"History of philosophy" is the name of an intellectual discipline and of its object. I am interested in both, but this post is about the former. Searching for ways to avoid ambiguity, I thought of using "historiography" – except that this term, too, stands for a discipline and its object: for the writing of history, and the study of such writing. Henceforth, I'll use "history" to mean the discipline whose object is the past.
What is the relationship between philosophy and its history? Or, as a recent book demands: why should analytic philosophers care about the history of philosophy? Why shouldn't they simply ignore it, as – allegedly – they tend to do?
In laying the groundwork for an answer to these questions – to which I'll return next time – several authors make a distinction between two modes in which the history of philosophy can be pursued. In what Daniel Garber nicely calls "antiquarian" history, the dead are invited to speak in their own tongue, as they did to their contemporaries. In "collegial" history, they are compelled to speak about questions that occupy us. In an earlier paper, "Does History Have a Future?", Garber gives the example of Jonathan Bennett, who insists, at he beginning of his book on Spinoza, that he is concerned "not with Spinoza's mental biography but with getting his help in discovering philosophical truth."
What puzzles me here is why Garber is willing to speak of both projects as "historical". He does not object to collegial history; he merely contrasts it with something else. On the face of it, though, Bennett's claim is barely coherent. If you want Spinoza's help in discovering the truth, his "mental biography" is something you cannot avoid. And if all you mean is that you are reading the Ethics for inspiration, not doing history at all, why labour under any constraint of fidelity to the text? Why aim for something that makes sense of most of what Spinoza wrote – but not all of it, and not in context? Why not simply present the arguments that interest you, and mention, as a matter of your own "mental biography", that they popped into your head while reading a certain book?
A different distinction is made by Richard Rorty in "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres". He contrasts "historical" with "rational" reconstruction, but sees no conflict between them: "We should do both of these things, but do them separately." Historical reconstruction is marked by obedience to a constraint devised by Quentin Skinner:
no agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done.
According to Rorty:
If we want an account of Aristotle's or Locke's behaviour which obeys this constraint […] we shall have to confine ourselves to one which, at its ideal limit, tells us what they might have said in response to all the criticisms or questions which would have been aimed at them by their contemporaries.
The difficulty is that, on this reading, Skinner turns out to be a behaviourist: we can do history only by putting words in people's mouths – not thoughts in their heads. This is nominally apt, but a substantive travesty: Skinner's essay is a plea for intention in the history of ideas; and he repeatedly insists that we cannot make the past intelligible without applying to it our "own familiar criteria of classification and discrimination." His point is not to compare two legitimate activities, but to engage in a polemic against anachronism that will destroy the pretensions of "collegial history" and "rational reconstruction" once and for all.
The residual question is what to make of his proposed constraint on interpretation. It certainly does not prohibit the ascription of propositional attitudes, but, for Skinner,
it does exclude the possibility that an acceptable account of an agent's behavior could ever survive the demonstration that it was itself dependent on the use of criteria of description and classification not available to the agent himself.
For reasons I will try to explain in the following post, this seems to me too strong a condition to place even on the most rigorously antiquarian history of thought.