Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Philosophical Historian's Conundrum

As I was walking down the hallway I looked at L's office and the idea became clear. L has a t-shirt on a chair somewhere in his office. The t-shirt says something like "Hume's Society ...". I then looked at L. He was working hard on... Hume. Presumably. This brought two ideas to mind:

1) Philosophers that are interested in the history of philosophy and, particularly, in this or that person's philosophical views, must really like the latter's philosophical views.

2) Those historical philosophical characters, like Hume and Aristotle, must really have had very strange and complicated views (or at least, very odd and obscure ways of presenting them) for there to be so many philosophers interested in properly interpreting there ideas. If it takes generations and generations of X-scholars to get clear what X says, there must be "something" wrong with what X says.

I wonder, then: why is (1) the case? Isn't (2) good enough reason for there not to be instances of (1)? Put the other way around: why is (2) the case? Isn't a long standing tradition of instances of (1) good enough to sort out the problem posed by (2)? The problem is more complicated though: it seems not only that (1) and (2) should eliminate each other, but that they can only exist each in virtue of the other. There shouldn't be any interesting X-scholar job being done if there were no (2)-like problems with respect to X. And we wouldn't find any interesting problems with X's philosophical views unless there were some highly interested X-scholars pointing them out.

That's the philosophical historian's conundrum: their problem-solving, interpretation-finding, project is interesting if and only if their X-philosopher somehow messed up. But if X messed up, why should they care about her work?