8. What Dead Philosophers Mean Interpreting dead philosophers



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26 Della Rocca., p. 123.


27 See Patricia Kitcher, Kant’s Transcendental Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), especially Chapter 4; Onora O’Neill, Constructions of Reason (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially Chapter 11; and Allen Wood, Kant’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Chapter 7, as well as “Marx’s Historical Materialism,” in J. Kneller and S. Axinn (eds), Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian Social Philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.


28 It is absurd to ascribe to Hegel the thesis that history has ended, or that it could ever end. What Hegel does hold is the (apparently trivial) claim that past history ends in the present. This has non-trivial implications, however, if it points toward the ground, and also the limits, of our capacity to comprehend. When Hegel says that philosophy always comes on the scene too late to give the world advice about what ought to be (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Preface), he means to be asserting the (non-trivial) thesis that spiritual formations belonging to the future always lie beyond what we have the capacity to comprehend sufficiently for us to act rationally with regard to them, and therefore that action can be rational only to the extent that it accepts the standards of rationality arising from present spiritual formations. Hegel does, however, think that we have the capacity to comprehend these, and moreover to comprehend the entirety of past history as having them as its rational result, at least in times when these formations themselves are mature and not in the turmoil of historical transition. At such times, the present is bound to appear to us as the rational end of a rationally comprehensible world-history. But Hegel’s own way of putting this, in speaking of a shape of life “grown old”, directly suggests the denial that history is in any other sense at an “end”, since what we conceive of as having “grown old” is something we think of as eventually to be replaced by something “new” or “young”. Hegel’s view, however, is that we cannot rationally speculate about what this future thing is, or pretend to say what it ought to be.


29 Another example may help make this point. Stephen Darwall has recently argued persuasively that what moral philosophers call ‘internalism’ – the thesis that the truth of a moral judgment entails the existence of a motive for acting according to it – arose gradually in the thinking of seventeenth and eighteenth century British Moralists such as Cumberland, Cudworth, Locke, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson (Stephen Darwall, The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’ (New York: Cambridge, 1995)). Darwall tries to show how internalism answers longstanding need in a tradition of thinking, He thereby deepens our understanding of present day controversies surrounding internalism. But of course in fact no one ever spoke of ‘internalism’ or explicitly articulated that until a paper by W. D. Falk published in 1948 (W. D. Falk, “’Ought’ and Motivation”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 48 (1947-1948), pp. 492-510). On the Collingwood picture, therefore, internalism could not have developed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, and no texts from that time could possibly add anything to our understanding of the present day controversies over internalism. In general, if the Collingwood picture is correct, a philosophical idea first occurs only at the precise time when it actually belongs to someone’s thought-processes – in the case of internalism, to David Falk’s thought processes around 1948. Here again, the point is not whether Darwall is right about internalism and the British moralists. For it even to be possible that he is right, the Collingwood picture has to be wrong.


30 Barthes expresses such a view in the following cryptic slogans: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author… Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text… to close the writing” (Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), p. 147). The kind of author of which Barthes most approves is Mallarmé, because “Mallarmé’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader)” (ibid., p. 143). Compare the related views of Foucault:

“The author is not a source of indefinite significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction.

In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure.… [But] I think that, as our society changes…the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint – one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined, or perhaps experienced.

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no loner hard the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself?…And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?” (Michel Foucault, “What is an author?” in Paul Rabinow (ed.) Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), pp. 118-120.)



No doubt, as some of these remarks illustrate, the reflections of these theorists has been focused on fiction; but Foucault’s concluding remarks seem to be intended to apply to discourse generally, including philosophical discourse. Further, the intent of the theorists seems to be at least as much to record recent (or forecast future) changes in the social context of writing and reading as to say something general about what the meaning of a text is and where it comes from. The obvious point to make, however, is that both types of questions Foucault mentions are legitimate, both are relevant to determining what a text means, and we do not have to choose one type of question over the other. The impression that we do is perhaps created by a certain romantic tradition both in literature and in reading, which first absurdly exaggerates the importance of genius and then, by a ridiculous (because equally romantic) inversion of the hyperbole, wants to make the reader rather than the author the divine source of a text’s meaning. Joshua Landy has suggested to me, I think correctly, that there is something a bit paranoid in viewing the author of the text as a constraint on its “free” interpretation. This is rather like holding that breathing is a constraint on life.


31 Descartes’ ironical joke at the beginning of the Discourse on Method may, taken literally, be a bad argument, but it calls our attention to the fact that when we converse with others, we cannot expect them to regard us as possessing more good sense than they have, and so we must address them as our intellectual equals. There is a clear difference between, for example, Descartes’ use of a joke to make this point and the paradoxes just referred to, which operate by confusing a false picture with its correction and do not help us to distinguish the one from the other.


32 Curley, pp. 33-49.


33 Curley, p. 36.


34 Curley, p. 36.


35 Kant, KrV A314/B370.


36 Sometimes people make racist or sexist remarks, and then when accused of having done so, they say “I didn’t mean it that way”. This last statement is ambiguous, and people who say such things are often trying to exploit the ambiguity. They could mean: “I didn’t intend to be making a racist remark.” To this the reply should be: “Maybe you did intend to be making a racist remark and maybe you didn’t, but it’s certain that you made one just the same.” Or they could be trying to say: “I know what I meant by my remark, and I therefore can certify that it was not a racist remark.” To this the rejoinder should be: “What you say is up to you, but what you mean by it is no more subject to your authority than to anyone else’s. We apparently understand what you said better than you do, and we recognize it as a racist remark.”


