Meanings and understandings in the history of ideas

My paper ‘Meanings and Understandings in the History of Ideas’ is now online (Open Access – the PDF is free to download!) at the Journal of the Philosophy of History.

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This paper gives a much broader account of meaning and understanding than is traditional among philosophers of language and intellectual historians. I offer a philosophical basis for these ideas and show their value in studying the history of political thought and history of philosophy.

This is the sister paper to my article ‘Extended Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, published last year in History and Theory (see my blogpost here).

Both articles take their inspiration from Quentin Skinner’s classic essay ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, also published in History and Theory.

Skinner implies that there is one idea of meaning and one idea of understanding; I discuss others. Here’s the summary of my paper:

This paper presents a framework of four types of meaning and understanding in the history of political thought and intellectual history. Previous frameworks have overlooked a whole type of meaning – the type often prioritised by political theorists and philosophers. I call this “extended meaning.” Correcting a wrong turn in philosophy of language in the 1950s, I show how extended meaning has robust intellectual foundations, and I illustrate its value for textual interpreters. Even historians often need extended meaning, for example to help resolve ambiguous passages. So, the main types of meaning are not alternatives: scholars interested in one kind of meaning still need others. This paper thus celebrates both diversity and unity.

Interestingly – and I use that term rather loosely! – most of this paper actually started out in the ‘Extended Meaning’ paper. Only about 10% of the final version of the ‘Extended Meaning’ paper was in the original draft. The rest of it was gradually replaced, until I realised I had enough for a second paper!

This second paper provides a philosophy-of-language basis for the ‘Extended Meaning’ paper. I seek to correct Paul Grice’s wrong turn in the philosophy of language in the 1950s. Grice mostly depicted ‘natural meaning’ as involving natural phenomena (e.g. ‘smoke means fire’). I follow Wayne Davis in depicting this as ‘evidential meaning’, but whereas Davis relates it to signs, I relate it to empirical consequences. To say that P means Q, in the sense of evidential meaning, is to say that if P happens, Q happens.

Seeing evidential meaning in terms of empirical consequences opens the door to what I call ‘extended meaning’, which I relate to logical consequences. To say that P means Q, in the sense of extended meaning, is to say that P logically implies Q. For example, if I say that Paris is the capital of Germany, but Paris is not actually the capital of Germany, this means that I am wrong.

Yet extended meaning is largely overlooked in traditional accounts of meaning and understanding, even though we often use this language in practice. The idea is absent, or only partially or vaguely present, in the typologies of Quentin Skinner, Leo Strauss, E.D. Hirsch (whose famous distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ gets heavily criticised in the paper), A.P. Martinich, and Mark Bevir. I also compare extended meaning to similar ideas implied or discussed by John Plamenatz, Knud Haakonssen, Gad Prudovsky, and Morton White. Plus I give lots of examples; some people will enjoy playing the game where they try to guess what my loosely anonymised examples refer to!

Overall, extended meaning is a hugely important kind of meaning in intellectual history – which generates a hugely important kind of understanding, as I discuss in both papers.

Extended meaning thus deserves to be taken seriously by all scholars working on history of political thought, history of philosophy, and intellectual history. It’s an idea we all know implicitly, but the failure to name and theorise it has been a problem.

Extended meaning and understanding in the history of ideas

In 1969, Quentin Skinner wrote a seminal essay on ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’. Fifty years later, in the same journal (History and Theory), I have published an article expanding his account.

meaningunderstandingSkinner, writing as a historian, focused on ‘intended meaning’ – what authors meant by what they wrote. I focus on ‘extended meaning’ – the implications of what authors wrote, whether intended or not.

Intended meaning has dominated our methodological literature, and philosophy of language more generally; many historians of political thought seem to see it as the only kind of meaning and understanding. But extended meaning, and the kind of understanding it furnishes, is not only a worthy goal of research but even helps scholars whose main focus is intended meaning.

So, these two types of meaning and understanding are not alternatives. Just as political theorists and philosophers must address intended meaning, so too historians must address extended meaning.

My paper also gives a qualified defence of anachronisms. These are controversial for historians, but I show that they are implicit in any historical claim about an author’s originality.

This paper thus challenges the view, still dominant in our methodological literature, that historians are doing something fundamentally different to political theorists and philosophers. (I make similar arguments in several places, including my 2019 chapter on Sharon Lloyd’s book on Hobbes interpretations, my 2015 article ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’, and a paper on textual context, just published in History of European Ideas, that I will write about very soon on this blog!)

