On miscontextualizing history

In the analytic philosophy of language of the early aughts and teens (which now seems like eons ago because of how much the field has shifted int he last decade), there was an important distinction between different ways of thinking about context and interpretation: we could interpret the utterances in their proper context, i.e.,  when they were uttered and thus try to understand what the speaker was trying to do and expecting us, as audience, to do; but we could also then drop those contextual elements from her utterance (yes, like the famous ladder) and extract more general information from it. So, for example, if I tell you I am hungry and would like to go for some tacos, you could interpret it contextually to mean that right now, as I speak, me, the speaker, is hungry and would like to go soon for some tacos. Thus interpreted, the statement is about how I feel now and what I want to do now, because this is the context from which I am speaking. But you could also interpret my utterance in a more “reflexive” way (Perry’s term) as saying something not exclusively about me now but in general about me in circumstances like the current one. Thus interpreted you can get more general (defeasible) information about me, and in particular, about what I may want to eat when I am hungry – not just now, but whenever. Both interpretations (among others) are valid. What is not valid is to take the utterance and interpret it in a radically different context and then attribute to me, the speaker, the resulting content (with, perhaps, the sort of exceptions that people like MacFarlane have identified). You cannot come five days later and bring me some tacos because I said I was hungry and wanted some tacos days before.

I learned this important distinction in discussing contextualism in the philosophy of language, but I doubt it was not already known in previous discussions. After all, as any good philosophical distinction, it is a distinction whose relevance goes beyond the limits of that branch of philosophy. A couple of days ago, I attended Manuel Vargas and Clinton Tolley’s seminar on Mexican Philosophy at UCSD where his students and him were discussing the work of José Vasconcelos, for example. The above distinction tells us that we can interpret historical texts either as saying something particular about their concrete context of creation, or something more general about more abstract philosophical problems – which therefore would still be relevant to philosophical discussions todays, but it would be a mistake to interpret those texts directly in our context as if they had been written today. Thus one can interpret Vasconcelos as saying something about his situation and historical context, i.e., what was happening in Mexico and the Mexican-American border at the turn of the XXth Century, about how race was understood then and about how biology had been weaponized for racist purposes, etc. But one could also extract more general and abstract morals from reading Vasconcelos (or any other historical text, for that matter), not just about its particular historical context but about more abstract philosophical issues. Thus, for example, one can (and perhaps must) interpret Vasconcelos also as tackling more basic ontological and political problems, lime how to build a national identity that is also multi-cultural, or even more abstractly, about how to think of difference as something positive, something that binds different things or people together instead of pulling them apart. Thus, Vasconcelos can be read as saying things that are very, very concrete and particular, but also and at the same time, very deep, abstract and fundamental. What one must not do is read them as if they had been written today or to be read today in the context of our current discussions regarding nation, race, biology, diversity, etc.

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