Philosophy 57 - 4.1.2 Contextualist Approach

The contextualist approach to philosophical texts aims to be more sensitive to the history surrounding their creation. This approach attempts to understand historical philosophy on its own terms, using concepts and ideas that would have been appropriate to the time period in which they were written. Contextualist understandings of philosophy are interested in getting the history right. They give us a richer understanding of philosophical ideas and help avoid misinterpretation.

For example, an often-misunderstood passage from the Hebrew Bible is “an eye for an eye.” Many today interpret this passage as a justification for violence, not realizing that the passage reflects a body of laws meant to restrict retaliation. For millennia, when a wrong was done to an individual, a family or another group to which the individual belongs would often seek retribution. This retribution was viewed as a means both of achieving justice and of dissuading others from wronging the family or group in a similar way in the future. The biblical law, which was eventually adopted widely across the Middle East, meant that the wrongdoer or the group to which the wrongdoer belonged was not to be made to pay more than an eye for an eye. In this way, a justice system might prevent the extralegal cycle of increasingly violent retribution that still takes place between some groups, such as in gang or underworld warfare. Moreover, the biblical law also set monetary equivalents for specific wrongdoings so that physical harm, as a form of punishment, could be avoided. By understanding the context of the phrase “an eye for an eye,” we gain greater insight into human behavior and how systems of justice can prevent violence from cycling out of control.

While the contextualist approach makes possible this detailed and rich type of understanding, there is a danger that contextualist historians might fall into the trap of antiquarianism. This means that they might become interested in the history of philosophy for history’s sake, ignoring the instrumental value of historical philosophy for contemporary philosophers.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax