Philosophy 58 - 4.1.3 Hermeneutic Approach

A third approach to the history of philosophy attempts to address problems inherent to the presentist and contextualist approaches. The hermeneutic approach takes the historical context of a text seriously, but it also recognizes that our interpretation of history is conditioned by our contemporary context. The hermeneutic historian of philosophy recognizes both that a contemporary philosopher cannot abandon their contemporary framework when interpreting historical texts and that the context of historical authors deeply influenced the way that historical texts were written. Additionally, hermeneutic philosophers contend that philosophical ideas are historical in nature; that is, no philosophical concept can be understood if it is completely abstracted from the historical process that generated it. However, a hermeneutic approach to philosophy can fall prey to a tendency to think about history as culminating in the present. This view of history might be summarized as an account of history that says, “a, then b, then c, then me.” While this may be the way things look now, it’s important to remember that our contemporary perspective will be eclipsed by future historians of philosophy. Also, we ought not assume that history has a purpose or progression. It may be that the sequence of historical events lacks any goal.

Table 4.1 summarizes these three approaches, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Approach Brief Description What it Offers Where it Can Fall Short
Presentist Concerns itself with the present questions of philosophy and holds past philosophers to present standards Allows people to benefit from a rich body of past wisdom Neglects the contexts in which past philosophy was developed
Contextualist 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 Provides a richer understanding of philosophical ideas and helps avoid misinterpretations Might become interested in the history of philosophy for history’s sake, ignoring the instrumental value of historical philosophy for contemporary people
Hermeneutic Recognizes both that contemporary people cannot abandon their own frameworks when interpreting historical texts, and that the context of historical authors deeply influenced the way that historical texts were written Grounds the philosophy of the past within a historical context, while also acknowledging its lasting value Can fall prey to a tendency to think about history as culminating in the present
Table 4.1 - Three Different Approaches to Studying the History of Philosophy

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