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Samuel Rickless

Thanks for these interesting comments, Eric. I don't have time right now to discuss any of this in depth. For now, just two clear and simple reactions. First, I am baffled at your claim that my approach has religious origins. That's just false. Maybe you see some sort of analogy between divining authorial intent and divining God's will, but it doesn't follow from this that my approach has religious origins. Second, I believe that it is straightforwardly false that on my view Michael Della Rocca doesn't do history of philosophy. Della Rocca might have *other* interests *in addition to* getting Spinoza (and other philosophers) right, such as getting at the truth. But, unless he corrects me, I am going to assume (based on reading his work) that much of it is dedicated to getting historical figures right, in which case he's definitely doing history of philosophy.

Peter Adamson

Thanks for the further thoughts Eric! So at the end of my comment on your last blog, I said, "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." And what I was alluding to was the sort of worry you raise here, albeit not with such specificity as you lay it out.

You're right to suspect that I was deliberately avoiding talking about figuring out what an author was actually consciously thinking as he/she wrote, since I would like to leave room open for other ways of discerning what is going on in a text (e.g. unintentional betrayals of things the author thinks deep down, or unconscious reminiscences of other texts they know very well). However I think Sam is largely right anyway, since most of the time historians of philosophy can unproblematically imagine themselves trying to understand what the author wishes to say. You pick rather leading examples by mentioning Plato and Nietzsche, who are maybe the two most "literary" authors in the history of philosophy. Which is great, but that's one reason it is insanely complicated and difficult to read and work on them. (I have only published a little on Plato and it always comes very hard, precisely because he seems to anticipate and undercut anything you might want to suggest about the text.) A lot of the time though you are reading texts that much more straightforwardly lay out arguments for theses - not always with the Euclidean relentlessness of Proclus' "Elements" or Spinoza, but still one usually feels one is trying to follow an explicit chain of argument.

As for the broader issue that texts may simply have no fixed meaning we can get at, I realize one doesn't need to be steeped in Derrida to think this. It may indeed seem rather simplistic and naive to say to oneself, "ok, there is one right answer to the question 'what does this text mean?' and I'm out to find it." But one doesn't, I think, go too far wrong if one thinks of a text as having a range of possible interpretations, some of which are at least much more satisfying and convincing than others. And that is pretty close to just trying to get the text "right", for all practical purposes.

Once you get down to the nitty gritty of interpreting a text in a reading group, say, you are going to hold yourself and others to the standard of offering interpretations that "make sense" of the text. To take an extreme example, if you have been arguing that you can take a philosopher to be holding position P, and then someone points out to you that on a nearby page the philosopher says not-P, it would be ridiculous to say "oh, but P is such an interesting claim, so I don't particularly care."

Maybe what this boils down to is that history of philosophy, while it is very philosophical, is genuinely a kind of history too. We are not just trying to jog loose insights of our own, we are trying to understand historical documents. I would have no objection to people reading Aristotle, or whoever, to get inspiration for their own ideas -- even reading him very closely for this purpose. This could be a fun, worthwhile, philosophically satisfying and useful thing to do, for sure. But if they ultimately aren't that bothered about offering an interpretation of the text that is supposed to help us understand that text (which is what my rules are intended to help us do), I'm not so sure that they are really doing history of philosophy.

By the way a lot of what you're describing here (like, following the way that Plato was read by later Platonists), or thinking of a philosopher as writing for posterity (a great point by the way) fits dead center in my conception of the history of philosophy, as far as I can see. It just means you are looking at a wider range of texts and thinking about their joint meaning and interpretation because you are taking into account their interrelation. Actually that's probably the sort of history of philosophy I am most interested in, I'm not much for focusing on one text to the exclusion of thinking about what influenced it and was influenced by it.

Eric Schliesser

Peter, yes, I argue that thinking about what you nicely call 'joint meaning' of different texts is often key to the significance of the history of philosophy. (Mogens Laerke has written very insight-fully about methods that might disclose such joint meaning.)

Michael Mirer

As someone looking at this conversation from outside the bounds of institutional philosophy, I have to wonder how much this conversation gains from the idea that doing the history of philosophy is distinct from other areas of historical inquiry in more than just subject matter. That is to say,should those interested in working in the history of philosophy look at the work and methods of people working in, say, the history of ideas, or intellectual history,(apparently distinct modes of inquiry) or even literary and cultural history?

To be clear, I don't think any of the above conversation dismisses such pluralism, but the lack of cross-pollination between these circles does seem curious to me (but again, I may simply be ignorant).

Also, Peter Gordon's essay introducing students to Intellectual History (here: http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/history/files/what_is_intell_history_pgordon_mar2012.pdf) although clearly addressed towards undergrads and grad students, might be of interest at least insofar as it offers some insight into the different critical assumptions of different schools.

Eric Schliesser

Michael, Adamson explicitly appeals to work done in philology, so there is quite a bit of shared methods with other historical enterprises in his work. Moreover, I point to the views of Laerke, Smith, Goldenbaum amongst others and all of them advocate drawing on methods and results of other disciplines, including anthropology, intellectual history, and archeology. So, I think if you allowed yourself to investigate further, you may be surprised by what you find.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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