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ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE PAST WALTERCERF The understanding of the past is a very general subject. There is a constant danger in philosophy of being too general too early. In the main, I am going to discuss philosophy's relation to its past; and I want to be rather specific. I want to present in some detail examples of two quite different ways of philosophy's understanding of its past. However, I shall start with a non-philosopher. I shall start with Picasso. The Metropolitan Museum in New York once advertised some publications or courses the museum was offering to the public. The advertisement showed a Picasso painting. There was no question at all about its being a Picasso; and the ad said it was a Picasso. But then came a teaser, a teaser in the form of a question. The question was, if I remember correctly, like this: What old Dutch painting was the model for this Picasso painting?' There could not possibly seem to be an answer to the question. If any painting, from those of the cave-men to the Impressionists, could have served as model, every painting could. And yet there was an answer. The answer was The Artist in his Studio, by Vermeer, that superb craftsman in rendering light and the effects of light on the atmosphere of very Dutch interiors, On the people in them, on their precious silks and prized possessions . Nothing whatsoever of all this was preserved in the Picasso painting. Picasso had brutally eliminated everything that is ravishing in Vermeer. He had turned it into an abstract composition of planes with colour smears on them. However, the proportions of these planes, their shapes, and their relations to each other had considerable resemblance to Vermeer's composition if viewed abstractly. Picasso had translated Vermeer's style into his own. Or if we look at artists as solvers of artistic problems, Picasso had taken Vermeer's solution to Vermeer's artistic problem as an occasion to tum it into a solution of one of his own artistic problems. The art historian is at the 'opposite pole. The historical scholar, the scholar in the history of the fine arts, does not wish to translate Vermeer's style (or language) into that of his own time. He does not aim at making Vermeer 'relevant' by connecting him with the artistic problems of our Volume XLI, Number I, Autumn 1971 own painters. Just the opposite, he wishes to know as succinctly as is possible in this field, what the artistic problems of Vermeer himself were. He wishes to explain how Vermeer came to have these problems and how he came to solve them as he did. Obviously and perhaps trivially, the creative artist's relation to the artistic past is entirely different from the historical scholar's approach. Like hummingbird and bee they fly occasionally to the same flowers for nourishment, but their approach Sights are very different. And they don't fear each other. 'There is no hostiliry between them. 'There might be hostiliry between them if they had to share the same residence - as in university fine arts departments, where artists and scholars are housed under the same roof. Similar observations could be made and are constantly made about English literature departments. How about the natural sciences? 'The history of the natural sciences is surely not a subject in natural science. And in fact, we observe more and more departments or institutes in the history of science becoming detached from the science departments. In philosophy the situation is quite different. To be sure, departments of philosophy do fight about how much weight to give to the historical courses in the training of students. During the last thirty years there has been a considerable shifting of weight from the history of philosophy courses to the philosophy courses. Yet, as far as I know, no philosopher in any country has ever expressed doubts about history of philosophy courses belonging integrally to the philosophy department. It is an amazing fact. For it would seem that practising, 'creative' philosophers have a relation to the past of philosophy not at all unlike that of Picasso to Vermeer; and...


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