Reframing the Historiography of Philosophy: A Dialectic Approach

Kant considered it a scandal that philosophy, unlike science, had been spending its time in fruitless debates, which hindered its progress. In this session, we question Kant’s assessment, and suggest an approach to the history of philosophy that considers controversy as essential in the evolution of philosophical ideas. In his recent work on the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel has demonstrated the role of the intense debate around radically new philosophical ideas in creating the conceptual underpinnings of revolution and of a new social order. Randall Collins, from another perspective, has highlighted the role of debate in the rise and fall of philosophical schools. Both have thus shown that, without a decidedly ‘dialectical’ approach to intellectual history, especially to the history of philosophy, its understanding and influence can hardly be grasped. As this session will show, this is true not only at the macro-level of relatively long term intellectual conflicts and their effects, but also at the micro-level of detailed analysis and understanding of philosophical texts – their concepts, theses, arguments, theories, and relevance. What we mean by ‘dialectical reframing’ owes much, of course, to the various traditional meanings of ‘dialectics’. Yet, emphasizing the actual activity of debate as the engine of philosophical and intellectual change, permits to investigate how key ideas, such as rationality, emerge through debate, rather than being its given a priori condition.
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