Why Read Old Philosophy? (guest post by Katja Grace)
The following is a guest post* by Katja Grace, a researcher at Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) and philosophy PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University. It first appeared at her blog, Meteuphoric.
Why Read Old Philosophy?
by Katja Grace
I’m going to try to explain a mystery that puzzled me for years. This answer finally dawned on me in the middle of one of those occasional conversations in which non-perplexed friends patiently try to explain the issue to me. So I am not sure if mine is a novel explanation, or merely the explanation that my friends were trying to tell me, in which case my contribution is explaining it in a way that is at all comprehensible to a person like me. If it is novel, apparently some other people disagree with it and have an almost entirely satisfactory alternative, which has the one downside that it is impossible to explain to me.
The puzzle is this:
Why do people read old philosophers to learn about philosophy?
We read old physicists if we want to do original research on the history of physics. Or maybe if we are studying an aspect of physics so obscure that nobody has covered it in hundreds of years. If we want to learn physics we read a physics textbook. As far as I know, the story is similar in math, chemistry, engineering, economics, and business (though maybe some other subjects that I know less about are more like philosophy).
Yet go to philosophy grad school, and you will read original papers and books by historical philosophers. Research projects explore in great detail what it is that Aristotle actually said, thought, and meant. Scholars will learn the languages that the relevant texts were written in, because none of the translations can do the texts the necessary justice. The courses and books will be named after people like ‘Hume’ as often as they are named after topics of inquiry like ‘Causality’ and larger subject areas will be organized by the spatiotemporal location of the philosopher, rather than by the subject matter: Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Continental Philosophy.
The physics situation makes a lot more sense to me. Hypothetically, who would I rather read an explanation of ‘The Alice Effect’ by? —Alice, the effect’s seventeenth century discoverer, or Bob, a modern day physics professor authoring a textbook?
Some salient considerations, neutrality not guaranteed:
- Alice’s understanding of the Alice effect is probably the most confused understanding of it in all of history, being the first ‘understanding of the Alice effect’ to set itself apart from ‘confusion and ignorance about the Alice effect’.
- In the billions of lifetimes that have passed since Alice’s time, the world has probably thought substantially more about The Alice Effect than Alice managed to in her lifetime, at least if it is important at all.
- Alice’s very first account of the effect probably contained imperfections. Bob can write about the theory as it stood after years of adjustment.
- Even if Alice’s account was perfectly correct, it was probably not perfectly well explained, unless she happens to have been a great explainer as well as a great physicist.
- Physics has made many discoveries since Alice’s time, such as Claire forces, Evan motion and Roger fields. It might be easier to understand all of this by starting with the Roger fields, and explaining the Alice effect as a consequence. However literature from the likes of Alice is constrained to cover topics chronologically by date of discovery.
- Bob speaks a similar version of English to me
- Bob can be selected for having particular skill at writing and explanation, whereas Alice must be selected for having the scientific prowess to make the discovery.
- Bob is actually trying to explain the thing to a 21st Century reader, while Alice is writing to pique the interest of some seventeenth century noblemen who lack modern intellectual machinery and are interested in issues like whether this is compatible with religion. An accurate impression of a 21st Century reader would probably cause Alice to fall over.
I think Bob is a solid choice.
How might philosophy be different?
Some pieces of explanations I heard, or made up while hearing other explanations:
- You have to be smarter than the original philosopher to summarize their work well, so there are few good summaries
- The translations are all terrible for conveying the important parts
- Philosophy is not trying to communicate normal content that can be in explicit statements, of the kind you might be able to explain well and check the understanding of and such.
- Philosophy is about having certain experiences which pertain to the relevant philosophy, much like reading a poem is different to reading a summary of its content.
I don’t find any of these compelling. If I understood some material well enough to make use of it, I would generally expect to be able to summarize it or describe it in a different language that I knew. So if nobody is capable of summarizing or translating the material it is hard to believe that I am getting much out of it by reading it. ‘Some content can’t be described’ isn’t much of an explanation, and even if it was, how did the philosophers describe it? And if you found it, but then couldn’t describe it, what would be the point? And if philosophy is about having certain experiences, like poetry, but then it would seem to be a kind of entertainment rather than a project to gain knowledge, which is at least not what most philosophers would tell you. So none of these explanations for learning philosophy to involve so much attention to very old philosophers seemed that plausible.
