Monday, November 2, 2009

Using ideas from old texts (and a CFP)

I ran across this CFP while foraging for sources... from Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy. The journal offers an interesting perspective on philosophy and the history of philosophy that I thought was worth sharing and offering for discussion. From their Aims and Scopes section:

Taking classical texts seriously as contributions to philosophy primarily implies investigating the truth behind the claims made, or at least enabling the reader to embark on such an investigation. Precisely this is quite often neglected in traditional interpretations, which, however, comes as no surprise: Many historians of philosophy hold that, for the sake of a correct interpretation, questions concerning truth should not be posed, since any interest concerning the truth (or falsehood) of a given classical philosophical text inevitably prevents us from understanding it, i.e. from understanding what was meant by the author. In contrast, we hold that the goal of systematic philosophy of uncovering and substantiating philosophical truths should not be neglected even when investigating the history of philosophy, especially considering that the authors wrote their works with this goal in mind, i.e. out of an interest in the truth. For this reason we should read these texts as potential conveyers of truths, and if (despite benevolent interpretation) this proves to be unfeasible, then as conveyers of falsehoods. In other words, we should view traditional philosophical texts from the outset with an eye to their truth or falsehood, and be prepared to take a stand on this issue. Only in this manner can a lively dialogue with our philosophical past be initiated, and only thus can we properly pay tribute to it.
The same concerns come up with theological work, I think, and perhaps even more so insofar as theology (I would venture to claim) more readily works constructively with texts that are historically more distant. LAHP provides an interesting niche in philosophical work for a reconsideration of texts that might be normally taken as merely having antiquarian usefulness. I don't think that such a logical analysis of historical texts should discount historical work, nor should it discount the usefulness of rather a-historical analytical study. But a helpful balance seems to be struck in this emphasis on logical examination of earlier contributions to philosophy.

My concern would be that anachronistic interaction with old thoughts would do more to obscure than clarify, and I'm sure this will go on often enough. But posterity presumably receives a tradition in order to do something with it, and I'd much prefer a robust dialogue that is adequately critical to separate the inevitable chaff from the (hopefully also inevitable) wheat to the alternative of a complete disuse of old texts. This looks like an interesting journal for pursuing such projects, and I wonder what similar venues might be available for theologians. My sense is that in any of the major theology journals this sort of interaction with past thought is just assumed to be rather normal.


  1. Evan,

    Although I'm not certain about this journal and its connections, it looks like part of a general trend in German philosophy towards analytic methodology, a trend one sees strongly in Ernst Tugendhat, for example (of course even Tugendhat is impressive in his historical range). Andrew Bowie, in his book on German Philosophy (a good introduction), notes some of the complicated historical reasons for this, not the least of which is the perception among many Germans of where "German" philosophy had led Germany; the irony, which I think Bowie notes (it's been a while since I read his book), is that around the same times some Anglophone philosophers were getting fed up with analytic philosophy and turning to the traditions some Germans were escaping from.

    Regarding tradition, the big assumption in your statement "but posterity presumably receives a tradition . . ." is that we have, in fact, received and are receiving a tradition. Analytic philosphers, by and large, are not so receiving.

    There are real problems here that I don't deny; someone like Kant does not appear to think of himself as part of a grand tradition to which he's merely adding his tidbit. The same goes for most systematic philosophers' self-understanding. But this is another, and very complicated, question.

    Regarding theologians: they seem, overall, confused about what they are doing and how it relates to the history of theology. If any generalization about "theologians" is possible and fair, I think this is one of them.

    Hopefully at somepoint I will write a paper on this: I have a perverse paper in mind that juxtaposes Charles Taylor, Robert Brandom, and Lewis Aryes on the question of history and philosophy/theology. . .

  2. Analytic philosophers may claim not to receive a tradition, but of course they are. Be suspicious of claims of novelty. Just because they've convinced themselves of that doesn't mean we have to be convinced.