Fred Beiser has written a strongly worded, very critical NDPR review of a volume edited by Schrift and Conway in The history of continental philosophy8-volume set. The volume in question is entitled Nineteenth century philosophy: revolutionary responses to the existing order; it is the only volume in the set dealing with its period (1840–1900), although the next volume does seem to overlap with it a little, since it includes a chapter on Neo-Kantianism (whose omission Beiser criticizes in the Schrift and Conway volume).
The tenor of Beiser’s review is that the history presented in Nineteenth-century philosophy (the preceding volume, if you set aside a chapter on French utopians, is a Kant to Hegel volume) omits significant developments, dragoons the philosophers it does treat under the catchall rubric of “revolutionary response”, and even then omits a number of philosophers with equal claim to fall under that rubric.
Since I haven’t read the volume in question, I don’t intend to evaluate Beiser’s criticisms. I want instead to draw attention to the end of his review:
There is an important methodological lesson to be learned here. Any historian of philosophy who wants to provide a survey and introduction to a broad historical phenomenon like the nineteenth century must learn to think outside and beyond the standard curriculum. Who and what is intellectually important in that century is not something given for the scholar; it cannot be the starting point of his investigation; rather, it is precisely the goal and object of all his research, the final fruits and ultimate result. To get there, the scholar must go beyond contemporary interests and concerns, delve into the past in all its breadth, depth and strangeness, reading unheard of texts and studying strange and forgotten controversies. It is only after a thorough study of the past for its own sake that the scholar is in a position to know who and what in the past is still of importance for us today.
Let me put the point this way. There are two kinds of philosophical historians: derivative and original. While the derivative follow the standard curriculum, the original have the powers to reform and create a new curriculum. It is the ideal and obligation of every genuine philosophical historian to be original, to get beyond the standard curriculum, to resist the pressure of pedagogical interests and intellectual fashions, so that he can give an accurate account of the depth and breadth of an historical period. No period of the philosophical past stands in more need of an original historian than nineteenth century philosophy. The standard tropes and figures do no justice to its depths, riches and powers. The ultimate purpose of this review is to give the reader some indication of how we must strive to get beyond them.
What Beiser says may hold more forcefully of the nineteenth century than of other periods (I suppose we historians all tend to think of our own periods as in especially dire need of a reformed history…), but the point holds generally.
The word “important” is ambiguous in this context. By “important” Beiser means “important then”, or as I would say, historically effective, wirklich. You may find the controversy about materialism dull as dishwater; your eyes may glaze over at the very mention of Kategorienlehre; you may think that Victor Cousin was a charlatan, and eclecticism a joke; nevertheless they were all historically effective, and to omit them from an account of the period would be like giving an account of Solar System events that omitted Neptune and Uranus on the grounds that they’re too dull to discuss.
Clearly another kind of account can be given that is oriented toward what we take to be important. It will, from the standpoint of the other, inclusive, history, be patchy. It is very likely to leave the course of events unexplained or mysterious by virtue of omitting their causal conditions or presuppositions (in the way that Hume’s thought becomes more difficult to understand if Malebranche is left out of your history). One would be better off following Charles Lamb’s example, and instead of calling this “history” call it “tales from history”. Or maybe “fables” if your tales have a moral. In that case Fred Beiser (and me) will have nothing to complain about, so long you get right the things you do choose to discuss.
I’m not sure that the pejorative label “derivative” should be applied in every instance to tales from history. Beiser himself says that if Conway and Schrift had made it their explicit aim to cover just what is taught nowadays, he would not have criticized them. (He says they would have been “above” criticism: I would say “below”, since tales from history don’t aspire to the condition of history.) Tales or fables can be original even if as history they fail. But it seems reasonable to require, in a work of this sort—a multi-volume history that will likely become an authority—that it rest on a real rethinking of the framework within which it is written, rather than taking for granting that today’s estimates of importance will faithfully track historical effectiveness.