The Historic and Social Context of a Philosophical Text

The Historic and Social Context of a Philosophical Text
Maybe more than any other form of text, a philosophical work is vitally influenced by the context in which it appears. Find out why!Every philosophical text, no matter how abstract or specialized, has the inevitable fingerprint of the historical, social and spiritual context in which it was created. At the same time, this type of text is an objective expression of the author’s personality which gives it a certain tone.

The problems that are presented in philosophical works have their origin in the theoretical field of the era in which they were created and the solutions offered are also integrated in that field. Like Hegel wrote: no one can jump over their period. The spirit of their time is also their spirit and the main aim is to understand what it contains. The spirit of a period is mainly influenced by the level of evolution present in the society were the philosophical text appears.

The periods of social progress usually tend to stimulate the apparition of ample philosophical conceptions that are expressed in a philosophical system. These works are characterized by a vote of confidence in man’s possibility to understand the world and to change it according to his own values and ideals.

On the other hand, the periods of historical decline favor the apparition of fragmentary philosophical conceptions that put an accent on the ethical point of view. Usually these texts have a negative feel to them. This situation explains why Hegel had a larger audience at his lectures, even though his philosophy is difficult to understand, than Schopenhauer, because Germany was experiencing an economic boost. However, when in 1848 across Europe revolutions ended in blood, the public started to be more attracted by the works of the latter.

In periods of relative stability the two tendencies were in a relative equilibrium. However, these are general tendencies and therefore they do not exclude the exceptions. There are periods of economical and social boost that are weak from a philosophical point of view and periods of crisis in which philosophical conceptions of great value were elaborated. No philosophical creation is a product of pure reason.

Understanding the historical, social and spiritual context in which a philosophical text was written is also important in order to identify its true value and its contribution to the evolution of philosophical ideas. In this way, we can appreciate the worth of ancient Greek philosophy or medieval philosophy, the latter with a strong theological accent.

Another important contextual factor is the affiliation of ideas. If we do not know the background of an idea or the solutions offered in the works of thinkers that lived before the author of the text we are reading, there is the risk that we might either exaggerate his merits or minimize them. This is the case of roman philosophy (represented by Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca and Marc Aurelius) which uses Geek themes and motives, but from a literary talent. The fact that a philosopher uses themes, motives or ideas from other philosophers does not have a great importance. Essential is the way in which he uses them. If we assume ideas we need to mention their origin. Similar to the fact that no one can criticize a poet for using the same words as other poets, we cannot ask for a philosopher to be absolutely original. If every philosopher would ignore the ideas expressed in other work then philosophy would be impossible to understand.

It is also important to understand that over-stressing the importance of the historical, social and spiritual context of a philosophical creation can be more harmful than ignoring it completely.

The contextual analysis allows the understanding of the historical, social and spiritual context in which the work of a philosophical author appears, in order to avoid misinterpretations or to attribute to it problems that were not present in that specific period. However, this represents only the starting point in the path to fully understanding a philosophical work. After this, you need to make sure you understand the sense given to key concepts in the text. In the end, you need to follow the theoretical structure of the text and determine the logical value of the demonstration proposed by the author.

In philosophy and any other field under the sun, ideas change, grow or shrink according to new discoveries, but there is something that never changes and that is God’s words. It is the only solid point in the Universe that survived thousands of years of persecution, therefore, keep your feet on safe ground: the Bible.

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