Friday, August 10, 2012

What Did They Really Mean

With any philosopher, particularly dead ones who can not weigh in on the matter, you have disputes about the true content of their beliefs. There are debates and arguments about what the words they wrote really mean and what views and propositions they really held.

This is all very interesting and important - to a historian.

But why, I wonder, do philosophers care what other philosophers really meant? For example, we have all of the available text that Nietzsche ever wrote on the concept of the eternal recurrence; why does it matter-in so far as we are being philosophers and not admirers-what Nietzsche really thought about it, the question is what role does the eternal recurrence play in our philosophy? Kierkegaard is an even better example: how did he intend his pseudonymous writings to be taken, to what extent was he sincere in his writing, to what extent did he believe the things he wrote when he was Johannes de Silentio or Anti-Climacus? I answer that it does not matter to the philosopher what the true substance of Kierkegaard's beliefs were, rather, what matters is how do they help you to understand the world?

Historians learn of people. Admirers learn of people. Philosophers learn of the world. History and admiration are both excellent things, but insofar as we're playing the Philosophy game, it doesn't matter what the people believed, all that matters is how their writings can help us understand the world. If a book brings you insight into how the world works, then what does it matter if its author wrote it as a joke, the book worked in spite of its author.

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