Frames of Articulation

by Frithjof Rodi

In a paper dealing with the functions of the history of philosophy Hans Krämer has studied the relationship between the formative processes of a philosophical theory and the philosophical positions. [5] He makes a distinction between the phases through which a theory unfolds on the basis of traditional elements, on the one hand, and the functions of the historical orientation of philosophy on the other. In both cases there is a direct bearing on the problems I discuss in this paper. First, it is of interest to see how Krämer singles out a special phase within the development of a theory (the second phase of five phases in all). In this phase the philosopher articulates his basic ideas at the level of existing systems or theories (normally those of his contemporaries). He adopts their concepts and categories, as can be illustrated by Plato’s involvement in the Sophistic discussions of politics and ethics; by hellenistic philosophy’s use of early issues of Socratic ethics in dealing with problems of security and autarky; by Plotinus’s articulation of the problem of the individual soul with the help of concepts taken from Platonism, etc., etc.

After discussing the phases within the development of philosophical theories where the historical orientation plays an important role, Krämer turns to the functions of historical philosophy. He singles out a direct equivalent to the second phase just mentioned. Here, historical orientation within the process of systematic philosophy can function as "the hermeneutic assimilation of tradition in view of an already existing or emerging position." The term "assimilation" is of particular importance as it involves the fact that tradition here is not the stable and unchanging basis for our philosophical adventure, but something that has to be transformed and incorporated within our own thought (as Nietzsche has shown in his second "Unzeitgemaesse Betrachtung"). Krämer distinguishes between various forms of such an assimilation that take place through interpretations. There is, for example, the seemingly orthodox exegesis of a major philosopher within his own school of thought. Krämer calls it "seemingly" orthodox because what happens in many cases is an articulation of the interpreter’s own systematic ideas, and the results of his interpretrations could be called "pseudomorphosis of unacknowledged systematic intentions." This phase of seemingly objective treatment of tradition can also be called the "incubation-period" of a systematic position that later on becomes explicit, as famous examples of first books (from Marx to Nietzsche and Heidegger] show. Krämer adds: "This transitional stage of exegesis has so to speak a mëeutic [6] function for the self-discovery of the systematic philosopher" (p. 71).

Krämer’s considerations are not directly applicable to our problem of articulative tension, as they deal in the first instance with the relationship between systematic philosophy and assimilated tradition. There is, however, good reason to presume that every hermeneutic assimilation of tradition takes place under certain conditions that can be interpreted as tension within a certain frame of articulation. As we have seen, tradition is not something like a ladder on whose topmost rung we stand in order to add, through our own thinking, a further position for someone else to stand upon in turn. On the other hand, tradition is not (or should not be) merely an object for our historical research guided by whatever interest or curiosity we happen to have. In both cases we would lack the twofold relationship with tradition through which productive tension is created: the ambivalent relation of being supported and hindered at the same time. Tradition gives our thinking support and stands in its way. It supports us by providing the conceptual basis for our own thought, by giving answers that enable us to put new questions, by yielding horizons for our orientation. [7] It hinders us by the fixation of certain questions and the conclusive character of their answers. It narrows our outlook by the one-sidedness of its concepts, by its interests and tendencies that are not congruent with our own motives. Taken in this sense of ambivalence, tradition is both a challenge to our own thinking and the channel for our response. It is part of our historical situation, a kind of frame within which we move about and to which we belong in various ways.

There are two forms of belonging to tradition where the ambivalent relationship is reduced to a one-sided dependency. I call them the "pastiche involontaire" and the "jurare in verba magistri" attitude. By "pastiche involontaire" I mean the involuntary imitation of a classic by an epigonous descendant. Within certain limits this dependency belongs to the most natural traits of any cultural continuity. Just as the young Beethoven composed à la Mozart, as Raphael started off by painting à la Perugino, as the young Marx wrote like Hegel, the young Nietzsche like Schopenhauer, every achievement, however original it may be, needs some historical basis as a starting point or a mark of orientation. The pastiche involontaire when restricted to an initial stage of productive activity denotes the "incubation-period" on a very elementary level.

