Sunday, January 08, 2017

Against Charity in the History of Philosophy

Peter Adamson, host of History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, recently posted twenty "Rules for the History of Philosophy". Mostly, they are terrific rules. I want to quibble with one.

Like almost every historian of philosophy I know, Adamson recommends that we be "charitable" to the text. Here's how he puts it in "Rule 2: Respect the text":

This is my version of what is sometimes called the "principle of charity." A minimal version of this rule is that we should assume, in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense.... [It] seems obvious (to me at least) that useful history of philosophy doesn't involve looking for inconsistencies and mistakes, but rather trying one's best to get a coherent and interesting line of argument out of the text. This is, of course, not to say that historical figures never contradicted themselves, made errors, and the like, but our interpretations should seek to avoid imputing such slips to them unless we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip.

At first pass, it seems a good idea to avoid imputing contradictions and errors, and to seek a coherent, sensible interpretation of historical texts "unless we we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip". This is how, it seems, to best "respect the text".

To see why I think charity isn't as good an idea as it seems, let me first reveal my main reason for reading history of philosophy: It's to gain a perspective, through the lens of distance, on my own philosophical views and presuppositions, and on the philosophical attitudes and presuppositions of 21st century Anglophone philosophy generally. Twenty-first century Anglophone philosophy tends to assume that the world is wholly material (with the exception of religious dualists and near cousins of materialists, like property dualists). I'm inclined to accept the majority's materialism. Reading the history of philosophy helpfully reminds me that a wide range of other views have been taken seriously over time. Similarly, 21st century Anglophone philosophy tends to favor a certain sort of liberal ethics, with an emphasis on individual rights and comparatively little deference to traditional rules and social roles -- and I tend to favor such an ethics too. But it's good to be vividly aware that wonderful thinkers have often had very different moral opinions. Reading culturally distant texts reminds me that I am a creature of my era, with views that have been shaped by contingent social factors.

Of course, others might read history of philosophy with very different aims, which is fine.

Question: If this is my aim in reading history of philosophy, what is the most counterproductive thing I could do when confronting a historical text?

Answer: Interpret the author as endorsing a view that is familiar, "sensible", and similar to my own and my colleagues'.

Historical texts, like all philosophical texts -- but more so, given our linguistic and cultural distance -- tend to be difficult and ambiguous. Therefore, they will admit of multiple interpretations. Suppose, then, that there's a text admitting of four possible interpretations: A, B, C, and D, where Interpretation A is the least challenging, least weird, and most sensible, and Interpretation D is the most challenging, weirdest, and least sensible. A simple application of the principle of charity seems to recommend that we favor the sensible, pedestrian Interpretation A. In fact, however, weird and wild Interpretation D would challenge our presuppositions more deeply and give us a more helpfully distant perspective. This is one reason to favor Interpretation D. Call this the Principle of Anti-Charity.

Admittedly, this way of defending of Anti-Charity might seem noxiously instrumentalist. What about historical accuracy? Don't we want the interpretation that's most likely to be true?

Bracketing post-modern views that reject truth in textual interpretation, I have four responses to that concern:

1. Being Anti-Charitable doesn't mean that anything goes. You still want to respect the surface of the text. If the author says "P", you don't want to attribute the view not-P. In fact, it is the more "charitable" views that are likely to take the author's claims other than at face value: "The author says P, but really a charitable, sensible interpretation is that the author really meant P-prime". In one way, it is actually more respectful to the texts not to be too charitable, and to interpret the text superficially at face value. After all, P is what the author literally said.

2. What seems "coherent" and "sensible" is culturally variable. You might reject excessive charitableness, while still wanting to limit allowable interpretations to one among several sensible and coherent ones. But this might already be too limiting. It might not seem "coherent" to us to embrace a contradiction, but some philosophers in some traditions seem happy to accept bald contradictions. It might not seem "sensible" to think that the world is nothing but a flux of ideas, such that the existence of rocks depends entirely upon the states of immaterial spirits. So if there's any ambiguity, you might hope to tame views that seem metaphysically idealist, thereby giving those authors a more sensible, reasonable seeming view. But this might be leading you away from rather than toward interpretative accuracy.

