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Reviewed by:
  • Philosophy and the Historical Perspective ed. by Marcel van Ackeren and Lee Klein
  • Sandra Lapointe
Marcel van Ackeren and Lee Klein, editors. Philosophy and the Historical Perspective. Proceedings of the British Academy 214. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. x + 253. Cloth, $85.00.

Philosophy and the Historical Perspective contains fourteen chapters, each of which is an attempt to enrich our conception of the relationship of analytical philosophy to history. Some chapters seek insight from the philosophical canon: Robert Pippin (chapter 10) offers an insightful discussion of Hegel's historiographical methodology, and Brian Leiter (chapter 11) presents aspects of Nietzsche's. Many of the chapters set research agendas that would deserve entire volumes. For instance, van Ackeren (chapter 4) asks whether there are transhistorical philosophical problems, and Thomas Grundmann (chapter 3) what philosophical progress looks like. Christof Rapp (chapter 7) casts doubt on the idea that hard-core analytic philosophers like Austin and Ryle were committed to antihistoricism. He draws a remarkably detailed picture of the way in which, by modeling a new type of philosophical engagement with ancient authors—one informed by standard historiographical or philological concerns, yet not driven by them—they both contributed to transforming classical scholarship and to shaping a distinctively analytical approach to ancient philosophy. I wish I could discuss the latter in more detail, and if I am selective, it is not for lack of interest. [End Page 830]

The bulk of the chapters, including van Ackeren's (introduction and chapter 4), Hans-Johann Glock's (chapter 1), Michael Della Rocca's (chapter 5), and Dominik Perler's (chapter 8), ask a similar question: what kind and what degree of "historicism" are appropriate in philosophy? I find it difficult to assess their views. Participants in the so-called instrumentalism debate commonly make assumptions about matters that are no less fundamental than the questions they seek to answer, each feeding into more or less tacit conceptions of the nature of and the connection between philosophy and history. This in turn calls for consideration of (i) the purpose of philosophy, (ii) the aims and methods of historiographical and philological inquiry, (iii) the metaphysics of disciplines and social institutions, (iv) the sociology of humanistic knowledge, (v) the linguistic and (vi) psychological dimensions of knowledge transmission, as well as (vii) the epistemology of textual interpretation, among other things. Given the complexity of these questions—and it would be wrong to dismiss these concerns to fit simpler, more manageable inquiries—I believe the answers they provide are tentative at best.

The good news is that this volume contains contributions that genuinely move forward research on the foundations of methodology in the history of philosophy. John Marenbon (chapter 2) sets the proper tone: the value of history for philosophy, whatever it turns out to be, resides in its methods; therefore, we need to understand what they are. On Marenbon's view, texts are the repository of philosophical arguments and ought to be evaluated as such. The crucial question then is, how should historians select their material, given that past philosophical concerns often cease to be perceived as pertaining to philosophy by practitioners downstream? Marenbon argues that breadth and comprehensiveness are imperative, but impeded by a certain conception of the canon, one focused on the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and on what comes after the sixteenth century, in one single geographical region: the West. Marenbon is right to point out that this conception of the canon reflects an unfortunate tendency to whiggishness that makes the resulting narratives at once narrow and partial. And he is also right that change needs to be propelled by a reassessment of the status of methodology in the history of philosophy.

Noteworthy is the book's succeeding in documenting an important emerging trend in the field: the suggestion that historical reflection is the metacognitive vehicle of disciplinary hygiene. Christina Van Dyke (chapter 9), for one, argues that history of philosophy can play a "corrective" role: when we analyze the development of key concepts in context, we are in a position to unveil problematic prejudices. In that sense at least, contextualization is a genuine philosophical resource, a point she aptly illustrates with examples from...


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