Interpreting Modern Philosophy

Interpreting Modern Philosophy

by James Daniel Collins

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James Collins probes the meaning and methods of historical interpretation in philosophy by analyzing the creative reciprocity between the modern source thinkers—the great classical philosophers from Descartes and Locke to Mill and Nietzsche—and their midtwentieth century interpreters.

Originally published in 1972.

The Princeton Legacy Library


James Collins probes the meaning and methods of historical interpretation in philosophy by analyzing the creative reciprocity between the modern source thinkers—the great classical philosophers from Descartes and Locke to Mill and Nietzsche—and their midtwentieth century interpreters.

Originally published in 1972.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Interpreting Modern Philosophy

By James Collins


Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07179-4


The Historical Turn in Contemporary Philosophy

In every creative field, but perhaps especially in philosophy, we tend to use the term "contemporary" not only in a eulogistic way but also as expressing our relief at escaping the burden of the past. The term often conveys the sense of crossing a territorial border and cutting off a bridge behind ourselves, a bridge that would have permitted the great dead philosophers to count for too much in our present inquiries. We sometimes feel that their presence would be overbearing and would inhibit our own efforts at innovation and argument. Not a historical sense of perspective but a liberation from historical perspectives, a distancing of ourselves from the history of philosophy, seems to provide the proper conditions for doing good contemporary work in philosophy.

This view of the historical factor is an initial, yet essential, stage in the formation of any sense of contemporaneity in philosophy. Throughout the long development of philosophy, every age has had to struggle toward achieving its own identity and its own assurance of doing worthwhile new work. The sense of contemporaneity is never simply given to a group of philosophers but must be worked out and won by them through a painful process of discussion, which takes time and involves several stages.

It is particularly in the opening phase of such a process that creative philosophers find it necessary to regard the work of their predecessors as burdensome, as a weight to be sloughed off on peril of having one's own efforts dampened and underestimated. In this spirit, a Descartes and a Locke were impelled to treat their historical past as a crazy-quilt town which had to be reduced to rubble and cleared away, before they could arouse a sense of the contemporary for themselves and their age. In the same spirit, Kant was obliged to declare a moratorium on the work of all previous metaphysicians and philosophers of man, so that he might breathe some clean contemporary air and think out the issues in a new fashion. Even the historically inclined Hegel had to break loose from previous conceptions of substance and spirit and renew the problem of the starting point in philosophy, so that the revolutionary aspect of his thought could find a present tense in which to actualize itself.

To appreciate the full nature of these notable efforts at achieving contemporaneity in philosophy, however, we must also notice that none of the thinkers just cited was content with maintaining forever the charge of burdensomeness against his own historical roots. That attitude toward the philosophical past did have a real function to perform. It helped to distinguish between the act of philosophizing and a mere repetition of earlier categories and formulas, as well as to shift the accent from timid respect for the past to a critical analysis of present issues. Yet once this office was performed, the freely developed stance of separating oneself from the past had served its purpose. It could not be allowed to harden into a conventional obstacle, in its own turn, against the further ripening of the contemporanizing process. The great minds which constituted the Cartesian or Kantian or Hegelian modes of contemporaneity ultimately met their responsibility toward their own historical sources. A Descartes worked his way very carefully through the arguments of the schoolmen and the skeptics; a Kant acknowledged the dual challenge of the Leibnizian and Lockean notions of mind and its objects; and a Hegel incorporated into his philosophical present the endeavors of many great antecedents.

It is not unexpected, then, that our own meaning of contemporary philosophy should undergo a similar growth. We can all sympathize with, and enjoy, the remark which Frederick Woodbridge used to throw at his philosophy seminar in Columbia University: "Modem philosophy, thank God, is at last over." What makes this an instructive observation is its twin-barbed purpose. For one thing, Woodbridge was calling attention to the unwarranted appropriation of the term "modern philosophy" by the nineteenth-century idealistic historians of philosophy, who sought to identify the historical study of the sources with their own interpretation and thus to reduce the history of modern philosophy to an arm of the idealistic argument itself. It is necessary to declare an end to this suffocating type of historical determinism, and indeed to any provincial use of history of philosophy which seeks to draw a single, exclusivist moral from the whole development. But, secondly, Woodbridge himself got over this historical monism in such a manner that he could still work as the most historically oriented of the American naturalists of his generation. Through his sympathetic efforts, American naturalism was led to make a new reading of Aristotle and Spinoza, Locke and the evolutionary sources. Thus he built into at least one strain of contemporary philosophizing a sense of the theoretical opportunities furnished by a study of past thinkers.