3. Philosophy is hard and philosophers are stupid. The human mind is not well-designed for figuring out philosophical truths. Timeless philosophical puzzles tend to kick our collective asses. Sadly, this is going to be true of your favorite philosopher too. The odds are good that this philosopher, being a flawed human like you and me, made mistakes, fell into contradictions, changed opinions, and failed to see what seem to be obvious consequences and counterexamples. Respecting the text and respecting the person means, in part, not trying too hard to smooth this stuff away. The warts are part of the loveliness. They are also a tonic against excessive hero worship and a reminder of your own likely warts and failings.

4. Some authors might not even want to be interpreted as having a coherent, stable view. I have recently argued that this is the case for the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. Let's not fetishize stable coherence. There are lots of reasons to write philosophy. Some philosophers might not care if it all fits together. Here, attempting "charitably" to stitch together a coherent picture might be a failure to respect the aims and intentions implicit in the text.

Three cheers for the weird and "crazy", the naked text, not dressed in sensible 21st century garb!

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Related post: In Defense of Uncharitable and Superficial History of Philosophy (Aug 17, 2012)

(HT: Sandy Goldberg for discussion and suggestion to turn it into a blog post)

[image source]

24 comments:

Ralph Wedgwood said...

That's a fascinating post, Eric! However, there are several different versions of the "principle of charity" -- i.e. the idea that we should interpret the utterances of others as charitably as possible.

At some points, Davidson seems to have thought that charity involves our giving an interpretation that makes as many as possible of the utterances in question come out true (by our lights, of course). Davidson's kind of charity may be vulnerable to the objections that you raise.

I favour an alternative version of the principle of charity. According to my favoured version, we should interpret the utterances in question as the most rational speech acts for their authors to have made, given the circumstances that they were in, by using those words in that order in that context.

Clearly, it can be entirely rational for an author to put forward an incoherent sequence of ideas, as you suggest that the author of Zhuangzi did. So my favoured version of charity seems not to be vulnerable to your objections.

I am also inclined to believe that we really couldn't interpret any old texts at all without relying on something like my principle of charity -- but I shan't attempt to defend

Roman Altshuler said...

Presumably you don't read historical texts *solely* in order to remind yourself that you are a creature of your era. One could, of course, spend massive amounts of time on reminding oneself that one's views have been shaped by contingent factors, but that seems like a poor use of time. Unless, of course, the aim is to allow the texts to *challenge* one's assumptions. They can best do that if something in them--quite a bit--lines up with one's current beliefs. If you don't read texts in a way that makes them come out as largely reasonable by your lights, I don't see how they can challenge your views at all; they'll do nothing more than remind you that your views are not universally shared.

Sam Rickless said...

Hi Eric, I wonder how you would feel if fhe principle of anti-charity defended in this post were applied to this very post... After all, some of what you say is ambiguous, and some of it is not self-interpreting. (Does "P" refer to all sentences, including ambiguous ones?) so why shouldn't I interpret you as saying the opposite of what you probably meant, whenever that strikes me as the less sensible option?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! Roman: Yes, that's a terrific point, and I'll just go ahead and concede it. There will often be some tradeoff between novelty and weirdness on the one hand and its ability to really move you on the other hand. I doubt there will be a formula here about what tradeoff is really best. Perhaps in my own case, an important part of what I'm interested in is gaining small amounts of credence in low-credence possibilities, and I have a pretty high tolerance for low-credence possibilities -- so that skews me toward seeing the "crazy" as more useful.

