I hope you’ll indulge a bit of a swerve this week.
As I hope you’ve sensed, one of the animating convictions of my work as a philosopher is that the constructive work of contemporary philosophy is inseparable from an ongoing engagement with the history of philosophy. To “do philosophy” is to carry on a conversation that started long before us. In the same way, to “do” the history of philosophy is not simply an antiquarian endeavor, toying with ideas embedded in amber; the history of philosophy is itself a philosophical endeavor. These twin convictions inform the range of forays I’m trying to present in this newsletter, so I thought it might be helpful to unpack this approach.
It’s also an opportunity to undertake something of a service to the profession by summarizing key theses from a generative article by Jean-Luc Marion that (to my knowledge) has not yet been translated into English. In 1999 Marion published an essay that significantly shaped my own thinking: “Quelques règles en l’histoire de la philosophie,” in Les Etudes Philosophiques 4:495-510. Marion both crystallized some of my own rumbling intuitions about these matters and inspired my own approach at the beginning of my career. Marion is himself an exemplar in this regard. His corpus includes seminal contributions to the history of philosophy (particularly on Descartes and Husserl), as well as original contributions to phenomenology and metaphysics. It’s impossible to imagine one without the other.
The history of philosophy is philosophical; good (“constructive”) philosophy is historical
First and foremost, I think it is important to understand the relationship between philosophy, or what I would prefer to call “constructive philosophy”, and the history of philosophy as both (1) symbiotic and (2) reciprocal. By “symbiotic,” I mean that there is a certain seamless relationship between grappling with the history of philosophical thought and constructively advancing philosophy: the one cannot happen without the other. To state the relationship positively, an understanding of the history of philosophy contributes to one’s understanding of philosophy. Thus, they are reciprocal. This, I think, is one of the weakness of contemporary practice in analytic philosophy which is given to a kind of idealistic temptation to treat philosophy as an ahistorical puzzle-solving.
In this preface to On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism, Marion emphasizes the generative reciprocity of philosophy and its history (as a discipline) by distinguishing it from something like “intellectual history” or what in France is known as “the history of ideas” (Foucault’s field, by the way), which purports to grant a neutral account of how ideas and concepts develop from the perspective of an observer. But in philosophy, Marion emphasizes, this is dangerous: one cannot engage in the history of philosophy without an investment in, and experience of, philosophy. “In order to interpret a text of philosophy, whether by another author or from the distant past or from another culture, one must always already have come to philosophy itself in one form or another” (p. xi). Thus, not only can one avoid bringing philosophical commitments to bear on the history of philosophy, they are necessary in order for historical interpretation to be fruitful.
But while an experience of philosophy is necessary for interpreting the history of philosophy, the reverse is also true in this reciprocal relation: philosophy itself is historical. “Not only does the history of philosophy imply a philosophical experience,” he continues, “but, reciprocally, philosophy always implies, in each moment of its evolution, a reappropriation of its history” (ibid.).
Finally, the history of philosophy pursued most “authentically,” we might say, is in fact deeply contemporary; that is, the history of philosophy is not antiquarian but rather pursued with constructive ends. This is not to say that we should reduce the history of philosophy to contemporary concerns, or anachronistically impose our own questions and agendas on the past in ways that do injustice to the original context.
The hermeneutics of charity: understanding before criticism
In “Quelques règles en l’histoire de la philosophie,” Marion offers several guidelines for work in the history of philosophy. The philosopher of history, he argues, must exhibit certain virtues, first and foremost “honesty” (l’honnêteté), which can be understood as a “principle of charity.” We must approach the texts of the past with a hermeneutic “benefit of the doubt” and interpretive charity which attempts to understand a philosopher on his/her own terms, in his/her own context, allowing them to speak for themselves. As a hermeneutic rule, we must come to the text in “good faith.” This does not preclude critique, but in fact makes such critique more authentic, since we will not be dissecting only “straw men.”
The correlate of a principle of charity is “the renunciation of every ideology.” But if, as above, we have argued that one can and must come to the history of philosophy with philosophical commitments, how can we renounce “ideology” at the same time? Not all commitments are ideological. Commitments become ideological, Marion suggests, when they are not open to revision or challenge—when they become sedimented and now function as “blinders” (perhaps “dogmatism” is another way to describe this). Commitments, on the other hand, are necessary, inescapable, and enabling, but should also be open to revision and challenge. So an “ideological” reading of the history of philosophy will tend to see only what it wants to see and what is predetermined by the ideology, whereas a “committed” reading of the history of philosophy will provide a lens or means of access which, in the end, might be revised. Twenty years on, given our habits of mind today, Marion’s caution seems prescient and pressing.
Like any basic hermeneutic task, the historian of philosophy must be attentive to context. We should understand this in two senses, however: first, a socio-cultural milieu in which a philosopher’s thought develops, and second a more properly philosophical context.
As Marion emphasizes, we cannot divorce philosophy or a philosopher—nor the history of philosophy—from the history of other disciplines and the historical context of the philosopher. In other words, we need to consider the socio-political context of a philosopher. For example, how could one really understand Kant without considering the Enlightenment context of his work? In addition, the history of philosophy should draw on the history of other disciplines such as art, the sciences, law, literature, and—Marion “insists”—theology. All of these contribute to the context of a philosopher or particular work. That means a lot of asked of us to read philosophers well.
Marion criticizes strategies which attempt to divulge the “system” of a philosopher because they ultimately ignore context and paint a philosophy as un-historical. (Readings of Hegel, for example, seem particularly prone to do this, and I think this is disappointing tendency in a lot of Christian philosophy–the desire to pigeonhole and frame a philosopher’s “worldview,” etc.) This reduces the history of philosophy to a kind of “internalism”: the text or philosopher from the past is like a cadaver on the table instead of an organism that remains alive, generating ideas.
In contrast, Marion urges, we ought to consider the past, present, and even future of a text of philosophy. One must, of course, consider the “present” of the text, which means considering the corpus of the philosopher in question. But one must also consider the past by raising the question of sources and influences—thinking through the continuity and discontinuity of what has preceded. The question of sources is not meant to reduce the philosopher’s present to the past (since there is always something new, some rupture), but only to discern inheritances. But, finally, one must consider the future of a text or philosopher, its heritage and appropriation by later philosophers and traditions, for this will open up the text in new ways. For example, one can read Descartes differently by seeing the appropriation of his philosophy in the work of Emmanuel Levinas.
This, I think, encapsulates the genius of Marion’s own productive engagements with the history of philosophy, calling to mind Paul Ricoeur’s notion of meaning being generated “in front of” the text. And it articulates what animates my own ongoing grappling with the history of philosophy: ideas are generated in encounter, which is perhaps just another way of embodying Whitehead’s famous claim that all subsequent (western) philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. Socrates started the conversation that is philosophy’s history. I could talk about this forever. Here’s hoping.
While Marion’s essay is hard to track down (dear readers: do let me know if you find it in English somewhere), his preface to On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism is a good primer along these lines as well.