Ok, so that’s the mystery.
Here’s my explanation. Reading Aristotle describe his thoughts about the world is like watching Aristotle ride a skateboard if Aristotle were a pro skater. You are not getting value from learning about the streets he is gliding over (or the natural world that he is describing) and you should not be memorizing the set of jumps he chooses (or his particular conceptualizations of the world). You are meant to be learning about how to carry out the activity that he is carrying out: how to be Aristotle. How to do what Aristotle would do, even in a new environment.
An old work of philosophy does not describe the thing you are meant to be learning about. It was created by the thing you are meant to be learning about, much like watching a video from skater-Aristotle’s GoPro. And the value proposition is that with this high resolution Aristotle’s-eye-view, you can infer the motions.
There is not a short description of the insights you should learn (or at least not one available), because the insights you are hopefully learning are not the insights that Aristotle is trying to share. Aristotle might have highly summarizable insights, but what you want to know is how to be Aristotle, and nobody has necessarily developed an abstract model of how to be Aristotle from which summary statements can be extracted.
So it is not that the useful content being transmitted is of a special kind that is immune to being communicated as statements. It is just not actually known in statements. Nobody knows which aspects of being Aristotle are important, and nobody has successfully made a simplified summary. What we ‘know’ is this one very detailed example. Much like if I showed you a bee because I thought I couldn’t communicate it in words—it would not be because bees are mysteriously indescribable, it would be that I haven’t developed the understanding required to describe what is important about it, so I’m just showing you the whole bee.
On this theory, if someone doesn’t realize what is going on, and tries to summarize Aristotle’s writings in the way that you would usually summarize the content of a passage, you entirely lose what was valuable about it. Much as you would if you summarized a video of a skater in motion into a description of the environment that they had interacted with. I hypothesize that this is roughly what happens, and is why it feels like summaries can’t capture what is important, and probably why translations seem bad always. Whenever a person tries to do a translation, they faithfully communicate the content of the thoughts at the expense of faithfully communicating the thinking procedure.
For instance, suppose I have a sentence like this:
We have enough pieces of evidence to say that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.
If not quite the same words were available in a different language, it might get translated to:
We have seen enough evidence to know that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.
Which tells us something very similar about whether friendly banter is for counter-signaling.
But something subtle is lost about the process: in the initial statement, the author is suggesting that they are relying on the accretion of many separate pieces of evidence that may not have been independently compelling, whereas in the latter that is not clear. Over a long text, sentences like the former might give the reader an implicit understanding of how disparate and independently uncompelling evidence might be combined in the intuition of the author, without the issue ever being explicitly discussed. In the latter, this implication is entirely lost.
So I think this explains the sense that adequate summarization is impossible and translation is extremely difficult. At least, if we assume that people either don’t know what is really going on.
As an aside, I explained my theory to Ben Hoffman, and also asked him what on earth Plato was trying to do since when I tried to read him he made some points about fashion and sports that seemed worthy of a blog post, but maybe not of historical significance. Ben had a neat answer. He said Plato is basically doing the kind of summarization that a person who knew what was going on in my theory would do. He listened to Socrates a lot and thought that Socrates had interesting methods of thought. Then instead of summarizing Socrates’ points, he wrote fictionalized account of conversations with Socrates that condense and highlight the important elements of thinking and talking like Socrates.
This doesn’t explain why philosophy is different to physics (and basically all of the other subjects). Why would you want to be like Socrates, and not like Newton? Especially since Newton had more to show for his thoughts than an account of what his thoughts were like. I suspect the difference is that because physicists invent explicit machinery that can be easily taught, when you learn physics you spend your time mastering these tools. And perhaps in the process, you come to think in a way that fits well with these tools. Whereas in philosophy there is much less in the way of explicit methods to learn, so the most natural thing to learn is how to do whatever mental processes produce good philosophy. And since there is not a consensus on what they are like in the abstract, emulating existing good philosophers is a plausible way to proceed.
