8. What Dead Philosophers Mean Interpreting dead philosophers

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To someone who reads a book about the history of philosophy looking for factual information about what Aristotle or Kant thought, these conclusions may seem depressing, or even exasperating. For it now seems as if we can be no more certain about this information than we can about the answers to philosophical questions themselves -- which everyone knows will never be answered definitively. Why even care what these old philosophers meant if no one can ever be sure, and if you have to tackle the insoluble philosophical questions yourself even to form an opinion about it? Perhaps there is no truth at all about what dead philosophers mean, any more than there is about what ultimately exists, or the foundations of right and wrong, or about what makes knowledge different from mere opinion.

That reaction, however, betrays excessive impatience, the most characteristic symptom not only of intellectual laziness, but also of intellectual cowardice. Here as elsewhere, skepticism may seem like a modest position, but it is actually dogmatic, uncritical and too complacent. Perhaps this is because the skeptic is seeking too much of what Sextus Empiricus called ataraxia. For peace of mind is simply not compatible with an honest look at the human condition, or of any significant part of it. Skepticism errs on the side of excessive certitude whenever it holds that we can clearly define an area in which we can at least be sure that we can’t be sure. Some interpretations of texts, at any rate, are clearly wrong. They are based on mistranslations or obvious misreadings, or ignorance of crucial passages elsewhere in the author’s writings. Others are just as clearly right, because they are directly confirmed by what the text explicitly says, make good sense of the philosopher’s views, and because, when all the evidence is weighed judiciously, they turn out to have no plausible rivals. Even in most of the disputed cases, like the ones mentioned above about Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Marx, I think one side is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, and I think I know which is which. I say this even though I know there are informed people whom I respect who disagree with me.42

But that makes interpretive issues in the history of philosophy no different from all the other controversial issues that engage philosophers, historians, literary scholars, or, for that matter, physicists and biologists. They are about a truth that’s really out there to be found, and to which some of us may even have already found reasonable approximations. But because we are fallible, our knowledge fragmentary, our perspectives incomplete and our judgments sometimes hasty or biased, we still do not, and perhaps we never will, unanimously agree about what it is.

1 I will make no distinction between what a text means and what the author means in (or by) it. Nor will I distinguish between what an author now means and what she meant at the time she wrote the text. On the contrary, I think that an author at the time of writing meant everything her text can now be rightly understood to mean. I have been asked if I accept a distinction like that drawn by some philosophers of language between “speaker’s meaning” and “linguistic meaning” in the case of such texts. Perhaps I might, but in that case I do not think we are interested primarily in the “author’s meaning” (in that sense) of philosophical texts. We might be interested in what the author intended (e.g. which contemporary positions or movements he intended to attack or oppose) but that is not what we are chiefly concerned with when investigating the meaning of the text (such information might sometimes be a means to helping us determine the meaning). I do want to say that the meaning of the text with which we are concerned is also what the author means because for there to be a meaningful text at all it must be the product of a human author (or authors) and because one indispensable way of getting at the meaning of the text is to ask what the author held, or what the author meant in the text.

2 In the scholastic tradition, the “matter” interpretation was famously defended by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and St. Thomas Aquinas; the “form” interpretation was held by Richard Rufus of Cornwall, author of the first scholastic commentaries on Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics in the West, and the last great scholastic philosopher, Francisco Suarez. For a historical discussion, see Jorge Gracia, Individuation in scholasticism: The Later Middle Ages and the Counter-reformation (1150-1650). Probably the majority interpretation today agrees with Rufus and Suarez. For a good example, see A. C. Lloyd, Form and Universal in Aristotle (Liverpool: Cairns, 1981).

3 Compare Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Harcourt, 1925), pp. 115-120, and Margaret D. Wilson, Descartes (London: Routledge, 1978), pp. 79-88.

4 The traditional reading until this century was the skeptical one, that was found prominently in Reid, Beattie and the Scottish common sense school, as well as in T. H. Green and the British idealists. The first prominent Hume scholar to defend the “naturalist” reading was Norman Kemp Smith, The Philosophy of David Hume (London: Macmillan, 1941), and it has been prominent in Hume scholarship ever since, including the excellent work of Barry Stroud, David Fate Norton, Robert Fogelin, Annette Baier and Don Garrett. See especially Annette Baier, A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume’s Treatise (Cambridge: Harvard, 1991); Don Garrett, Cognition and Commitment in Hume’s Philosophy (New York: Oxford, 1997). Two studies in the latter half of the twentieth century that have to one extent or another defended the skeptical reading are John Passmore, Hume’s Intentions (London: Duckworth, 1968) and Wayne Waxman, Hume’s Theory of Consciousness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). For a recent attempt to do justice to both readings and find a way of reconciling them, see Graciela de Pierris, “Hume’s Pyrrhonian Skepticism and the Belief in Causal Laws,” Journal of the History of Philosophy (July, 1999).

