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History of Philosophy - Contextualism

philosophical help past contextualist

A contextualist will, to the extent possible, let philosophical predecessors speak for themselves through the texts they have left behind. If a great thinker from some bygone era turns out to have believed in ghosts or astrology, then so be it; these features of his or her thought need to be acknowledged and understood just as much as those that have stood the test of time. Facing up to these odd and sundry concerns of our predecessors, a contextualist thinks, has more than just the virtue of shocking our shockingly narrow colleagues. Contextualism, in its honesty about the distance between our concerns and those of our predecessors, reminds us that past philosophers were not just early models of ourselves, but were concerned with a largely different set of problems and saw their role and responsibility as thinkers very differently. In this way, contextualism can help overcome the tendency to see the past as a mere prelude to the present. And this benefit may be of more philosophical significance than it first appears.

Contextualism, understood as the "merely" historical study of the history of philosophy, helps history to be something more than history of the present, in the same way that the study of natural selection in now-extinct evolutionary lines can help to drive home the important point that evolution is not a teleological process that has as its end its crowning accomplishment, homo sapiens. The present state of philosophy is not the end toward which the past has been striving, just as human beings are not the end toward which evolution has been striving. Against this view, it might be pointed out that the tradition of philosophy has been a common project, whereas evolution has been a blind and stumbling affair. But the contextualist will remind us that, even if we might recruit the dead to help us with our philosophical tasks, this does not mean that they would recognize as much commonality with us as we claim with them if per impossibile they could have been given advance warning about their posthumous affiliations. Among the contextualists, we may mention, by way of example, the names of Dan Garber, Roger Ariew, Lloyd Gerson, and Michael Frede, each of whom seeks, to a greater or lesser extent, to reveal the circumstances of time and place that help to shine light on the philosophical thought of that time and place.

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