I was in the CMU philosophy department, which focuses on more formal methods that others might not class as philosophy—logic, algorithms for determining causality, game theory—and indeed in logic class we learned a lot of logical lemmas and did a lot of proofs and did not learn much about Frege or Gödel, though we did learn a bit about their history and thought at other point in the program.
(This story would suggest that in physics students are maybe missing out on learning the styles of thought that produce progress in physics. My guess is that instead they learn them in grad school when they are doing research themselves, by emulating their supervisors, and that the helpfulness of this might partially explain why Nobel prizewinner advisors beget Nobel prizewinner students.)
The story I hear about philosophy—and I actually don’t know how much it is true—is that as bits of philosophy come to have any methodological tools other than ‘think about it’, they break off and become their own sciences. So this would explain philosophy’s lone status in studying old thinkers rather than impersonal methods—philosophy is the lone ur-discipline without impersonal methods but thinking.
This suggests a research project: try summarizing what Aristotle is doing rather than Aristotle’s views. Then write a nice short textbook about it.
You might want to look into the physicists and other scientists of the 19th and early 20th century, who were far more assiduous readers of philosophy than are modern physicists. They seemed to find old philosophy useful, where modern physicists seem to find no philosophy useful.Report
The modern physicists’ instinct is more sound. Physicists have become smarter.Report
Smarter than Einstein?Report
I’m not really sure what sorts of philosophers who study the history of philosophy the author of this article is responding to.
From what I can tell there are a variety of compelling arguments for studying the history of philosophy.
The main one is that, because philosophy is on less secure epistemic ground than the scientific disciplines, a lot of views by historical figures (towering figure or not) get ignored or eventually ignored, or caricatured, by subsequent philosophers. Take, for example, the field of aesthetics and Kant. The way in which Kant’s aesthetics has been dealt with through the years has been first through the lens of 19th century philosophy and then through contemporary days. Through all that time, views on what Kant said, and its influence changed drastically. Lens of interpretation and appreciation of his contributions were altered depending upon who were the main history figures writing and evaluating their views. But we can’t authoritatively think that what we now have is a better understanding of both the content of Kant’s view and the value of it than they did in the 19th century. And this is because of the nature of historical interpretation. It’s backwards looking. It always have the type of clarity that contemporary philosophers at least claim to have. But when we try to interpret Kant, we get into a certain way of looking at the world that is different than our own, that we then can evaluate on the basis of our own values. It’s a dialogue with a figure who is coming from radically different viewpoints of our own. This is the same sort of value that comes when philosophers of mind talk to aestheticians, and aestheticians talk to philosophers of language. It pulls us out of our own little way of seeing the world, and allows us to dialogue with different ways of dealing with similar issues. It provides us with additional resources to draw on when trying to formulate new views.
It also should be noted that towering figures such as Kant tend to overshadow interesting views from other contemporaries or previous figures. So even though Kant is really the only philosopher from the 18th century that gets much attention from aestheticians, there is a whole host of other philosophers with interesting views about the nature of art and its appreciation who came before Kant. And those views might also be valuable for contemporary work, and also might not have been successfully evaluated and rejected by Kant.Report
The author’s question is not: “Why should we study contemporaries of Kant?”, but: “Why should we study Kant?”
To say that Kant ignored his contemporaries working on aesthetics does not justify why we should read Kant. It would, if anything, rather be a reason against reading Kant.Report
I’m confused. I gave perfectly good reasons for reading Kant, before I mentioned that other contemporaries were left ignored by subsequent philosophers.
Also, I never said Kant ignored his contemporaries. I said that he might have rejected their ideas, perhaps unjustly. Those are two different things
And also, the general concern of the post is about studying history of philosophy in general. Not just the big large figures. Sure the author focuses on them, but that doesn’t mean the worry doesn’t extend to the lesser known figures.Report
“I’m not really sure what sorts of philosophers who study the history of philosophy the author of this article is responding to.”
All of us. We have to take history of philosophy classes as part of general education requirements to get our philosophy degrees. When we take said classes, we read the original texts rather than current summaries of them. Why?
“From what I can tell there are a variety of compelling arguments for studying the history of philosophy.”
The issue is not “why does anybody read these old texts,” the issue is “why does everybody read them.” Whatever insights are in them can be gleaned more effectively from textbooks written about them, surely! (Katja goes on to argue why this might not be the case.)
