Philosophy is not, I submit, primarily a matter of private performances of profound insight. It is a public act of stringing together words and arguments. What is on the page is the philosophy, regardless of what the philosopher might have thought in his secret heart.--Schwitzgebel
I am so happy to return from my internet-free holiday to a discussion initiated by Eric Schwitzgebel about the methodology of the history of philosophy! Catarina wrote a very important response, which prompted a consessive comment by Schwitzgebel here. (I am avoiding calling him "Eric S." in order to avoid confusion.) The above quote is from Schwitzgebel's second (out of three) reasons against over-reliance on the so-called principle-of-charity. The statement expresses an important insight (too often forgotten by some contextual historians of philosophy who wish to turn the history of philosophy into a sub-discipline of the history of material culture). But it is also a manifestly parochial sentiment (which relies on a misleading opposition between page and heart). For, not-so-long-ago philosophy would also be thought to involve the integration of a life-lived-with-words-on-the-page. This is why the deaths of Socrates, Descartes, Spinoza, and (say) Hume were (in a complex sense) public spectacles and could be seen as significant to the evaluation of their philosophical doctrines (recall my post). It's not clear our present indifference to such integration is to be esteemed as progess in all ways.
One could argue that the principle of charity is designed to protect the confident interpreter from his or her parochialism. But -- like all principles -- it is a blunt instrument that can be wielded skillfully and unskillfully. This is why Catarina's point ("it is only equipped with in-depth knowledge of a given historical theory/author that the scholar can justifiably be uncharitable. Otherwise, it may well be that she is simply missing some crucial details in the story") matters so much. Now, as I put it in a review once "The principle of charity leads to very flattening readings of past philosophers by importing one age’s plausible prejudices into another age." In context I was being critical of the very skilled use of the principle by one of the greatest historians of philosophy, Ed Curley, who had claimed (together with Walski) ‘views that are tremendously implausible should not be attributed to great, dead philosophers without pretty strong textual evidence.’ (For references see here.) The principle of charity has at one point led Curley to read Spinoza as a mid-twentieth century logical positivist and (to comment on another outstanding historian), say, more recently Don Garrett to read Hume as a kind of Quine-ean naturalist. These readings are thrilling and inspiring, but leave out a lot, too.
Here's the rub: in sociological practice to learn what past philosophers can teach us today this often requires partisans for their views. Now, the nice thing about partisans of long-dead-but-once-influential-figures is that they have to learn to engage with a diversity of criticisms of their hero. To give an example close to Schwitzgebel's main argument (and ignore his cheap shots about Kant's views on physics and masturbation): modern Kantians have had to learn to respond to Humeans, Hegelians, Fichte-eans, Nietzscheans, Quine-eans, Aristotelians, (etc) and also supposed friends like Strawson, Rawls, Habermas, etc. They have had to mine and develop Kant's system for creative responses to intelligent criticism. Contrast this with the attitude exhibited by followers of the still-with-us -- say, Kripke or Plantinga -- who often cherry-pick among the genuinely hostile responses. (As an aside, one reason why I like our Lewisian metaphysicians so much is that as a group they engage so critically yet constructively with their man from Ohio and outsiders.)
This is not to excuse the "the harsh, accusatory reaction of a portion of historians when one dares to say anything substantive about a historical figure." (I am familiar with the practice, so I don't doubt the veracity of Schwitzgebel's testimony, although I wonder if he is as offended by boundary policing when he likes the boundaries.) Philosophy is a very difficult enterprise and history of philosophy is no exception, we should try to be welcoming of those that wish to participate in it and share in the fruits of genuine intellectual exchange. But this means we also have to be a bit tolerant of the partisans among us.