John Protevi interviews Justin Smith at the APPS blog:
Today's interview is with Justin E. H. Smith, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec, Canada. He is a member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton NJ from January through June 2011. His new book, Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life has just appeared with Princeton University Press (2011). His website is here.
John Protevi: Thanks very much for doing this interview with us, Justin. Your book is subtitled “Leibniz and the Sciences and Life,” yet in the Introduction you also write that you will look at Leibniz in relation to “what we would now call 'biology'.” Why the scare quotes on “biology”?
Justin Smith: I don't take those as scare quotes so much as marks signaling a use-mention distinction. One of my guiding principles in the book was, to the extent possible, to respect actors' categories, to avoid using names for concepts, practices, or entities that would not have been familiar to the people I was writing about; and 'biology', for example, makes its first appearance only in the late 18th century.
JP: fair enough. What is at stake in this use-mention distinction for you in writing in the genre of history of philosophy? (If that is indeed the genre in which you would place your work.)
JS: This is not just terminological quibbling: it is rather a necessary part of working one's way back into the problems that early modern philosophers faced, rather than allowing ourselves to update their problems so that they come out as more familiar to our own world of concerns than they in fact are. I certainly take this task to be a necessary and incontrovertible part of history-of-philosophy scholarship. The branch of philosophy that interests me is what was called at the time 'natural philosophy', which would later be sliced off and partitioned into biology, chemistry and other concrete 'sciences'. If we take actors' categories seriously, then, when we do the history of biology or chemistry we are willy-nilly doing the history of philosophy.