Sam: I think you might already be applying the principle of Anti-Charity! I do think you ought to respect the surface of my text and so refrain from attributing not-P to me when I say P. But of course I want my *friends* to interpret me charitably, since I want them to think I'm sensible. (Just a personal interaction fact, not really applicable to historical figures.) Also, the points about cultural distance don't apply. So the "risk" of dressing me up in 21st century garb and attributing to me views that make sense by 21st century Anglophone philosophy standards is probably going not to be a risk of cultural distortion but instead a guide toward truth. On the other hand, if you respect me as a philosopher and would be fruitfully dislodged from a strong commitment to Charity by taking seriously a pretty far-out version of Anti-Charity, through a radical interpretation of me that involves and soaking in that awhile in an *appreciative and respectful* way (perhaps I should have emphasized that dimension more), then I would be honored if my text fulfilled that role!

Margaret Atherton said...

On an admittably quick reading, Eric, it strikes me that you have not been charitable to Peter Adamson's rule to Respect the Text which as I understand and I hope practice it doesn't mean, make sure the views in the text align with what I consider sensible but something more like, don't condemn an author for making logical howlers before you have made sure you understand the argument. I have just been rereading Michael Ayers' "substance, Reality and the Great Dead Philosophers" which is an exemplary demonstration of how to and how not to respect the text.

Ethan said...

Great post! I will be discussing Adamson's points in my classes this semester, so this will help those discussions, especially about the danger of "over domesticating" historical philosophy.

I was going to make a point similar to Ralph Wedgwood's above, albeit my version is less precise. I agree with his "more favored" version of the principle of charity. Applying this principle doesn't necessitate the dichotomy that some culturally and temporally distant author either agrees with me or is irrational. The principle itself can be contextual, which touches on Adamson's points about the importance of understanding historical context.

When I teach Zhuangzi, for instance, I try to help the students see how all the seemingly contradictory and nonsensical statements actually make a kind of sense if the goal is to help readers live in a certain way that is, among other things, a reaction to rigid Confucian ritualism and the pretensions of philosophers. Whether this way of life makes sense to me as something a 21st century American philosopher might engage in makes little if any difference.

Likewise, I enjoy versions of metaphysical idealism like Berkeley or some Yogācāra Buddhists. That the arguments for these views are clever and make a kind of sense given certain presuppositions doesn't mean I have to accept them. But making some kind of sense of these arguments does exactly what the proposed principle of anti-charity does: it shows that really smart people have believed things that strike me as literally incredible. And I agree that there's a great value in that insight, one that the history of philosophy ought to develop.

So now I wonder if I actually agree with you but simply mean something different by "charity" and "anti-charity." Maybe some commentator in the year 2500 will figure it out!

Sam Rickless said...

Consider Hume's explicit claims that pity and malice are indirect passions, that grief and joy are direct passions, and that pity is a kind of grief and malice a kind of joy. Hume didn't want to be read as embracing contradictions, because he said so explicitly. What do you suggest?

Peter Adamson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Dalmonte said...

I tend to agree with your analysis, Eric. I think a lot of contemporary interpretations of Kant arise from a counterproductive strategy of charity. I am thinking specifically of two-aspect interpretations of his transcendental idealism as well as constructivist readings of his metaethics. These interpretations may make Kantianism more palatable to the contemporary philosopher--it is hard, for instance, to accept an ontologically distinct noumenal realm when one is a materialist, as well as to accept that goodness is a property of the universe. But, I don't think they really represent Kant, who I think would be more of a radical if he were around today.

Peter Adamson said...

Thanks for your response to my original list of "rules", Eric. I think on its own the principle of charity is definitely subject to your central objection. However taken along with the other rules, it fares better: since most of the rules are about avoiding anachronism, they should (help to) block the temptation to ascribe P to a historical figure because P nowadays seems plausible.

