The Study of the History of Philosophy as an independent discipline to exhibit and explicate philosophical systems as their originators meant them to be understood is less than one hundred years old. On the other hand, philosophers from Plato and Aristotle through the Middle Ages to Bertrand Russell and Richard Rorty have represented the systems of their predecessors in the light of, and as leading to, their own philosophical positions. It is not surprising then that the study of the long history of the history of philosophy itself discloses a series of often greatly divergent expositions of philosophical systems throughout the ages.
The purist conception of the study of the philosophical position of a given philosopher or school of philosophers as meant and understood in the context of the times of that philosopher or school is fairly recent. On this contextual ground, to study any part of the history of philosophy, one must examine and give expositions of philosophers and of the philosophies that influenced them as they were understood in their own times. Such a study of the history of philosophy—call it historicist history of philosophy—further requires knowledge of the history of ideas, of society, and of politics. This historicist stance makes pursuit of the history of philosophy more intricate and more relevant to philosophy per se than is often recognized by philosophers who construct, analyze, and defend contemporary philosophical positions.
When contemporary analytic philosophers direct constructive and analytical work on historical philosophers and historical philosophical positions, this work is called analytic history of philosophy, and it is often undertaken with the goal of advancing contemporary philosophy. A recent analytic philosopher who has specialized in this area is Jonathan Bennett.1 An example of a philosopher who provides a history of philosophy in the classic sense to support his own philosophical position is Richard Rorty.2 [End Page 1]
In 1983, the History of Philosophy Quarterly was established in some part to publish articles in which historical positions and arguments are analyzed using the techniques of contemporary analytic philosophy. Critics of such analytic history of philosophy point out that the philosophical positions that result are by definition and intent not true to the actual positions of the philosophers under consideration. This is true, but to present it as criticism is to miss the point of analytic history of philosophy, which just is to construct, on the foundations of historical systems, reconstructed systems that are more consistent and more relevant to contemporary philosophical issues and problems than are the unrevised historical systems in themselves. To provide explications of philosophical systems as their creators meant them to be is the work of historicist historians of philosophy. Reconstructions of philosophical systems to rectify and improve them to make them comprehensible to philosophers today and relevant to contemporary philosophical issues is the work of analytic historians of philosophy.
Analytic history of philosophy is older than historicist history of philosophy. In fact, it is as old as Western philosophy, and, as I remark above, it has been practiced by philosophers from Plato to Russell and Rorty.
The Journal of the History of Philosophy was established fifty years ago to publish articles in which philosophical texts are examined to explicate what their authors meant in historical—as well as in biographical, scientific, religious, and political—context. This requires that a historicist historian of philosophy know the language in which the text was written, the meanings of philosophical words at the time of its composition, and the general historical, social, and political context in which a given text was written. It goes without saying that the historian is presumed also to have enough general philosophical training to be able to understand, analyze, and assess philosophical arguments.
If my exposition here seems a bit overdone, it might be because a fine historian of philosophy, Gregor Sebba, took me to task, because while he approved of the historicist history of philosophy in my book The Downfall of Cartesianism,3 he disapproved mightily of my critical analyses of the key notions of Cartesians. He correctly saw the book as a bastard mix...