Two Reviews and an Analysis

(Hermeneutics and the history of philosophy)

"The Dream of Reason:
A History of Philosophy
from the Greeks to the Renaissance"
(Anthony Gottlieb)

This is probably one of the best texts on the history of philosophy that I have read. Gottlieb covers the history of ideas from the pre-Socratics to the enlightenment, barely skirting over medieval philosophy. Gottlieb's is more of a chatty humanities text, than a hardcore history (like Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy" or Durant's "Story of Philosophy"). It covers the classic thinkers in more of an exploratory way, like a philosopher going back to basics with a hint of nostalgia. This view, while lacking analytic depth, does serve to recontextualize the task of philosophy up until the present (where the vogue seems to be declaring "philosophy is dead") through the common common threads leading from Thales to Aristotle, and from Aristotle to the Enlightenment (Descartes).

The view presents the common theme of the great philosophers being brave enough to step back from the explanatory power of gods and mythology, and present the nature of the world through the exploration of reason. While some of the ideas the ancients spoke of may no longer be valid (imagine a modern philosophical debate about water being the root of existence), the general thread of inquiry still remains valid. While it is certainly possible to dismiss philosophies earliest disciples for their, now quaint and odd sounding, theories, Gottlieb injects a certain aura of greatness into these forgotten figures.

Three paths seem to lead through this account of history, that of Socrates, that of Pythagorus, and that of Aristotle, the first two died off at the end of antiquity, while the last (though disappearing for a thousand years into obscurity) burst upon the scene of the late middle ages, sparking the enlightenment, and thus modernity. The author takes it to task to defend the philosophers of the far past against the harsh light, and interpretations, cast upon them through modern thought. He gives them the benefit of the doubt, and lauds their efforts more than their achievements. Indeed, he raises them to the level of intellectual superheros, caped in skepticism and pure ideas, fighting against to forces of intellectual apathy and religious authority.

This book allows one to see history in a fresh light, and to see our predecessors anew, fresh, and on their own terms.

Gottlieb's agenda is to dust the elitism of modernity off from these old minds, and to see them as they were in their times, he injects hardly any of his own thoughts into the great debate of philosophy, this can be contrasted with the next book I review:

"A History of Philosophy
in the Twentieth Century"
(Christian Delacampagne)

Delacampagne's book, at first glance, seems to be the modern counterpart of Gottliebs work, covering the history of thought from the 1890s, until the extremely recent. it explores philosophy from Frege and Husserl to Rorty and Habermas, and tries to cover the movements (and combinations) of both continental and western (anglophone) analytical philosophy, from their common ancestry in the works of Kant, and commentary of Frege, where Husserl lead to phenomenology and Heidegger, which furthered the gulf between the continental school from the analytics and linguistic philosophy of U.S. and England. The march of these two remarkably different ideologies, from common Kantian roots, is fascinating to watch as it plays through the pages. The narrative is scarred by momentous human events, and truly shapes and is shaped by the events of the era. This book helps remove the idea that ideas work in a vacuum, they are deeply contextualized in the times in which they are conceived.

The three events that seem to motivate Delacampagne's view of the narrative are Marx, Heidegger, and World War II (with special emphasis on the atrocity and unreason of the Holocaust). Saying that Marx and Heidegger are events seems odd at first site, but these two thinkers play heavy in the author's agenda. Yes, Delacampagne, unlike Gottlieb, has a serious philosophical agenda (and at times an axe to grind) in his interpretation of the modern history of philosophy. At times this bias becomes so heavy handed that it makes the book are to take seriously. His view can be seen as the exact opposite of that presented by Gottlieb, where Gottlieb shrouds his actors in naiveté, Delacampagne smothers his in jaded humanity and discouragement.

The first bias that Delacampagne passes on to the reader is his firm dislike for Heidegger, at times he goes out of his way to crush Heidegger's weight as a philosopher. His main motivation seems to be Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi party, and his incommensurable refusal to explain or apologize for his involvement with the atrocious events of Nazi Germany. Delacampagne colors the full of Heidegger's philosophy with the specter of fascism, even where such reasoning is spurious at best. The author would wish as to dismiss Heidegger as merely a "nazi philosopher", while ironically exploring the rich influence Heidegger has had upon the full landscape of European philosophy. While trying to destroy Heidegger, he turns him into a Giant, Heidegger becomes one of the pillars of continental philosophy in spite of the authors intentions to the contrary. The other idol in the text is Marx, who the author barely hides his admiration and sympathies for.

To the author, it would seem, one could not be a "real" philosopher unless on embraced politics (one of his stated themes) and especially the politics of left, namely Marxism. Philosophers who either rested on the right, or denied Marx are seen as less important than they actually were, and as have less intellectual standing as they indeed did. This does fall within the authors stated goal of trying to reconnect philosophy to humanitarian politics, in that philosophers have the responsibility of throwing world conditions into light, this view might be inherited from the authors angst over the Holocaust, the other recurrent actor of the book. The Marxist narrative gets so prominent half-way through the text that it becomes a qualifier towards each person he touches upon.

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Between these two books a phenomena becomes apparent, that given a collection of facts (in this case historical texts), authorship lies in interpretation. The facts are meaningless in themselves, they only acquire meaning through context, and the only way to bestow meaning is through authorship. This is pretty standard hermeneutics, it is the creation of meaning from objective points. In the case of a history the facts are aligned temporally, and the act of hermeneutic authorship is placing them into a relational context with each other, and other events (in an act of constrained subjectivity), only through this can events be filled with meaning, and this meaning is in part dependent on author and authorship. Authorship becomes interpretation.

To an extent I think this would be applicable to all human interpretation of objective data. Meaning only becomes apparent through the interpretation of events, the application of context (via other events), and connection. Wouldn't more rational pursuits suffer this too, like science? Given empirical data, couldn't the scientist be seen as the author of theory? The context would then lie both in other empirical data, and the general episteme (or paradigm) of science as discipline. The context is important because it constrains possible interpretations of data. Thus it can be said that the facts (or experiences) become the objective restraint to interpretation, while the context becomes subjective constraint, the former is absolute, while the latter serves only to set the bounds of the text as a whole.

Given perfect experience (or apparatus), interpretation could still change, while the facts remain immutable. The context is limiting because it limits what we can see.

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