Enquiry. Do we go home now, because question 2 has been answered? I think not. We ask whether, on balance, Hume really embraced one view or the other(s), we ask whether he changed his mind (maybe he received from criticism from a friend, realized that his earlier assertions were wrong, and came up with a slightly different view -- I'm making this up, of course, but you get the idea). See also questions 3, 9, 11, 12.

Both questions 1 and 2, in other words, are in the service of answering questions 14 and 15 (and 8).

Some of your questions are broad (looking at historical sweep), and they will be answered by answering questions about particular historical figures. If we get the figures right, that will answer the question of the larger historical narrative. So if you're interested in the larger historical narrative, you'll need to do your homework on the individual philosophers. All historians are interested, I think, in the larger narrative question. Many recognize that they do not have the expertise to answer the question. But all working historians of philosophy need to answer questions such as 14 and 15 (and 8) in order to get to the larger narrative question.

Some of your questions are contextual (4 and 10). Answering those questions is sometimes needed to answer questions like 14 and 15. For example, if you want to get Kant right, it may help for you to know whether Hume was a target of his. But again, I think that we as historians of philosophy are not interested in 4 and 10 for their own sake. We're interested in them because we want to understand what the figures were trying to say. Here is an example. Berkeley is sometimes read as criticizing Locke when he points out that the mind-dependence of secondary qualities entails the mind-dependence of primary qualities. But, as I would argue, this involves a misunderstanding. Berkeley is not targeting Locke, but rather someone like Galileo instead. If we make a mistake here, we will misread, and this may result in further mistakes down the road, as we try to reconstruct what the relevant philosopher was trying to say.

I don't see pluralism here. What I see are questions that are, as you say, interwoven with each other. Actually, more than this, I see the questions as hierarchically organized towards a particular end. (In order to answer question X we need to answer question Y, and so on.) What this means, in practice, is that the good historian of philosophy needs to be good at answering different kinds of questions (using the methods appropriate to answering them). For example, she needs to be a good reader (looking at trees, clumps of trees, and forests), she needs a very good understanding of logic, and she (often) needs a good amount of historical background knowledge. All of this will enable her to answer the ur-question, which is "what was so-and-so trying to say?"

Eric Schliesser

Sam, I wrote a new post to respond to many of the issues you raise. But I do want to say something, in brief, about what you appear to find most difficult to grasp (the best thing would be if you read my paper or blog posts on philosophical prophecy), that is, on the significance that past authors write for posterity. Some of their writings structure the way we think such that we work within conceptual boundaries they set for us. (Hobbes's fiction of the state of nature works this way.) That we do this is contingent fact. But if we do it then we are stuck with a whole bunch of forced-conceptual-moves, the contours of which are, say again, foreseeable, perhaps to Hobbes, but certainly to many of us writing later working out the details of state of nature and social contract thinking. If we then go back to Hobbes's texts, we may find that, if we use hard-won insights of later generations as methodological anachronism, that we can disclose tacit or even explicit distinctions or conceptual moves that earlier readers found it hard to discern in Hobbes.

Lewis Powell


1. I think of philosophy in general as a fundamentally social endeavor. Not that one can't do some philosophy by themselves, for themselves, but that the practices of paper writing and publishing, and instruction, etc., all seem to rely on the practice of philosophy as a collective, collaborative project. Just as we don't expect every practicing scientist's activities to be such that they could stand alone as adequate to the overall project of that science, we should not expect or demand that every individual philosophy paper in a given field is a stand-alone reproduction of the overall aims of the field.

Some folks do work that focuses more on, and advances, intellectual history and the history of ideas, in terms of crafting overarching narratives and situating thinkers within them. Some folks to do work that focuses more on detailed textual exegesis of particular works. Some folks do work that focuses more on critical interpretation of the positions advanced by historical figures. Some folks do work that focuses more on evaluating the objections one historical philosopher offered against another.

