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Philosophy and the Historical Perspective$

Marcel van Ackeren

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266298

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266298.001.0001

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The Alienation Effect in the Historiography of Philosophy

The Alienation Effect in the Historiography of Philosophy

(p.140) 9 The Alienation Effect in the Historiography of Philosophy
Philosophy and the Historical Perspective

Dominik Perler

, Marcel van Ackeren, Lee Klein
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

It has often been said that we should enter into a dialogue with thinkers of the past because they discussed the same problems we still have today and presented sophisticated solutions to them. I argue that this ‘dialogue model’ ignores the specific context in which many problems were created and defined. A closer look at various contexts enables us to see that philosophical problems are not as natural as they might seem. When we contextualise them, we experience a healthy alienation effect: we realise that problems discussed in the past depend on assumptions that are far from being self-evident. When we then compare these assumptions to our own, we reflect on our own theoretical framework that is not self-evident either. This leads to a denaturalisation of philosophical problems—in the past as well as in the present. The author argues for this thesis by examining late medieval discussions on mental language.

Keywords:   alienation effect, denaturalisation, context, dialogue model, mental language

9.1. Two Approaches to Philosophical Texts

IT HAS OFTEN BEEN ARGUED that there are two ways of approaching philosophical texts from an earlier period. On the one hand, we can read them as intellectual historians, who situate them in their historical context, relate them to other texts written in the same period, look at the function they had in philosophical as well as non-philosophical debates, and explain them as cultural products of their time. On the other hand, we can interpret the very same texts as historians of philosophy, who focus on the theses and arguments they present, reconstruct the main arguments, show why they are still relevant today, and build a bridge to philosophical discussions of our own time. Bernard Williams famously distinguished these two approaches by saying that the central question intellectual historians ask about a philosophical text is ‘What did it mean?’, while historians of philosophy ask ‘What does it still mean?’.1 Given the difference between these two questions, historians of philosophy are rightly members of philosophy departments, not of literature or history departments. They do not simply deal with textual history but participate in the project of examining philosophical problems. The fact that they focus on problems as they were discussed in an earlier period does not make their work philosophically less significant, for discussions in the past can be as intriguing and stimulating as discussions today.

No doubt, it is often difficult to draw a clear line between the task of an intellectual historian and that of a historian of philosophy. Or perhaps we can draw a clear line in theory, but not in practice. For every intellectual historian who attempts to make sense of a text needs to reconstruct the position defended in that text, often also the counter-position that is attacked, and cannot do so without paying attention to the core theses and arguments. That is why every intellectual historian needs to have a good understanding of the philosophical problems that are at stake, even if she confines herself to a contextual approach. On the other (p.141) hand, a historian of philosophy cannot successfully reconstruct and evaluate arguments in a given text without paying attention to the special terminology used in that text, and in most cases she cannot understand the terminology without situating the text in its context. She needs to look at the textual tradition to which it belongs, at the intellectual background of the author, at the audience for which it was written, and at other historical facts. That is why no serious historian of philosophy can simply ignore the context, even if she focuses on the reconstruction of arguments.

It is therefore barely possible to separate the two jobs: doing intellectual history and history of philosophy often go hand in hand. Nevertheless, it makes sense to give two different job descriptions and to point out, as Bernard Williams rightly did, that the question ‘What did a text mean?’ clearly differs from the question ‘What does it still mean?’. However, while granting this distinction, one can ask how historians of philosophy should proceed when they examine an old text. How should they look for the meaning it still has? What exactly is the meaning they should be looking for? And why should they think that exploring the meaning of an old text is significant for philosophy today? In the following, I will first present two historiographical models that give radically different answers to these questions. Then, after critically examining these models, I will suggest a third model that borrows elements from both without being reducible to either of them. In my discussion I will use examples from the historiography of medieval philosophy—not because this period is more important than other ones, but simply because it is one of my fields of research, and because it is in this field that methodological problems have been explicitly articulated in recent years.

