Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas

History and Theory 8 (1):3-53 (1969)


Emphasis on autonomy of texts presupposes that there are perennial concepts. But researchers' expectations may turn history into mythology of ideas; researchers forget that an agent cannot be described as doing something he could not understand as a description, and that thinking may be inconsistent. They will never uncover voluntary oblique strategies and by treating ideas as units will confuse sentences with statements. On the other hand, a contextual approach to the meaning of texts dismisses ideas as unimportant effects. Neither method shows how what was said was meant is crucial for understanding. There are no perennial problems; philosophers of different times do not speak directly to us. But history of ideas helps us recognize the contingency of many of our beliefs.

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