2. Part of my pluralism involves respecting the interrelationships among these projects, and realizing that someone who is primarily doing the critical interpretive work should be aware of, and attend to, the related work concerning the broader historical narrative, and vice versa.

3. I also disagree with you about the ur-question status of "what was so-and-so trying to say?" In the story you presented about our interest in these questions, you treat the other inquiries as instrumental for helping us answer that question, which, at least, for purposes of this story, is supposed to be non-instrumentally sought after. I think that "what did so-and-so actually say?" and "what would have been the best thing for so-and-so to have said?" are important focal points for investigations, and not merely because they instrumentally advance our ability to answer your proposed ur-question (though they might have that instrumental value as well).

Some people regard your proposed ur-question as valuable instrumentally, because if we figure out what smart historical people said, we will be in a position to recognize some of the truths they discovered that were overlooked. That's not quite my outlook, because it requires too much focus on figuring out whether what the historical figure said was true, and I think that such focus on whether the view is true is a bit of a red herring. Even taking for granted that Hume's views on a given topic are wrong, I think there is still value in investigating and coming to understand what Hume argued. But I also resist the line of thought that the ends of our inquiry are simply to answer the question "what did these people say?" I think questions like "why did they say it?", "should they have said it?", and so on, are not merely instrumental for helping us get to the question of what was said. As well as questions like, "Does what they said fit easily into contemporary classifications? if not, why not?"

4. I think something I can say can help elaborate why I am more sanguine about anachronism than you and Peter seem to be. I regard Hume as a thinker who was, in many ways, ahead of his time. I am not sure that the views Hume sought to express always fit neatly into the categorization schema operating during his time. (This goes for almost any figure we might study, I should note). It is possible that too much familiarity with historical context would prime us to overlook the places where Hume's views chafe at the early modern boxes into which such views are often slotted. Sometimes reading the text anachronistically can help us employ a different set of boxes to try and categorize Hume's views, and then, we might be in a better position to advance our understanding of which box is a better fit for the views that Hume expressed.

David Wallace

I'd be interested (if it's not derailing) to hear more about Newton and absolute simultaneity. My naïve (and wildly anachronistic) first thought is that he's going to need it on technical grounds: he's got a force law that involves instantaneous action at a distance. So to work out the gravitational force on Earth due to Mars, someone on Earth needs to know where Mars is *now*. (Put another way, relativity gets by without absolute simultaneity because it only has locally propagating forces.)

("Read the paper!" would be a legitimate response, of course.)

Eric Schliesser

Yes, in the (first edition of the) Principia, Newton requires that events are simultaneous through the solar system. He treats the solar system as a closed system (moving through space with the 'fixed stars' providing a coordinate system). But strictly speaking he makes no claims about what happens beyond the solar system (what in the paper I call a 'temporal frame'). In the paper I provide some evidence that Newton could and even did allow that different laws operated in other worlds. I argue that that he gets pushed into really absolute simultaneity because of some of his theological commitments (and also his developing methodology of pushing the scope of his claims as far as possible so as to learn of deviations from the established regularities).

David Wallace

Got it, thanks. (That "developing methodology", of course, is absolutely characteristic of modern physics.)

Eric Schliesser

Yes, and the developing methodology is itself one of the great achievements of the Principia (and something that Newton himself recognized ever more clearly through the three editions--this we recognize due to the work of George Smith and Bill Harper).

Samuel Rickless

Hi Lewis,

It's fun to think about all of this. Thanks to you (and to Eric and Peter) for the lively exchange. I've got to get busy doing some work, so this will probably be my last post here (at least for a while). If you and others keep going with the discussion, I look forward to reading it!

