Past and present: two illusions
A recent NewAPPS post by Helen De Cruz and a not-so-recent post elsewhere by Eric Schwitzgebel will serve as hooks from which to hang some thoughts about two complementary illusions: the transparency of the present, the opacity of the past.
Helen, a lutenist, asks whether she can “ever claim to understand” the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century music she’s playing. There is a “gap”—a gap familiar to anyone who has undertaken to perform early music—between us and the works.
Schwitzgebel, on the other hand, is not much worried about our access to old texts.
Maybe empirically oriented philosophers typically don’t regard themselves as expert enough in history of philosophy to write about it. But I think we hobble ourselves if we allow ourselves to be intimidated. The standard of expertise for writing about Descartes or Kant in the context of a larger project — a project that isn’t just Descartes or Kant interpretation — shouldn’t be world leadership in Descartes or Kant interpretation. It should be the same standard of expertise as in writing about a contemporary colleague with a large body of influential work, like Dennett or Fodor.
In a way I agree with Schwitzgebel. A “world leader” in Descartes scholarship knows far more, in some respects, than you or I need to know in order to read the Meditations. But what exactly is the “standard of expertise” required in writing about one of our contemporaries?