Here is the abstract:

Many historians focus primarily on authors’ “intended meanings.” Yet all textual interpreters, including historians, need a second kind of meaning. I call this idea “extended meaning,” a new name for an old idea: “P means Q” is the same as “P logically implies Q.” Extended and intended meaning involve different kinds of understanding: even if we grasp exactly what authors meant, we miss something important if we overlook their errors, for example. Crucially, extended and intended meaning are not alternatives: just as some parts of texts cannot be understood without historical analysis, so too some parts of texts cannot be understood without philosophical analysis. Indeed, some historians are adept at using extended meanings to recover intended meanings. But the failure to make this explicit has led many historians to undervalue philosophical analysis. This article thus applies the idea of extended meaning to three practical questions: whether we can deviate from authors’ intended meanings, whether we can use anachronisms, and how we can use extended meanings to recover intended meanings. The idea of extended meaning thus strengthens our theoretical foundations and offers valuable practical tools.

It’s a coincidence that this paper was published fifty years after Skinner’s essay: I first drafted the paper ten years ago, and 90% of it has changed in the meantime. But I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s been published in the same journal.

Combining history and philosophy

LloydInterpCambridge University Press has just published my chapter on the need to interpret Thomas Hobbes historically and philosophically, in an important new book edited by Sharon Lloyd. I contrast two prominent interpreters of Hobbes: Jean Hampton, a philosopher, and Quentin Skinner, a historian. I show, surprisingly, that Skinner actually uses philosophical analysis better than Hampton to recover what Hobbes thought.

In short, both historical and philosophical analysis are needed. Yet the methodological literature in history of political thought (and history of philosophy) typically sees history and philosophy as essentially separate.

Unfortunately, the publishers managed to mangle my point by changing the title of my chapter at the last minute, without my permission. The title had been:

Methodologies of Interpreting Hobbes: Historical and Philosophical

But someone at Cambridge University Press unilaterally decided to change the italics:

Methodologies of Interpreting Hobbes: Historical and Philosophical

This makes it sound as if there are two methodologies for interpreting Hobbes, when I was arguing that there is one, which should combine historical and philosophical thinking.

I complained two months ago but nothing has yet happened. It’s too late to change the printed book, but I’ve asked for the website and PDF to be corrected.

Disappointing (non-)response by Arthur Melzer to my and other people’s criticisms

Perspectives on Political Science16 of us wrote reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the June and October issues of Perspectives on Political Science. Melzer has now written a 10,000-word response. Unfortunately, he did not engage with most of the reviews. His wording is curious:

In the space allotted me for rejoinder, it would clearly not be possible to reply to each of the essays individually, and it would be unbearably tedious if it were. Most of the essays, at any rate, stand in no particular need of reply.

I’m not sure about any of those three claims!

For what it’s worth, my review made the following points:

  • Melzer misinterprets, or interprets partially, some evidence about esotericism, e.g. in Machiavelli and Rousseau;
  • Melzer is not clear about whether contextualist/Cambridge-School interpretations are esoteric;
  • Melzer works with a straw man when he discusses “strictly literal” readings, as opposed to esoteric ones;
  • Melzer does not respond to the most important critiques of Strauss’s methodology.

 

 

 

CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy

I’m part of a symposium of reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the journal Perspectives on Political Science (vol. 44 no. 3, 2015). This is a two-part symposium, with Melzer responding to the reviews in the second part, in the forthcoming issue. The first part of the symposium has contributions from a variety of authors:

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  • Francis Fukuyama drives a further wedge between Strauss and silly criticisms of his alleged effect on US foreign policy;
  • Michael Frazer asks if some philosophers writing about esotericism actually did so esoterically;
  • Adrian Blau challenges some of Melzer’s evidence as well as what appear to be false dichotomies between esoteric/non-esoteric and literal/non-literal readings of texts – click here for a summary of my views and a copy of my article;
  • Douglas Burnham questions the idea of ‘historicism’ and asks how well Nietzsche fits this category;
  • Rob Howse questions Melzer’s evidence about the relationship between persecution and esotericism;
  • Miguel Vatter makes further distinctions between types and aims of esotericism;
  • in separate pieces, Norma Thompson, Catherine/Michael Zuckert, Larry Arnhart, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers and Peter Augustine Lawler each develop different aspects of the account of ancient versus modern esotericism/society.

How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] kcl.ac.uk – thanks!

Gadamer’s God-awful account of science

I’ve just finished my chapter for the book of the Reading Between The Lines conferenceGadamer Truth MethodMy chapter included a critique of Gadamer’s account of science, in his book Truth and Method and elsewhere.