1. I too think of the history of philosophy (and philosophy generally) as a social endeavor, but only contingently so. In principle, it might be possible for someone working alone to figure it all out. In practice, that's impossible. So, we all need each other, and that actually enriches the experience, I think, for all practicing historians. Like you, I don't believe that every paper in the history of philosophy needs to reproduce the overall aims of the field. For example, if someone unearths a new letter or a new journal and, as a result of painstaking historical and archival work, explains why it should be attributed to philosopher X, that's great. A good example of this is the work of Monte Johnson and Doug Hutchinson on the Protrepticus. But I don't think that *historians of philosophy* are interested in the discovery of a work of Aristotle's *for its own sake*, any more than they are interested in the discovery of a lost Vermeer. They are interested in the Protrepticus inasmuch as it might shed some light on Aristotle's views.

Now consider crafting a narrative and situating thinkers within it. I think that's great, but I also think that it is not a *necessary* feature of doing the history of philosophy. (I'm sure you agree.) Still, those who craft such narratives I think will agree that they are pretty worthless unless they get the individual historical figures right. For example, suppose that I write a history of philosophy framed by the supposition that Descartes is a skeptic, because he raises some skeptical arguments in the First Meditation. Later, I realize that Descartes is not a skeptic. (Perhaps I read the end of the Meditations.) When this happens, I need to go back and correct my narrative. My thesis here is that the value of any narrative account depends on whether its interpretations of the views of the historical figures in it are accurate.

Now consider detailed textual exegesis. That's just part of what I see as central to the discipline. Again, with the aim of getting the author's views straight.

Now consider critical interpretation of the positions advanced by historical figures. This involves both interpretation (see above) and criticism. Let's focus on the criticism. I think of this as something that historians of philosophy can and often do, but I do not believe that it is part of the discipline of the history of philosophy. I think that when we do this, we are veering into contemporary philosophizing. Suppose, for example, that I do a lot of work to figure out what Kant's categorical imperative is and how it should be applied. So far, I am doing Kant interpretation, trying to get Kant right. When I'm done, I step back from my labors and ask myself whether Kant was right. I start thinking about counterexamples to the CI (I wonder, for example, whether it can take care of maxims of violence -- I myself got deeply interested in this in grad school, immersing myself in Korsgaard, O'Neill, Herman, Timmons, and others on the subject). Now it seems to me that I have left the history of philosophy *proper* and I am simply doing contemporary philosophy. The project in which I am engaged is no longer the project of getting this or that philosopher right. I am trying to get at the truth. Please note that I am trying to distinguish between disciplines, and I am not saying that those who work in one should not work in the other. Far from it.

Now consider evaluating the objections one historical figure offered against another. I think of this much like I think of evaluating a particular figure's position on some issue. Take another example. As a historian of philosophy, I am interested in Elisabeth's objections to Descartes, or Cockburn's criticisms of Burnet's criticisms of Locke, or..... I want to know what Elisabeth's objections *are*, I want to get Elisabeth *right*. If she were here right now, I would want her to say in response to reading my interpretation: "Yes, that's right, those are my criticisms." Whether Elisabeth's objections are good or bad is just not part of my project. Now I step back, after painstaking exegesis, and I ask myself whether Elisabeth has the better of Descartes in the exchange. Now I'm doing philosophy proper. (One qualification: There is such a thing as evaluating an exchange or set of criticisms dialectically. By this, I mean figuring out whether the rational thing, given his own presuppositions, is for Descartes to accept Elisabeth's criticisms and abandon his account of mind and body. That's a different project, which, like the narrative project, I think of as part of the history of philosophy, but not a *necessary* feature of the discipline. Again, though, in order to ask this question, we need to have answered the necessary questions, which concern the nature of Elisabeth's objections and the nature of Descartes's responses.)

2. Again, I agree that the projects are interrelated. But I think of the main project as the one of getting the authors right. Some offshoots of those projects (such as crafting narratives and dialectically evaluating positions and arguments) are also part of the discipline, but they are not necessary features of it. I am not saying that those who do exegetical work should not look at narratives. Far from it. What I am saying is that the narratives themselves are only as good as the exegetical work that went into them (see above).

