Against Charity in the History of Philosophy

Peter Adamson, host of History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, recently posted twenty "Rules for the History of Philosophy". Mostly, they are terrific rules. I want to quibble with one.

Like almost every historian of philosophy I know, Adamson recommends that we be "charitable" to the text. Here's how he puts it in "Rule 2: Respect the text":

This is my version of what is sometimes called the "principle of charity." A minimal version of this rule is that we should assume, in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense.... [It] seems obvious (to me at least) that useful history of philosophy doesn't involve looking for inconsistencies and mistakes, but rather trying one's best to get a coherent and interesting line of argument out of the text. This is, of course, not to say that historical figures never contradicted themselves, made errors, and the like, but our interpretations should seek to avoid imputing such slips to them unless we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip.

At first pass, it seems a good idea to avoid imputing contradictions and errors, and to seek a coherent, sensible interpretation of historical texts "unless we we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip". This is how, it seems, to best "respect the text".

To see why I think charity isn't as good an idea as it seems, let me first reveal my main reason for reading history of philosophy: It's to gain a perspective, through the lens of distance, on my own philosophical views and presuppositions, and on the philosophical attitudes and presuppositions of 21st century Anglophone philosophy generally. Twenty-first century Anglophone philosophy tends to assume that the world is wholly material (with the exception of religious dualists and near cousins of materialists, like property dualists). I'm inclined to accept the majority's materialism. Reading the history of philosophy helpfully reminds me that a wide range of other views have been taken seriously over time. Similarly, 21st century Anglophone philosophy tends to favor a certain sort of liberal ethics, with an emphasis on individual rights and comparatively little deference to traditional rules and social roles -- and I tend to favor such an ethics too. But it's good to be vividly aware that wonderful thinkers have often had very different moral opinions. Reading culturally distant texts reminds me that I am a creature of my era, with views that have been shaped by contingent social factors.

Of course, others might read history of philosophy with very different aims, which is fine.

Question: If this is my aim in reading history of philosophy, what is the most counterproductive thing I could do when confronting a historical text?

Answer: Interpret the author as endorsing a view that is familiar, "sensible", and similar to my own and my colleagues'.

Historical texts, like all philosophical texts -- but more so, given our linguistic and cultural distance -- tend to be difficult and ambiguous. Therefore, they will admit of multiple interpretations. Suppose, then, that there's a text admitting of four possible interpretations: A, B, C, and D, where Interpretation A is the least challenging, least weird, and most sensible, and Interpretation D is the most challenging, weirdest, and least sensible. A simple application of the principle of charity seems to recommend that we favor the sensible, pedestrian Interpretation A. In fact, however, weird and wild Interpretation D would challenge our presuppositions more deeply and give us a more helpfully distant perspective. This is one reason to favor Interpretation D. Call this the Principle of Anti-Charity.

Admittedly, this way of defending of Anti-Charity might seem noxiously instrumentalist. What about historical accuracy? Don't we want the interpretation that's most likely to be true?

Bracketing post-modern views that reject truth in textual interpretation, I have four responses to that concern:

1. Being Anti-Charitable doesn't mean that anything goes. You still want to respect the surface of the text. If the author says "P", you don't want to attribute the view not-P. In fact, it is the more "charitable" views that are likely to take the author's claims other than at face value: "The author says P, but really a charitable, sensible interpretation is that the author really meant P-prime". In one way, it is actually more respectful to the texts not to be too charitable, and to interpret the text superficially at face value. After all, P is what the author literally said.

2. What seems "coherent" and "sensible" is culturally variable. You might reject excessive charitableness, while still wanting to limit allowable interpretations to one among several sensible and coherent ones. But this might already be too limiting. It might not seem "coherent" to us to embrace a contradiction, but some philosophers in some traditions seem happy to accept bald contradictions. It might not seem "sensible" to think that the world is nothing but a flux of ideas, such that the existence of rocks depends entirely upon the states of immaterial spirits. So if there's any ambiguity, you might hope to tame views that seem metaphysically idealist, thereby giving those authors a more sensible, reasonable seeming view. But this might be leading you away from rather than toward interpretative accuracy.

3. Philosophy is hard and philosophers are stupid. The human mind is not well-designed for figuring out philosophical truths. Timeless philosophical puzzles tend to kick our collective asses. Sadly, this is going to be true of your favorite philosopher too. The odds are good that this philosopher, being a flawed human like you and me, made mistakes, fell into contradictions, changed opinions, and failed to see what seem to be obvious consequences and counterexamples. Respecting the text and respecting the person means, in part, not trying too hard to smooth this stuff away. The warts are part of the loveliness. They are also a tonic against excessive hero worship and a reminder of your own likely warts and failings.

4. Some authors might not even want to be interpreted as having a coherent, stable view. I have recently argued that this is the case for the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. Let's not fetishize stable coherence. There are lots of reasons to write philosophy. Some philosophers might not care if it all fits together. Here, attempting "charitably" to stitch together a coherent picture might be a failure to respect the aims and intentions implicit in the text.

Three cheers for the weird and "crazy", the naked text, not dressed in sensible 21st century garb!


Related post: In Defense of Uncharitable and Superficial History of Philosophy (Aug 17, 2012)

(HT: Sandy Goldberg for discussion and suggestion to turn it into a blog post)

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