The point about philosophers who weren't even trying to be consistency, or were deliberately avoiding being consistent, is a more difficult one for me. That is probably a pretty rare phenomenon but I wouldn't want to rule out, a priori as it were, that someone with a tolerance for inconsistency or self-contradiction might still be doing interesting philosophy. Perhaps we could revise the principle to account for this though e.g. by trying to read philosophers as if they are managing to follow the normative constraints on philosophizing that they themselves would have been likely to recognize. These norms would usually include consistency but might not. I don't think I could make sense of the idea that a given philosopher is following no norms whatsoever. Again, this doesn't mean philosophers always DO manage to be consistent (or follow their own norms), just that the more satisfying interpretation is one that doesn't just "catch them out" making a mistake but credits them with an interesting and appropriate-norm-following position.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
It isn't clear to me how assuming that "in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense" is the same as "interpreting he author as endorsing a view that is familiar, "sensible" and similar to my own and my colleagues'. We read things all the time that both make sense and with which we disagree. We make sense out of a text by seeing how its parts fit together as a coherent whole. But seeing how it makes sense isn;t the same as accepting it as sensible.

Callan S. said...

Sounds a bit 'death of the author' to me?

Is the advice that charity (whatever that is) IS THE way to interpret a text, or that you interpret with charity but accept you still might get it wrong?

Recently I ran into someone saying 'Humans cannot adapt to any circumstances'. I tried to figure it out and asked what they meant - which was taken as me not being charitable? It was very strange - in the end it seems 'any' wasn't an absolute word and meant something more like 'most'. It was curious how an absolute word (or at least an absolute word in one's own usage of the word) sort of defied charity, for how absolute the word is. When I was a kid Canadian kids TV was often imported and got quite blue at times, as they'd use the word 'Fanny' - which here is a euphemism for vagina. Took awhile to figure out there it's a euphamism for bum in Canada. A man on TV loudly proclaiming he fell on his fanny is both mortifyingly shocking (when in parental ear shot) and gut bustingly hilarious at the same time, when a kid. Another kind of absolute word. I'm still not sure if to ask what someone meant is to be genuinely uncharitable?

On #4, it seems to come from taking communication and the co-operation within that for granted.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all these thoughtful comments, folks! And apologies for the day-long wait for approval. Yesterday was hectic.

Margaret: I was taking Peter's words (somewhat superficially and perhaps even uncharitably!) at face value in my understanding of "charity". He wrote:

A minimal version of this rule is that we should assume, in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense.... [I]t still seems obvious (to me at least) that useful history of philosophy doesn't involve looking for inconsistencies and mistakes, but rather trying one's best to get a coherent and interesting line of argument out of the text. This is, of course, not to say that historical figures never contradicted themselves, made errors, and the like, but our interpretations should seek to avoid imputing such slips to them unless we have tried hard and failed to find a way of resolving the apparent slip."

This is a stronger claim that just avoid imputing howlers to the text. You want to make it "coherent" and "interesting" and "make sense" (by your lights, presumably) and you want to try hard to avoid attributing contradictions and errors (by your lights of what is an error, and perhaps in the face of explicit seeming contradiction between parts of the text).

I think it's reasonable (especially in light of points Peter and others make in other comments) to think what we have here is a spectrum of approaches, from those that bend over backwards to render the text coherent and plausible-seeming to those happier to take seeming difficulties at face value. So I'm going to be maybe more toward the latter side of the spectrum here. BUT -- and this is a point made especially vivid to me in the Facebook discussion of this post -- there are other spectra than this concerning "respect" and "charity". For example, I liked the way Lisa Shapiro put it (as something more like the "generosity" of respecting the many dimensions of the text), as I believe you also did!

