Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Logic of the Historian and the Logic of the Citizen

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Logic of the Historian and the Logic of the Citizen

Article excerpt


Students of the history of ideas often face the question of the relevance of the entire enterprise. Why should we care about what some ancient philosophers said a long time ago? And if we do care, is there anything new to say about these philosophers? After two millennia of scholarship, how can there be anything new to say about Aristotle?

In The Logic of the History of Ideas , Mark Be vir provides powerful and convincing answers to these questions.1 First, historians of ideas do not study discrete works. They study their place in a narrative, or in fact a web of narratives. When historians study past philosophers they do so as part of a larger research program that reaches, in one way or another, our present time. What appears to the outside observer as a study of an arcane topic, can be an important building block in an interpretation of the place of religion in modernity, or a piece of the puzzle that describes how our present thinking about economics was shaped. These webs of beliefs change as our own society changes. When we face new problems, we re-examine and reconstruct our webs of beliefs about the past so they can help us make sense of our present problems. When we change, our history changes with us. Our Aristotle and Marx are different from what they were a century ago because we understand them within different webs of beliefs.

But, in itself, this answer is lacking. It can portray the history of idea as a garnish to a narrative that is essentially about our own problems. It allows us to have a liberal Hobbes, an authoritarian Hobbes, a liberal Locke, and a communitarian one. But this cannot be the case. If we can pick the Locke that fits our need, then why do it at all. The second part of Bevir's answer to the challenge is that historians of ideas can and should "penetrate the linguistic fog engulfing reality."2 Even though we constantly change the way we tell our historical narratives, not everything goes and all stories are not equal.

Be vir illustrates the relationship between our narratives and reality with the following example: "[ijmagine John operates a dog-sleigh in the Arctic Circle, but he does not perceive the difference between dogs and wolves. Before long, John would run into serious trouble."3 Our first impression might be that this example is not relevant to historians of ideas. The history of ideas is not commonly understood as a dangerous profession. What would be the comparable trouble that historians of ideas, individually or as a profession, might run into? Bevir's answer, as I read it, is that the narratives that historians of ideas tell are important and consequential because they are building blocks in constructing our webs of beliefs and our identities. We need to look no further than our current financial crisis to see that ideas have consequences, and that we - historians of ideas and political theorists - do ride a powerful and dangerous "dog-sleigh." Our current crisis teaches us the hard way that there is a reality behind the linguistic fog.

The contentions that "there is a fixed historical reality" and that we can grasp historical objects are central to the Logic.4 At the same time, Bevir's later works on interpretive social sciences and participatory democracy emphasize the dangers of objectification and the constructed nature of our understanding of social reality.5 In these works Bevir develops what can be understood as a logic of democratic deliberations, one that specifies the form of reasoning appropriate for a democratic public sphere. The two logics are consistent with each other and they share the same philosophical framework. The difference in emphasis stems from the different dilemmas that each of his works addresses. Bevir's main interlocutors in his study of the history of ideas are post-modernist historians, against whom he defends a post-foundational logic of the history of ideas. The main interlocutors of his defense of social democracy are mainstream political scientists who rely on a positivist conception of social inquiry and treat the knowledge that they generate as objective. …

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