Why is early modern philosophy such a great success? A response to Christia Mercer

In 2008, when I was about to hand in the 580 pages of my professorial dissertation (Habilitation) on Locke’s philosophy of language, Robert Brandom came to visit Berlin for a workshop on his views on the history of philosophy. A paper (by Markus Wild) that I was particularly excited about portrayed Hume as an inferentialist, and thus countered Brandom’s more traditional reading of Hume. In the heated discussion that followed, Brandom dropped what was for me nothing short of a bomb. Faced with refined exegetical evidence, he ultimately ended the conversation by saying something like “I don’t care about these texts. My Hume is an atomist.” (I’m quoting from memory) – I was shocked, not just because of the dismissive attitude towards the efforts of the speaker; rather Brandom seemed to have dismissed an entire methodological approach that unifies a great number of scholars. This approach could be described as a nuanced combination of rational reconstruction and contextualism. Adherents of this fairly widespread way of doing history care about both historical details and the plausibility of the arguments. By dismissing any interest in historical accuracy, Brandom had just committed my 580 pages to the bin. Or so I felt.

According to an intriguing paper by Christia Mercer, Brandom’s attitude is now itself a thing of the past. The attitude in question is “rational reconstructionism”, endorsed by people who mine history for interesting arguments without caring whether the reconstructions of the arguments would be approved by the original authors.* Mercer claims that, at least among English-speaking early modernists, rational reconstructionism has been replaced by contextualism. In the light of this methodological victory, contextualism seems to have been an “obvious success” both with regard to scholarly achievements and in putting the history of early modern philosophy on the map. If my anecdata are a good indication of reality, then early modern philosophy is a lot more well off than, say, medieval philosophy: there seem to be a lot more jobs, editions, and translations coming up and out these days. If Mercer is right, then this success is owing to contextulalism, too. Mercer’s paper is a crisp reconstruction of the methodological debate, and I advise you to read it along with the astute responses by Eric Schliesser and Charlie Huenemann. In what follows, I would like to focus just on one single question: Why is early modern philosophy such a success? Is it really owing to contextualism? My hunch is that the opposite might be true: If any methodological approach is involved in its institutional success, it’s rational reconstructionism.

Why do I think so? Christia Mercer claims that rational reconstructionists and contextualists started out as opposed camps, but ended all up as contextualists for the reason that even rational reconstructionists started caring about historical accuracy. In other words, the early Jonathan Bennett is a rational reconstructionist but the later Bennett is a contextualist insofar as he cares about historical accuracy. While this might be true, I worry that Mercer’s portrait of the disagreement is flawed in one respect. Mercer reconstructs the disagreement between rational recostructionists and contextualists as a debate among historians of philosophy. As I see it, the debate is at least initially one between philosophers and historians of philosophy. Arguably, authors like Brandom and Bennett started their careers as philosophers and used history somewhat instrumentally. In fact, there is an ongiong debate as to what extent history is even part of philosophy.** Now, whatever you think about this debate, the simple fact remains that that there are more philosophers and jobs for philosophers than for historians of philosophy. Thus, I am inclined to believe that the success of early modern philosophy is owing to philosophers being interested in early modern authors. Some famous philosophers advertise their historical heroes and, before you know it, scholarship follows suit. Spinoza is now “relevant”, because a number of famous philosophers find him interesting, not because someone discovers an unknown manuscript of the Ethica in an archive.***

A related worry about Mercer’s reconstruction is that she starts out by treating rational reconstructionism and contextualism as extreme positions. While some proponents of the respective methods might be somewhat radical, most historians of philosophy seem to be working somewhere in the middle of the road where, as I said earler, both context and plausibility of arguments matter. Inside and outside early modern studies, these positions have been related to one another for decennia. Perhaps such studies have not always been published in places as prestigious as JHP, but they have informed scholarship for a long time. So again, what might seem as revolution rather strikes me as a continuation, where research and teaching agendas get increasingly refined once people are prepared to dedicate some money and journal-space to historical scholarship.

While I couldn’t agree more with the methodological pluralism that Mercer advocates, I fear its success is not a result of contextualism. Mercer rightly praises the growing number of works on non-canonical authors, translations and editorial work alongside the common interpretative efforts. But in a revolution I will only begin to believe once philosophy departments start hiring people whose area of specialisation is in translating or editing historical texts of non-canonical figures.

___

* Following Rorty’s famous categorisation, I’d think of Brandom as being invested in Geistesgeschichte rather than mere rational reconstruction.

** See for instance the papers in Philosophy and the Historical Perspective, ed. by Marcel van Ackeren with Lee Klein, OUP 2018.

*** Addendum (5 August): In a similar vein, Jessica Gordon-Roth’s and Nancy Kendrick’s paper on “Recovering early modern women writers” exposes an important problem for the rejection of rational reconstructionism, as advanced by Christia Mercer. In some contexts, such a rejection might nourish the suspicion that there is nothing rational to be reconstructed. They write: “What is impeding our progress in eradicating the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy? […] What we argue is that so often we treat early modern women philosophers’ texts in ways that are different from, or inconsistent with, basic commitments of analytic philosophy and our practices as historians of philosophy working in the analytic tradition. Moreover, this is the case even when we consider the practices of those who take a more historiographical approach. In so doing, we may be triggering our audiences to reject these women as philosophers, and their texts as philosophical. Moreover, this is the case despite our intention to achieve precisely the opposite effect.”

2 thoughts on “Why is early modern philosophy such a great success? A response to Christia Mercer

  1. I have often wondered about your titular question, especially as it bears on the recovery of women philosophers. Scratch a program or panel, issue or course
    on “women philosophers” and it turns out to mean early modern women philosophers–e.g., Project Vox, New Narratives, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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