The scholar

The scholar as in “Kant-scholar”, “Descartes-scholar”… most often used in negative contexts, i.e. “He’s not a Kant-scholar (but still writes about Kant, sometimes)”. A scholar might innocently look just like an expert on a particular subject matter: just like the metaethicist is an expert on metaethics, the Aristotle-scholar is an expert on Aristotle. But things aren’t that easy. For metaethics is straightforwardly identified as a subfield of philosophy, whereas Aristotle is a philosopher, and a dead one, too. So unlike the metaethicist, it seems, the scholar is not doing research in an area of philosophy, but in the history of philosophy, and more specifically: about a particular philosopher.

But for this purpose the scholar, qua philosopher, might seem ill-equipped. After all, philosophy teaches you to argue with almost nothing to go by and to analyze and criticize arguments of the same type. A scholar, on the other hand, must have skills more easily acquired in philology, like the ability to read in a foreign, potentially dead, language, comparison of manuscripts, evaluation of sources.

So why is the Aristotle-scholar a philosopher then, rather than a classicist? Sometimes they are both. But crucially, the philosophical scholar is attempting to make a dead philosopher a potential partner for philosophical dialog. Because of the particular interest philosophers have in arguments qua arguments, claims as conclusions and principles as premises, to make a text accessible for a contemporary philosopher takes more than philology. In fact, the philosophical scholar has to willfully ignore certain aspects of the context, in order to bring out the argument as an accessible one. As much as Plato’s philosophy may have been inspired by religious motivations, the key point is: do his arguments support his conclusions? And can they be rendered such that the conclusions follow without reference to further background assumptions we might be disinclined to believe?

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