37 See Karl Vorländer, Kants Leben (Hamburg: Meiner, 1986), pp. 197-205; also interesting is Thomas De Quincey, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant,” in The English Mail Coach and other essays (New York: Dutton, 1965), pp. 162-209, which purports to be based on the recollections of Wasianski.


38 Jerrold Katz has suggested to me a sense in which we might understand the question “what would X say?” in which it might sometimes be a useful question, even where we have to suppose counterfactually that X is acquainted with philosophical developments since X’s death. Descartes denied that the cogito involves a logical inference from “I think” to “I am”. But the logic he knew was late scholastic syllogistic logic. Would Descartes have had the same reasons to say this about the cogito if he had known twentieth century logic? Or again: In the twentieth century it has proven difficult for Kantians to defend the metaphysical deduction of the categories, in part because this deduction assumes eighteenth century logic; but Kant’s metaphysical deduction has recently been given new life by taking its own logical background seriously (see Béatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Investigations like Longuenesse’s are a good example of what I have said can be most valuable in the study of the history of philosophy, namely, keeping alive historical perspectives that might otherwise be effaced. But we could pose the issue addressed by Longuenesse by asking: “What would Kant say in response to objections to his metaphysical deduction which are based on prejudices deriving from twentieth century logic?” Notice that this question has to assume that the resurrected Kant is familiar with twentieth century logic, but it is not a twentieth century Kant, but a distinctively eighteenth century Kant from whom we want the answer.


39 Collingwood disagrees with me here (see Note 21 above). Others who hold a similar position, based on absurdly exaggerated inferences from the “principle of charity”, are discussed by David M. Rosenthal, “Philosophy and Its History,” Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal (eds.) The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989), p. 176. To his credit, I should add, Rosenthal does not endorse their view.


40 G.A. Cohen, “Review of Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx,” Mind 92 (1983), p, 443. Similar claims are made by Elster, Making Sense of Marx, p. 222, and Norman Geras, “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” New Left Review 150 (1985), p. 270.


41 One addition would clearly be that for any given text, it is more important that it should answer some questions than others. If a philosophical text is about epistemology, it may or may not also seek to answer questions about ethics or rational theology. Plato’s Theaetetus focuses on what distinguishes knowledge from opinion, Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics on what it takes for knowledge to constitute a science. An interpretation of each of these works should aim at precise and textually supported answers to the questions on which the text focuses, but it might actually be an objection to an interpretation that it ascribes to the text very fine-grained answers to a set of questions that are irrelevant to what the text is about. And not every philosophical problem we might raise about a text is such that we can reasonably attribute to the author some solution to it that we might come up with on the basis of later philosophy. Hence my example drawn from Della Rocca’s interpretation of Spinoza cannot be endlessly generalized. It works only because it is reasonable to think that Spinoza was cognizant in some way of the problem of reconciling (1)-(3) and because there is some textual evidence (such as Ethics 2p6) that he endorsed the solution to this problem that Della Rocca proposes.


42 Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht suggests that in addition to a “philosophical” mode of interpretation, in which we may have to decide between different interpretations, there may also be a “historical” or “literary” mode of interpretation in which different interpretations need not be “right” or “wrong” but only “different”. But I reject the idea that the interpretation of literary texts differs from the interpretation of philosophical texts in the way this suggests. Whatever the text, when two interpretations differ, they do not always disagree. J. O. Wisdom, for example, interpreted Berkeley’s idealism as an expression of oedipal conflict, since it ascribes substantial reality only to God (the Father), denigrating matter (= mater, mother) by declaring it to be unreal (John Oulton Wisdom, The Unconscious Origin of Berkeley’s Philosophy (London: Hogarth, 1953)). I doubt that this Freudian interpretation of Berkeley conflicts in any interesting way with standard readings of Berkeley or even takes a particular position on the issues which usually divide Berkeley interpreters. The controversies I am interested in here are controversies about what a philosopher or philosophical text means, that is, about what the philosopher (or the text) asserts or is committed to asserting. Other questions may be raised about philosophical texts, however, such as how it asserts what it asserts (e.g. what tropes or rhetorical devices it uses). It may be that literary scholars are more often interested in interpretive questions other than what a text means, and therefore that it is more often the case in literary scholarship that different interpretations do not actually disagree (or contradict one another’s assertions). Questions of interpretation, however, do not present us with any exception to the logical laws of noncontradiction or excluded middle. If interpreter A says that a text means that p and does not mean that ~p, and interpreter B holds that it means that ~p and not that p, then at most one of them can be correct. Their dispute may, of course, be a matter of uncertainty or endless controversy. But that does not mean that there is no correct answer to it. It is, and may forever remain, a matter of uncertainty and controversy whether there was ever life on Mars. But despite that, either it is true that there was, or true that there wasn’t.



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