9.2. The Dialogue Model

How should historians of philosophy proceed when they explore texts from the past? In his introduction to the Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, published more than thirty years ago, Norman Kretzmann gave a clear answer:

By combining the highest standards of medieval scholarship with a respect for the insights and interests of contemporary philosophers, particularly those working in the analytic tradition, we hope to have presented medieval philosophy in a way that will help to end the era during which it has been studied in a philosophical ghetto. … It is one of our aims to help make the activity of contemporary philosophy intellectually continuous with medieval philosophy to the extent to which it already is so with ancient philosophy.2

Quite obviously, Kretzmann suggests that we should establish a dialogue between medieval and contemporary philosophy. Medieval texts should not be treated as belonging to a distant world, but as texts that are relevant today, that still speak to us, since they discuss problems that continue to be our problems; and we can learn (p.142) from these texts even now because they present sophisticated solutions that are still attractive. Of course, it would be naive to think that we can read these texts as if they had been written in our own intellectual context. We need to translate and reconstruct them, and we often need to extract the relevant arguments that are not visible at first glance. That is why laborious scholarship is necessary. But if we work hard on the medieval sources, and if we use the method and language of analytic philosophy in reconstructing the relevant arguments, we see that there is continuity between medieval and contemporary philosophy and that we can engage in discussions with our medieval counterparts just as we do with contemporary colleagues.

This historiographical model, which emphasises the immediate exchange between past and present philosophers, can be labelled ‘the dialogue model’.3 There is no doubt that it has a number of advantages. First of all, it makes clear that a period like the Middle Ages is not simply a pre-modern era dominated by religious beliefs, but a period in which sophisticated debates took place. The authors of the Cambridge History pointed out an impressive number of debates, especially in logic and philosophy of language, and thereby showed that medieval philosophy can be appealing to contemporary philosophers who work in these fields. Secondly, the dialogue model makes it possible to identify a number of problems that are still eagerly debated today, and helps us to see how medieval philosophers attempted to resolve them. Thus, we can focus on the problem of universals and analyse how Ockham dealt with it, how he worked out a nominalist solution, and how he defended it against a realist solution. We can even compare his nominalist solution to contemporary forms of nominalism and detect both similarities and dissimilarities. Thirdly, it is not only possible to reconstruct a medieval solution to a given problem, but also to evaluate it, perhaps even to criticise it using arguments that are discussed today. Thus, when working on Ockham’s nominalism, we can test it by confronting it with the arguments David Armstrong adduced when he attacked the position he called ‘resemblance nominalism’.4 In doing so, we treat Ockham not simply as an exhibit in a fancy museum called ‘medieval philosophy’, but as a philosopher who participates in the project of establishing the best possible theory of universals—a project that has not yet come to an end.

Given these advantages, it is not surprising that the dialogue model has been very influential, especially in the late 20th century when philosophers trained in the analytic tradition rediscovered many parts of the history of philosophy. The model insists on the fact that historians of philosophy are first and foremost philosophers because they are looking for philosophical (and not just historical, (p.143) philological, or cultural) insights when dealing with older texts. And it gives a straightforward answer to the question of how we should approach these texts when we look for the meaning they still have: we should strictly focus on the arguments they present and evaluate them from our point of view. Moreover, we should explore to what extent they help us to resolve problems that are still relevant today.

No doubt, this approach can be fruitful, and it can lead to interesting results, as the research of Kretzmann and other scholars adopting this method has shown.5 However, it has its limits. The most serious drawback is a narrow limitation of the field of research. If we stress the similarity or even continuity between past and present debates, we will disregard what seems strange, unusual, or irrelevant in older texts; we will find in them only what we also find appealing in contemporary texts. Metaphorically speaking, history of philosophy will be a mirror in which we see ourselves, our own concerns, and our own problems, but we will not detect what is utterly different. Of course, we will be able to see forgotten solutions to given problems, perhaps even objections to our own solutions, but we will always deal with our own problems. Thus, when reading medieval texts we will immediately become attentive to debates about universals, truth, meaning, and reference, but we will miss all the debates about emanative causation, transcendentals, or the plurality of forms. These issues will seem outdated and irrelevant. But if we simply dismiss sources dealing with these issues we get a distorted image of medieval philosophy. After all, problems like emanative causation or the plurality of forms were at the heart of many scholastic controversies.

Someone advocating the dialogue model may be unimpressed by this objection. When we do history of philosophy, he may say, we do not want to cover all the topics and debates in a given period. This would be mere doxography, even boring doxography, since we would simply go through all the texts and enumerate the topics they discuss. The point of doing systematically inspired history of philosophy is that we make a choice and that we focus on the topics that are still pressing today. That is why there is nothing wrong with ignoring or even dismissing many sources. Otherwise we could never engage in a stimulating dialogue with philosophers of the past.

