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(On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the passing of Prof. Dr. Mag. Karl Schuhmann, 19-03-1941 – 18-03-2003)

Karl Schuhmann often proclaimed to consider himself as a historian of philosophy rather than as a philosopher. Such a statement, however, contains an implicit but quite strong claim about the relation of the history of philosophy to philosophy, which would itself seem to need a philosophical justification. However, Schuhmann never discussed his own philosophical opinions. Nevertheless, we can find some indications of Schuhmann’s position regarding the role of the history of philosophy in his teaching and research.

First of all, in his lectures as well as his publications Schuhmann would always ground everything in the primary sources and their historical context. The first lecture of a masterclass or advanced seminar with Schuhmann normally would include a comprehensive survey of the authors, texts, and circumstances in which a philosopher and his work developed. Then the rest of the classes would consist in a highly detailed analysis of a philosophical text, often line by line (we once spent an entire course analyzing Husserl’s short treatise on intentional objects). This very precise method of close reading is also the foundation of Schuhmann’s editorial work. Schuhmann moved mountains in his quest to disclose historical sources and make them accessible. As a true master of his craft, he created his own tools in the process: indexes, chronicles, critical editions, etc. To sustain such an attention to detail for years on end requires both great passion and discipline.

This brings us to the second point: good historical work cannot be done without respect for the sources and authors from the past. The principle of charity needs to be applied to the highest degree, even when the positions of historical authors would seem unintelligible or demonstrably wrong from a current perspective. It is often exceedingly difficult to maintain the necessary humility to take a historical text seriously.

This leads to the third and last point: knowledge of the history of philosophy is an indispensable requirement for good systematic work.

“The originality of philosophers of the Anglo-American brand is often a function of their avowed disinterest in what their predecessors have said and done. To the informed reader this sometimes offers the rather bizarre spectacle of a huge waste of time and energy in their efforts to invent the wheel. Continental philosophers on the contrary generally know what they ought to know, better. But it is an all too human inclination to think up excuses which allow one to get around the detailed and difficult study, often in a foreign language and a foreign terminology, of what earlier thinkers have contributed to the progress of thought.” (Schuhmann “Representation in early Husserl”, in Albertazzi (Ed.) The Dawn of Cognitive Science (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001), p. 182)

This illustrates all the three points I made above: back to the primary sources, understand the historical position, and then do better philosophy.

(Adapted and translated from the Dutch version in De Filosoof 43, July 2009, a biography and bibliography of Schuhmann are available for free in the front and back matter of his Selected Papers)

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