“The main one is that, because philosophy is on less secure epistemic ground than the scientific disciplines, a lot of views by historical figures (towering figure or not) get ignored or eventually ignored, or caricatured, by subsequent philosophers.”
This happens in science too though, right? I highly doubt that any but a small minority of physicists truly understand how Newton saw the world. Surely the Newtonian mechanics we are taught in intro physics courses is a cleaned-up version (a caricature, even!) of what Newton actually thought.Report
This gives me an opportunity to quote one of my favorite passages from Ryle (from an autobiographical sketch): “The conviction that the Viennese dichotomy “Either Science or Nonsense” had too few “ors” in it led some of us, including myself, to harbour and to work on a derivative suspicion. If, after all, logicians and even philosophers can say significant things, then perhaps some logicians and philosophers of the past, even the remote past, had, despite their unenlightenment, sometimes said significant things. …If we are careful to winnow off their vacuously speculative tares from their analytical whet, we may find that some of them did quite promising work in our own line of business. Naturally we began, in a patronizing mood, by looking for and finding in the Stoics, say, or Locke, primitive adumbrations of our own most prized thoughts. But before long some of them seemed to move more like pioneers than like toddlers, and to talk to us across the ages more like colleagues than like pupils; and then we forgot our pails of whitewash…”Report
This seems partly right to me. I want to suggest an additional component that might help flesh out the idea that we want to learn how to “be” e.g. Aristotle: It concerns systematicity: Philosophy not only deals with the most fundamental (meta)issues of a range of different subjects – mathematics, logic, psychology, epistemology, ethics, politics, linguistics, aesthetics, anthropology, religion, etc. – it also deals with how to make our answers to the most fundamental issues in all these different subjects *hang together*.
Now, I suspect that a big part of the reason why it is useful for philosophers to try to learn how to “be” e.g. Aristotle is that *he did something we no longer know how to do*: He actually managed to make his answers to all the fundamental issues in all the fundamental subjects hang together (I exaggerate, of course, but the point should be clear). Of course, we cannot simply copy Aristotle’s answers: What we take to be the most fundamental issues in all these subjects have shifted so much that his solutions no longer answer to our needs, our starting points. But we still need to learn something about “what it is like” to be a philosopher that actually manages to come up with a coherent, unified vision of “how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term” (as Sellars says). We still think this should be possible to do (unless we’re Rorty, but even then we want to have a systematic explanation for why). But who today brandishes a philosophical system with the scope and ambition of, say, Aristotle, Kant or Hegel?
The aim of systematicity across such disparate questions and disciplines also ensures that progress in philosophy is much more of a *moving target* than in e.g. physics. A shift in e.g. what we see as the fundamental notions and questions in logic might upset the whole balance and demand new ways of making sense of e.g. ethics – or vice versa. On the other hand, the challenges we face still contain many of the same elements as contained in the systems of past great philosophers – we are not in a situation where we must answer completely new questions, in the way contemporary physics face for the most part completely different questions and challenges than Newton did.
This fits with the “Aristotle as pro skater” idea, I think: The obstacle course we face is greater, more difficult, than the one Aristotle navigated, it contains many of the same elements as his but more challengingly composed, and with some new ones thrown in on top. Nonetheless we can learn something important by watching him successfully(ish) navigate his own course and understanding as best we can how he managed to do it – as an alternative to, say, practicing one particular obstacle for our entire life (i.e. specializing in a particular sub-subfield), only to find out that we’ve been doing it all wrong because one comes out of the previous obstacle at high speed which renders our particular way of approaching the obstacle in question moot.Report
I realize that the OP is in some ways pitched this way, but I think taking the question as whether it is worth studying the “history of philosophy” is a misunderstanding. Students of physics, after all, all learn a version of Newton’s equations. (So part of the background of the essay is that what is considered “History” in science maybe somewhat different from what is considered “History” in philosophy.)
The question is why philosophy courses so frequently use primary sources, and the use of secondary sources tends to be frowned on.Report
This post seems to be premised on a view of philosophy as being much closer to the hard sciences than to other humanities. I think that if we just start with a different conception of the value, importance, goal, etc. of what we are doing, this is, essentially, a non-question (we wouldn’t ask a professor of English literature why they bothered to read anything pre-21st-century). (And indeed, we might be worried about what I see as pretty clearly a push in contemporary analytic philosophy–especially certain subfields–towards making philosophy into a science.)