3. Let's break this down a bit. There is the question (Q1) "what did X say?" and the question (Q2) "What was X trying to say?" I think of Q1 as pretty uninteresting in itself. Its value lies in whether answering it can help us answer Q2. Take Hume. What did Hume say about pity? That it is an indirect passion, that it is a kind of sorrow at another's pain, that sorrow is a direct passion. Ok, but now what? That was pretty simple. All I had to do was read the relevant sentences in the Treatise. (Of course, it can be much harder to determine what Plato or Arete of Cyrene said. Maybe the texts we have include copying errors, maybe we have no texts, and only reports of what was said!) What I really want is the answer to Q2. Maybe I want to go on to write a history of the theory of pity and I want Hume to play a role in my narrative. But in order for that to happen, I have to get Hume right.

Now let's look at Q3: "what would have been the best thing for X to have said?" I think this question is incomplete. Best, by what standard? I take it you are assuming something like this. Suppose we find a contradiction in what X said: P1, P2 and P3 are mutually inconsistent. What we can then ask is, what would do the least damage to X's philosophical system: give up P1, give up P2, or give up P3? This is an interesting question, but it is an outgrowth of the central task of the history of philosophy, which is getting an answer to Q2. In other words, I am happy for historians to consider this question, but it is not something that they need to be doing.

4. I am not trying to argue that we should be busy categorizing philosophers in the boxes available to them at the time. Was Mill a direct consequentialist or an indirect consequentialist? Was he an act-utilitarian or a rule-utilitarian (or something else)? Those are perfectly good questions, questions that were not asked in his time. Employing boxes developed at a later time to understand the views of a philosopher working at an earlier time (when those boxes did not exist) need not be anachronistic. I think you are working with a much broader understanding of anachronism than I am working with. The central case of anachronism, for me, is importing one's own presuppositions about what is true or obvious into the process of interpretation. (This is distinct from Eric's methodological anachronism.) Here's another favorite example of mine. Some of us think it's true (even obvious) that objects don't lose their colors in the dark. Now we read Locke, who appears to say (at Essay 2.8.19) that it is plain that porphyry has no color in the dark. In the past (less so now, I think), philosophers coming upon this text thought (probably not consciously) to themselves: "There is no way that someone as smart as Locke would have thought that objects lose their colors in the dark. It's obvious to me that objects keep their colors in the dark, and surely Locke recognized this too. So let's see what we can do to reinterpret the text. Oh, look! Locke also says that porphyry no longer produces the ideas of red and white in us when the lights are turned off. It's perfectly consistent with this that objects keep their colors in the dark. So that's what he must have meant when he wrote that porphyry has no color in the dark." This is what I think of as a paradigm case of anachronism, and I believe that it should be strenuously avoided.

Gabriel Ferreira

Dear Eric,

Thank you so much for this series of posts on anachronism in history of philosophy. Unfortunately I've found them only now, even after my reading of some chapters of "Philosophy and its history", which was recommended last year in a talk with Guillaume Fréchette. Anyway, long story short I'm interested in 19th after-Hegel century philosophy in general and in Kierkegaard (and his relations to such wider background). But, it also happens I am into contemporary metaphysics and Ontological Pluralism, so on an so forth. What motivates me to write this commentary is that I've started to "use" as a good "toolkit" Brandom's approach, mainly his distinction between "De Dicto" and "De Re" inferences — without necessarily buying all his inferentialist stuff — in order to "draw" some Kierkegaard's ontological commitments (another anachronism?) having the contemporary ontological monism X pluralism debate as a background, in the spirit of you example above (departing from the texts, what Leibniz would say about S4...).

Well, since I am very, very sympathetic to your approach to "anachronism", I would like to ask your opinion on Brandom's approach, mainly as described in "Tales of the Mighty Dead", as a took for history of philosophy.

