Monday, July 31, 2006

Why represent historical figures accurately?

Here are some thoughts I had about the history of philosophy. Why should one be concerned with accurately representing the views of historical figures to whom you are attributing? There are a few reasons that I can think of.

If you are criticizing their views, then it makes the most sense to present their views in the best light possible. The strongest formulation of their view will make the best target since it will allow you to attack the most important parts of their position rather than distractions that result from poor formulation. Dispensing with strawmen doesn't add anything to the conversation.

If you are presenting your view as an addition to an older view, then you want to remain true to the original so that you can piggyback on arguments and conclusions. If the historical figure presented an argument for some conclusion that you want to add on to, then changing the conclusion to fit your particular whim may invalidate the argument. This would defeat part of the purpose of attributing to the historical figure. If you want to use the sorts of arguments they used, in the rough forms they used them, then the substance of the attributed views needs to be close to the views they can reasonably be said to have held.

If you are presenting your views as being in the same tradition as another philosopher, then there seems to be less reason for making sure that you are attributing views to them that are exigetically accurate. You don't want to stray to far into left field with the attributions otherwise it will appear that you are (i) completely clueless or (ii) dishonest. Claiming a tradition like this requires a decent amount of honesty. At the very least, it should be clear how a reasonable person undertaking a reasonable reading could arrive at your interpretation. I'm assuming that part of tradition claiming is telling a cohesive historical narrative, which means that going through the steps of reading the historical authors could result in arriving at the end of the story you've told, with proper understanding and hindsight.

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