October 26-28, 2017 ǀ International Conference ǀ Freiburg University

Inventing Europe in Modern History of Philosophy

From the 18th century onward European civilization has been characterized by a philosophical mind that would have reached maturity or, in alternative narratives, appeared in the 17th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, philosophical historiography contributed in a specific and significant way to the constitution of this topos and, in so doing, to the creation of European modern self-consciousness. By contrasting European culture with other cultural ensembles, modern historians of philosophy created a European philosophical culture that was essentially Christian and paradoxically rooted in Greek (pagan) and/or modern (secularized) philosophy. With notable exceptions such as Brucker’s history of philosophy or Voltaire’s cultural history, these processes of constituting European identity on the ground of philosophical rationality indeed excluded other cultures, which were on the one hand identified as Semitic, Chinese, Japanese or American Indian, on the other hand, historically situated in ages allegedly devoid of autonomous philosophical rationality, that is, in the antediluvian period, in the Middle Ages or in the Renaissance. Since the end of the 18th century, the European philosophical culture would moreover have taken particular forms in the recently created nations.

The conference Inventing Europe in Modern History of Philosophy aims (A) to reconstruct some exemplary modern undertakings, which, on the one hand, have contributed to the definition of philosophy as a method and cultural endeavor; on the other hand (B), have created an allegedly European philosophical mind by excluding other cultural and historical worlds. Moreover, (C) it intends to investigate the effects that these European historiographical enterprises have had on histories of philosophy undertaken in other cultural areas, which have precisely been identified as “other” or non-philosophical in Western history of philosophy (such as China, Japan and the Islamic World).

(A) Definition of philosophy as a method and cultural endeavor. While reconstructing the developments, fortunes, misfortunes, accelerations, progresses and regressions of philosophical rationality since its very first anticipations in the antediluvian ages (e.g. J.J. Brucker) or in Greek antiquity (e.g. D. Tiedemann), modern historians of philosophy defined the object of their narratives by at least five features. (1) First, they considered the philosophical culture that had reached maturity in modern Europe as a process of generalization. The philosophical mind claims a certain degree of abstraction. Since the beginning of its history, it has elaborated general concepts such as the ideas of being and truth. By contrast, non-philosophical cultures would be unable to think abstractly; their cultural productions would rather be poetical or religious. (2) Second, according to modern historians of philosophy and philosophers, European philosophical culture has a monopoly on method, which is regarded as an epistemic virtue. From the scholastic ages onwards philosophers and theologians established controlled procedures for treating general problems. In the modern era, with Descartes and then Kant, the dialectical scholastic method turned to or was replaced by criticism. (3) Third, this method has also been described as analytic – particularly in French and English historiographies, less in German history of philosophy. Philosophical analysis creates discontinuity and thus provides epistemic tools for cumulative and controlled sciences. In this respect, modern historians of philosophy paid special attention to the problem of the language one should speak or write in philosophy, whether it be a formal, artificial language or a natural language such as German or French.  In the 19th century, they notably underlined that Semitic languages are unsuitable for philosophy. (4) Fourth, in the modern philosophical historiography the achievement of philosophy goes hand in hand with a secularized and intersubjective rationality, whose political counterpart is the European rule of law. By contrast, non-European philosophical enterprises, for example the so-called “Arabic peripatetic philosophy”, are often portrayed as fatalistic, enthusiastic or fanatical and compared with tyrannical political regimes. (5) Finally, European philosophical culture has been conceived as reflexive. By reconstructing the history of philosophical rationality over the centuries, the European mind would have become conscious of itself. At least since the romantic era, historical self-consciousness has been regarded by historians of philosophy and culture as an essential modern and European philosophical feature.

