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What I mean by this is simple: does one necessarily need to read Plato in order to grasp his theory of forms before reading Aristotle; and further still, must one read the two of them in order to read Aquinas?

For example, would it be appropriate, viable, or even possible (to understand) to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason without reading things past? Would I be able to grasp the concepts? Is it merely a matter of history to read the great works of most famous philosophers, or a matter of necessity in understand philosophy at all?

  • If you are going to study Kant it may help to read something like this first: Title: Starting with Hume, Author: Brown, Charlotte Randall, 1950-, Publisher:Continuum,Pub date:c2011. – Gordon Mar 22 '18 at 15:36
  • There are such books on Kant himself of course, but it would not hurt to know something of Hume. Also, don't forget about this book by Kant: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prolegomena_to_Any_Future_Metaphysics Which is available in many editions and perhaps even in PDF on the internet. – Gordon Mar 22 '18 at 15:41
  • Here is an inexpensive history of philosophy if you want more context. Julian Marias: books.google.com/books/about/… (regarding Kant's Prolegomena, I meant to say it was available in many re-printings, not editions). – Gordon Mar 22 '18 at 18:11
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▻ TEXTS THAT CAN TAKEN WITHOUT PREPARATION OR CONTEXT

Some texts are virtually stand alone. For instance you can read Plato's Republic and gain a lot from it without knowing whom he was answering or what were the influences on his thought at that stage. A fuller context would illuminate but is not necessary to make pretty good sense of the text and to be intellectually stimulated by it.

You do not need to read Plato, for the theory of Forms, before reading Aristotle mainly because, though Aristotle rejected the theory in its classic version as presented in the Phaedo and Republic (Phaedo 95e-102a, 246a-249d; Republic, VI & VII), very little of Aristotle is centrally concerned with Plato and his theory of Forms. Aristotle does criticise the theory (e.g. Metaphysics, XIII (M), 4-6 and Nicomachean Ethics I.6) but we was an independent philosopher of the highest order and Aristotle's quest for the nature of things is conducted under assumptions that Aristotle does not take from Plato. (But you do need to know Plato's view of moral failure, or weakness of will [akrasia], before reading Aristotle's account of the question in Nicomachean Ethics, VII.1-10.)

The same just-jump-in principle applies to Descartes' Meditations : Descartes' aims and method of argument are clear without any knowledge of the contemporary or earlier philosophical context. The context will aid a fuller understanding but I defy anyone to say that they cannot follow the scepticism of Med. 1 and the first defence of the cogito ('I think, therefore I am') in Med. 2 even if they had never read a philosophical text before.

I think the same is true of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding. Context illuminates but a pretty clear basic understanding is perfectly possible without it. Essay, I contains a sustained critique of innate ideas. Many suppose this is a polemic against Descartes but Descartes' position and Locke's critique largely fail to mesh. It is quite likely that Locke's attack on innate ideas was directed as much against the Cambridge Platonists as against Descartes - if not more so. But to a beginning reader, it doesn't matter. The logic and cogency of Locke's critique can be assessed regardless of its target.

I should postpone the Summa if only because of its vast scale but there is much in it that is self-standing - capable of comprehension without immersion in the full context of Scholasticism.

▻ TEXTS THAT NEED PREPARATION AND CONTEXT

By contrast there are philosophers whose work is so intertwined with that of others that their texts need to be read in a certain order. Spinoza's Ethics is hard to understand if you have not read Descartes. Berkeley is incompletely intelligible without Locke.

Kant represents from one point of view a synthesis or creative reworking of the traditions both of Rationalism (from Descartes onwards) and of Empiricism (from Locke onwards and especially Hume). Much is lost in a reading of Kant that is uniformed by a knowledge of these earlier traditions.

Hegel is hard to grasp anyway because of the density and complexity of his ideas and his mode of presentation but he is all the harder if you do not have an extensive knowledge of Western philosophy on nearly all of which he draws. Schopenhauer emerges from the background of Kant and Hegel, without a knowledge of whom the full impact of his work is lost.

▻ INTERTEXTUALITY

All philosophical texts in the Western tradition since Plato are intertextual; they cross refer, sometimes explicitly and sometimes tacitly. You cannot prepare adequately for this. Also all texts have contexts which disclose much about their purpose and methods. None of the remarks above is meant to deny this. But some texts are virtually stand-alone, at least for the purposes of preliminary study, and if you adopt that rule that before you read Y you must read X lest you misunderstand Y, you will find (defeatingly) that it's never the time yet to read anything.

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There are different possibilities to structure the history of philosophy.

Besides the chronological order, a different order is according to philosophical problems or subdisciplines. In my opinion, which order to choose depends on one's personal predilections. The important point is to read texts which one finds interesting, perhaps even stimulating.

So you may read Thomas Aquinas before Aristoteles if you find Aquinas Summa Theologica a breakthrough.

But I recommend, to read in any case some of the landmark texts, e.g., from Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Popper.

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Consider how you have learned other things in the past.

When you start learning something you search for a frame of reference. You go to the library or you do an internet search. You might want to absorb everything you find, somehow, like a computer dumping all the text available onto its hard-drive without understanding, but what you really want is understanding, not just text. However, it is physically impossible to absorb everything that is available. So, you must make a choice between the available alternatives, but which one? You start with one book, even one chapter, perhaps even one web page. Once you have read that one you start understanding. You realize you don’t need to read everything, nor read all of anything, that is available. Soon your interest points you to a different source. That different source leads to another. That source may lead you back to the first one which you realize you did not really understand the first time you read it. You read it again and perhaps you even read more of it.

As long as you are motivated to continue, your understanding improves.

If this is how we learn, then consider the question:

does one necessarily need to read Plato in order to grasp his theory of forms before reading Aristotle; and further still, must one read the two of them in order to read Aquinas?

The answer is no. It is not necessary. You can understand without doing this. It is only necessary to be motivated to stay searching for understanding. Understanding becomes the road map and that map becomes clearer the more you understand. Start with one thing that is available, some book, some web page, some class or some video or whatever, that you do understand and begin the journey.

  • +1 : a good, sensible, relevant answer. Ridiculous for it to be passed over as '0' : GT – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 23 '18 at 13:42
  • @GeoffreyThomas Thank you! I upvoted the others including yours earlier. They are all good answers offering different perspectives from mine. My main reason for being here is to read answers of all sorts even those I disagree with looking for the unexpected. – Frank Hubeny Mar 23 '18 at 15:38
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Although you cannot read them all, I would urge you to not completely skip the pre-modern philosophers under the assumption that they have been superseded by the moderns. Consider the story of Edward Feser, who although he had a PhD in Philosophy and was a teacher, he had not studied guys like Aristotle and Aquinas until he wanted to show his students why they were wrong. He ended up finding their arguments to be much stronger and more interesting than he had assumed, and now he is a strong proponent of their philosophy.

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