Sarah Hutton: Towards a ‘Conversation Model’ in the History of Ideas

History of European IdeasIn a 2014 essay entitled Intellectual History of Philosophy, Sarah Hutton (University of York) addresses what she considers to be a significant problem in the Anglophone tradition of the history of Philosophy, namely a rather sharp separation between the history of Philosophy proper and the history of ideas. According to this tradition, the former analyzes philosophical ideas expressed by people in the past with reference to present day philosophical problems.  The history of ideas on the other hand – so the tradition goes – is mainly concerned with  more peripheral matters, like the social-political context of thinkers in the past.

Hutton rejects this bifurcation arguing that (traditional) history of Philosophy its not worthy of the term “history” as it does not follow a truly historical approach.  In line with Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School she bewails the “historical absurdities” that have been spread by scholars who failed to situate philosophers and their ideas within their broader historical context. Some describe the history of Philosophy as a “continuing conceptual dialogue between the living and the dead.” This approach, however, is problematic because the starting point of this dialogue is always the present. It is contemporary philosophers who get to decide not only on the topic(s) of the conversation, but also on the conversation partners. Histories of philosophy in this tradition inevitably end up being biased renderings of the past.

In the final section of her paper, Hutton proposes her own approach which she labels a “conversation model” of the history of Philosophy and summarizes as follows:

[T]he history of philosophy might fruitfully be treated as an ongoing conversation—not a oneway conversation between present and past, but a series of conversations in a variety of directions, all located in the past. The conversation which I have in mind is not one between the living and dead, but a historicised ‘conversation’ among the dead. Crucially, to pursue the history of philosophy as an inter-philosophical dialogue is not to track a oneway conversation between modern philosophy and the past. But it historicises that dialogue, eschewing as far as possible the perspective of the present by returning it to its original context.

This approach does justice to the particular nature of philosophical discourse that has always exhibited a strong indebtedness to ideas of the past. Secondly, it avoids the pitfalls of the so-called “great thinker model” with its exclusive focus on some towering figures in the history of ideas. By exploring the web of conversations, also lesser known figures will be given their proper due. Thirdly, the “conversation model” encourages reflection on how ideas have been received and adapted over time as the conversation among philosophers was carried on.

Hutton, Sarah. “Intellectual History and the History of Philosophy.” History of European Ideas 40, no. 7 (2014): 925–937.

Whiggism and Reformed Scholasticism

While preparing for an upcoming class on Protestant Scholasticism, I re-read an article by Richard A. Muller in an excellent collection of  essays on the “Return of Religion” in intellectual history edited by Alister Chapman, John Coffey, and Brad S. Gregory. In this piece, Muller argues that much of the older research dealing with early modern Protestant thought suffers from a certain “Whiggism” (Sir Herbert Butterfield). He explains:

The Whig party of the eighteenth century is the ancestor of modern British liberalism – with reference to historical method and to an underlying, often unanalyzed, assumption in historiography, the term indicates not only a sense of progress in history but a consistent reading of the past with primary reference to the present. There has been, in other words, a fundamental tendency in theological and philosophical historiography to identify what is important in a past era on the basis of the seeming importance, influence, or relevance of a person, idea, or event to the present-day self-understanding of the writer or the society, rather than asking the documents of the past era what persons, ideas, or events were then understood as important or influential – or, indeed, rather than asking the documents themselves what concepts, language, and contexts are requisite to the understanding of the documents!

Although past decades have seen a considerable shift in historical scholarship on early modern thought, it appears to me that “Whiggism” is still very much of a problem, particularly among theologians with a strong confessional interest.