The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

The Persona of the Philosopher in Early Modern Europe is a five-year research project (2004-2008) being undertaken by Conal Condren (UNSW), Stephen Gaukroger (U. Syd), and Ian Hunter (U. Qld), and funded by the Australian Research Council. The project aims to provide a new interpretation of the history of early modern European philosophy. It will do this by approaching philosophy via the persona of the philosopher - that is, in terms of the cultivation of a particular kind of self and way of life - understood as required by particular ways of knowing and acting. This persona was always multiple and contested, being made and remade in a series of demarcation disputes, which sought to distinguish the philosopher from the statesman, the theologian, the scientist or natural philosopher, and the rhetor, and reshaped philosophical traditions and their defining problems. Central to this undertaking will be the idea of the philosopher's 'office': the ethical and other duties associated, in the early modern era, with the cultivation of a particular philosophical persona.

In the last twenty years such scholars as Peter Brown, Pierre Hadot, Jackie Pigeaud, Martha Nussbaum and others have demonstrated the significance of approaching the study of the history of philosophy through a study of the history of the persona of the philosopher. This work has focussed almost exclusively on the classical and Hellenistic periods and has transformed our understanding of the nature of ancient philosophy. In particular it has uncovered the moral and psychological dimension in ancient philosophy, in the process helping us to understand why, whatever doctrinal differences there might be between philosophers, it was to the philosopher that one looked for advice on how the live well. Because of the lacuna in the West between the Hellenistic period and the revival of philosophical studies in the twelfth century, and because the character of philosophy was changed so radically with its Christianisation (above all by Augustine), pursuing this approach in later periods has been fraught with difficulties. Above all, medieval disputes over whether the philosopher should be concerned with contemplative or practical questions, and whether the core of the philosophical enterprise should be moral philosophy or natural philosophy, came to a head at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Here Bacon set the agenda for the modern era by establishing the primacy of an experimental natural philosophy. In political philosophy Hobbes (in England) and Pufendorf and Thomasius (in Germany) set the scene, with a wholesale onslaught on the traditional personae of the philosopher, statesman, jurist, and theologian, as these had been articulated in European scholasticism. We believe that only by approaching this upheaval in terms of transformations in the persona of the philosopher will its full significance be revealed.

The distinctiveness of this approach becomes clear when we consider that since the time of Kant the history of philosophy has largely been written as a series of anticipations of modern epistemological or ethical doctrines. It is thus construed in terms of the interplay of propositions and conceptual advance towards the present, constituting a lineage of those who got things right or wrong. This involves ignoring or reconfiguring what was actually called philosophy, what philosophy was seen to be about, and how argument was conducted. Eclecticism, for example, a dominant idiom of philosophising with a clear rationale, and which played a key role in the English natural-philosophical tradition leading to Newton, is largely ignored; the satiric dimension of dispute so important in Hobbes, for example, has only recently been taken seriously (by Quentin Skinner),while Scriblerian satire, fundamentally a satire of deductive and reductive materialism in philosophy, has received little philosophical attention apart from Conal Condren's discussion. Neither eclecticism nor satire fit the shape of the modern discipline - the one is propositionally indiscriminate, the other is literature. Further, specific argumentative moves, ad hominem attack and ridicule are not considered proper philosophy, even when these are part of a novel way of contextualising and historicising arguments, as in the extremely influential arguments of Bacon against his predecessors, recently discussed by Gaukroger; neither are philosophers' accounts of their lives. Each of these absences from modern philosophical sense of its past can be reconsidered and explained with reference to philosophical persona and office.

Approaching the history of early modern philosophy from the perspective of the office and persona of the philosopher provides a way around this distorting present-centred history of philosophy. By investigating the duties expected of the philosopher, we are able to view philosophical activity in terms of contemporary demands and anxieties, rather than in terms of modern ones. And by investigating the relation between philosophical doctrines and the cultivation of the philosophical persona, we can view such doctrines from the standpoint of the kind of self to be cultivated by those expounding them. This holds the key to breaking with the notion of a generic universal (in fact epistemological or moral-philosophical) conception of the 'subject', opening a window onto a world of historically-variegated philosophical offices and personae.

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