The second form of a one-sided dependency I call the "jurare in verba magistri" attitude. Here the work of the great master is not imitated but fully accepted as the only true philosophy that is fostered within the inner circle of believers or with missionary zeal. H.-M. Sass distinguishes two functions of such a close relationship with the classical author: the historical interest either serves the purpose of making the classic even more classical by didactic mediations; or the orthodox exegesis tries to modernize the author by drawing consequences from his work that he himself could not have drawn for historical reasons. [8]

There is little articulative tension at work in either case; yet even these forms of dependency on historical concepts display various ways of being "framed" by tradition. This is even more visible in cases where historically oriented philosophy is tied up with tradition in the ambivalent way mentioned before. Especially in cases of "hermeneutic assimilation" we can speak of a "frame of articulation" within which this assimilation takes place.

I understand by "frame of articulation" the totality of those conditions that exercise a guiding influence on the processes of philosophical articulation. To be sure, a frame of articulation is not just the operative platform for a new theory that we can derive through the history of concepts from former positions. It is a complex network of influences, orientations, and mediations focused on the development of an individual theory or system. A frame of articulation is more than the mere point of contact with former positions, but less than the complete historical situation. It is a frame in the sense that the philosopher is engulfed by these conditions that he cannot deliberately objectify. They remain in many respects a vis a tergo to him, that is to say, they direct influences behind his back which only the later historian can reconstruct. Such a frame is composed of elements of common language as well as technical terms; notions and definitions by individual authors; their integration and interpretation by subsequent philosophers; reflections on such mediations that in turn become new theories and systematic positions; and also determining factors from outside philosophy, such as general issues of the time, political and social trends, cross-cultural relations with literature, arts and sciences etc., etc.

As already pointed out, the impact of such a frame of conditions on an individual theory in its early phases of articulation remains largely below the surface and cannot be thematized deliberately by the philosopher who is influenced by them. We should not be misled by the fact that philosophers explicitly take up a forerunner’s terminology, issues, and solutions. This is the part of their articulation frame of which they are directly aware. But they are normally far from being able to account for the ways in which an articulative tension got hold of them within this frame. Only later historical research can reconstruct such frames. The "hermeneutic assimilation of tradition" especially should not be mixed up with the reconstruction of the frame of conditions under which such an assimilation takes place.

Thus we have to distinguish between two totally different relations with tradition, both of which have to do with frames of articulation. First, there is the productive assimilation of tradition taking place under certain sociohistorical conditions within a frame that cannot be changed arbitrarily. Second, there is the historical reconstruction of such frames of articulation. The philosopher who seeks guidance from tradition cannot investigate his frame of articulation from outside without losing the articulative tension he is depending on. The "purely" historical philosopher, on the other hand, has to put up with this loss. He delivers himself from the articulative tension by investigating its historical conditions.

In this juxtaposition of two ideal types, I am not maintaining that combinations of the two approaches are not possible. On the contrary I consider it a central task of any theory of historical philosophy to delineate possibilities of historical research where the reconstruction of frames of articulation permits us to share the inherent articulative tension. The analysis of a frame of historical conditions could follow the same pattern Gadamer has shown for the reenactment of Sprachnot. In this case, however, we could not call this approach a history of concepts. The historical investigation would not "vertically" follow the life of single concepts but rather would "horizontally" analyze the sources of articulative tension prevalent within a certain situation of intellectual history. In order to characterize this approach I am adopting a term that Wilhelm Dilthey has occasionally used in a purely operative way: the term "synergetic analysis." It was a way of describing his approach that he also called "historical research with philosophical intentions."


5. H. Krämer: Funktions und Reflexionsmöglichkeiten der Philosophie-historie. Vorschläge zu ihrer wissenschaftstheoretischen Ortsbestimmung. In: Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie XVI/1 (1985), p. 67ff. [—> main text]

6. "Mëeutic": Greek word for obstetric (Socrates, son of a midwife, called his philosophizing mëeutic). [—> main text]

7. Cf. R.A. Makreel: Tradition and Orientation in Hermeneutics. In: Research in Phenomenology, XVI (1986), p. 73ff. [—> main text]

8. H.-M. Sass: Philosophische Positionen in der Philosophiegeschichtsschreibung. In: Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift f. Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte Jg. 46 (1972) H 3. P. 552. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Rodi, Frithjof. "Historical Philosophy in Search of 'Frames of Articulation'," in: Doing Philosophy Historically, edited by Peter H. Hare (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), pp. 329-340. This section, pp. 332-335.

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