ESEMP Conference 2013 : “Debates, Polemics and Controversies in Early Modern Philosophy”

The  3rd International Conference of the European Society for Early Modern Philosophy will be devoted to the following theme: Debates, Polemics and Controversies in Early Modern Philosophy (January 30th to February 1st, 2013, Université de Grenoble, France). The general objective of the conference is to take an overview of the present historiographical situation regarding the study of controversies and to contribute to a reappraisal of the study of controversies in the history of early modern philosophy. It will aim not only at mapping the many philosophical controversies of the early modern period, but as well at making explicit the different methodological approaches that can be used to analyse controversies and at evaluating the different explanatory merits of those methodological approaches.

You will find a French version of this presentation here, and a German version there.

1. Why should we study philosophical controversies?

At least since the 1970s, studies of scientific controversies have become a well-defined domain within Studies of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Science and Technology Studies (STS), and History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). In these fields, the analysis of controversies has come to be seen as an important methodological tool to grasp processes that are not always visible within the sciences.  By contrast,  the study of controversies does not yet constitute a major genre in the history of philosophy. There are some excellent isolated studies of controversies in the history of philosophy, but the most frequent genre remains a monograph devoted to an author or to a concept.

As in the sciences, the study of controversies in philosophy can help to reconstruct and understand the historical elaboration of new concepts, new methods, new arguments and new systems. Indeed, a controversy drives into a corner the philosophers who are involved in it; they are obliged to make explicit what was implicit or even unthought in their previous writings. Hence, the study of controversies fully belongs to the history of philosophy insofar as it aims at giving a rational reconstruction of a philosophical thought. Moreover, it can bring to the fore some usually hidden dimensions of philosophy, for example tacit conventions concerning its writing, or broad assumptions about its social functions. Thus, some socio-historical questions concerning the practices of philosophy may be addressed through the study of a controversy: Who was engaged in this controversy and through which medium? What was its forum? Which institutions, in a broad sense, played a role in it? How did external constraints and eventually censorship intervene in it? Finally, the study of philosophical controversies can be the occasion for testing tools borrowed from contemporary pragmatics and for elaborating new methodological tools. To sum up, the study of controversies is an important part of history of philosophy; it opens it up to intellectual history, as well as to the recent pragmatic turn in the philosophy of language.

2. What is meant by “controversies”?

We would like to suggest that a controversy should be distinguished from other forms of intellectual exchanges by the three following characteristics:

i) By contrast with fictional dialogues and criticisms addressed to dead authors, a controversy unfolds between at least two real living authors, with the result that neither of them can fully control its outcome.

ii) By contrast with peaceful consensual exchanges, a controversy includes confrontation, dissension and disagreement. This opposition plays out at different levels: it may be personal or impersonal; it may concern the relevance and extension of a concept or to the truth of a proposition; or it may relate to the content of a philosophy or to its communication.

iii) By contrst with protracted discussions, a controversy has a bounded nature: even when it deals with a timeless problem, it is localised in space and time.

That said, beside “controversy,” there are many terms used to describe exchanges that may present the three characteristics just mentioned: “discussion,” “dispute,” “debate,” “polemic,” “quarrel,” etc.  As these terms are not synonymous, they invite us to introduce distinctions according to the answers that are given to the following questions:

— Are there recognised procedures for regulating and even closing the controversy? Unlike a discussion, what is commonly called a dispute is in principle endless, even when it comes to an accidental end, for example, through the death of the disputants. For, unlike “discutants,” the “disputants” do not agree on which procedures should be adopted to regulate or even to close their controversy.

— What is the aim of the controversy? A discussion can aim at achieving a consensus, when the discutants agree, not only on the procedures to be adopted to close the controversy, but also on certain broad assumptions. A discutant can also aim at reaching a tolerant settlement; in that case, each discutant recognises that the broad assumptions on which the other discutants rely are legitimate, even though he does not personally accept them.

— What kind of forum is chosen for the controversy? Is public opinion of some kind referred to in the controversy and if so what is its function? Even if they are embodied in publications, some controversies may be classified as “private,” insofar as they involve only the authors concerned. But there are also debates that involve a form or another of “public opinion,” whose delineation is a matter of debate as well.

— How are rational arguments interwoven with more eristic considerations? The rational aim of a controversy is to settle a set of problems, whereas the eristic aim of a quarrel or a polemic is to defeat one’s adversaries. Hence, “quarrel” and “polemic” usually refer to conflicts between two embittered personalities, but a polemical dimension exists in most controversies.

Different answers to these questions can be combined in many ways. Further, today’s terminology does not always correspond to terminologies used in the past, and these terminologies vary from one language to another.  For these reasons, no strict typology of controversies will be imposed on the participants in the conference. Nevertheless, the three terms used in its title, “debates,” “controversies” and “polemics” express the formal diversity of controversies and invite the participants to give a formal characterisation of the controversies under study.

3. Why should we study philosophical controversies in the early modern period?

The early modern period might be considered as a Golden Age for controversies. While it is sometimes still presented as the unproblematic discovery of the rational foundations of our contemporary world, focusing on controversies may contribute to promote a more subtle and complicated view of this period.

The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the new philosophies calling into question the ancient authorities, produced many controversies, whether for promoting the new authorities against the ancient ones, for defending the ancient authorities against new ones, for identifying the essential characteristics of the ancient authorities, or for deciding which new authority should be privileged.  Early modern philosophers mobilised ancient as well as new forms of communication for these purposes: the scholastic oral disputations and the religious quarrels of the Renaissance were still in use; the exchange of letters was developed in an unprecedented manner; short publications in pamphlets and in newly arisen journals began to be formalised. Hence, it will be interesting as well to study the practices of early modern philosophical controversies by comparing them to the practices of their predecessors in the Renaissance and of their followers in the Enlightenment.

To retrieve the same in .doc, just click here.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sophie Roux (September 10, 2011). ESEMP Conference 2013 : “Debates, Polemics and Controversies in Early Modern Philosophy” ESEMP’s notebooks. Retrieved July 24, 2024 from

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