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History of Philosophy - Conclusion

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Most scholars working in the history of philosophy will combine in varying degrees some or all of these various approaches. Many scholars believe that, qua historian of philosophy, one is required to accomplish some serious historical research, preferably involving archives and manuscripts, in order to claim any expertise on the subject studied. A real historian must know at least a few languages, understand the basics of historiographical method, and know at least a bit about the social and political background of the era in question. But, qua philosopher, at the end of the day one must also prove able to do what other philosophers demand of their colleagues: namely, offer some insight into the essences of things, or show that what was thought to have an essence lacks one, or show, as the American philosopher Wilrid Sellars says, how things hang together in the broadest sense. This may be done simply through the discussion of what some past thinker thought on these topics, but the crucial thing is that essences, hangings-together, and other such philosophical staples be tackled directly or through the mediation of one who has gone before, rather than resting content with, say, a tally of the dates and recipients of some seventeenth-century philosopher's letters.

Some historians of philosophy might not be exactly sure what they're doing. While many of us know of no other way to talk or write about the history of philosophy than by purporting to explain what the philosopher in question actually meant, we are too sophisticated to believe that this is what we are really doing. We claim to be setting the record straight, but sense that at least to some extent we are pushing our own agendas. These need not be mutually exclusive tasks, however. A feminist historian of philosophy may wish to push her worthy agenda, for example, by setting the record straight concerning the great number of largely ignored women active in the central philosophical debates of the seventeenth century, such as Anne Conway (1631–1679) and Damaris Masham (1658–1708). And yet, even after this correction to the record is made and women gain their rightful place in the canon, it would be naïve to think that the record has been set straight once and for all. A future generation will undoubtedly discover something else that has remained sub-rosa in earlier generations' reception of our shared past. There are ever new and previously undetected angles from which to consider philosophy's past. So long as it interests us, we will never cease to find new ones. The ones we find, moreover, will always be at least partially a reflection of our own interests, even if we hold out just letting the texts speak for themselves as the soundest methodology. We might worry that this is to allow rather too much "as if" to enter into our understanding of our own projects: know that you can never do more than reflect your time and place in your reception of the past, but approach the past as if you had the power of discernment to say once and for all what it was all about. This and similar worries, far from indicating professional incompetence, might be better understood as proof that the study of the history of philosophy is a quintessentially philosophical endeavor, and carries with it all the aggravation and perplexity one might expect from any endeavor deserving of this label.


Bennett, Jonathan. Learning from Six Great Philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1946. Reprint, edited by Jan Van Der Dussen, Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock, 1970.

Gracia, Jorge J. E. Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Hutton, Sarah. Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Rorty, Richard, Jerome B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Philosophy in History: Essays in the Historiography of Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Tully, James, ed. Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.

Justin E. H. Smith

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