Why Study the History of Philosophy?

In his contribution to A Teacher’s Life: Essays for Steven M. Cahn, David Rosenthal (CUNY) raises questions about philosophy’s fit with the humanities and the sciences, framed around the study of history.

A striking difference between those fields we classify as humanities and those we regard as sciences is the attitude within each field toward its history. Learning about literature, music, or the visual arts requires becoming knowledgeable about a significant amount of the history of those areas. And education in these fields, at whatever level, invariably involves some study of great accomplishments in the past. By contrast, scientific work and standard scientific textbooks make little reference to the history of the science in question, and such reference is typically relegated to the appreciative mention in passing of important empirical discoveries or theoretical innovations. And professional training in the sciences, both graduate and undergraduate, involves no serious examination of the achievements or methodology of past scientific work, no matter how impressive and influential those achievements may have been.

Rosenthal notes that, like the humanities, a lot of philosophy is focused on its history. Also like the humanities,

philosophical work is sometimes seen not as an investigation of the truth about things, but as the development and elaboration of various perspectives on reality. Philosophy presents us with ways of seeing how things fit together and the place that individuals and humanity in general occupy in the overall scheme of things.

Yet, that is not the whole story.

This picture of philosophy, though it justifies its classification as a humanity and explains its emphasis on its own history, leaves out a lot that has been considered central to philosophy throughout that history. The attitude of the great philosophers that constructed these alternative, often incompatible systems has seldom if ever been that of great literary figures whose work offers alternative perspectives. Rather, their attitude is that of scientific theorists who develop alternative theories. They assume that at most one of the philosophical systems gets things right, and they advance arguments in favor of their own…. The great figures we study saw themselves as trying to get at the truth about things, much as scientists see themselves as doing.

The challenge, then, is to explain how philosophy’s humanities-like emphasis on its history fits with its science-like aspirations to deliver the truth, a challenge Rosenthal takes up by trying to answer the question: why study the history of philosophy?

He argues against a number of suggestions: that contemporary work is “inspired” by historical work, that students cannot understand contemporary philosophical disputes without familiarity with their historical antecedents, that historical figures are easier to read and so to teach, and that we should take a historicist approach to philosophy according to which we are “edified” by learning of the “great conversation” of philosophy.

Rather, Rosenthal argues, the value of studying the history of philosophy is that it “reveals a plethora of connections among various issues of interest in philosophical work, issues that, considered on their own, typically seem largely independent of one another.” Additionally, the disagreement that the history of philosophy puts on display, “however frustrating, encourages an intellectual activity essential to philosophical thinking. Understanding what others say invariably calls for some measure of interpretation,” and he goes on to explain just what interpretation involves. Finally, he explains, “studying the great systemcan also stimulate us to think about how to go beyond the question-begging assumptions those systems embody, and thereby reach a stable, defensible position on the relevant issues.” He goes on to draw out a lesson for teaching philosophy’s history based on these considerations.

The whole essay, “Philosophy and Its Teaching,” is certainly worth a read. (via Mark Alfano)

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