5 For some recent discussions of this topic, see Gerold Prauss, Erscheinung bei Kant (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1971), Henry Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (New Haven: Yale, 1983) and Idealism and Freedom (New York: Cambridge, 1996), Ch. 1; Allen W. Wood, “Kantianism” in J. Kim and E. Sosa (eds.), A Companion to Metaphysics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

6 The deflationary interpretation is defended by Robert Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (New York: Norton, 1969), Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (London: Routledge, 1981); Richard Miller, Analyzing Marx (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1984). The view that Marx condemned capitalism for distributive injustice is defended by Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) R. G. Peffer, Marxism, Morality and Social Justice (Princeton: Princeton Press, 1990), Kai Nielsen, Marxism and the Moral Point of View (Boulder: Westview, 1989).

7 Some of these disputes are about the meaning of a very specific passage in a specific text. Others are about the overall shape of a philosopher’s doctrines as expressed in an entire body of writings. Some are even about what a philosopher’s doctrines say or imply in regard to philosophical questions the philosopher did not explicitly ask. But disputes that may at first look as though they are of wholly different kinds tend to be harder to distinguish when we look at them more closely. Interpretations of the overall aims of Hume’s philosophy or Aristotle’s views about individuation will have to appeal to specific things these philosophers say in certain specific passages in their writings, and these passages have to be read in light the context where they appear. In trying to determine what Descartes meant in a brief passage of the second Meditation, we may need to look at what he was trying to accomplish later in the Meditations, so as to understand his overall plan in that work and how the Second Meditation contributes to it. We may even need to compare the discussion of the nature of matter in the Meditations with the accounts given in later works in trying to decide how his aims and views there fit into his doctrines as a whole.

8 For example, discussions of medieval and early modern intellectual history often refer to a position they call ‘theological voluntarism’, whose paradigmatic representative is supposed to be William of Ockham. This is supposed to be the view that what is good is whatever God wills. This is understood to mean that if God had commanded us to act in direct defiance of all the dictates of right reason, or had chosen to damn those who love him and bless those who hate him, then it would have been virtuous to defy right reason and we would have the very same reasons to praise and give thanks to God that we have now. (This error is well exposed in Marilyn Adams, William of Ockham (South Bend: Notre Dame Press, 1987) and Rega Wood, Ockham on the Virtues (W. Lafayette, Purdue, 1997).) Or in more recent intellectual history it is sometimes presented as a commonplace that Hegel taught that the political status quo is always rational and held that all historical change follows the dialectical law of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.” (The curious history of this familiar howler was long ago documented by Gustav Emil Mueller, “The Hegel Legend of ‘Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis’,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1958)). (See also Allen W. Wood, Hegel’s Ethical Thought (New York: Cambridge, 1999.) Such bits of conventional pseudo-wisdom about the history of philosophy involve errors on the same scale as if one said that the Confederacy won the Civil War or that in 430 B.C. the public health conditions in Athens were generally good; historical discussions that assume them are accordingly worthless. No doubt questions about the meaning of difficult philosophical doctrines (such as those of Ockham and Hegel) are subtler and inherently more controversial. And there is usually some basis for the error, such as it would be hard to imagine regarding questions about who won the Civil War or whether the Athenian plague occurred. But when people hold grossly erroneous beliefs about what past philosophers meant, their beliefs are just as false as if they fell into error about other kinds of historical fact.

9 Marx himself has been a frequent victim of this erroneous tendency, though the fact that he shared it does not make it any the less erroneous to apply it to him.) Hence because Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation were used by the Nazis over a century after they were written, this text, or even Fichte’s entire philosophy (whose political tendencies were in fact largely rationalistic, progressive and even cosmopolitan) is sometimes dismissed on account of its association with National Socialism. Even if we deplore the nationalism of the Addresses, as a political act they were above all a courageous defiance of the Napoleonic occupation.

10 “I do not think that the world or the sciences would ever have suggested to me any philosophical problems. What has suggested philosophical problems to me is things which other philosophers have said about the world or the sciences” in P. A. Schilpp (ed.) The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1942), p. 14.

11 Moore’s fellow Bloomsburian John Maynard Keynes once said that “practical men, who believe themselves exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” (Quoted by John Cassidy, “The New World Disorder,” The New Yorker, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 1998, p. 207). Something very analogous is true, I think, of the attitude toward the history of philosophy that I am here criticizing.

12 Kant, for instance, was originally a man of science. He absorbed the tradition mainly through reading Wolff and Baumgarten, and knew the history of philosophy chiefly through Brucker’s accounts of it. Kant also said, quite correctly, that we often can understand a philosopher better than he understood himself. If this were my theme, I would argue that Kant’s own philosophy is better understood when we consider its relation to the historical tradition more accurately than he was able to do. I would try to show how philosophers get an impoverished, blinkered and inadequate conception of philosophical problems, positions and arguments when they consider only the way these problems have been honed and redacted in the past couple of generations.