All the best.

Eric Schliesser

Hi Gabriel,
Thank you for your kind comments. It's been a while since I looked seriously at Brandom, so take what follows with grain of salt. But I see him in these papers as creating a tradition to which he then contributes. I have no objection against the project of tradition creation--even if that tradition leads up to you. I think Brandom is pretty clear that such engagement with the tradition is also constitutive of philosophy as such.
It sounds like you want to use tools developed by Brandom within his project (or made familiar to you through engagement of his project) to elucidate characters in light of your interests. That's fine by me, although the question is if the tools you use really help elucidate the historical sources, or end up treating the sources as a means to say what you want to say anyway.
I am not sure was clear or helpful.

Gabriel Ferreira

Thank you for your answer, Eric. Yes, you were clear and helpful and brought another distinction I would like to elaborate a little bit (In advance, please don't feel pushed to answer or engaging once again), which is, the difference between using those tools to (1) "elucidate the historical sources and (2) using them to say what one wants to. In order to make myself clearer, I will have to get a little bit into what I have in mind. In a sketchy way, consider these propositions:

(P1) God does not exist, he is eternal (CUP1, p. 332 / SKS 7, 303);
(P2) A human being exists (Tilværelse) (CUP1, p. 332 / SKS 7, 303);
(P3) Ideas have a thought-existence (Tanke realitet) which is neither human’s existence (CUP1, p. 329 / SKS 7, 301);
(P4) nor a physical object’s way of being (CUP1, p. 330-331 / SKS 7, 301)
(P5 De dicto paraphrase) There are irreducible different modes of being;
(P6 – Interpreter´s claim) A philosopher who assumes there are irreducible different modes of being believes that ontological pluralism is true;
(P7 De Re) Kierkegaard believes that ontological pluralism is true.

P1-P4 were extracted from Kierkegaard's primary texts. P5 is a De Dicto paraphrase in the way Brandom presents it in TMD. P6 is the interpreter's (me) claim (from McDaniel's book "The fragmentation of being") and P7 is what Brandom calls a De Re inference, which means, an inference made after a context (here, P6) provided by the interpreter which makes explicit what logically follows from a given proposition (or a set of them), even when the author himself wouldn't acknowledge it.

Now, having your distinction in mind, one can accuse the interpreter of committing an anachronism, since in 19th century the very notion of "Ontological Pluralism" didn't exist (of course, I'm not talking about the philosophical stance, but of the expression itself). However, the interpreter could argue that he is doing nothing else than (1). In fact, when McDaniel presents OP he provides a long historical list of OPs like Aquinas, Frege, Meinong, Husserl, Heidegger etc. And from the interpreter's point of view, evaluating Kierkegaard's ontological stance can be useful and philosophically relevant for many reasons. However, as far as I can see, one can ALWAYS accuse the interpreter of (2) when he makes De Re inferences. Hence, what criteria one can have in order to clearly differentiate (1) and (2) when it comes to such inferences?

Once again, thank you for the conversation and sorry for the long post.

Eric Schliesser

Ah, I see.
I think sometimes the difference between (1) and (2) is difficult to articulate.
Sometimes one can show that a historical character has a concept even though one does not use the same terminology. For example, I am persuaded that Spinoza is working with (a variant(s) of) the PSR, even though he does not the term.
Sometimes, one is interested in a historical character in virtue of one's own project (2), and by trying to engage with him/her in light of it, one discerns all kinds of features of the historical character. For example, we now are asking questions about, say, sex & gender that can lead to all kinds of interesting discoveries in (1). For example, in his commentary in Plato's Republic, Ibn Rushd very clearly has an account how genders are constructed.
But sometimes the historical record does not really answer to our questions, but still allows us to develop interesting ideas.
On your example, I think it would be interesting to see the status of P6 explored in the historical record. If it is debated or implicitly challenged anywhere.
I hope this helps.

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