Rule 12 for history of philosophy: think about the audience

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Rule 12: Think about the audience

All good writers, teachers and speakers know to bear in mind the audience they are writing for; think about what will interest them, what their concerns may be, what they already know and what they want to learn. Obviously not all philosophers have been good writers, teachers and speakers, and some philosophical texts seem to have been written with no particular audience in mind (or even with an “audience be damned!” attitude). But usually, texts are written with at least some conception of the readership. This can be an important guide to interpretation. It is vital to know, for instance, what a philosopher could take for granted in terms of background knowledge in their intended audience, or which other texts the audience will be likely to know. Just to give a specific example, it is almost impossible to overestimate the presence in an ancient Greek’s mind of Homer and Hesiod, or the Bible in a medieval reader’s mind – these texts could be brought to mind even with single words or vague allusions, much as we can bring to mind tv shows or movies with a single word or phrase. Likewise it may be useful to bear in mind, say, that an audience member is likely to have primarily theological concerns in mind, or primarily political ones, in thinking about how the author has framed arguments aimed at that audience (what does such-and-such an argument indirectly imply about the trinity, or about the legitimacy of monarchy?).

The result is that the historian of philosophy needs to know as much as possible about who the audience for a text was likely to be, and as much as possible about what that audience would have read, known, and thought. This is obviously related to knowing about the historical context more generally, but it is a more specific and perhaps still more challenging task, one even impossible to carry out fully, since for most periods we have little hope of stepping entirely into the shoes of the audience members. Again, it’s more of an ideal to shoot for.

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