Shakespeare and Philosophy


Paul Kottman

1Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The guiding principle of our seminar was that to engage Shakespeare is to better grasp our own historical situation. To ask: how does Shakespeare force us to look at ourselves differently? How do we look by the lights of Shakespearean drama?

2Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It is probably too reductive to say that research is me-search, but it is certainly worth remembering that our interest in Shakespeare is surely bound up with our interest in understanding ourselves as modern human beings, our place in a disenchanted natural world, in a fragmented social world. We read Shakespeare in order to help us understand our own historical situation (not just Shakespeare’s).

3Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As Kristin Gjesdal points out in her excellent paper, Johann Gottfried Herder was perhaps the first to insist—against the neoclassicist reception of Shakespeare—that we approach the plays in this way. When Herder, in 1765, voiced the need for an anthropological turn in philosophy, this did not simply involve the study of other distant cultures, but an encounter with one’s own prejudices in approaching temporally or culturally distant horizons.

4Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Herder’s philosophical turn to Shakespeare thus implies a historicist-hermeneutic turn—“historicist in the sense that the understanding of a given work from past or distant cultures cannot be taken for granted but requires scholarly interpretive work, and hermeneutic in the sense that the interpreter, through this process, puts at stake her own prejudices and subjects them to critical examination.”

5Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 So, rather than investigate the “resurgence” of continental philosophy in Shakespeare studies—rather than assess the “state of the field” at SAA—we wanted to hold a discussion that actually enacted what it purports to discuss; namely, that brings to the table new work on Shakespeare and philosophy. I think we did that.

6Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 At the same time, we did not simply talk about what Colin McGinn has called “the ideas embedded in Shakespeare’s text.” Instead, our approach was to look at Shakespeare’s implication in the history of modern philosophy itself. As Andrew Cutrofello notes in his paper, “Philosophers began to argue with Hamlet in the eighteenth century.” Certainly, German philosophy since Lessing, Herder, and Hegel, down to Nietzsche and Benjamin would not look the way it looks had they not grappled with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is essential to modern philosophy’s own self-conception.

7Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 With modern philosophers, Shakespeare demands that we reflect anew upon the sociohistorical conditions of our lives together.

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