I argue that Gadamer makes deeply misleading claims about what science involves, and does not reference any practising natural or social scientist; as far as I can tell, Gadamer’s most recent reference to an actual scientist was from someone writing 98 years before the publication of Truth and Method. Oh, and Gadamer misquotes this scientist and treats him as far more naive than he was.

But many commentators simply repeat Gadamer’s caricatures or pass over them in silence. This might actually be more troubling than Gadamer’s naughty scholarship.

My question is: can anyone point me to a good critique of Gadamer’s account of science? So far, I’ve only found five people who criticise any aspect of his account of science:

  • pp. 226 and 236 of Dieter Misgeld’s article in the journal Philosophy of Social Science, from 1979;
  • pp. 168-9 of Richard Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983);
  • the opening chapter of Joel Weinsheimer’s Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (1985) – this is the most powerful critique but still leaves Gadamer largely unscathed;
  • p. 4 of Georgia Warnke’s Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (1987); and
  • p. 158 of Robert D’Amico’s book Contemporary Continental Philosophy (1999).

If you can point me to any other references – preferably in English! – I’d be most grateful. Thanks!

Leo Strauss conference, Marburg, July 19-20

I’m giving a paper at a conference on Leo Strauss, on July 19-20. The conference, in Marburg, is called ‘Reading Between The Lines: Leo Strauss and the History of Early Modern Philosophy’. Also speaking are Jonathan Israel, Gianni Paganini, Al Martinich and Edwin Curley, amongst others.

My paper is called ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’. I don’t normally like titles with parentheses, but I reject the idea of a ‘Straussian hermeneutic’ partly because I reject the usefulness of the classic hermeneutic texts – Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and so on. Indeed, my claims about the irrelevance of a ‘Straussian hermeneutic’ (see also this critique of mine) is less important than my comments on the irrelevance of hermeneutics more generally. I reckon we can get far more useful guidance elsewhere on how to interpret texts. People who’ve been following the blog should have an idea of where I think we should look!

Michael Forster’s critique of key hermeneuticists

I’ve just read Michael Forster’s bitingly critical account of leading hermeneuticists, in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. You can download a pre-proof version here.

Forster downplays the importance, originality and/or quality of writers like Schleiermacher, Hegel, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer, and praises the contributions of Ernesti, Herder, Schlegel, J.L. Austin, and Quentin Skinner.MichaelForster

Forster argues that much that is good in Schleiermacher’s writings isn’t new, and much that is new isn’t good. Hegel’s influential contributions are ‘dubious’ and, on closer inspection, ‘misguided’. Dilthey’s position is often ‘naive and unsatisfactory’. Heidegger’s contributions are largely ‘unoriginal’ and their value ‘greatly exaggerated’. What is distinctive in Gadamer is ‘misguided and indeed baneful’, and in places ‘woefully inadequate’.

Forster praises Ernesti’s Institutes, which ‘makes many points which can still be read with profit today’. Having now read Ernesti – who I’d never heard of – I agree with Forster. (You can read Ernesti here – also downloadable as a PDF.) For example, on pp. 63-4 Ernesti notes that if we are interpreting a text in another language, we should first try to grasp how that language was generally spoken, then consider the author’s own idioms – a standard idea in Cambridge-School interpretations in the history of political thought, which recognise that we need to understand the linguistic conventions of the day, but that we must also bear in mind that authors sometimes break with these conventions. That said, I don’t believe Forster is right that on pp. 70-1 of the Institutes, Ernesti says that the parts of a text must be interpreted in light of the whole text. (I have much more I could say about the desperately unclear idea of a hermeneutic circle, but I won’t get into that now.)

Forster supports J.L. Austin’s idea of ‘illocutionary force’, and Quentin Skinner’s application of it to textual interpretation. My own view is that there are better ways of capturing this idea, but Austin’s and Skinner’s basic points are legitimate and useful.

Foster is refreshingly blunt about what is good and bad in the hermeneutic literature. He really doesn’t hold back. In the early twentieth century, he writes,

real progress in hermeneutics more or less comes to an end in Germany, and indeed in continental Europe as a whole, it seems to me (in keeping with a precipitous decline in the quality of German philosophy generally at the time).

I wonder what kind of reception Forster got when he moved from Chicago to Bonn earlier this year! The above comment is something I won’t be quoting when I give a paper on ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’ at a conference on Leo Strauss at Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s old university, Marburg, on July 19.