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Leo Strauss (d. 1973) on Intellectual History

“Historians who start from the belief in the superiority in present-day thought to the thought of the past feel no necessity to understand the past by itself; they understand it as a preparation of the present only. When studying a doctrine of the past, they do not ask primarily: what was the conscious and deliberate intention of its originator? They prefer to ask: what is the contribution of the doctrine to our beliefs? What is the meaning, unknown to its originator, of the doctrine from the point of view of the present? What is its meaning in light of later developments? Against this approach the historical consciousness rightly protested in the name of historical truth, of historical exactness. The task of the historian of thought is to understand the thinkers of the past exactly as they understood themselves, or to revitalize their thought according to their own interpretation of it. To sum up this point: the belief in the superiority of one’s own approach, or of the approach of one’s time, to the approach of the past is fatal to historical understanding…The task of the historian of thought is to understand the past exactly as it understood itself; for to abandon that task is tantamount to abandoning the only practicable criterion of objectivity in the history of thought. ” (“How to Study Medieval Philosophy,” 1944)

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