Ethan: To see the value in Berkeley or Yogacara does seem to be aided by *some* sort of sense-making of the arguments, so I'd better not deny that! But there's a substantial risk, I think, of trying to make a bit *too* much sense of them, as it were -- which is what I want to push back against. Actually, your case of Zhuangzi is, in my view, a case in point. The way you describe your view of Zhuangzi is too brief for me to be sure of this, but if you think there is a specific way that Zhuangzi wanted people to live (e.g., via spontaneous skillful responsiveness a la Graham, Ivanhoe, and Hansen), then that's a more coherent Zhuangzi than the Zhuangzi that I believe I see in the Inner Chapters.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sam: I haven't read that part of Hume in several years, and I wasn't focusing on that issue in the text, so I'm not sure what to say about that particular example. But I don't think it's necessarily unreasonable to treat Hume as unintentionally inconsistent on the point.

Peter: Thank you for your gracious and detailed replies! I agree that the if people apply the other rules too, especially about anachronism, that might help them avoid the errors of excessive charity (on a certain way of reading "charity"). My target was the rule as a kind of stand-alone. And "being charitable" is often evoked to defend what I think of as overly charitable readings of the texts. It's a general concern of mine that I wanted to push back against, and your list of rules was the occasion. Your vision of what philosophy is might be somewhat different from mine. You portray it as something like the study of what people have so far said about philosophical questions. I think of it more as the study of the questions themselves. I think we can agree, though, that people with views like my own have tended to be too parochial in their reading of authors who can contribute to their understanding of the questions of interest. I like the idea of replacing a norm of imputing consistency with a norm of reading philosophers as tending to follow their own norms. It's possible that philosophers less concerned about self-consistency (like Zhuangzi, in my view) could be better approached in that way.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dan: Without being a Kant expert, I do tend to agree. Especially regarding the metaphysics of the noumenal, I'm more attracted to the weird, radical Kant -- or at least I find that version of Kant more useful for my own thinking.

Anon 2:28: Fair enough. "Making sense" isn't quite the same as "being sensible". I would still push back a bit against trying too hard to see "how its parts fit together as a coherent whole". People, even philosophers, are pretty incoherent -- especially if you're talking about a complex abstract body of work written over a long period of time. Other dimensions of charity can be even more of a problem, in my view, such as trying hard to avoid imputing "errors", or -- though this goes beyond what Peter explicitly endorsed -- giving people views that seem to be "reasonable", and assuming that their views anticipated and can be saved in face of obvious-seeming consequences and obvious-seeming counterexamples.

Callan: I don't think it's uncharitable to ask what someone meant. Nor is it charitable, really. It's just getting more evidence, which hopefully we can all agree is a good idea in interpreting philosophers (or others) whose views seem unclear and/or to admit of multiple possible interpretations. On whether charity is "the" way to interpret the text: There are a bunch of other rules that Peter suggests, too. And I think most of us has been influenced enough by post-modernism to allow that there are multiple legitimate ways to approach a text, even if we don't go as far as extreme versions of "death of the author".

Peter Adamson said...

Sorry, I posted twice because I thought the first time didn't work - I deleted the first one to avoid redundancy. Eric, re. your comment: " Your vision of what philosophy is might be somewhat different from mine. You portray it as something like the study of what people have so far said about philosophical questions. I think of it more as the study of the questions themselves." I would actually deny the contrast. After all if we are studying history of philosophy the first task is to figure out (without anachronism) what the questions were, that the historical figures wanted to answer. Also, we need some sense of what counts as a "philosophical" question, in order to demarcate the history of philosophy from the rest of history. The question of how to draw that line is difficult and is another occasion where one can fall into anachronism. As you know I tend to suggest, as a rule of thumb: if you think it might possibly be philosophy, then be open to it as philosophy just to be on the safe side. This is covered in other items in the "rules" though.

Callan S. said...

Eric,

I don't think it's uncharitable to ask what someone meant. Nor is it charitable, really. It's just getting more evidence

Really? I thought it'd be uncharitable to simply assume one knows what a text means and to not ask questions at all. In contrast I'd think to hover in uncertitude about a texts meaning is a kind of charity - if only because it takes more effort to be uncertain than it does to be certain.