13 I would argue further that we can still learn a lot about grounding claims to knowledge from Descartes, about possible worlds from Leibniz, about theories of meaning from Locke, about causation from Hume and Kant. I would try to show that what we gain in precision on these topics from reading contemporary literature (on the Gettier problem, say, or the writings of and about Kripke and Putnam, Lewis and Stalnaker, or Mackie and Kim), we tend to lose in our blindness to the set of background assumptions these theorists take for granted, and in forgetting a wide variety of alternative options these approaches exclude, apparently without even realizing it. Even more zealously I would try to show that the questions that do absorb the technical skill of analytical philosophers are no more inherently interesting or worthwhile than a lot of other philosophical questions that might preoccupy them if they came to read and be gripped by the writings of philosophers like Fichte and Hegel. I would argue that the critical interpretation of texts in the history of philosophy – the activity of trying to determine what those texts mean, whether what they mean is true, and how good their arguments are – is one thoroughly respectable way of engaging with philosophical problems, and constitutes an indispensable part of philosophical inquiry.

14 Ecclesiastes 1:9.

15 See especially, “The Skeptic in his Place and Time,” in M. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds.) The Original Skeptics: A Controversy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), pp. 92-126.

16 Elementary as it is, this is something philosophers often fail to do. In conversations between Kant scholars, for example, the following scenario used to be fairly common. An English speaking scholar, usually from the analytical tradition, would criticize something found in his copy of the Critique of Pure Reason, which (until a year ago, anyway) was Norman Kemp Smith’s 1929 translation. A German speaking scholar would object that what he quoted is not what Kant says, that the German is such-and-such, which Kemp Smith mistranslated. At times the German in such disputes was merely trying to “pull rank,” and the English speaker had hold of a real philosophical issue. Deplorably often, however, the German speaker was right, and despite this the English speaker would not give up, but press on, claiming that the German speaker’s information was irrelevant, because what mattered was “the philosophical issue” – by which the English speaker meant merely whatever thoughts he happened to have got from reading Kemp Smith, whether they were expressed in Kant’s text or not. The English speaker’s position was then indefensible, and his arrogant stubbornness a disgrace.

17 The decisiveness of understanding the philosophical background is easy to illustrate. For example, Plato maintains that forms or ideas belong to reality rather than appearance and are immune to change (Phaedo 78d-e; cf. Republic 526-534, Symposium 210e-211a). In the course of arguing for these claims he argues that a pair of equal sticks is not really equal because they can seem to us to be unequal, but the equal itself (the form of ‘equal’) is really equal because it cannot seem to us to be unequal (Phaedo 74b-c; cf. Republic 523e-524a.). These arguments do not draw the distinction between appearance and reality in the way we are now accustomed to do. We do not think that it counts against a pair of sticks being really equal that they may seem unequal to someone. He also maintains that the size of Simmias is subject to change or becoming because when compared with Socrates, Simmias is tall, while compared with Phaedo, Simmias is short (Phaedo 102b-103a; cf. Hippias Major 289a-c). The conception of change or becoming used in this argument is clearly broader than our concept of change or becoming, since we are not inclined to treat as an instance of change in Simmias’ height the fact that Simmias is tall considered in one context (or as judged by one standard of tallness) and short in another context (or as judged by a different standard). Yet in interpreting Plato’s claims, and assessing his arguments, it is highly relevant how concepts like being vs. appearance and becoming or change were understood by his philosophical predecessors, such as Heraclitus, Cratylus, Parmenides and Melissus, when they argued about whether the real is subject to change or whether the sensible and changing is real. We may have good reasons for conceiving of change or becoming and the distinction between being and appearance differently from the way they were conceived by the early Greeks, and these reasons are certainly relevant to our final assessment of Plato’s doctrines. But simply to substitute our notions of reality and change for those current in Plato’s philosophical context can result only in a total misunderstanding the claims he is making and an underestimate of the strength of his arguments for them. Conversely, it may help us better to understand our conceptions of reality and change if we become aware of the very different way these concepts were grasped by past philosophers, even by highly influential philosophers in our own tradition.

18 It is one of the great merits of Jerome Schneewind’s recent book, The Invention of Autonomy, to keep before our minds a variety of such issues as he writes about the history of ethics in the early modern period. J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (New York: Cambridge, 1998).

19 Descartes, Oeuvres (ed. Adam and Tannery) (Paris: Vrin, 1965), 6:2; Cf. Edwin A. Curley, “Dialogues with the Dead,” Synthese 67 (1986), p. 35. This article will be cited below as “Curley”.


