Friday, January 01, 2016


Traditional Scholarship

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905-1999), Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays, expanded edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. viii-ix:
The kind of philosophical, historical, and literary scholarship that is based on the tested methods of philology and on the careful interpretation of original texts and documents—in my view, the only valid basis—is held in contempt and dismissed as "traditional," not only by journalists and popular writers but also by many members of the academic community. They prefer to work from translations and secondary literature, and to use approaches and methods that are reductionist, purely speculative, arbitrary, or even journalistic (but advertised as novel and superior to "traditional" methods) in the name of psychology, new historicism, social history, Marxism, literary criticism or theory, structuralism or deconstructionism, linguistics, analytical philosophy, or hermeneutics; and they often pretend to discover the secret thought of past thinkers and writers that is actually contrary to the straight meaning of their writings.

In a more recent paper ("Philosophy and Its Historiography," The Journal of Philosophy [1985, 82:618-625]), I called these methods "ventriloquistic," and I am amused to note that a recent practitioner of these methods has tried to give a positive twist to this term. I should also like to call them "extratextual," alluding to the fashionable use of textuality and intertextuality, artificial terms that add nothing except an aura of novelty to the well-known study of sources and influences. All these methods have in common a contempt for what the sources tell us, and a desperate wish to know what the sources do not and cannot tell us. The proponents of these approaches believe that they enrich history by imposing some present ideas on the past, but in fact they impoverish the present and the future by foregoing the chance of enriching modern readers with the additional or alternative ideas and insights that the literature of the past, much of it neglected or forgotten, can offer them. All this is defended with an uncritical kind of relativism that claims that all interpretations are equally valid, without any recognition of the fact that some are valid, some are uncertain or impossible, and some are plainly wrong and in contrast with the ascertained facts and with the rules of logical discourse and consistency. Much use is made of what I like to call the argumentum ex ignorantia, that is, the naive or intentional disregard of well-established facts and the setting forth of ideas contrary to the author's opinions—all cheerfully presented under the (correct) assumption that the readers and critics, who are equally ignorant, will not know the difference. Yet I do not wish to exaggerate, and I gladly admit that many excellent studies have been published in recent years, by older and younger scholars alike. who have either ignored the fashionable errors to which I allude or made but minor concessions to them.

I may be too old to understand or appreciate these new trends and their purported value. But I know many younger scholars who share my views, who are hampered in their careers by the political and academic power of the modern charlatans, and cannot afford to say in public what they think about these methods and their proponents. Because I can afford to say what I think, I feel obliged to do so, and to speak on behalf of many younger scholars and of the continuing scholarly tradition, which I hope will survive the current fads and follies as it has survived so many earlier ones.
Paul Oskar Kristeller, "Philosophy and its Historiography," Journal of Philosophy 82 (1985) 618-625 (at 622-623):
Many philosophers believe that it is not necessary to read the original writings of a past thinker if we wish to understand his thought. Good translations, it is argued, and even secondary accounts, are quite sufficient for the purpose. This view is in my opinion completely wrong. Translations always contain more or less serious mistakes, and they always blur and distort the original terminology of an author, either by translating an important term inconsistently or by rendering it through terms that have different overtones. It has been argued that there are difficult passages in Aristotle on which even Greek scholars disagree. Yet there are many more passages in Aristotle on which all Greek scholars agree. Anything written on Greek philosophy by a person who knows little or no Greek, whatever his other merits or gifts, has no validity or authority whatsoever. I advise my colleagues, philosophers and others alike, never to publish anything about ancient philosophy without knowing Greek, or about medieval, Renaissance, or early modern philosophy without knowing Latin. I wish to add that I follow this rule myself. I have never written, and shall never write, about philosophers whom I am unable to read in their original language, whether it be Chinese or Sanskrit, Arabic or Hebrew, Russian or Danish.

It has frequently been argued that our interpretation of past thinkers is inevitably affected by our own outlook. I admit that every past thinker allows in his work a wide range of possible interpretations, and that our own outlook will influence the choice of the thinkers and problems we wish to investigate. Yet those who stress this subjective aspect in their hermeneutics or theory of interpretation overlook another equally important factor: the body of texts that we try to understand sets a limit to the possible interpretations to which we may submit it. Some translations and interpretations of a given text are clearly right, and others are clearly wrong, whereas others again may be possible but uncertain. Languages and their grammar, like mathematics, have an iron core of correctness which sets limits to our choice of interpretations. We have general and special dictionaries and concordances which prove that certain renderings are correct or at least possible, whereas others are clearly incorrect and impossible. We also may arrive at the correct meaning of a passage by not treating it in isolation, but in its grammatical context and with the help of parallel passages found in the same author or in other authors. These are elementary philological tricks which often turn out to be useful also in the interpretation of more or less difficult philosophical texts. A text attributed to an author may on good evidence be rejected as apocryphal, and any interpretation of the author based on this text thus becomes invalid.

I also oppose the tendency, widespread among recent philosophers and historians of philosophy, to guess the secret thought of earlier thinkers, often in open disregard of their extant writings. No author ever expressed in his writings all his thoughts, to be sure, but we have no way of reconstructing his thought other than through his writings (including the unpublished ones). We have no key to his unexpressed thoughts, and no device, chemical or otherwise, to read what he said between the lines. A historian of philosophy who attributes to a past thinker ideas which are not found in his writings but which happen to agree with the not so secret thoughts of the historian himself, is actually practising a kind of ventriloquism.

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