Indeed, it would be boring to do mere doxography. But it would be equally boring to extend our own debates into the past and to find in older texts only what we also find in contemporary ones. One of the most fascinating aspects of older texts is that they confront us with things we do not expect—not only with unexpected solutions to problems with which we are familiar, but also with unexpected problems. Thus, someone reading medieval texts on causation will eventually realise that they do not only deal with the kind of efficient causation that is often discussed today, or with the four Aristotelian types of causation, but also with emanative causation that seems to be irreducible to any other form of causation. (p.144) This will give rise to fundamental reflections on what causation is. The important point is that it is not so much the continuity between medieval and contemporary debates that will be philosophically stimulating, but the discontinuity: the fact that earlier authors had a different conception of causation makes us reconsider what causation really is, perhaps it even leads us to revise our own conception. If we want to understand the medieval conception, we should therefore not desperately try to build a bridge to contemporary debates in order to detect similarities with current conceptions. We should rather delve into the scholastic texts, carefully reconstruct the medieval conception or even a plurality of conceptions, and try to understand the reasons in favour of these conceptions. This will be rewarding not only from a philological point of view as we will rediscover many neglected texts, but also (and perhaps even more so) from a philosophical point of view: we will be challenged in our own way of thinking about causation. Metaphorically speaking, we will learn to read a map that structures the philosophical landscape in a different way. Perhaps we will even discover parts of this vast landscape of which we were not aware.

9.3. The Rug Dealer Model

Given the drawbacks of the dialogue model, it is tempting to adopt a different model that emphasises the richness and diversity of earlier debates. Kurt Flasch describes this model as follows:

A historian of philosophy who is really a historian, who does not simply fish around in the past in order to spear something he takes to be true or up to date …, such a historian of philosophy is like an Oriental rug dealer. He constantly brings new ‘rugs’ out of the archives and libraries, describes them with respect to their genre and origin, and rejoices in their diversity. The more colourful, distinctive and unique they are, the better. When he describes them, he does everything in order not to lose sight of their variety and special design.6

Clearly, this ‘rug dealer model’, as it may be called, does not look for continuity between debates in the past and in the present. It rather looks for discontinuity by digging out debates about strange and seemingly outdated topics, such as the communication between angels or the influence of the heavenly bodies on the sublunar world. Moreover, it does not evaluate these debates from a modern point of view; it rather looks at their internal dynamics, at their origin, and at the impact they had on later debates. And it does not establish a dialogue between past and present thinkers, but insists on the fact that every thinker should be understood in his or her own period, as someone who attempted to solve problems relevant in his or her time, not in our own.

Flasch presents this model as the counter-model to the dialogue model, which, in his view, reduces older texts to a mere reservoir of theses and arguments from (p.145) which we take whatever we need for our own purposes. It is utterly misleading, he claims, to assume that medieval and modern philosophers share the same interests and discuss the same problems. All those who think that there is a continuous or even eternal presence of problems suffer from what he calls ‘eternalist snobbishness’ (äternistische Verblasenheit).7 They ignore the basic fact that philosophical problems are always context-dependent and that they come and go with the context to which they belong.

No doubt, this model has some advantages. First, it encourages scholars to rediscover many texts that would remain unexplored if they were screened against the background of contemporary philosophy. Thus, Flasch and his collaborators rediscovered texts from the German Dominican school and made clear that Neo-Platonist debates played a crucial role in medieval philosophy—debates that were not even mentioned in the Cambridge History.8 Secondly, the rug dealer model makes it possible to reconstruct the internal development of philosophical debates and to show that it was precisely this development, whether or not it may seem relevant today, that gave rise to new ideas. Thus, Flasch examined a series of commentaries on the Liber de causis and was thereby able to show that there was a lively debate on emanative causation and the hierarchy of beings in the later Middle Ages.9 This debate transformed traditional Aristotelian discussions and gave rise to new conceptions of causation. Finally, the rug dealer model makes it possible to broaden the horizon and to bring back philosophical topics that are not to be found on standard lists of key topics in philosophy. Thus, when dealing with medieval texts on the causal relation between God and human souls or other immaterial entities one eventually realises that there is much more to be discussed than the often-mentioned problem of causal relations among material things.

