There's clearly opportunity for some bountiful fruit in this pairing. But I think there's also a tendency to dwell on skirmishes between "historical" and "constructive" work, and I think that doing so can be unhelpful as often as it can be corrective. Beyond being unhelpful, it can be downright obstructive for people who are interested in bridging the gap and doing work that's both historical and constructive.
My sense is that these skirmishes can take a few different forms.
- Sometimes there's a criticism made by historians that constructive thinkers don't know their history. When this is blatantly true and symptomatic of academic sloppiness, I find the critique a fair one to make. But it's also important to remember that there is constructive work to be done- that sometimes a thinker just isn't interested in an exhaustive account of past thought. I take this to be the case for work that usually receives the label of "ahistorical" (usually as a pejorative). Now, I tend to be as critical of analytical work without historical perspective as the next person. But I think there's a point at which we can reasonably grant some room for a person to try their hand with some raw materials. It's not as if they're hurting anyone, and it's not as if their work won't eventually be subsumed into the scrutiny of the wider history of intellectual discourse. Better to let a thousand flowers bloom.
- Sometimes "you don't know your history" simply means "we have a dispute about how to interpret the history, or how to apply it in a way that constitutes faithfulness to some norm, about which we also probably have a dispute." This gets back to a point I brought up last year about various political "Augustinianisms". As soon as one seeks to employ thoughts that were originally thought by others, there will likely be a dispute about how to receive and employ these thoughts. My sense is that in purely historical work one should attempt to accurately reflect what an historical figure was probably thinking and attempting to do. But when an idea enters into the realm of tradition, it becomes exposed to public use insofar as it's useful. That is, the claims of a person to their thoughts in the original context they were thought are not sacred.
- On the other hand, and perhaps as a mirror to the first bullet point, constructive thinkers shouldn't dismiss purely historical work as of purely antiquarian interest. We use our editions of the Summa Theologiae and other texts to our own peril if we don't recognize how much of the scholarly iceberg sits underwater. I think it would do any constructive theologian some good to poke around in some of the journals of monastic history, or medieval Latin paleography journals, in order to get a flavor of the sort of legwork necessary to bring us the texts that we use, more likely than not, in conversation with 20th century thomists rather than the 13th century context for which they were originally written. This doesn't mean that a constructive theologian needs to become an historical expert on the period from which she draws her intellectual material, but it does mean that some attention to this literature will be beneficial. In fact it will better allow a person to appropriate old material for present purposes, because a sense of the historical gaps (and continuities) will be better developed.
If it were impossible to find stimulating communities of inquiry with which to challenge oneself, I might be more inclined to embrace the critical spirit. But at a certain point one needs to recognize that when naysayers reach a critical mass, they prove their own thesis (that the state of the field is confused or misguided) wrong by their very presence as a bunch of scholars who supposedly know better. At which point it seems to me most advisable to get back to the task of research and try not to pay too much attention to unedifying academic skirmishes.