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Fr. 847

December 24, 2018

In philosophy, there are recognizable character-types. In systematic philosophy, thinkers may speak or write as prophets and tinkerers; in historical philosophy, they may express themselves as innovators and curators. Systematic philosophy concerns finding the best possible theory for a phenomenon and the best possible explanation for that theory. Whereas tinkerers examine and take apart, add on or rearrange arguments with an eye to improving them, prophets instead focus on identifying paradigm shifts, gesturing towards unexplored fields and headings, and foreseeing the future lay of the philosophical land.

In contrast, historical philosophy aims to restate historically accurate theories for a given phenomenon and to restore the arguments which historical authors in fact gave for those theories. Accordingly, curators strive to preserve the author’s arguments as exist and to locate them within a concrete historical context as a kind of exhibit for future readers while innovators undertake not just to restate and to restore but to present a new way of reading author, theory and argument and to bring the author’s theory to bear on contemporary problems.

Though conceptually neat at first glance, this typology may be less clear-cut than it seems. After all, if a prophet identifies paradigm shifts and lays out new possibilities, this may follow from a period of examining just how the existing paradigms or possibilities fall short, often at the level of technical argument detail. Likewise, an innovator must also be curator if she is to put forward a plausible (albeit inventive) rereading of the historical author. Moreover, the relation may also hold the other way: perhaps curators and tinkerers have something of the innovator and prophet about them. This may hold to such character-types being modes between which thinkers move rather than permanent, exclusive dispositions within those thinkers. Still, the typology is thought-provoking.

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