Now one may have the suspicion that the rug dealer model is simply a model for doing intellectual history, not history of philosophy. It seems to be so concerned with the richness of philosophical debates in the past that it neglects the meaning they still have (or could have) today; and, in fact, Flasch has no hesitation in using the label ‘intellectual history’. But he stresses that he is nevertheless doing history of philosophy, even real philosophy, because historicising philosophical problems makes us aware of the fact that all problems are products of a certain time, our own included.10 We then realise that there is no such thing as a transhistorical philosophical problem and start asking why and how we define a set of problems today, why we consider some problems to be deep or pressing and others not. So, texts from the past still have a meaning today, but not because they present problems we still have. They rather present different problems and thereby stimulate us to think about the historical contingency of our own problems.

(p.146) No doubt, this kind of meta-reflection is philosophically relevant. It helps us guard against ‘eternalism’, which takes philosophical problems to be unchanging and everlasting entities, but also against ‘presentism’, which considers problems discussed today to be the only problems that really matter or even the only genuine problems in philosophy. However, it is questionable whether radically historicising problems is really necessary if the main goal is to become aware of the contingency of our problems today. This can be illustrated with an example.

Suppose someone is interested in philosophy of mind and wants to know why nowadays so many philosophers are obsessed with the problem of phenomenal consciousness. Why do they examine this problem and consider it to be ‘the hard problem’?11 A good way of finding an answer to this question would be to turn to recent developments in neuroscience and to examine the explanatory framework used in that discipline. It will then quickly become evident that it is a strictly materialist framework and that a neuroscientific explanation within this framework is supposed to be an objective one, that is, one that is given from a third-person point of view. But how can we ever give such an explanation for a phenomenon such as consciousness, which seems to be exclusively experienced from a first-person point of view? How can there be an objective explanation in materialist terms for a thoroughly subjective phenomenon? Given this question, it is not surprising that so many philosophers are nowadays puzzled about phenomenal consciousness. The crucial point is that we come to understand why this problem is still a problem and why it is valid today not by making comparisons with discussions in an earlier period, but by looking at the close connection between neuroscientific and philosophical discussions today. Or, to put it more generally, it is not a diachronic perspective but a synchronic one that shows us how and why a given problem is nowadays perceived as a pressing problem. So, even if we agree with Flasch that ‘eternalism’ should be avoided, and even if we consent that philosophical problems are context-dependent, it is not (or at least not necessarily) a historical study that reveals their context-dependency, but a close examination of the way they are generated and defined within a given framework.12

There is an even more basic problem with the rug dealer model. If we constantly hunt for new texts and understand each of them as responding to problems of their own time, it will be impossible to make comparisons and to see that there are, after all, some problems that are discussed in various contexts, both past and present, and that there are similarities in the attempts to solve them. As the rug dealer constantly brings out new carpets, presenting each of them as unique, so the historian of philosophy constantly brings out new texts, praising each of them as special. This prevents him from seeing that a problem like the status of (p.147) universals is, after all, present in 14th- and 21st-century debates and that there are similar strategies to deal with it. So, while the dialogue model is limited insofar as it looks only for continuity between past and present discussions, the rug dealer model has the opposite problem: it encourages us to see nothing but discontinuity and is therefore unable to recognise a common stock of problems and solutions.

