"It is because I am interested in the range of ways people in different times and places have conceptualized the irresolvable problem of the fate of the soul. I specialize in 17th-century Christian European approaches to this mystery, but I could just as easily have been an Egyptologist." These are the words of Justin Smith, who is one of the most interesting young historians of philosophy right now. (Full disclosure: together with Mogens Laerke, we are co-editing a volume for Oxford University Press (to appear in 2012) on the topic of methodology in history-of-philosophy scholarship.) I believe Justin's words are a reductio of all contextual approaches to philosophy, which suffer from a tacit positivism that treats all historical facts alike (as I argued in an earlier exchange on these matters). I return to this below. But first some stage-setting.
In a recent and very interesting post at my friends at Early Modern X-Phi [recall my exchanges with them], Justin defends what we might call the immersion approach to history of philosophy: "we should be attempting to do justice to past thinkers by carefully reconstructing their own world of concerns. In doing so, we shall often have to move beyond the boundaries of what we consider philosophy (and even of what they considered philosophy)." This is why Justin advocates turning history of philosophy into something akin to historical anthropology.
Justin's target is NewAPPS's very own Mark Lance, who Smith understand as advocating that history-of-philosophy scholarship should make itself relevant to the cluster of questions currently being investigated in philosophy. By contrast Smith very cleverly re-interprets the revival of interest in X-Phi as follows: "Current x-phi is putting philosophy back into culture by empirically studying the culture-bound nature of intuitions, rather than resting content with the intuitions of self-appointed experts in intuition-having. This is a welcome development, but I believe it must be seen as just one small part of a broader project of re-embedding philosophy in culture." Justin is absolutely right about this. (As an aside: I recall once listening to a great Josh Knobe talk at an APA, and hearing the distinguished philosopher of social science, Stephen Turner, whisper into my ear, "Foucault is being taken straight into the heart of the discipline!" I nodded sagely, of course.)
Justin falsely limits the possibility space for historians of philosophy between immersion and relevance to current questions. In practice, the former amounts to rejection of contemporary philosophy and the latter to subservience to it. Both make history of philosophy completely safe and, thus, irrelevant to philosophy. Much more can be said about this. But the main point is this: Justin has a flawed understanding of what it amounts to doing "justice to past thinkers," which according to him requires careful "reconstructing their own world of concerns." This is to treat the past as object of study not as a voice in the present or a tradition to be extended/continued. This is why there is a non-trivial philosophic difference between studying the Ancient Egyptians and Leibniz for us. Now there is plenty of value in studying intellectual traditions far removed from ours and this may lead us to revalue our conception of philosophy. (Believe it or not, I have a paper in which I discuss Babylonian economics and the significance of Thales in part as a way to combat what I take to be the disastrous Aristotelian legacy on the very nature of philosophy. [This is published version.]) But to be a philosopher today means that not all historical facts can be treated equally.
That is to say, what Justin ignores is that history of philosophy can set part of the agenda of what it to be a philosopher today and in the future. This means that qua philosophers we must not be afraid to make fallible and contestable judgments about the relative merits to us of studying Leibniz (as opposed to the Ancient Egyptians).