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The end of history (of philosophy)?

Jack Walker, studying Philosophy at Darwin College, Cambridge


Philosophy as a subject is unusually concerned with its own history, with courses at school and university tending to feature large, and often mandatory, historical components. The thought behind this is likely that if you want to be good at contemporary philosophy you need to have a firm grounding in what others – the ‘great’ philosophers – thought in the past. On some level this might strike us as strange. Think about an analogy with another subject, medicine for example. Medical students aren’t assigned Hippocrates and Galen to read with the promise that this will make them better doctors. Why then are philosophy students still forced to read Plato and Kant? It seems that those who advocate ‘historicism’ owe us an argument in defence of their approach.

Hanno Sauer posed this challenge in his paper ‘The End of History’ where he argues that we shouldn’t expect studying the history of philosophy to help us solve substantive philosophical problems. He writes, ‘If we want to do good philosophy today, knowledge of yesterday’s good philosophy is not going to help us very much.’ Sauer is not the first to give a radical internal critique of philosophical education. The philosopher Henry Sidgwick famously gave a ‘Lecture Against Lecturing’, attacking them as an outdated mode of delivering information. In the rest of this article I’ll review some arguments for and against the idea that studying the history of philosophy makes you a better philosopher, as well as providing a new argument that Sauer doesn’t consider.

One common argument for the importance of studying philosophy’s history is that it helps students sharpen their skills in understanding and assessing arguments. Reading the works of canonical figures in philosophy introduces students to new ideas and concepts that are crucial for doing philosophical work themselves. These skills are undoubtedly valuable and studying history of philosophy does seem to help students develop these skills. However, it has yet to be shown that this is the best way of developing these skills. Indeed, Sauer suggests that these valuable skills could be developed more effectively by studying contemporary philosophy or other disciplines. Even if we don’t buy this argument, it still seems doubtful that studying the history of philosophy in the way we do now is completely justified. Instead of everyone studying the content of the arguments of the ‘great philosophers’, perhaps we should be casting as wide a net as possible if the aim is to improve our skills.

Another similar argument is that historical knowledge of philosophy is essential to avoid the mistakes of the past. Although this sounds initially plausible, we should be sceptical. Shouldn’t we expect that the biggest mistakes in the history of philosophy will already have been identified in contemporary philosophy, allowing us to divide the cognitive load? It seems unduly pessimistic to expect that present-day philosophers are still making the kinds of mistakes that we could learn to avoid by studying texts that are hundreds of years old. As Sauer writes, ‘it does not seem unreasonable to hope that people have learned at least something from the past, and that philosophy’s history is, in some sense, ‘contained’ within current philosophy.’ Given this, it doesn’t seem like traditional arguments succeed in defending the status quo.

There are also positive arguments against reading historical philosophical authors instead of focusing on contemporary work. Sauer points out that lots of philosophy relies on empirical claims about the workings of the world and the people that live in it. Historical philosophers are likely to be wrong about these things given a lack of access to relevant information. If we grant that philosophy is not entirely detached from the empirical whilst maintaining the assumption that philosophers are meant to be discovering timeless truths, then we should be doubtful about the quality of historical philosophy and its relevance to modern debates. For example, Plato’s work on the justifications for democracy are still widely studied. However, Plato didn’t have access to empirical work on voter behaviour, democratic development or, crucially, the subsequent debate over his own arguments. For this reason, when we’re deciding whose philosophical work we should devote our time to, the person without access to any of this empirical information would seem like an odd choice. Sauer ends his paper by speculating that historically important philosophers are passed down because teachers of philosophy are averse to sunk costs. In other words, philosophers don’t want to think that they have wasted their time studying the history of philosophy and so rationalise its importance and pass it on to the next generation.

Personally, I find Sauer’s arguments very convincing. However, I think he underplays the value that studying the history of philosophy can have as a model for philosophical virtues. Consider Descartes’ discussion of scepticism in his ‘Meditations’. In this text Descartes takes his most central beliefs, such as that he has knowledge of the world around him and puts them under the microscope for rational scrutiny. This is a clear demonstration that in philosophy all of our assumptions ought to be questioned, leaving us to follow the argument wherever it leads. Sauer might object again that this is a virtue shared with contemporary philosophy and so a further argument is needed to show that reading historical philosophers is the best way to gain this kind of understanding. However, I’m not sure that this holds true. When writing their papers, contemporary philosophers are typically busy enough trying to make their key point to worry about making these kinds of underlying principles explicit. On the other hand, classic and canonical works of philosophy typically spend lots of time making base level claims about how good philosophy should be done. This is certainly not to say that history of philosophy is the only way of gaining this kind of understanding. Instead it is enough to say that reading historical works will likely be better for understanding key philosophical virtues than reading contemporary works without this kind of context.

Further reading:

  • Are History’s Greatest Philosophers That Great? – Gregory Lewis

  • The End of History – Hanno Sauer

  • Why Philosophy Needs History – Bernard Williams


Questions to think about, from the Launchpad team:

  • If reading philosophy from the past is important, do the same arguments imply that we should read philosophy from other cultures? Are there any disanalogies between the two cases?

  • In moral philosophy, many historical philosophers have views on some topics that would be fairly uniformly rejected today. For example, Aristotle believed some people are "slaves by nature". Does this make all of their other moral reasoning suspect? Or can we just ignore the parts we disagree with?

  • Is there any point in applying ancient philosophical arguments to topics that their authors could never have considered? For example, can Kant's ideas about rational thought help us when considering if it possible for machines to think?

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