Saturday, November 18, 2006

Vollenhoven's Problem-Historical Method

I have been meaning to post something on Vollenhoven's "Consequent Problem-Historical Method" for a long time. Since this post by Gideon Strauss to be exact. One of the things that has delayed this is I wanted to take seriously the criticism that Vollenhoven's method is a mere "pigeon-holing" exercise. I could just quote Seerveld, one of Vollenhoven's students who has creatively employed his method. He writes:
"The objection to Vollenhoven's "pigeon-holing" complex philosophies misunderstands his problem-historical methodology, which is deeply concessive toward all manner of thinkers from a radically christian standpoint: every slanted philosophy, from whatever "bad" neighbourhood it operates, is wrestling with God's world and cannot help but uncover matters God's children may also need to notice and realign within our own servant (not "master"!) narrative being written" ("Christian Aesthetic Bread for the World" Philosophia Reformata 2001 no.2)
I think Seerveld makes a good point, but it will only make sense when we see more analysis like his own "Pedagogical Strength" article and less like Vollenhoven's elaborate charts, meaningless to all but a few experts. I doubt the following will do much to amend this situation, but I post it anyway.
Those who would see Vollenhoven’s method as ripe for re-evaluation face the difficulty of several overlapping complexities. First and most obvious is the 80 odd conceptions and 60 odd time-currents. Secondly is that both types and time-currents, not being a priori, undergo modification and sometimes, thought not always, connected with this is that Vollenhoven's interpretation of individual thinkers also undergoes revision.

Just a cursory glance at the Schematische Kaarten (2000) raises a number of such issues: different versions of the same chart, names crossed out, names with question marks next to them, names in brackets etc. This means that the various Vollenhoven material now available do not all match up (especially the Runner translation). Bril has helpfully annotated the Kort Overzich (1956) and other material in the Vollenhoven translations to highlight these changes.

To go back a little to the types/currents complexity. 80times60=4800, the Schematische Kaarten has about 1,600 thinkers charted. So if we are to get anywhere in understanding the CPHM we have to start to simplify. There seems to be two options. The first is to follow Wolters "grid" example which gives equal weight to the three main problems (Myth/non-myth, monism/dualism, Universal/individual) and so gives us 18 conceptions. However Vollenhoven seems to order things differently, giving us a second option. A philosophers conception concerning the "vertical structure of the kingdoms" is approached according to four problems, to quote:

[1] In the first place one must consider whether someone has approached the intended structure via myth, or whether one has considered structure (while rejecting myth as a source of philosophy) in a cosmogonic-cosmological or purely cosmological way. [2] Fur­thermore there is the question of dualism and monism. In other words, one can think that everything is based on the eternal correlation of the transcendent and the non-transcendent, such that any unity must be explained in connection to these two categories with the result that unity is derivative. Alternatively, one can postulate that everything is at bottom a unity and consequently that any difference must be ascribed to divergence. [3] In the third place there is the problem of the vertical relationship, in dualism between the transcendent and the non-transcendent, and in monism between the higher and lower species of the original unity. [4] Finally we must determine the site within which a dualist posits the boundary between the transcendent and the non-transcendent, and in which the monist posits the single origin of everything. ("conservatism and progressiveness in Philosophy" 1959)

What we can notice is that the third "dimension" of the box is missing and is replaced by further refinement of problems arising out of the monism-dualism problematic. However this is not quite true as the issue of partial-universalism comes back, with a vengeance, in purely cosmological dualism in its attempts to solve the third problem of relating the higher and the lower. Working down these four problems then gives us, if I have worked it out correctly, 27 main types.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rudi, Gideon and others

It would be good to have Cal Seerveld's contribution/response to this

Rudi's quote of Seerveld's footnote is worth examining here:

"The objection to Vollenhoven's "pigeon-holing" complex philosophies
misunderstands his problem-historical methodology, which is deeply
concessive toward all manner of thinkers from a radically christian
standpoint: every slanted philosophy, from whatever "bad" neighbourhood it
operates, is wrestling with God's world and cannot help but uncover matters
God's children may also need to notice and realign within our own servant
(not "master"!) narrative being written" ("Christian Aesthetic Bread for the
World" Philosophia Reformata 2001 no.2).