More charitably to the make-philosophy-a-science people, one also might just think that “philosophy” picks out a big seething messy mass of things, and that it is more and less important, depending on one’s methodological stance and one’s projects, to read historical work.
I don’t think there is a real puzzle here, though as is perhaps too transparent in this comment I am allergic to the science/math worship/wannabe attitude among lots of philosophers that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon…Report
I agree that some philosophers, myself included, can be a bit quick to formalize philosophical questions and apply tools from mathematics and the sciences. I don’t think that’s bad, as long as there are many folks who, like “some person or other,” remind us that those formal tools may not always be appropriate, and that some goals of studying philosophy may be undervalued if we constantly compare aspects of our field to math and the sciences.
1. There’s large variation from one field of philosophy to another. In some areas of philosophy, scientific and mathematical methods are of great use. I think “some person or other” is a bit dismissive by calling the use of these methods “science/math worship/wannabe attitude.” I know there are philosophers who are equally dismissive of informal work, but in an era in which state legislators are prone to cutting funds for higher education, perhaps we should do better to emphasize the value of each other’s approaches?
2. Philosophers understanding of art, culture, value, and political institutions are, I would hope, improved by exposure to the enormous variety of arts, cultures, value systems, and political institutions around the world. Until relatively recently, people on different continents had extremely limited communication, and Europeans’ knowledge and study of Asian and African societies was confined to cabinets of curiosity. Although we gain as much from the study of our own society in the past as we do from the study of other societies, the parochialism that characterized much of Europe’s history might explain why scholars prefer more recent work, even in areas of philosophy that deal with ethical, artistic, and political questions that are less obviously amenable to scientific and mathematical analysis.Report
Here’s Wittgenstein: “In philosophy we are not laying foundations but tidying a room, in the process of which we have to touch everything a dozen times”. I don’t know what Wittgenstein’s underlying views were here, but the metaphor has stuck with me as a way of thinking about these things: Science is like building a wall, where you lay bricks one-by-one, and leave them in place when they are there. Science textbooks are easier to write because they tell you what bricks you have in place. Philosophy is more like tidying a room (or perhaps better, loading a dishwasher): you move one thing, move a second thing, then realise the first one doesn’t fit with the second and move it back, add a third and are thereby forced to reevaluate the second, and so on. This is why philosophy textbooks are harder to write: they cannot state known truths, but instead at best state *prima facie* attractive starting points, which might yet be wholly overturned as we add new pieces to the puzzle. Until we get every piece in place, we don’t know if even the first piece we placed was right. And this is equally why older philosophers are often insightful: they often start from such different vantage points that they highlight novel or insightful ways of arranging the pieces. (It’s as if you found someone who bizarrely suggests loading the mugs into the cutlery tray, but you realise it might actually work out and you wonder if your fundamental assumptions need rethinking.)Report
These days there are more and more textbooks and handbooks on philosophical methodology. Metaphilosophy is a hot topic.
Mainstream analytic philosophy has very clear methods: intuitions, thought experiments, inference to the most intuitive explanation, theoretical virtues.
These methods are epistemically bankrupt. No wonder philosophy doesn’t make any genuine progress.Report
It’s not the tools but the users. As always. They tools work perfectly well and genuine progress in made but not locally. One would need to lower the portcullis and look around at the rest of philosophy for progress. If one word describes the approach you say is bankrupt it is ‘parochial’. As is your view that philosophy is bankrupt.Report
Here is an oversimplified analysis of most claims about what the differences between philosophy and science are: they’re all oversimplified.
For example: “Science is like building a wall, where you lay bricks one-by-one, and leave them in place when they are there. Science textbooks are easier to write because they tell you what bricks you have in place.” This is a wild oversimplification of science. It is also an oversimplification of science teaching and science learning.
Similarly, “philosophy textbooks are harder to write: they cannot state known truths, but instead at best state *prima facie* attractive starting points, which might yet be wholly overturned as we add new pieces to the puzzle.” seems to me a wild oversimplification of philosophy.