And I think most of us has been influenced enough by post-modernism to allow that there are multiple legitimate ways to approach a text, even if we don't go as far as extreme versions of "death of the author".

What makes them legitimate? Gives me, what whatever it's worth (which may be zilch), the impression of some kind of dogma substituting itself as the author of texts, for being taken by groups of people as providing a legitimate interpretation of the text. Command the interpretation and you command the text.

What would happen if, Bill & Ted style, we brought one of these philosophers back through time to present day - what would they make of the 'legitimate approaches' to their own text? Worse, what if we brought them back but kept them anonymous? Only to find their 'interpretation' was taken to be an illegitimate approach?

Ethan said...

Eric, I think I agree that Graham et al. are being overly charitable in your sense in trying to make Zhuangzi, at least in the Inner Chapters, out to be advocating a specific way of life with specific views about reality. My earlier comment was more about how I teach Zhuangzi. My own reading is closer to skeptical readings like Paul Kjellberg's that see some similarities with ancient Greek skeptics, i.e, as a means to a way of life rather than a philosophical position. I don't think that Zhuangzi is saying "anything goes." After all, there's a lot of pointed criticism of Confucians. But nailing down exactly what Zhuangzi thinks about anything is incredibly difficult, and I suspect purposively so. I imagine him laughing at us for trying to pinpoint coherent philosophical positions (I imagine the same for Nāgārjuna or Sextus). At the end of the day I have to admit that I don't know whether to read this text as skeptical, relativist, mystical, or something else or all of these simultaneously. But then maybe this is a sort of sense at the meta level: the sense of deliberating evading attempts to make sense! Perhaps Rule 20 comes in: the text is more complicated than we think it is!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Callan: (1.) I suppose it depends on the spirit in which it's asked. Cross-examination, for example, can have highly uncharitable aims. (2.) It's a nuanced issue in the methods of text interpretation, but I do think that the most reasonable views are between the extremes of (a) giving hypothetical authorial intent complete deference and (b) being a free-for-all. This is true even in arguments with friends: Sometimes what they said has dimensions of which they are unaware or would repudiate on reflection -- and yet that's what they said.

Ethan: You write: I imagine him laughing at us for trying to pinpoint coherent philosophical positions (I imagine the same for Nāgārjuna or Sextus). At the end of the day I have to admit that I don't know whether to read this text as skeptical, relativist, mystical, or something else or all of these simultaneously. But then maybe this is a sort of sense at the meta level: the sense of deliberating evading attempts to make sense!

This expresses my own view exactly!

Kenny said...

I don't think most historians of philosophy take the principle of charity to involve attributing to philosophers views *we* regard as sensible, or avoiding to attributing to philosophers anything that *we* regard as a mistake. The principle is rather, to avoid attributing to philosophers views *they* (in their context) are unlikely to have regarded as sensible (unless they make it very clear that they really do mean to be putting forward a view they expect their contemporaries to find shocking/surprising), and to avoid attributing to philosophers anything *they* (in their context) would have regarded as a mistake. Hence very few (if any) serious historians of philosophy now take seriously the Couterat-Russell interpretation of Leibniz that tries to minimize Leibniz's theism, even though many of the historians are just as convinced as Russell was that theism is not a sensible view. This isn't because the textual evidence overwhelms the principle of charity. It's because it's not uncharitable to attribute theism to an early modern philosopher!