Moreover, someone adopting this model seems to have no means to critically examine and evaluate philosophical texts from an earlier period. Of course, he can look at the richness of their sources, at the complexity of the problems they address, perhaps also at their internal consistency. Consequently, he can praise some of them as being particularly rich, complex, and cleverly constructed. But he can hardly judge them to be right or wrong, philosophically convincing or not, for he is not allowed to assess them from a modern point of view. Thus, someone reading Ockham’s texts can hardly state that Ockham convincingly rejects an argument in favour of realism or that he presents a knockdown argument for nominalism that is still a good argument today. This would be what Flasch calls an illicit form of ‘actualisation’, that is, a form of integrating old texts into current discussions and assessing them according to modern standards.13 But if there is no way of going back and forth between past and present debates, if it is even forbidden to evaluate old texts from a modern point of view, we are, as it were, imprisoned in history. As the rug dealer can only go from one carpet to the next and admire its beauty, so the historian of philosophy should only move from one text to the next and admire its internal complexity, which may be considered a form of intellectual beauty. And when talking about the meaning an old text still has today, he can only point out a contrast. He can show that it treats problems that are different from our own and that we should be aware of the contingency of our own problems, but he cannot say anything illuminating about the difference or dissimilarity. For one cannot give an account of dissimilarity unless one looks at both relata in this relation, and this is precisely what the rug dealer refuses to do; he confines himself to looking at the relatum in the past. That is why he certainly avoids ‘eternalism’ and ‘presentism’, but he is forced to pay a high price, which could be called ‘pastism’: past debates are accepted as something unique and different from present debates, as something that has a value in itself, but little is said about how exactly they differ from current debates, why this difference makes them significant, and why it is necessary to study them.

9.4. The Alienation Model

I hope it has become clear that the two models I have discussed so far are hardly convincing. To put it crudely, one could say that someone adopting the dialogue model is trapped in the present; when reading old texts she simply looks for topics and arguments that are still relevant today. By contrast, the advocate of the rug (p.148) dealer model is trapped in the past; she looks at each and every old text as a unique product, without making comparisons with recent texts.14 How can we avoid these two traps? One possibility is the following: we can take old texts seriously, reconstruct their argumentative structure, show that they present some problems we still discuss today, and point out at the same time that these problems were generated in a context which is not ours, which looks perhaps even strange to us, and which created a number of additional problems we no longer identify as our problems. In doing so, we distance ourselves from the older texts and create what might be called an ‘alienation effect’: we make it clear that we do not simply appropriate texts from the past, that we do not make them our own, even if we link them to debates today. We rather read them as products of a different time and stress the gap between their time and ours, despite similarities with more recent texts.

It is well known that Bertolt Brecht coined the term ‘alienation effect’ (Verfremdungseffekt) over eighty years ago. Brecht introduced it when he attacked the traditional idea, which had been dominant in the European theatre tradition, that every actor should appropriate the person she plays on stage or even identify herself with this person. Thus, someone playing Medea should completely identify herself with the betrayed mother who kills her own children. In fact, she should become this mother consumed by rage for a moment. Criticising this idea, Brecht suggested that an actor should play a given role as accurately as possible, but always make clear that she is merely playing a role. In doing so, she should show that there is a gap between herself and the person on stage. Thus, the actor playing Medea should make clear that she is in fact playing the mother consumed by rage, for instance by making comments on Medea’s behaviour or by performing with some kind of inner distance and detachment. This creates an alienation effect, which Brecht described as follows:

The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work. As a result everything put forward by him has a touch of the amazing. Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic. … The performer’s self-observation, an artful and artistic act of self-alienation, stopped the spectator from losing himself in the character completely, i.e. to the point of giving up his own identity, and lent a splendid remoteness to the events.15

Let me illustrate this statement with the example of Medea. The actor who makes clear that she is not Medea, who ‘looks strangely at herself’, creates some distance between herself and Medea and thereby shows that the woman betrayed by Jason is not a person we could encounter on the street. She is rather a person created (p.149) by and existing in the context of the play. This will ensure that the spectator will not consider Medea as a real person and not be completely carried away by her behaviour. He will always preserve some ‘remoteness to the events’, that is, he will realise that he sees a fictional character, who is not part of his own life.

In what sense could this kind of alienation effect be relevant when we do history of philosophy? It seems to me that we should behave a little like Brecht’s actor on the stage. On the one hand, we should delve into texts from the past, reconstruct the theses and arguments they present, and make sense of them by translating them into our own language. In doing so, we behave like the actor who learns the role of Medea by heart and enters into the world of Medea, making every move this fictional character makes. On the other hand, we should not pretend to live in the world of the texts we deal with, we should not ignore the historical gap between us and the authors of the texts. We should rather make clear that there is in fact a gap and that the problems the historical authors had were created in their context, which differs from our own. This means that we should behave like the actor who ‘looks strangely at herself’, to use Brecht’s words. We look strangely at ourselves, or more precisely, at the way we deal with old texts, if we make clear that these texts, appealing and immediately relevant as they may seem, are, after all, not texts we could immediately accept and appropriate as familiar ones. They belong to a different time and should be perceived as such, as texts that appear ‘strange and even surprising’, to use Brecht’s words again.

