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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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


VAN DER WALT, BJ. A Scripturally-orientated perspective on the history of Western intellectual thought: the origin and contours of and questions about the consistent problem-historical method. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.3, pp.267-285. ISSN 2224-7912.

Following a previous article in this journal on various methods available to portray the history of scholarly thinking, especially philosophy (cf. Van der Walt 2013), this essay focuses on the consistent problem-historical method of the late professor Dirk H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1978) of the Free University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In three main sections the method's origin, contours and the reactions it evoked are discussed. The first main part reveals that Vollenhoven derived his method from two German philosophers of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantian philosophy, viz. N. Hartmann (1882-1950) and R. Höningswald (1875-1947), who developed a "Problemgeschichtliche" historiography of philosophy, focussing on philosophical problems as they developed during the 2500 years of Western thinking. Hartmann and Höningswald, because of their late rationalist, neo-Aufklärung orientation, still believed in an objective, neutral approach in scholarship. They, therefore, rejected the upcoming irrationalist tendencies with relativist implications. Since Vollenhoven was a committed Christian, embracing the ideal of an integral, Scripturally-directed philosophy, he modified the problem-historical approach of Marburg, rejecting both its rational dogmatism and the opposing irrational relativism. The implications of his unique stance was, inter alia, that he did not view (as was the case with his contemporary German fellow-philosophers) the history of philosophy as a process of gradual progress, but instead from his Christian-religious orientation distinguished between pre-Christian (pagan) Greek philosophy, synthetic, Patristic and Medieval Christian philosophy and subsequent anti-synthetic, secular philosophy. In the second main section five criteria formulated at the end of the previous article in this journal) are applied to test the validity of Vollenhoven's methodology. Firstly, he developed his analysis of the history of Western intellectual thought consistently from his own, integral Christian-religious perspective. This was possible because, according to him, religion of whatever kind is not restricted to an earlier period in history, one's private life, church or theology. Religion is not something a person "has", but what he/she "is", it is characteristic of being human - life in its entirety is religion. This stance enabled Vollenhoven to use the Scriptures (not in a biblicistic way, but as orientation) to enquire firstly, about a philosopher's idea of God, secondly, his/her view about normativity or law and, thirdly, about the thinker's perspective on ontic, anthropological and epistemological issues. Secondly, Vollenhoven also worked in a consistent historical way, starting his investigations with ancient Greek philosophy, the cradle of Western thinking. His integral Christian approach enabled him to determine in the "passion of the Western mind" its relationship towards God's threefold revelation. Accordingly, he divided the entire history, as already stated, into three main epochs: (1) pre-Christian, pagan Greek, Hellenistic and Roman philosophy (unaware of God's Word), (2) synthetic philosophy amongst the Church Fathers and Medieval philosophers (combining pagan and Christian thought patterns) and (3) subsequently both anti-synthetic, secular thought (from the Renaissance) and anti-synthetic Christian thinking (starting with the 16th century Reformation). Vollenhoven's division into these four main periods thus included his implicit critique of the "progress" of Western philosophy. Vollenhoven's method also passed the test of a third criterion, viz. in being consistently philosophical in nature. He synchronically distinguished about sixty-six different consecutive normative currents, responsible for the dynamic, ever-changing nature of theoretical thought. Fourthly, his method is also consistently problem-directed. He discovered and distinguished a vast number of ontological types (viewpoints about the structure of cosmic reality), starting from a few fundamental ones, moving to detailed anthropological and epistemological differences amongst philosophers, thus providing a diachronic view of history. Also in this regard his presentation of the history of philosophy and other disciplines included his implicit critique on various philosophical problems and their solutions. The outcome of the last (fifth) test applied is also positive: Vollenhoven himself as well as his followers applied the method successfully with valuable results - not merely in philosophy, but also in the history of, for example, aesthetics, psychology, dogmatics, mathematics, etcetera. In the third main part of this exploration seven points of critique levelled against the method are considered. (In each case a possible response is included.) They are the following: (1) Vollenhoven himself did not provide an always clear and final exposition of his method. (2) The method is considered as too specialised and complicated to be used, especially in teaching the history of philosophy to students. (3) It is biased by its one-sided Christian perspective. (4) It is (too) selective in nature, ignoring the personal and cultural backgrounds of Western intellectuals; (5) It has a tendency towards schematism. (6) The wide-ranging terminology it employs is too complicated. (7) Philosophical concepts are allocated dominant roles, while individual philosophies, philosophers and other scholars disappear in the background. By way of a few metaphors the final conclusion highlights the enduring value of Vollenhoven's method. The author has already applied it himself in articles in this and other journals and considers it as a viable method amongst the present confusion in the historiography of philosophy and other subjects. Since humilitas was regarded by Augustine as the main requirement for genuine philosophising - including a philosophia Christiana - Vollenhoven's unique method similarly should, however, not be regarded as the last and final word about the very difficult issue of how to portray the history of something unfamiliar and strange, called "philosophy".

Keywords : Currents; philosophical; God; idea of; Hartmann, N. (1882-1850); historiography; Höningswald, R. (1875-1947); law; idea of; philosophy; a Scripturally-directed; philosophy; history of; philosophy; Western; method; consistent problem-historical; religion; schematic maps; secularisation; terminology; philosophical; types; philosophical; Vollenhoven, D.H.Th. (1892-1978).

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