One thing that I’ve learned at the University of Dallas is that there is scholarship proper and then there is mere “archaeology of ideas”. The latter simply traces the development of thought but doesn’t engage the subject at hand. It’s neither positive nor negative. It is descriptive.
An example of this would be an archaeological discussion of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. It would be a historical collection of ideas but it would not actually address what the assumption means. It takes a look at late Patristic quotes (e.g. St. John Damascene), liturgical texts, and medieval commentators. There is nothing wrong with this sort of study, but in contemporary circles “philosophy” and “theology” are often confused with the study of the history of ideas.
I was recently reading The Sacred Monster of Thomism by Richard Peddicord, O.P. about the great 20th century Thomist Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (I have links to his works in the sidebar). Peddicord puts his finger on something that I had not yet considered. He cites this tendency toward “historicism” as the contemporary fruits of liberalism, particularly as manifested in the German historical-critical method that regards texts and their history as the only valid means of accessing a topic. Peddicord writes:
To say that “all theologies are historically conditions artifacts of particular cultures” doesn’t really tell one something particularly significant: everything that one can point to is “historically conditioned.” For the Thomist school, when an idea came into existence and where it developed are not as interesting as its particular truth claims. The Thomist is always more interested in the truth or falsity of an idea than its historical pedigree. To identify where an idea appeared and when it was formulated, say the Thomists, does not help you evaluate its truth claims. To say otherwise is blatant chauvinism.
One reason modern scholarship prefers the “historical” approach to philosophy and theology is that it is unfashionable to actually engage a subject as being significant. According to the secular academies, “all ideas” are worthy of study and carry the same significance. As a result, a single philosophical or theological school cannot be shown as being true or even better. The only way to study these things without making judgments is to study their history.
If you run in academic circles, next time you hear a paper presented, ask yourself is this a mere historical presentation or is the speaker actually making an argument.