When we proceed in this way, we borrow elements both from the dialogue model and from the rug dealer model. Like the supporters of the dialogue model we really enter into the texts and provide a detailed analysis of their argumentative structure. We make the arguments accessible, point out their strengths and weaknesses, and compare them to arguments that are still discussed today. This means, of course, that we read the texts as philosophical sources, not just as products of a given culture. And we attempt to learn from them as much as we can by entering into some kind of dialogue with their authors. To some extent we also criticise the authors by confronting them with objections that have been made in their own time or that we make today. The decisive point is, however, that we do not pretend to enter into a dialogue with contemporaries. We do not treat the authors of the texts as if they were colleagues in the office next door. We rather preserve some distance by pointing out that many of their theses and arguments that look so similar to what is discussed today are, after all, the products of a different discussion at a different time, often shaped by religious or other non-philosophical convictions we no longer share. In that respect we are closer to the advocates of the rug dealer model who stress that every text has its own origin and its own context, despite the similarities between past and present discussions, and that each text should be appreciated as a unique product. In doing so, we treat the authors of the texts as distant authors who had their own concerns and problems, among them problems that appear alien and strange today.

This sketch may look quite abstract. Let me therefore adduce an example to make clear how the alienation model could work in practice. A good one is the (p.150) theory of mental language that was developed by Ockham in the 14th century. Ockham defended the thesis that each human being has a mental language with a fully fledged semantic and syntactic structure, which provides the basis for every natural language. He gave a detailed description of this language and argued that no spoken or written language would be possible without it.16 Given the renaissance of theories of mental language in the late 20th century, it is not surprising that there have been many studies devoted to Ockham’s theory and its similarity with Jerry Fodor’s hypothesis of a language of thought.17

How should we proceed when we adopt the alienation model and study Ockham’s theory of mental language? First of all, we should pay close attention to the Summa Logicae in which Ockham presents his theory, we should reconstruct and assess it, for instance by making clear what the syntactic structure of the mental language is, how it is related to the syntactic structure of Latin or any other natural language, and why it is supposed to be fundamental. Moreover, we should evaluate the arguments Ockham presents in favour of the indispensability of mental language, look at objections that were presented both by Ockham’s contemporaries and by later philosophers, and compare Ockham’s argumentative strategy to that of recent defenders of the language of thought hypothesis.18 But this is only part of the job to be done. We should also ask why Ockham was so interested in mental language, why he took it to be necessary to defend it, and what kind of problems he wanted to resolve by appealing to it. When dealing with these questions it will become clear, perhaps unexpectedly, that Ockham had a strong theological interest in mental language. Inspired by Augustine, he wanted to show that the human mind mirrors the divine intellect and that it must therefore have a form of inner language that is as perfect as God’s language.19 He meant the mental language thesis to be an application of the imago Dei thesis.20 Moreover, he argued that no material thing is able to produce a mental language with a semantic and syntactic structure. On his view, only an immaterial thing can do that, because only an immaterial being can produce meaningful signs and combine them in a structured way.21 Hence, the human mind producing a fully fledged mental language must be immaterial—in fact, it must be as immaterial as the divine intellect.

(p.151) Both the imago Dei thesis and the immateriality thesis are, of course, quite far from the claims Jerry Fodor and other defenders of the language of thought hypothesis are willing to make today. On the contrary, many 21st-century philosophers and cognitive scientists would like to show that a linguistic system can very well be implemented in a material mind. They intend to ‘naturalise the mind’ and hence also linguistic thinking as a key function of the mind. It is therefore not surprising that many scholars who relate Ockham’s discussion to the current debate are a little embarrassed about the theological context and discretely pass over it.22 But it seems to me that it should not be ignored. The contextualisation makes clear why and how Ockham differs from 21st-century authors and why his whole project has a different goal. It shows that we cannot look upon Ockham as our colleague in the office next door and that his project is quite different from a project that looks so appealing to many contemporary philosophers. In fact, it is an anti-materialist and anti-naturalist project. When we see it as a project that is not ours (or at least not the kind of project endorsed by many contemporary philosophers), we understand why some of his problems are in the end not our problems (e.g. mental language in divine and angelic intellects), and we can better appreciate the points he stresses, among them the immateriality and the immortality of the intellect. So, it is precisely the alienation effect that makes it possible to take the mental language thesis seriously, to discuss and assess it, but also to see it as a thesis that belongs to a different context. Using Brecht’s language again, we could say that the alienation effect raises Ockham’s thesis ‘above the level of the obvious’, that is, above the level of what seems natural and obvious today. And it makes us reconsider things we often take for granted, for instance the idea that a language with a fully fledged syntactic structure can very well be implemented in a material mind. Why should that be possible? Why is Ockham on the wrong track when he claims that such a structure requires an immaterial mind? Do we really have good arguments against his claim? As soon as we see a distance between Ockham’s project and our own we start asking these questions, and our assumptions and presuppositions will be as much questioned as Ockham’s.

