Philosophy and history

At Macquarie we have developed a little focus area on the interaction between philosophy and history; the history of philosophy; the methodological concerns relevant to philosophy, and so on. A few of us – myself, Mike Olson, Jean-Philippe Deranty, among others – have been pursuing these ideas here and there.

So, we’re going to conduct a little research group on Quentin Skinner’s work as a way of pursuing this further. This week, revisiting Skinner’s classic essay, “Meaning and Understanding in the history of ideas” (1969) before then moving onto something more recent (not sure what, just yet).

Looking at it again this morning, it strikes me just how dated some of that classic essay’s concerns are. Some things have changed with the general way we feel about history considerably in the intervening half-century since its publication – no doubt partly helped by Skinner’s essay. (Of course, just who is ‘we’ here, and how reliable is my intuitive sense of the issue? That would have to be confirmed and justified). That said, I’m sure one could easily identify contemporary studies that commit some of the mistakes Skinner labels.

There’s wider evidence that the nature of our historical relationships in intellectual and public life is a question for reflective scrutiny today, too. Amy Allen has published a very interesting book criticising progressive historical theories in social philosophy; while the ANU is also hosting a conference later this year on the links between history and political authority. So, it seems to be a concern of the day. But on the other hand, relationships between history and philosophy are … inconsistent … at best, speaking as someone who wrote their dissertation on the relationships between the two.

For myself, the reading group will be a good chance to work on my research on historicity. In this connection, the idea I’m looking to develop concerns what might be termed the “ambiguity” of history. From this point of view, the historical connections of present debates are an essential elements for discussion. They require acknowledgement if conversation is to proceed in a self-aware manner. However, from the historical point of view, those same present-day debates are immediately open to criticism of the schematic and anachronistic way the past has been appropriated. In doing so, the present conversation is transformed. And back and forth we go, each position affecting the other. By taking this sort of complex relationship into account, “history”, as a methodological or disciplinary pursuit, has an important role in the unfolding future of norms and intellectual debate.

So, this little post just to keep the thoughts ticking over and to signal that more shall be written anon.



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