René Descartes, a patriarch of modern philosophy, turned his back on history but could not escape it. Something similar can be said of the field in its current state: while a few of its practitioners have renounced history, philosophy still revels in its past. Indeed, considering philosophy's ambition to be scientific, it is surprising that not many of the university's disciplines concern themselves as much with the past as philosophy does — on the evidence of such things as numbers of journal pages or courses in college catalogs. Nonetheless, given the prominence of history in philosophy, it is not surprising that philosophy also has its historiography, best described in Giovanni Santinello's massive Storia delle storie generali della filosofia. That this fundamental work of reference has appeared in Italian, not in English, bears on my story today.
Periodization is a key problem for Santinello’s topic, historiography. It matters how we break the past into pieces, especially how we cut the big slices, giving them names like “ancient” and “modern.” For several centuries, the usual practice has been to put something between those two temporal bookends, something intermediary or “medieval.” The script says that modernity starts when the intermezzo stops. Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian of art and culture, gave this new beginning a French name – Renaissance – borrowing it from Michelet for the title of a book written in German that deals almost uniquely with Italians. Since Burckhardt had little to say about philosophy, perhaps it is fair that philosophers have had little to say about the period that Burckhardt named.
KeywordsModern Philosophy Fifteenth Century Professional Philosopher Cambridge History Journal Page
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