The fact that we question our own assumptions leads to a double alienation effect: we distance ourselves not only from a theory elaborated in the 14th century, but also from theories of our own time. We no longer subscribe to the seemingly natural view that every theory of mental language should be part of a materialist framework, and we no longer uncritically participate in the project of ‘naturalising the mind’. We rather become aware that this project is anchored in a larger metaphysical project, strongly influenced by current science, and we become open to serious alternatives. To be sure, this awareness should not simply make us return to Ockham’s position and adopt an immaterialist framework. After all, a critical attitude towards theories of the present should not lead to a nostalgic acceptance of a theory of the past. It should rather make us attentive to problems (p.152) in materialist and immaterialist frameworks, and it should stimulate us to reflect on both. We should become aware that both frameworks are heavily theory-laden and that there is a price to be paid for accepting each of them.

But can we really compare problems generated in different frameworks? Does not every framework produce its own problems, which cannot be translated into the language of another framework? This objection presupposes that there is radical incommensurability between different frameworks. That is, it presupposes that the frameworks we find in Ockham and Fodor are so different that each of them has its own problems or even its own basic assumptions and theses, untranslatable into those formulated in another framework. But there is no need to assume radical incommensurability. In fact, there cannot be radical incommensurability, for we could not identify another framework as a real framework in which meaningful theses are presented if we were not able to translate the core theses into the language of another framework.23 Thus, we could not understand Ockham’s basic claim that the human mind producing mental terms and sentences must be immaterial if we could not translate it into the language of a 21st-century philosopher, say into Fodor’s language, and if we were completely unable to make sense of it. An untranslatable thesis would be an unintelligible thesis. Of course, merely translating a thesis does not imply that we accept it. On the contrary, translating it often makes clear what it really means and why we are not willing to accept it. Or, to use Brecht’s language again, the translation shows why Ockham’s basic claim does not easily fit into a 21st-century framework and why it has ‘a touch of the amazing’. But the crucial point is that we need to translate it in order to understand what it amounts to and why it is amazing. It would therefore be inadequate to think that no translations and no comparisons between different frameworks are possible, as radical relativists assume. Translations and comparisons are exactly what we need if we want to understand, rather than merely repeat or paraphrase, theses and problems stated in an old text.

9.5. Conclusion

I hope this example helps to see how the alienation effect could work in practice, why it is philosophically illuminating, and why it requires an analysis of past and present theories. I also hope that it makes clear how we should proceed as historians of philosophy, as opposed to mere intellectual historians, when we try to answer Bernard Williams’ question ‘What does a philosophical text still mean?’, which I took as my starting point. This question should be interpreted in a double sense.

On the one hand, it should be understood as a question about the meaning of the theses and arguments in a given text. When taken in this sense, a number (p.153) of problems should be addressed: What are the core theses and arguments in the text? How can we still make sense of them by rephrasing and reconstructing them in our own language? What are the explicit or implicit premises used in the core arguments? Do these arguments still convince us? And if not, why not? When dealing with these problems, we should use all the tools of analytic philosophy, including the method of formalising arguments, and we should not hesitate to make comparisons between past and present arguments. But we should not stop here and mistakenly believe that a text from the past could be treated like a contemporary text. We should interpret Williams’ question also in a second sense, namely as a question concerning the framework that is at stake. When taken in this second sense, the following problems need to be tackled: In what kind of theoretical framework are the relevant arguments presented? Why and how does the framework give rise to these arguments? Does the author provide any justification for this framework? Is this framework still plausible? Is it even so convincing that we can still accept it today? And if not, why not? When dealing with this second set of problems, we will have to reflect not just on the past framework, but also on our own, for it is only a comparison that will make it clear whether or not the past framework is still convincing today, whether or not it still captures our basic convictions. And when making a comparison we will become attentive not only to the implicit (or perhaps even unjustified) assumptions underlying the old framework, but also to those we make in our own framework—a framework we often take for granted or even consider to be natural and self-evident.

