Rules for History of Philosophy

Peter Adamson, professor of philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and creator of the podcast History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, has put together a list of 20 rules or “suggestions of best practice” for doing the history of philosophy.

The rules were culled from various podcasts and posts over the past couple of years. Some of them, he admits, are obvious, and others he says he ought not have to say but must owing to common violations of it.

Here are Adamson’s rules, along with excerpts from his elaborations of them:

  1. It’s possible for the same idea to appear independently more than once: “similarity… only raises the question of whether there was influence one way or the other.”
  2. Respect the text: “we should assume, in the absence of fairly strong reasons for doubt, that the philosophical texts we are reading make sense.”
  3. Suspect the text: “historians of philosophy need to be philologists too, insofar as they can manage it, and to take seriously the work of scholars working on textual transmission or even collaborate with them.”
  4. Respect the context: “historical context can be relevant in… surprising ways.”
  5. Take “minor” figures seriously: “you can’t just hop from one great thinker to another, leaving out everything that happened in between.”
  6. Learn some dates: “it does really come in handy.”
  7. Ask yourself why they care: “instead of assuming that the historical figures we study are motivated by the same philosophical worries that worry us, we need to understand why they care about each issue they raise.”
  8. Read the whole text: “whenever possible consider textual evidence in light of the rest of the work, for instance by considering what the author may have been trying to do in the work as a whole, and what function this particular part of the text plays in that whole.”
  9. Learn the terminology: “when reading any philosopher, you need to know which words have a technical meaning and what they mean – this obviously requires knowing at least enough of the primary language to track the terms in question.”
  10. Silence is not louder than words: “being alive to the possibility that a philosopher is purposefully not saying something should be in every historian’s toolkit. But it’s a tool to be used with great caution.”
  11. Think critically: “history of philosophy is a kind of history, it is also a kind of philosophy… we are probably in the end interested in whether any of these philosophical views are true.”
  12. Think about the audience: “it is vital to know, for instance, what a philosopher could take for granted in terms of background knowledge in their intended audience, or which other texts the audience will be likely to know.”
  13. Take metaphors seriously: “one needs to decide how exactly to apply the metaphor.”
  14. Take religion seriously: “the vast majority of figures available for us to study in the history of philosophy have been religious believers… one needs to take an objective and open-minded attitude towards the philosophers’ religious beliefs.”
  15. Be broadminded about what counts as ‘philosophy’: “historicans shouldn’t restrict their attention to texts, figures and movements that seem ‘philosophical’ in our sense.”
  16. Respect texts about texts: “A whole genre of philosophical writing that traditionally suffers from neglect is the commentary… there is something philosophical about the commentary activity itself.”
  17. Focus on the primary text, not secondary literature: otherwise, “you run the risk of coming to the primary text without ‘fresh eyes’ and only seeing the problems or solutions others have already found in it.”
  18. Don’t essentialize: “cultures, including religious cultures, are complex and marked by internal disagreement, and they develop over time. So we should see them as historical phenomena, not as having some sort of essential character that is acquired by all the adherents of a given religion or members of a given culture.”
  19. Beware of jargon: “don’t formalize, or use jargon, unless the gain in clarity, rigor etc is worth the burden you’re placing on the reader by doing so.”
  20. Things are always more complicated than you think: “remind yourself that the text you’re looking at is more complicated than you think. Just assume you haven’t yet figured it out fully.”

Adamson explains each of these in more detail here.

paper sculpture by Cecilia Levy


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7 years ago

These are all good rules for philosophy.