Reading the Not-Yet

I really like John Holbo’s point about teaching Descartes’ actual writings as an introduction to “modern philosophy” in this Crooked Timber post.

There’s a general pedagogical point here about intellectual history. When we teach canonical texts that are commonly held to be the origin or starting point of a new intellectual, political, scientific or moral tradition, we frequently confuse undergraduates, because texts which originate novelty are not aware of all the practices and claims that will be built upon them. It’s as if I told my students, “We’re going to study this house with all its walls and windows and furniture and paint and I want you to think about all that and see it while we study the hole being dug for its foundation.”

The CT thread has an interesting discussion about whether you really want to read a text like Descartes’ Meditations in its own historical context (which some suggest is a move that favors history over philosophy), but everyone agrees that there’s a pedagogical misfire of some kind involved in trying to read a text as the origin point of a standardized school of thought that had yet to exist. Part of the problem with just switching and looking for a later text which performs that standardization is that those tend to be much duller works for discussion and interpretation. If all you’re looking for is a standardized description of a philosophical or theoretical approach, better to just assign a Wikipedia or Stanford Encyclopedia entry if they’re halfway decent.

But then that brings back the problem of how to read and teach the interesting texts which are interesting in part because they’re not-yet what later authors will interpret them to be while anticipating and teaching about what later authors will invent around and out of those originary works. What can be especially unsettling about this for undergraduates is discovering that what later authors will see as founded in an older text is often not really there in any strong or distinctive form, that the later authors are responding as much to a lineage of successive interpretations as they are to the foundation.

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3 Responses to Reading the Not-Yet

  1. David Chudzicki says:

    It’s just so tempting to make my students read Newton… Hmm, really, the math is so dry that giving history more emphasis than I do would probably be a really good thing. I think it’s easier in my field to make the “lineage of successive interpretations” not so unsettling.

  2. NadavT says:

    “that the later authors are responding as much to a lineage of successive interpretations as they are to the foundation.”

    There’s nothing so unusual about that — sounds just like the Rabbinical tradition! Of course, now that’s introducing an entirely different field of study.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Though it’s a very good formalization of this point, to not imagine that somehow Torah anticipates and is always already part of Talmud.

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