So there will be a double reflection, one on the framework of the theory in the past and another on our own framework, and we will eventually acquire a critical attitude towards both. We will see that there is no such thing as a natural framework since every framework is shaped by a number of assumptions and convictions that are typical for a given period. This will lead to a denaturalisation of frameworks, because every framework will turn out to be the product of a certain constellation of philosophical convictions, perhaps even of scientific, religious, and other basic convictions. It is precisely this denaturalisation that is one of the most fascinating and valuable aspects of the enterprise called ‘history of philosophy’. It opens up the possibility of comparing different frameworks, of challenging dominating ones, of returning to old ones, and of choosing new ones.24


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(3) Using an expression coined by Jonathan Bennett, we could also call it ‘the collegial approach’ (Bennett 2001: 1) since it treats the great dead philosophers as still philosophically stimulating colleagues.

(4) See Armstrong (1989: 39–59). For an attempt to defend Ockham against this kind of critique, see Panaccio (1991: 253–67).

(5) For a detailed assessment, especially in the fields of logic and philosophy of language, see Perler (2006) and Marenbon (2012, chs 12–16).

(8) For an overview, see de Libera (1990) and Aertsen (2014).

(9) This debate is clearly present in the works of Dietrich of Freiberg, a leading representative of the German Dominican school; see Flasch (2007).

(12) Strong historicism, according to which every philosopher must return to history, is therefore barely convincing. All one could argue for is weak historicism, which claims that one way (but not the only way) of becoming aware of the context-dependency of philosophical problems is the study of history. On the difference between strong and weak historicism, see Glock (2008: 870–3).

(14) Admittedly, I presented extreme versions of the two positions in order to emphasise the contrast. When applying their method to concrete texts, advocates of these positions tend to choose attenuated versions. Thus, Kretzmann does not neglect strange and seemingly outdated problems when he discusses Kilvington’s sophismata (see Kretzmann & Kretzmann 1990), and Flasch makes comparisons with Kant when he reconstructs Dietrich of Freiberg’s theory of categories (see Flasch 2007: 136-8). Both are aware of the limits of an extreme model.

(16) See Ockham (1974: 7–16). For a concise presentation of Ockham’s theory and its background, see Panaccio (1999a).

(17) See, for instance, Panaccio (2004) and Schierbaum (2014).

(18) This is exactly what Chalmers (1999) and Panaccio (1999b) did in their exemplary studies.

(19) This is most evident in the first chapter of the Summa Logicae, where Ockham introduces the idea of mental language by referring to Augustine’s De trinitate; see Ockham (1974: 7).

(20) In Ordinatio I, dist. 3, q. 10 (Ockham 1970: 562) he explicitly subscribes to the Augustinian thesis that the human mind is an image of God.

(21) He took this immaterial thing, the intellectual soul, to be really (and not just conceptually) distinct from the sensory soul that is present in the body; for an analysis, see Perler (2010). Moreover, he claimed that this immaterial thing does not mechanically produce mental sentences. Being immaterial, it cannot be forced by any material cause to come up with this or that mental sentence. Hence, Ockham (unlike Fodor) does not defend ‘a mechanized view of rational thought’, as Schierbaum (2014: 254) rightly points out.

(22) To be sure, not all ignore it. Thus, Panaccio (1997) analysed Ockham’s discussion of angelic language, yet without entering into theological details.

(23) Hence, it makes no sense to speak about an alien and untranslatable but still identifiable framework or ‘conceptual scheme’, as Davidson (1984) convincingly argued.

(24) Earlier versions of this chapter were presented at a conference in Essen and a colloquium in Berlin. I am grateful to Daniel Garber, who carefully commented on it in Berlin, and to Jennifer Marusič and Stephan Schmid, who wrote detailed written comments.