That said, I prefer an alternative way of conceptualizing what the historian is doing here. As I think of it, an interpretation can be seen as an explanatory hypothesis. There are (at least) two kinds of hypotheses here: hypotheses about what the author actually thought, and hypotheses about what the author wanted the readers to get from the text. These usually go together, but sometimes come apart. If we think of interpretation this way, then we have to examine the plausibility of the hypothesis that a particular philosopher made a particular error, or held a particular 'non-sensible' view, in light of all the available evidence. This will depend partly on what kind of philosopher we are dealing with. A builder of grand systems (e.g., Spinoza) works very hard at consistency, so if that person is a good philosopher it's unlikely that she/he is guilty of an inconsistency, unless perhaps it is an extremely subtle one or one that there is special reason to think might have been hard for that philosopher to spot. On the other hand, a Baconian natural historian of ideas (Locke) is very likely to commit some inconsistencies and may not even be too worried about it. After all, it's a central principle of Baconian natural history that one must avoid letting grand systems or theoretical generalizations influence one's description of particular phenomena.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that interesting comment, Kenny! On your first point: That seems right. But: What we judge to have been sensible for them to have believed in their context is going to involve a mix of factors, including what seems sensible to us. I'm thinking here of the spectrum of interpretations, from historians who work hard to smooth away the seeming weirdnesses in Kant, Hegel, Leibniz, etc., to give them views that seem fairly tame and sensible vs. historians who are happier to attribute more radical and strange sounding views based on the surface of the text. I think you'd agree that historians do tend to distribute themselves roughly along this range? My aim is to push back a bit against the taming, sensible interpretations in favor of the weirder seeming ones.

I like the thought in your second paragraph, especially about philosophers who aren't super concerned about consistency (leaping to mind: Zhuangzi, Montaigne, Nietzsche, later Wittgenstein). My guess is that given the frailty of the human mind even philosophers very concerned about consistency would have a hard time sustaining it across huge, sprawling systems, but it does make sense to me to be slower to attribute inconsistency to some authors than others.

Kenny said...

To your question: yes, I do think we can draw a spectrum, and it will *roughly* align with the analytic-contextual spectrum of approaches to history of philosophy. If you tend to approach historical texts in much the same way as contemporary ones, you will probably tend to think charity means not attributing views that seem outlandish *to us*. If you pay more attention to historical context, you will probably tend to think charity means something else (since 'outlandish in the context' will often not be the same as 'outlandish to us'). I consider myself more of a contextualist, and as such I don't shy away from views that seem outlandish, but I do try to make intelligible why a smart person would hold the outlandish-seeming view, and determine whether the philosopher has anything to say that requires us to take the outlandish-seeming view more seriously than we might at first be inclined to. But then, I write mainly about Berkeley, whose outlandishness to contemporary philosophers is inescapable!

Callan S. said...

Eric,

(1.) I suppose it depends on the spirit in which it's asked. Cross-examination, for example, can have highly uncharitable aims.

Wouldn't it be uncharitable to just treat someone as asking questions toward some uncharitable aim?

Granted, giving charity there could get you blindsided by a jerk. But I'd assumed the idea of charitable reading involved accepting some risk of that (at least from where I first encountered the idea of charitable reading)

I do think that the most reasonable views are between the extremes of (a) giving hypothetical authorial intent complete deference and (b) being a free-for-all. This is true even in arguments with friends: Sometimes what they said has dimensions of which they are unaware or would repudiate on reflection -- and yet that's what they said.

I'm not sure I get what you mean?

I kind of think charitable reading is trying to figure out a way as how what they are saying could work out. Don't try and find ways it doesn't work (not first and foremost) but be an advocate of what they are saying and try to string together a way that it would work (or would work if X is the case, where X might possible be true somehow and we didn't know)

For example, one could read climate change deniers charitably; it could perhaps not be happening, perhaps by some unlikely but vaguely possible overall poor reading method in the scientific community of the data available.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That makes sense to me, Kenny. Close attention to context will give "charity" a different flavor than simple "attribute what seems sensible (to me)".

Callan: And on the less charitable side, you could be alert for financial motives, intuitive/emotional influences that are poorly related to the justification of the claim, etc. I agree that it's good to look for the kinds of things you're mentioning, but there's also such a thing as bending over too far to be charitable, yes? If there's a spectrum of plausible interpretations, excluding ones that are obviously off the mark, I would oppose a principle that too strongly and generally favored the most charitable among them.