Apart from the need for a grammatical insertion of an "of" as in
"Vollenhoven's 'pigeon-holing' OF complex philosophies", it is not at all
obvious from this what these objections about "pigeon-holing" were. Hence it
is not clear why the pigeon-holing of Vollenhoven as a pigeon-holing
historian of philosophy must misunderstand his problem-historical
methodology. So, the clarity we need is not just about Vollenhoven's
contribution to the history/historiography of philosophy. We also need some
articulated Christian insight into "pigeon-holes" and their impact, namely
the way filing cabinets are constructed and used in scholarship by
historians of philosophy among others.

In my own experience of "moving along the grain of history" (Wolters) I
became impressed by the impact of an erroneous, if somewhat understandable,
misrepresentation by Talcott Parsons of Max Weber's Die protestantische
Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus as a "book first published in German in
1904-5" which, with its "Author's Introduction" from Weber's 1920 collected
in the sociology of religion, was included in Parsons'1930 (book)
translation. What I find interesting here is that the designation "book"
draws attention away from the fact that Weber also considered this
much-commented-upon-work as a provisional statement of the results of his
scholarly investigations of all the works which had been bequeathed to him
as a "turn of the century" academic. The term "book" as used 50+ years later
too easily allowed a degree of finality to Weber's attempt to test a
sociological hypothesis in economic-history and thus was at odds with
Weber's ideal-type methodology. I think that Weber's essay is best received
by us now as a creative bibliographical essay, an earnest early 20th century
scholarly attempt to respond creatively to the massive literature in which
he had immersed himself in order to "understand" the dominant and
not-so-dominant patterns in the religious landscape of Germany, Europe and
the world. I'm not saying that such an "essay" can't be published as a book;
what I am drawing attention to is the way the designation "book" for what
was clearly a provosional social scientific work helped form a tradition
that avoided the tentative and provisional nature of the argument set forth
in the interests of keeping sociological argument within bounds (or
self-regulating). And a close examination of the work itself (espec of the
scholarly apparatus) will help us discern Weber's wide-ranging sociological
"filing cabinets" by which he creatively merged "files" from his historical
and economic "drawers" by devising ideal-type categories which could
inter-weave "master narrative" themes from his "theological" drawers.

Hence what is known today as Weber's Protestant Ethic is best understood as
a bibliographical essay, a generalising summary of "work in progress".

In scholarship, particularly when one is moving "along the grain of
history", we can witness ourselves bending or moving the philosophical
(interpretative) tradition this way or that - as I have just done above
too - sometimes with the addition of a phrase or by the use of a new word in
our exposition - yet, such a contribution to the tradition of interpretation
doesn't take place without us giving some or other account of "the present
position and prospects" of the theoretical and scientific "traditions" in
which our scholarly endeavour is located. (Still relevant here is the
beautiful account by Andr├ę Malan Hugo of Calvin's "silent emendation"of
Erasmus's text of De Clementia (p.63-4 Battles and Hugo 1969) where Hugo
interprets Calvin as refusing to condescend to "playing up to the gallery",
and so it was not subsequently clear to 19th century interpreters of Calvin
who didn't realise that Calvin "had thoroughly overhauled the text (of

So in this sense I think the "pigeon-holing" characterisation needs to be
expanded and criticised at the same time. Students of the Humanities
sometimes develop elaborate filing systems and their work sometimes depends
on these.

So, whatever else they are, the booked Essays of Paul Oskar Kristeller
Renaissance Thought or Werner Jaeger Early Christianity and Greek Paideia or
Peter Gay The Enlightenment - an Interpretation or Georg C Iggers The German
Conception of History or Herman Dooyeweerd In The Twilight (Roots of Western
Culture) are also bibliographical essays which are all the more useful when
they are published with their scholarly apparatus which confirms and
documents their distinctive individuality and contribution to scholarly

Ever since I first read the English translation of Vollenhobven's "Faith:
it's Structure and Significance", I have sensed that whatever else his work
may have entailed, Vollenhoven was alert to the possibility that an
elaborate and complex exploration of major "categories" derived from
Dooyeweerd's philosophy, or a philosophy very close to it, might be helpful
in developing an accessible filing cabinet for the (long-term history)
historian of philosophy. In my view Seerveld's essays and exposition of
Vollenhoven confirm this perception.

An elaboration of the importance of having a Christian insight into filing
cabinets, and also of having filing cabinets constructed with reformational
insight for scholarly work might help us untangle some of
the problems that confront us here. A related "reformational" discussion
might be F Cupido "The individuality-structure of the book as a cultural
object" in the 1969-1972 van Riessen Systematic Philosophy Seminar
(ïdentiteitstructuren) (published FI VU oktober 1972).

Bruce Wearne