(B) Creation of a European philosophical culture by exclusion of others. As already suggested, the constitution of a specific European cultural identity proceeded, in the history of philosophy, by excluding other cultural traditions and therefore by identifying them. History and anthropology indeed served as projection surfaces for modern historians of philosophy. “Semites”, Chinese, Japanese and American Indians sometimes played the role of the noble savage for stigmatizing, in contrast, the corrupted sophistication of philosophy in the European Middle Ages, or they embodied barbarous, fanatical or mystical cultures, which are heterogeneous to philosophy (in the sense described above). Religion and language were at the center of these reconstructions; they were seen as markers of cultural identities. From a diachronic point of view, three periods were particularly considered as pre- or non-philosophical: the antediluvian ages, in which the reason was still in an embryonic stage; the Middle Ages, in which philosophy was mixed up with theology and therefore enslaved and corrupted; and the Renaissance, which has been considered as a (non-philosophical) artistic period. Ancient Greece and modern Europe were thus portrayed as the privileged ages of philosophical culture. Around 1800 the Middle Ages were however rehabilitated: in the emerging nations, historians of philosophy colonized the national Middle Ages in order to make them the cradle of the national culture.

(C) Retroactive and proactive effects on non-European histories of philosophy or philosophies. Since the last decades of the 20th century, history of philosophy has been globalized, giving rise to a “global history of ideas (or philosophy)”. Historians of philosophy and culture have notably studied the effects of Western cultural undertakings on other cultural areas. In the conference, we intend to present some case studies documenting how European definition of philosophy (as described above) has been received in the worlds which embodied otherness in modern histories of philosophy, how the grand European narrative has been taken over or contested in them.

The conference Inventing Europe in Modern History on Philosophy aims to study the strategies of demarcation implemented in the 18th and 19th centuries by historians of philosophy in order to create the allegedly philosophical culture of modern Europe, as well as national philosophies. From within the philosophical historiography, it investigates the cultural narratives that intended to establish the supremacy of Western culture above all others, as well as their effects on cultures that have been excluded from European rationality.

April 28-30, 2016 ǀ International Conference ǀ Freiburg University

“Outsiders” and “Forerunners”: Modern Reason and Historiographical Births of Medieval Philosophy

The conference, “Outsiders” and “Forerunners”: Modern Reason and Historiographical Births of Medieval Philosophy is scheduled to take place from April 28-30, 2016, at Freiburg University. This event is the first of two international conferences organized by the Medieval Philosophy in Modern History of Philosophy (MEMOPHI) Research Group, a project sponsored by the European Research Council (ERC).

The focus of the conference is on the emergence and development of philosophical historiography as a university discipline, which took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period, historians of philosophy sought to create a historical legitimation of modern reason by way of tracing its origins back to the Middle Ages. They evaluated medieval philosophical theories through the lenses of present-day leitmotifs and assigned to medieval thinkers positions within an imaginary map of cultural identities based on the juxtaposition between “Self” and “Other”. Categories such as “method”, “Geist” (“spirit”), “mysticism”, “atheism” and “pantheism” are examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century leitmotifs, which served as guidelines in the exploration and appropriation of the philosophical past. In the process of the historical elaboration of these categories, philosophical historiography saw medieval thinkers as prefigurations of modern reason. Some of them were regarded as “forerunners” that had constructively paved the way for modern rationality; whereas others, viewed as “outsiders”, had contributed to the same effect by way of their struggle against “the dominance of scholastic philosophy”. In some cases, a particular medieval thinker was labeled both as a “forerunner” and as an “outsider”.

Participants are expected to explore the “fate” of a particular philosopher as portrayed in the writings on the history of philosophy from the 18th-19th century, and to evaluate her/his role in the narrative of the origins of modern reason in the Middle Ages. The proceedings of the conference will be published in the format of a book. The deadline for the submission of the individual papers is November 30, 2016.

Next MEMOPHI workshop: click here

MEMOPHI organizes workshops. Each semester specialists in the field of philosophical historiography and reception history are invited to present new approaches and methodological tools as well as the results of their own research.

Next MEMOPHI invited talk

Prof. Dr. Kurt Flasch (Bochum): Zur Genesis der Blumenbergschen Welt

January 29, 2016, 18.15 pm, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Platz der Universität 3, KG I, HS 1098

„Blumenberg hat sich gründlich mit der Philosophie des Mittelalters befaßt. Der Vortrag skizziert die Weiterentwicklung seiner Arbeit von 1946 bis 1966, also bis zur Legitimität der Neuzeit, aus freundschaftlich-ktitischer Distanz. Ich erzähle am Ende von einer langen Unterhaltung mit Blumenberg über die Entstehung seiner Ideen.“ [Text: Kurt Flasch]