You might think, from my last post, that I would condemn the way Jonathan Bennett does history of philosophy. But Bennett is an exception. Bennett’s critics often charge him with historical insensitivity and anachronism. To exaggerate a bit, they say something along the lines of “Bennett treats historical texts as if they were published yesterday. He ignores context, and applies all sorts of distinctions and methods known only to contemporary analytic philosophers.” Several philosophers said this sort of thing around the time I was in grad school, since for a while there (mid and late 90s) historians of philosophy got interested in methodological reflections. But Bennett takes on this charge in the introduction to his 2-volume Learning from Six Philosophers, and to my mind he is successful. He calls his approach “the collegial approach,” since he is interested in learning from the Great Dead as colleagues. He doesn’t have much interest in getting the history straight for the sake of historical knowledge. His interest is in philosophy, and he has found that studying these historical figures is a great way to get clear about the philosophical issues involved. Even if the collegial approach leads him into dubious interpretations — and he doesn’t admit that it does, but even if it does — the philosophical payoff is a sufficient return. We might put it this way: some people do philosophy by studying recent journal articles and going to conferences, some do it by staring off into space, but Bennett does it by wrestling with old texts and pressing his own questions against them. That’s a respectable thing to do, I think. But here’s the catch: you have to be a really good philosopher, like Bennett is. Otherwise you end up with dubious interpretations lacking any philosophical merit. My own approach? Something else again — another post.
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