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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Drew
Drew
7 years ago

“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.”

As a former humanities/social science/history geek who turned to graduate study in the sciences, this is just not true in my experience.Report

anon grad
anon grad
Reply to  Drew
7 years ago

Drew,

Would you elaborate a little on your experience? What science department were you in? What part of the science’s history did your program require? Etc.Report

Drew
Drew
Reply to  anon grad
7 years ago

I’ve studied in mostly interdisciplinary environmental science programs. Many (though no, not all) of the classes gave a historical narrative of the field, particularly in the few first classes. None of it was required, I just think that specialists in scientific fields tend to be interested in the history of that field because they see themselves as part of that history. Just a few examples off the top of my head (I’m sure there are more that I’m not remembering):
* A marine biology course I took described the development of scientific voyages of the 19th and early 20th century, and the fundamental discoveries made by them.
* An ecology course described Darwin’s theory of atoll formation and the competing theories of the time.
* A chemistry course that discussed alchemy and the development of modern chemistry from Maxwell through Niels Bohr and afterwards, showing the historical progression of understanding atomic structures as subsequent researchers sought to explain gaps from earlier theories.Report

a Boulderite
a Boulderite
Reply to  anon grad
7 years ago

This is out of order, because Drew’s reply below didn’t have a reply button, but I’m replying to him/her:

The examples you cite from science classes are interesting (I mean, I’d be literally interested in hearing those lectures), but I wonder what fields parallel philosophy in having “history of” not just something sprinkled into classes to give context, but have it as an area of study in it’s own right. I mean, is there such a thing as getting a PhD in chemistry where history of chemistry is your AOS? That seems unlikely.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  anon grad
7 years ago

Old-school quantitative analysis was the precursor to quantum chemistry as an account of chemical combination as a purely mass-based phenomenon that was ill-understood until valences were explained by electron shells. I’d think chemists today would be likewise ill-informed about the relationship of the two schema of explanation unless they had some historical link between the two. FWIW.Report

keaswaran
keaswaran
7 years ago

“Learning about literature, music, or the visual arts requires becoming knowledgeable about a significant amount of the history of those areas.”

I think it’s true that studying any of these things requires studying the first order history of literature, music, or visual art. But these subjects also involve theory. I don’t know how much a student studying music learns about the history of music theory (as opposed to a combination of music theory and the history of music) and similarly for the other fields.Report

a Boulderite
a Boulderite
Reply to  keaswaran
7 years ago

I don’t know how much your random music student learns of the history of music theory, but it is certainly something that can be a major focus of study. For people who are interested in historically informed performance practice, history of theory is one of the main sources for reconstructing early music, before notation was much of an indication of what was done.Report

Cynthia Freeland
Reply to  keaswaran
7 years ago

Actually I find that many art students resist both any study of theory and most study of the history of art (i.e., anything before about 1990!). It is as if they too feel (as some philosophers do) that the issues or contributions of the past are irrelevant to the ongoing project of art today. (Of course I disagree.) You can see this attitude institutionalized in places where the studio arts are in a different department or even college from art history.Report

Hegelsghost
Hegelsghost
7 years ago

Maybe some of the arguments and positions of historical figures are worth considering. I think it’s quite plain that philosophy does not evolve in a linear way as the sciences apparently do.Report

anon22
anon22
7 years ago

“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.”

Not true in mathematics. Mathematics students are trained to absorb an entire corpus of theorems over their undergraduate and graduate years that starts with Euclid’s proof that the prime numbers are infinite, and Pythagoras, with the proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2. The student then works his or her way up through the centuries to the explosion of theorems that occurred in the 19th century with the Riemann integral , Galois theory, etc etc, and the 20th. The training could not be more historicised. Of course, DR may not count the actual historical theorems as historical. But one would have to argue for that.Report

keaswaran
keaswaran
Reply to  anon22
7 years ago

But the history of mathematics that one gets from mathematicians doesn’t really make much attempt to be an accurate history.

For example, it’s traditional in math classes to say that Cauchy introduced the distinction between the convergence of a sequence of functions to a limit and the uniform convergence of such a sequence of functions in order to explain how the limit of a sequence of continuous functions could fail to be continuous. But Cauchy actually worked with something more like infinitesimals, and recognized that something strange was going on in these cases, and it is only from Weierstrass or later that we get something close to the modern definitions.

Similarly, in abstract algebra, it’s traditional to talk about Lagrange’s Theorem that the order of a subgroup always divides the order of the group, and Cayley’s Theorem that every group is representable as a set of permutations. But neither Lagrange nor Cayley would recognize the theorems attributed to them, because the abstract notion of a group wasn’t invented until decades after either of them was working. (The discussion of Galois and Abel is even more clearly anachronistic.)Report

Avi
Avi
7 years ago

Interestingly, the history of science is often studied in Philosophy departments or in more specialised “History and Philosophy of Science” departments or programmes rather than in science departments. History of Medicine, though, is sometimes offered in Schools of Medicine (e.g., Johns Hopkins) or in medical schools jointly with faculties of arts and sciences (e.g., Harvard).Report