A similar broadening of the meaning of contemporary philosophy to include its historical dimension is going on in other philosophical movements. The initial phase is represented by the time-honored application of the terms "revolution" and "turn" to a new philosophical method. Thus we speak about the revolution in philosophy effected by Husserl's phenomenological method, by Carnap's positivism, or by the procedures of Wittgenstein and Ryle. The feeling of liberation from history of philosophy, regarded as burdensome, finds somewhat playful expression in the practice of dating contemporary philosophy from some favorite article or book. Perhaps contemporary philosophy begins with Husserl's Logos article of 1911, or with a John Wisdom article of 1938, or with some landmark of the 1950's. On this reckoning, everything done prior to the landmark belongs in a remote ancient history, for the serious study of which philosophers are no longer responsible.

Kant's word "turn" has the added advantage of suggesting that contemporary philosophers have rounded a bend which leaves the historical sources out of sight and out of mind. But now, in the last quarter of our century, we are finding it increasingly difficult to translate this metaphor into any determinate meaning which the philosophical community finds acceptable, either as a theoretical statement or as a practical proposal. Whether we regard the decisive contemporary turning as being chiefly linguistic or analytical, phenomenological or existential, we are coming to realize that it does not signify any permanent rejection of philosophy's historical roots (however chronologically demarcated ) or of the continuing responsibility to reconsider them with critical freshness. Our sense of contemporaneity matures in the degree that we recognize that history of philosophy has made the turn along with the new methods and in the function of being their still sustaining matrix.

Historically generated issues have rounded the bend with the other interests in contemporary philosophy. Now it is important to recover familiarity with how we study the historical sources and relate them to our other philosophical concerns. A certain amount of disuse of historical approaches has rendered this topic not only unhackneyed but also slightly strange and ready for new analyses. As an aid in reorientation, I will first of all take a closer look at some underlying reasons for this phenomenon of the historical turn, as constituting part of the meaning of contemporary philosophy. Working out from this situation, I will then suggest a working hypothesis concerning how we gain historical access to modern philosophy. The task of the later chapters will be to examine in detail the specific points contained in that hypothesis.

1. The Stimulus for Historical Study

For our own self-understanding, it is helpful to probe into the intellectual conditions which today are quickening the pace of interest in the historical aspect of philosophy. Certainly, the least significant influence is that exerted by purely cultural proponents of the historical approach in all phases of education. Their recommendations are too general, and too extrinsic to the actual work going on in philosophy, to exert any decisive influence. What counts for philosophers is not a cultural recommendation of history — which can always be kept at arm's length, as signifying an admirable adornment but not an essential need — but some internal developments in the course of philosophical inquiry itself.

Can the growing appreciation of the great philosophers in our past be attributed primarily to the efforts of the professional historians of philosophy? Surely, they have contributed something toward it simply by tending to their job, by continuing to improve their textual tools and interpretive studies of the major sources. The instruments for doing any level of historical work are today far richer and more serviceable to the philosophical community than they were a generation ago. One reason why the question of history and theory has to be reopened is that the historical pole in this comparison has not remained static. During the same years when our contemporary philosophies were under formation, the resources of history of philosophy were also making a steady growth. Thus the situation of a short generation ago has changed, not only in its theoretical components but also in its historical.

Nevertheless, I do not think that the historical advances are sufficient, of themselves, to accomplish the broad revision of thinking on the value of historical factors for the theoretical enterprise itself. To see the current relevance of the sources requires an act of recognition on the part of those minds engaged in original inquiries. The striking difference between the mid-century point and now is precisely that such recognition of the importance of history is forthcoming from a wide compass of creative thinkers, representing the main contemporary philosophies. This stronger appreciation is not peculiar to some one school, moreover, but can be observed operating within several quite different philosophical contexts. A revaluating of history develops in response to some definite problems and tendencies common to all the present ways of philosophizing. There are at least three features of the contemporary situation in philosophy which help to quicken an interest in the contributions of historical work. These centers of stimulus concern the dispersion technique, the purist split, and the pattern of university education.

