After writing my previous post about history and the love of literature, I realized there’s a lot more one could say about the way history can deepen our appreciation of a work of literature – and perhaps even more so of philosophy, where I’ve thought about the question a lot more. I noted Herder’s recognition of the differences between eras, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that. It’s a particularly important point to make within philosophy, since it’s at the heart of the analytic-continental divide: analytic philosophers typically appreciate the truth of philosophical texts but without reference to their historical context, and continental philosophers typically learn about the historical context of texts without reference to their truth.
I am not satisfied with either of these approaches, because I think learning the historical context of a text is directly relevant to assessing its truth. And I think it’s time to unpack what I mean by that a bit more.
A starting point here is the importance of assumptions to arguments. It is characteristic of analytic philosophy to reason from “intuitions” that “we” share. But the term “intuition” is misleading, since what we call “intuitions” are the historically specific judgements of the particular “we” in one historical and geographical context. Those judgements are often not shared by philosophers from other times and places. And so if we are going to get something out of the philosophical works of other times and places – which we should do, if we do not wish to confine ourselves to a stubbornly navel-gazing parochialism – then we need to understand their assumptions and not just our own.
The most helpful way I know to get at those assumptions is to follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice of seeking to understand the apparent absurdities in a text and how an intelligent person could have written them. That approach led me to the core ideas of my dissertation, and from there to the Disengaged Buddhism article: recognizing that Śāntideva simply didn’t share our taken-for-granted view that the best way to benefit people is by providing them with material goods or status.
Kuhn’s advice has a lot in common with Friedrich Schleiermacher’s psychological hermeneutics: meaning is made by people, and to understand a text one needs to understand its author and what the author meant. Schleiermacher’s approach to interpretation is already historical in that respect: one needs to understand the author and the historical world that shaped the author’s worldview. Without that historical background, one is going to miss what is going on in the text, and so one appreciates it more fully with a recognition of its historical context.
But Schleiermacher leaves something out of that analysis, something that Hans-Georg Gadamer makes the focus of his own approach to interpretation. On Schleiermacher’s view, the author can be basically transparent to us; we can understand the author better than she understood herself. But Gadamer argues that that is not how understanding actually works. To any attempt to understand texts from other times and places, we bring our own set of unstated, often unthought, assumptions – call them intuitions or, as Gadamer does, call them prejudices (Vorurteilen).
Schleiermacher might be able to grant this claim and say we should then try to shed our prejudices to understand the author in her own terms. But on Gadamer’s view, that would misunderstand the nature of human understanding and knowing. The culture that shapes us, and the prejudices (and language!) that constitute it, makes understanding possible in the first place. We never really leave it behind; even the zealous convert to a new tradition still carries with her all the history of her life beforehand. Thus to understand the author from another time requires not merely that we understand that author’s context, but that we understand our own context as well: both in terms of the way our context differs from the historical context, and in terms of the relation between those contexts. The latter is what Gadamer calls the “history of effects” (Wirkungsgeschichte): for example, if we in the 21st-century West really want to understand Buddhism, we need to know about figures like Henry Steel Olcott who brought Buddhism to the West, and the ways in which their views continue to shape our own understanding of what Buddhism is (in ways from corporate mindfulness to Engaged Buddhism).
Gadamer stresses all these points in part because for him application is a key part of understanding. In that respect there is an affinity between his view and Bloom’s Taxonomy: one really understands something when one can do something with it, such as translate.
And it seems to me that a particularly important part of application – at least in philosophy, perhaps less so in literature – is to ask: is this idea true? Is it actually the case that gifts are better thought of in terms of the mental states they generate than the material benefits to the recipient? Many, I think, would argue that truth is something independent of historical context, at least on, say, empirical questions about the world. But that point is complicated even on those questions. Even if truth exists independently of us, justification does not. To assess the truth of an idea requires examining it in the light of our other presuppositions – presuppositions that, within a field of inquiry, constitute a theoretical system or paradigm. Lakatos, along with Kuhn, shows us that this is true in the natural sciences as well as in philosophy. Where Lakatos is particularly helpful is in reminding us that this historical embeddedness is not the enemy of truth: scientific progress still happens, paradigms are still commensurable. But they are commensurable through the stories of their progress and anomalies.