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Does the long and frequent study of the history of philosophy cause us to lose critical thinking and philosophical insight into the issues and, as Descartes puts it, "contaminate ourselves with past mistakes" and expand our ability to use expressions that were previously We read in philosophical texts, make sentences?

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    Is there a somebody who studies it "repeatedly"? I am not sure what that means. Like they read Plato twice to understand him better? That's probably not such a bad idea.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 10:53
  • I agree with Conifold and would take this further. With the pre-Socratics, for example, in the classroom we are often told that their observations are either irrelevant today or outdated. And yet there are many who have revisited the Atomists and others and discovered a fresh relevance to their thoughts. There is a book called; Anaximander, the First Scientist, which was recommended here on the SEP. Good question. CMS
    – user37981
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 14:07
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    Descartes wrote quite a lot of stuff that we think to be outright wrong these days. Actually, I think it is quite telling that you use historical arguments without understanding their context to devalue the study of the history of philosophy. Descartes wanted to justify his own method of rational, direct insight. Of course did he argue against the usefulness of the discussion of historical literature.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 21:11
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    Since you chose to "contaminate" yourself with Descartes perhaps you should also try his historical "antidote", Peirce:"Whence it follows, that whatever we quite clearly and distinctly think to be true about any subject, must be true... I may remark that the world has pretty thoroughly deliberated upon that theory and has quite distinctly come to the conclusion that it is utter nonsense; whence that judgment is indisputably right." Fixation of Belief, see also How to Make Our Ideas Clear.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 6:07
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    This a very opinion-based question. Mine is that it depends on the mind. The medicore mind becomes ensnared in past thinking, while the exceptional one find a springboard for better thinking as far as innovation is concerned. That anyone would believe in Platonic Forms in light of contemporary empirical thinking is a litmus test for me. Philosophy is often the act of reformulating past thinkers to meet current evenets, which is why the same themes recycle from the Milesians to MIT.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 17:44

4 Answers 4

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There are three reasons to study the history of philosophy:

  1. Learning about how arguments and ideas developed and have been turned against each other, ie. the context of and relations between different philosophical positions. Without that, a proper understanding of the texts is impossible.

  2. Learning about particular arguments and counter-arguments on a given problem so that one understands which arguments there are and already have been debunked in order to save oneself the embarrassment of bragging about one's supposedly ingenious argument that was discarded before the first proper city in one's area was founded.

  3. To learn a bit of humbleness on the way when you realise that virtually every clever thought you ever had was discussed and thought through to the bottom by people much more well-read and cleverer than you decades or oftentimes hundreds of years ago.

I think these are sufficient to warrant the academic practice of making the people read, study, and discuss historical texts for years. The more you learn, the more you understand the arguments and whom they are against. Without that, the question what a particular arguments or phrase is supposed to do or mean at that point will often occur reading a text. Or it will simply elude as being important since it appears as literally meaningless.

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  • Klocking: Philosophy may be the fruit of many years of education or the aspiration of a pure talent, but it must nevertheless manifest itself. Could you find the problem with Heraclitus' claim?
    – dt128
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 21:53
  • @alwaystudent: The problem still is that it is not Heraclitus' claim in the first place.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 21:59
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If you are studying the history in order to learn it as a grounding in the subject, that is arguably a bad way to go about learning to do philosophy, for the reason you give. I was taught in a modern rationalist school which took a (paradoxically) medieval view: philosophy is a trade skill, so the first thing you teach the apprentice is how to recognise, use and maintain the tools of the trade. The main one is your own critical faculty, so we spent a couple of years learning theory of mind, logic and related subjects.

But, if you want to understand the issues in contemporary philosophy and why they have come to the fore, then you will need to understand how it got where it is today. Like any other human discipline it did not arrive in a vacuum or in some spaceship as a done deal, it grew this way. To understand it you must understand the people who brought it to where it is now, and to understand the people you must understand their social and intellectual environment and the personal motivations those led to. That is what history is really all about and it is an essential aid not only to philosophy but to every other discipline I have ever studied.

Each time I re-read an old book, I am not the same philosopher I was last time and I gain insights that I had missed.

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  • Every time we read old books there is a risk that we will not see the errors in front of our eyes, repetition makes us feel better and make us better historian but does not make us a better philosopher
    – dt128
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 11:03
  • @alwaystudent: Are you the same philosopher repeating the same journey every time you re-read something? Do you never make progress, become someone you had never previously imagined? Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 15:14
  • :Suppose from Philosophy H, you read "I have never swam in a river twice" the first time you read, you probably notice a problem with Philosophy H saying: "He wants to say the river conditions are changing? He swims again in the river twice, the first time in the river under condition A and the second time in the river under condition B.Does he want to say that conditions are changing the river in general? So we have River A and River B, and at any given moment we have a distinct river with the word "river" itself being a worthless prefix, so we don't have the word "river" in Mr. H's language.
    – dt128
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 18:38
  • up comment for you
    – dt128
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 18:42
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Descartes believed you could start from some innate and certain ideas and deduce your way through to certain knowledge by examining your reasoning on the doubt-altar. Not only would that release you from repetitive study of philosophy's history but it could well release you from its study altogether. However, seeing how things went, one would want to study said history, if of anything else but witnessing the "challenges" which the cartesian philosophy received.

Generally, history of philosophy is not so much to be taken as a quest of the truth, it should serve as a reservoir of thoughts which do have the habit of getting in and out of fashion. Any one person who believes they could philosophies outside of history could very well fall pray to the zeitgeist philosophies and still manage to feel very new. And while a Nietzsche would probably be right in pointing out that philosophy scholars are big-eared bloodless specimens, he himself consumed books at rates which only competed with those of his sight loss.

Errors of the past might contaminate your thinking, but those would be errors you are at least somehow conscious of, rejecting history might imply contamination by errors you are unaware of. A balance to strike, somewere.

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  • Descartes's greatest doctrine is his doubt: that we do not consider falsehood to be true and to suppose what one may suspect to be false.
    – dt128
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 20:11
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The only reason the study the history of philosophy is to be successful among people who care about the history of philosophy.

It is absolutely not necessary to study the history of philosophy to study philosophy.

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    While technically correct, the result are people who may be knowledgeable in a given topic of contemporary philosophy, but tend to make underlying assumptions which they do not even realise to be problematic since they lack the knowledge base to do so. This kind of philosophy is cultural reproduction and ends up in the huge bin of history since it has no importance whatsoever beyond the current discourse it stands in. There are even tenures for that. Still, I think "absolutely not" is something every senior lecturer will deem wrong.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 22:12

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