Filosofi eller historia?
The opposition between historical and philosophical approaches to the history of philosophy is a commonplace. Using recent Hegel-literature for illustration, I argue that there is a multidimensional reality underlying this simple dichotomy. In his recent Hegel, Frederick Beiser takes the distinction between historical and philosophical approaches as fundamentally concerned with contextualisation, the main question being whether one relates the historical figure to an historical or to a contemporary "conversation". I question this, and try to clarify the notion of context, distinguishing explanatory from explicatory uses of context. I also discuss the practical question of the quantity of erudition and contextual references to demand from writers on the history of philosophy, arguing that these demands are often exaggerated and amount to a kidnapping of the philosophical legacy by historians.
On the positive side, I distinguish, in what is usually called an interpretation, between readings and claims. A reading is, roughly, an assignment of a content to a text, while a claim is always made on behalf of a reading. Some claims are historical, saying, for example, that a certain reading was intended by the author, or matches the understanding of some specific historical reader or group of readers, while other claims may be philosophical, saying, for example, that a certain reading makes the text philosophically interesting or true.
Distinguishing different types of claim takes care of one dimension of the historical/philosophical contrast, but there are also relevant differences within readings themselves. I sketch three different ways in which a reading may be constructed: the antiquarian, the text-based, and the question- based. The question-based approach is typical of readings commonly perceived as philosophical and I end by pointing out that, contrary to expectation, it is readings of this kind that tend to engage most intimately with the actual wording of difficult texts.