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History of Philosophy - Appropriationism

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Appropriationism may describe any approach to the history of philosophy that seeks to take from it tools that may be of service to one's ahistorical philosophical task. An appropriationist asks of the history of philosophy: What can it do for me? Representatives of different strains of appropriationism will have different answers to this question.


This breed of appropriationism searches philosophy's past for arguments that have stood the test of time and can still be of service in defense of some philosophical position advocated by the appropriator. For instance, a reconstructionist who believes that no better account of personal identity has been offered since the late seventeenth century than that presented by John Locke (1632–1704)—who roots it in continuity of memory—will cite Locke's argument for this theory in support of his or her own, similar one. The same reconstructionist, though, will not feel obligated to adopt, or even take an interest in, Locke's support of, say, a cosmological argument for the existence of God. Reconstructionists take piecemeal from philosophy's past what is useful for their own projects, and will generally not feel obligated to consider whether the argument borrowed from a past figure was really offered in response to concerns similar to theirs. As Jonathan Bennett approvingly describes this approach to history, dead philosophers should be approached as colleagues, with the one minor but not insurmountable difference that they are, well, dead. In this spirit, twentieth-century scholars of the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650) have been able to portray him as engaged, to use Bernard Williams' phrase, in a "project of pure enquiry," without acknowledging that he was also engaged in a project of empirical physiology, and other areas of seventeenth-century philosophy that have since been outsourced to the appropriate science departments.


An absolutely dogmatic Marxist would be an entirely uninteresting character, not because Karl Marx (1818–1883) was wrong, but because a follower who adheres utterly to every aspect of his predecessor's thought is in essence only a relay station for that thought's dissemination, not a thinker in his own right. Any noteworthy Marxist thinker, other than Marx himself, will be in his or her unique way a neo-Marxist, even if the prefix remains only implicit. Thus V. I. Lenin (1870–1924), a Marxist if there ever was one, nonetheless modified some of Marx's central doctrines concerning the essential class-rootedness of conflict to account for the new phenomena of imperialism and the growing antagonism between the colonizing and the colonized parts of the world that at least the early Marx could not possibly have foreseen. Similarly, Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) adopts the basic categories developed by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) for the analysis of the psyche but explicates them in terms of a poststructuralist philosophy of language. Lenin and Lacan are not reconstructionists; they do not pretend that Marx and Freud were concerned with the same problems they themselves face or even that their predecessors would approve of the way they are tackling these problems. But they are appropriationists of a different stripe, mastering and defending the ideas of a predecessor, while showing how these ideas can be of use in application to new and unforeseen problems.

Neo-x-ists will speak of working within a "broadly x-ian framework" while dealing with questions that admittedly did not concern x. Conversely, a reconstructionist will find and extract passages in which some predecessor x dealt with the same questions that interest him or her today, without, in performing this extraction, feeling obligated to confess to any broadly x-ian framework or world-view.

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