Sunday, February 10, 2008

Engaging persons or ideas

[My worries about history requirements reminded me of this old draft from a couple of years ago that I never got around to publishing. Better late than never, I suppose.]

It often happens that a reader "takes away" something quite different from a piece of writing than the original author intended. Does this matter? I think that the answer is "sometimes", but I'd like to get clearer on precisely which times those are.

Let's say a blogger goes away and writes up a response to the idea X they "took home" from another writer W, whom it turns out really meant to say Y instead. I'm wondering: in what circumstances is the latter fact relevant? This seems to turn on the further question: is the blogger engaging with idea X for its own sake, or are they instead trying to respond to whatever person W might be saying? Which should they be doing? Here are a few cases where engaging with the person (and their actual claims) seems important:

1) If you insult or dismiss W on the basis of what they're (allegedly) saying.

2) If W is specifically trying to engage you, say by offering an objection to an earlier argument of yours.

3) If you're in a forum where W gets to choose the topic, e.g. commenting on their blog post.

Are there any others?

Those cases aside, I'm partial to the "disembodied ideas" approach, myself. Of course, it's worth listening to W all the same, because this new idea Y might be more interesting-in-itself and worthy of your attention than X was. But if not, that's fine too. As a general rule, the intellectual interest of an idea shouldn't turn on which particular people believe it. (Though I guess winning the support of a reliably discerning person might constitute 'abstract'- or meta-evidence that an idea is worth a closer look.)

Public interest may be another issue: of all the possible bad arguments out there in logical space, we're usually only interested in refuting the ones that are (or threaten to be) actually taken seriously by a significant section of society. Even so, the Writer's personal beliefs don't seem directly relevant here. But perhaps egregious misreadings are. That is, if nobody else is likely to interpret W the way you did (as arguing for X, say), and no-one else has defended X either, then arguing against it doesn't serve much of a public purpose. But hey, not everything has to: if you found it interesting to clarify the issue in your own mind, or whatever, then that's fine. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that.

To address the flip-side: how should we, as writers, react when others offer false "responses" to our posts, e.g. criticising claims that we're not really committed to? Again, it may depend on the particular situation, but it seems like the ideal would simply be to clarify your position without forcing the other person on to the defensive. (E.g. "Note that my post merely meant to establish Y, which is consistent with your denial of X. So I don't think we really disagree here.") Focusing on the assessment of disembodied ideas seems more likely to lead to a pleasant exchange than some of the more conflict-ridden person-involving alternatives.

(Which is not to say that I always live up to these ideals, of course.)

P.S. A related question for historians of philosophy: is it intrinsically important to discover what old philosophers "really" meant, or should we use them more instrumentally, to garner whatever interesting ideas they might suggest to us? (Or do you think that the historical task is essential to the instrumental one?)


  1. Richard,

    "A related question for historians of philosophy: is it intrinsically important to discover what old philosophers "really" meant, or should we use them more instrumentally, to garner whatever interesting ideas they might suggest to us? (Or do you think that the historical task is essential to the instrumental one?)"

    The answer depends on what exactly the question is. The question could be taken to be: (1) How should historians of philosophy do the history of philosophy? Or it could be something like: (2) How should we as philosophers engage with text from the past?

    The answer to (2) depends on what our philosophical aim is: are we studying the history of philosophy for its own sake, or are we trying to settle the truth of the matter about some particular philosophical issue? I think that within philosophy as a discipline there is (and should be) space for both approaches. Some people (certainly not you, from everything I know) think that only the latter is "real" philosophy, and have no respect for the history of philosophy as an independent philosophical endeavor. It seems to me that both projects are deserving of the title of academic philosophy and that both projects are of intrinsic worth and intellectual interest. (Which is not to say that every philosopher should be interested or well-versed in the history of philosophy or in contemporary philosophy of language!) Now if someone does take up the history of philosophy in order to illuminate some issue of relevance in contemporary philosophy, then more power to him or her, I think. But this sort of instrumental approach should not be exhaustive of how philosophy relates to its history.

    Assuming that the history of philosophy itself is a worthwhile project, Question (1) is about the aims of that project. At one extreme, one could advocate a kind of historicism. Sometimes I am sympathetic to this, or at the very least, I am appreciative of it, when it is done well, even if I don't think it is the *only* way one should do the history of philosophy. What Hegel or Nietzsche actually intended to say often is just of intrinsic interest to me. (Or if "actually intended to say" is too strong, and I suspect it is, then rather what we can *plausibly hypothesize* that they meant based on the texts we have before us and what we know about their historical context.)

    But more often, as a historian, I tend to favor a kind of philosophical reconstructivism, as it might be called. How can we interpret Nietzsche, for example, so that his claims turn out to be philosophically-appealing, while at the same time hewing to the spirit of the text? In that case, what Nietzsche actually meant, or most likely meant, is less important than what we can *interpret* him as meaning. And whether those reconstructed claims are unassailably correct or not is less important (at least from the perspective of the history of philosophy) than whether they are consonant with the texts that we are trying to make sense of--or at least consonant with the spirit of those texts.

  2. It is intrinsically important as a means to discover what philosophers "really" meant, or else you're not "really" reading them. At the same time, it is important as an end to instrumentally interpret them, or else you're not being very interesting.

  3. It seems to me that even if the argument is based on a false or inaccurate reading it could lead to further interesting thoughts.

    Anyone down the line can see where the misunderstanding might have happened. The original thought is still there, so the only danger, as I see it, is in the subsequent thought directing all future discourse. Which seems a remote possibility in an age of immediate feedback and refutation.


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