 Robin G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939), pp. 205-231. I think this picture appeals to us in many forms, and that it has influenced a lot of people’s thinking about methodology in intellectual history. For example, one influential version of it is found in Quentin Skinner’s thesis that “the understanding of texts presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean and how this meaning was intended to be taken. [Thus] the appropriate methodology [for the history of ideas] is…the recovery of intentions” (Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory VIII (1969), pp. 48-49).

21 Robin G. Collingwood, Autobiography (Oxford: University Press, 1978), pp. 60-68. Collingwood combined this “incommensurability” thesis with an extravagant version of the “principle of charity”, in such a way as to guarantee a priori the truth of whatever any philosopher said, meant or wrote. He held that we cannot “discover for example ‘what Plato thought’ without inquiring ‘whether it is true’…What is required, if I am to know Plato’s philosophy is both to re-think it in my own mind and also think other things in the light of which I can judge it” (The Idea of History, pp. 300, 305). But there is in Collingwood’s view such a tight connection between Plato’s thoughts on the matter and the reasons in light of which he had them, that when we truly arrive at the question Plato was asking, we must at the same time see why he answered it correctly. In fact, Collingwood thinks, we can identify the problem he was trying to solve only after we have decided what the solution was (and after we have judged that the solution was correct). “The distinction between the ‘historical’ question ‘What was So-and-so’s theory on such a matter?’ and the ‘philosophical’ question ‘Was he right?” [is] fallacious… We only know the problem by arguing back from the solution” (Autobiography, pp 68, 70). I won’t discuss this thesis of Collingwood’s, because I don’t think he is committed to it merely by the Collingwood picture. But the fact that Collingwood maintained such obvious and outrageous absurdities in this connection makes me feel less guilty about attaching his name to what I suspect of being a caricatured version of his thesis that understanding a philosopher is rethinking his actual thoughts.

22 Michael Della Rocca, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (New York: Oxford, 1996). Referred to below as “Della Rocca”.

23 Spinoza’s Ethics will be cited by part and proposition, ‘s’ means ‘scholium’.

24 See Della Rocca, p. 127.

25 W. V. O. Quine, “Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes,” in Leonard Linsky (ed.), Reference and Modality (London: Oxford, 1971), pp. 110-111. No doubt Quine was not the first to notice this point. Indeed, it was quite clearly anticipated by Frege’s notion of “oblique” (ungerade) reference in Über Sinn und Bedeutung (see P. Geach and M. Black (eds.), Translations from the Writings of Gottlob Frege (Oxford: Blackwell, 1960), pp. 65-68). I cite Quine here only because it is his concept and his terminology that Della Rocca actually uses in interpreting Spinoza. Some have suggested that Quine’s (or Frege’s) point was anticipated by philosophers before Spinoza (the name of Buridan has been mentioned in this context), and it might have been their thoughts that Spinoza was using, so that Della Rocca’s innovation is merely terminological. I agree that if this (so far undocumented) speculation is correct, then this would no longer be a counterexample to the Collingwood picture. Still others, however, have even suggested that Spinoza himself might have had “the same thought” simply on the basis of common sense -- for of course the ancient Greeks, even apart from philosophy, already realized that from “Oedipus knows he is married to Jocasta” it does not follow that “Oedipus knows he is married to his own mother”. This idea, if correct, would not only disable the example but make it hard to challenge the Collingwood picture at all, since it would suggest that we could treat any philosophical development on which we might draw in interpreting a past philosopher as something already available to the philosopher from common sense, and hence already part of the philosopher’s thought processes. But surely that would be wrong. For although common sense, prior even to the formulation of any logical or semantical theory, might have declined to draw the inference about Oedipus, it is only in the context of a certain kind of logical theory, and a certain theoretically developed concept of valid inference, that the problem of oblique reference or referential opacity could even arise; and only after the concept of referential opacity has been formulated would it be possible to make fully explicit the thesis that the same concept applies to causal contexts. Another objection to this example which I have encountered is that by not allowing that Spinoza was “in some sense aware of the concept of referential opacity” I am not giving Spinoza enough credit for his own insight. But of course my whole point is that Spinoza did (very insightfully!) express the thesis that causal contexts are referentially opaque – that this is the meaning of what he wrote. What I am denying is that in order to credit him with this insight we must hold that the twentieth century conceptions in which we now express his insight were already part of his seventeenth century mental processes. One pitfall to avoid here is thinking that Spinoza must either have had Quine’s full blown concept of referential opacity or must have totally lacked it. My point is to affirm that Spinoza held, and expressed, the thesis that causal contexts are referentially opaque, but I deny that he did express, or even could have expressed, this thought in those terms because he could not have had it in his mind in that precise form. That he did express it, (and therefore could have expressed it), does not entail that later formulations of the idea of referential opacity are merely terminological innovations.
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