One negative, yet significant, point is the failure of the dispersion technique for dealing with source materials. In many universities, there was a practice of consigning the ancient philosophers to the classics department or to a separate philological corps within the philosophy department, and then of regarding the medieval, Renaissance, and modern philosophers mainly as material for the history of ideas. If this practice had succeeded in the long run, it would have effected the dispersion of the tasks of history of philosophy and hence the destruction of its distinctive function within philosophy itself. But the experience of the past quarter century suggests that, while history of philosophy benefits tremendously from the services of philology and history of ideas, it never loses its identity and gets dissolved into these other disciplines. Their work is helpful to it in an instrumental fashion, without requiring either the reduction of these disciplines to a purely instrumental status or the reduction of history of philosophy itself to a shadowy repetition of their findings. Each is serviceable to the other, without either one losing sight of the tasks distinctively set for itself.

That there is more meaning in the ancient philosophical texts than can be delivered in purely philological terms is strikingly witnessed by the continuing effort of philosophers to understand and interpret Plato and Aristotle. It is not surprising that, when Husserl was trying to clear the ground for his later conception of phenomenology, he should feel obliged to proceed through a detailed comparison with Plato's dialectic. Husserl's lectures on First Philosophy take Plato in the ancient world and Descartes in the modern world as two steady landmarks in the philosophical search for foundations. It is primarily in reference to them that his own foundational method gets clarified. Similarly, at the crucial stage where he had to distinguish his own thought from Sartre's type of humanism, Martin Heidegger also had recourse to an interpretation of Plato. The thematic essay on Plato's Doctrine of Truth underlines the relationship between truth and the unconcealed or unhidden quality of philosophical thinking, while at the same time criticizing Plato and western metaphysics for binding truth too closely with ideas and the cultural needs of men. Yet Heidegger's own exegesis of the early Greeks and Plato offends many philosophers as being an outrageous reading of the texts. The significant point in such a reaction is that present philosophical purposes cannot justify just any use of the historical sources. Thus Heidegger's critics firmly imply that the wellbeing of present philosophizing is somehow bound up with a historically sound understanding of the enduring sources of thought.

The ideal of reading the Greek and Latin philosophers in order to gain nourishment for one's own speculations is reaffirmed by two contemporary philosophers, who hold otherwise quite diverse views: Karl Jaspers and Gilbert Ryle. The German existentialist prefaces his sympathetic analyses of Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine with this statement of historical attitude:

We hope to enter into the world of the great philosophers, to make ourselves at home in it, because it is in their company, the best there is, that we can attain to what we ourselves are capable of being. Admittance is open to all. The dwellers in that land are glad to answer provided that we know how to inquire. They show us what they were. They encourage us and make us humble. A great philosopher wants no disciples, but men who are themselves. With all our veneration, we can come closer to them only if we ourselves philosophize.

Thus as Jaspers sees it, there is a creative reciprocity between studying the classical sources in philosophy and developing one's own capacities as a thinker.

For his part, Ryle is much more acerbic about venerating the great philosophers or becoming humble in their presence, since he fears that this can generate the wrong kind of respect and thus can unfit us for critical detection of conceptual confusions. Yet his own scrupulous examination of Plato's Parmenides (with the adjacent dialogues, the Theaetetus and the Sophist) shows that there is a proper sort of respect based on a critical investigation of the problems, as well as a dimension of comparative understanding which develops only from following the historical trail of a problem from its Greek origins into its modern and even quite contemporary reconsiderations.

We cannot even state what was a philosopher's· puzzle, much less what was the direction or efficacy of his attempt to solve it, unless subsequent reflections have thrown a clearer light upon the matter than he was able to do. Whether a commentator has found such a light or only a will-of-the-wisp is always debatable and often very well worth debating. Thus I may be wrong in believing that there are affinities between Plato's enquiries in these dialogues and Hume's and Kant's account of assertions of existence, Kant's account of forms of judgement and categories, Russell's doctrine of propositional functions and theory of types, and, perhaps, more than any other, nearly the whole of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I may be wrong in construing these dialogues as, so to speak, forecasting most of the logical embarrassments into which the infinitely courageous and pertinacious Meinong was to fall. But at least my error, if it is one, does not imply that Plato's puzzles were so factitious or ephemeral that no other serious philosopher has ever experienced any perplexity about them.


Excerpted from Interpreting Modern Philosophy by James Collins. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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