These oversimplifications are appropriate (to some extent; these examples seem egregious) for comments on a blog post. But the problem is the complaints seem only to work *at all* in the presence of similar oversimplifications. A bold claim, which I make with no evidence: if you grab any reasonable, well-supported, sufficiently nuanced theory of science, any similarly good theory of philosophy, and chose any reasonable definition of progress, then either both philosophy and science will obviously fail to make progress according to that definition and given those theoretical assumptions or both will obviously make progress according to that definition and given those theoretical assumptions.Report
Just a quick reply to say that I completely agree that what I said was extremely oversimplified (as you say, the constraints of a comment on a blog post, and all that): I was hoping to gesture at a broad thought that seems promising enough that some more nuanced version of it might be true. But I should also clarify (in case it was in doubt) that I certainly didn’t mean to imply that there is no progress in philosophy, and I absolutely think there is, and the analogy I presented suggests just that: we can make progress tidying a room.Report
Interesting question. Two preliminaries.
First, the question presupposes that one should read old philosophy. Note that there are people that flatly deny this, Gilbert Harman is said to have had a note on his door saying “Just say ‘No!’ to the history of philosophy”.
Second, the answer might differ according to the conception of philosophy that one favours. In that vein, we might formulate a challenge for different conceptions of philosophy: Given that you do think philosophers ought to read old philosophy, justify why we should.
Here are some thoughts.
Disagreement. There is a lot of disagreement in philosophical departments. Philosophers rarely agree on philosophical truths (whatever that is), interpretations, how to characterise a problem, how to characterise a systematic position, what the main systematic positions are, what methods are to be used, etc.
This leads to a lot of complexity, and to the need for complexity reduction. One could spend a huge amount of time and space to explore all possible alternative views regarding one question or problem. But no one wants to plough through a hundred pages of discussion of dozens of these alternatives. So a philosopher needs to make a choice of complexity reduction: Which alternative views does he or she consider to be the strongest, most interesting ones, widely held ones, ones that he or she addresses in her piece, etc. Philosophical classics are ideally pieces of work that make make particularly good, interesting choices in that regard. They discuss an interesting problem, attack an interesting view, or defend an interesting view, with particularly salient arguments.
Another partial reason for reading old texts that is based on complexity reduction is canonisation. Once a classic gets entrenched, no one working in the field can ignore it. This is of course prima facie a sociological point, but once a classic is established, a specialist should know it. However, perhaps one could argue that canonisation only requires secondary literature knowledge of classical texts, because it is not exactly the classical text that matters, but influential interpretations of it. So my main justification for reading old philosophy is that the classics are particularly good at complexity reduction. (There is also disagreement what to consider a classic.) The need for complexity reduction in turn arises because of the widespread disagreement in philosophy.
This of course leaves the question why there is so much disagreement in philosophy, which is another challenge that conceptions of philosophy need to make sense of.Report
Old philosophy is better. This is because time sorts out what is great from what is not so great. If you read only contemporary philosophy, chances are that the vast majority of things you read are not so great. If you read only old philosophy, chances are that the vast majority of things you read are great. That is why I prefer to read old philosophy. The burden of proof in my mind is on the other camp– why read new philosophy?Report
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — SantayanaReport
And those who do are condemned to repeat it as well. Because we’re wired to be really good at seeing old patterns in new data.Report
This was very Interesting to read, including the comments, though i’m not at all schooled like any of you in this, so please forgive my ignorance and simple comment. I think the confusion of why the Philosophers of those times wrote and explained things the way they did is because Philosophers from those times had to be careful of what or how they wrote, because of the threats hanging over them by the elites of those times. Some were burned alive, etc. Like how Nostradamus had to play on his words to get his msg across without getting killed for it. Maybe it wasn’t that they may have had little understanding of something but rather too much understanding, and just wasn’t allowed to share or express it the way they may have wanted to?Report
Also, why old as apposed to new? I see Philosophy as a form of art, so it only makes sense to me to want to start with the old. It’s fascinating, like looking at art from the past or holding an ancient coin or sword and feeling in awe just knowing it was held by others from those times. Either way, if you enjoy Philosophy why not embrace all of it, old and new. It’s about getting more views and more appreciation of it all i suppose. 🙂Report