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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VAN DER WALT, B.J.. How to portray the history of philosophy: Exploring philosophical historiographic problems and methodologies. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.1, pp.1-15. ISSN 2224-7912.

To design an appropriate methodology to study the approximate 2500years of Western philosophy, inclusive of many individual philosophers, constitutes a quite daunting challenge. Nevertheless, it is of vital importance that it be attempted since one's methodology predetermines one 's final results. While reflecting a scholar's own presuppositions on the one hand, the chosen method should simultaneously not force history into a pre-conceived scheme on the other. Furthermore, in attempting to do justice to its wide field of investigation, the proposed methodology should at the very least be both fully historical and clearly philosophical in nature. Philosophic historiographers of the past, however, tended to emphasise either the historical development or the philosophical problems or ideas. More stumbling-blocks on the way are for example: the influence of broader and narrower views on the field of investigation of philosophy on its historiography; criteria for determining either the importance or unimportance of a specific philosopher or school of philosophy; the choice between either the present-day relevance of its history or faithfulness to the ancient birth of Western philosophy in Greece. In order to highlight their strengths and weaknesses, the second part of this essay provides a brief survey of various methodologies. Some textbooks on the history of philosophy, or anthologies containing selections from the writings of past philosophers, simply make a selection of those philosophers whom the writer/editor himself regards as of importance. A second group prefers to follow a chronological method. The third employs a kind of psychological-ethnic approach, taking the "soul" of a nation as vantage point, dividing history into, for example, German, French, English and other national philosophies. Many others approach the history of philosophy from the perspective of different epochs and accordingly divide it into pre-modern (ancient), medieval, modern and postmodern eras. Others again, prefer a more detailed division into successive centuries, characterised for example as "the age of belief", "the age of reason" etcetera. Then there are those who further subdivide the centuries into smaller, different philosophical currents. Apart from these synchronic methods, several diachronic methods were also developed. Examples discussed in the overview are various "history of ideas" methods, as well as a worldviewish approach. In the light of the preceding information, the third main section of the article attempts to formulate essential criteria for a more comprehensive and appropriate historiographical method of research: (1) a historian of philosophy should openly and clearly state the relationship between his own philosophical viewpoint and his method of describing the history of philosophy; (2) it should be consistently philosophical in nature; (3) consistently historical and (4) problem-directed; (5) consistent in the terminology applied and (6) experimentally tested. The whole exploration is concluded with a brief review as well as the preview of a follow-on article in which the origin, basic contours and critical appraisal of the consistent problem-historical method of philosophical historiography of prof. D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1975) and his followers will be discussed.

Keywords : Diachronie methods; history of philosophy; history of ideas; methodology; philosophy; philosophical currents; philosophical historiography; philosophical periods; philosophical terminology; philosophical types; readers in philosophy; synchronic methods; systematic philosophy; worldview.

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