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Only slightly less contentious than the debate about how philosophy links up with our current world is the debate about how we can best make sense of past philosophical works. The most common approach today is simply to make historical philosophers out to have been saying things we would still find interesting and relevant, if we understood their words correctly: this group of researchers aims to save the arguments of great minds from an obscurity partly self-inflicted, partly created by the preoccupations of the present age. The second most common method is to focus on context, not argument: the significance of intellectual history is in noting the relationships of influence that directed inquiry this way, then that way, until we wind down the years and arrive at our current predicament.
The question about historical methods does not break down along the lines of the analytic/continental divide: although argument-based studies like Strawson’s study of Kant are high on the agenda for contemporary analysis, the work of Alain Badiou defers to souped-up versions of Plato and Hegel in much the same way; on the other hand, study of the famous “paradigms” and the situation of theories within them distributes evenly over all divisions in the history of science, from interpretations of quantum mechanics to the “archeology of the human sciences”. But one style of historical interpretation is missing from both camps at present: that method which, by identifying the world-historical dependencies of a particular line of thought, brought its story fully into contact with the main drifts of historical motion.
The exemplary practitioner of this method would be Marx, in all his seasons. In fact, the constancy of his approach to philosophers and other theorists suggests the method is not unique to him, some “epistemological rupture” forever shifting the way we thought about the world (until it shifted back under the influence of even more august figures like Milton Friedman and Dr. Phil). Even though Marx cannot be said to be the first to have systematically applied the thought “cui bono?” to all elements of theorization, he should be a classic example of it. However, Marx’s intellectual history is no kind of classic today, not because it has been decisively refuted, but because the conditions of intellectual discourse necessary to appropriate him thusly – and not as a “prophet of extremity” – do not exist at the present time.
To my mind one figure is responsible for a disproportionate share of this neglect: Heidegger, who in his later years promulgated a “history of being” intended to demonstrate both the historicity of metaphysics and its importance for historical “happening” generally. According to Heidegger, the philosophical decisions made by the Greeks concerning truth and being were fateful in many ways, determining not only the way Westerners thought about the historical world but also the constituent elements of that world-process itself: this linchpin, Ereignis, was equal parts “appropriation” and “event”. Although there are fewer admirers of this strain in Heidegger’s thought today than in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the flabbiness in its treatment of the distinction between antiquity and modernity, as well as its coziness with intellectually blinkered and socially repressive orders, persists.
It persists both in those who attempt to take heed of Heidegger’s proclamations at the price of relevance and clarity, and those left without serious polemical opponents for their “rational reconstructions”. We need another genre of philosophical history, to make clear what this itself historical process obscures.