I know the question sounds weird, so I'll bring an example coming from my field: mathematics.

One of the greatest mathematicians of all time is Gauss. One of his results is the "Remarkable theorem" in differential geometry, whom he proved in 1827. Even if it was a truly remarkable achievement, today, a good undergraduate student would be able to understand well* its statement, and the path to it. So we could say that Gauss's discourse is "easier" to understand today.

It seems like something like this happens in philosophy. As a first impression, one might say "no", and this is because, from my experience, no one used to understand Hegel in high school (yep, down here in Italy we study it). But maybe it just works like maths: you'll have to understand what previous mathematicians said in order to understand the next ones. And we basically lost track of it since Plato, back in school.

When Kant first released his arguments, it seems likely that it would have been confusing for even the best philosophers, but now, an undergraduate can read the Critique of Pure Reason and understand it well. It seems like such a phenomenon might be an answer to the question "Why is older philosophy 'easier' to understand?"

(*) This does not mean everyone will eventually well understand it: just sufficiently talented students.

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  • Edited to avoid the 'opinion' and 'focus' questions. – J D Nov 5 '20 at 21:19
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    I thought the same thing about Cantor's diagonalization and set-theoretical implications when I read the question. – J D Nov 5 '20 at 21:39
  • Better commentaries, and progress in teaching. Meme evolution. – CriglCragl Nov 6 '20 at 1:27
  • @J D was Cantor's diagonalisation difficult at that time?? I always thought it was just a smart trick. – roddik Nov 12 '20 at 9:34

It's a good question. I believe one could say the same of analytical philosophy with its emphasis on logic. This could be studied ahistorically, and if you understood Frege you would not have much trouble with Aristotle, or at least his logic, though I hasten to add, those are not my areas of thoroughly amateur reading.

Likewise, you could go on to study philosophy of science, structuralism, or cognitive sciences without so much as a peek at Hegel or Plato, let alone Schelling or Kierkegaard, though in this case you would certainly not find those older discourses "easy." You would be utterly baffled and write it off as meaningless or "not even wrong," as the physicist Pauli used to say.

But the majority of philosophy does have a necessary history, in my view. You won't understand Hegel unless you read Kant, you can't read Kant without some Hume and Leibniz, and so on, all the way back to Parmenides. And you must "defamiliarize" some concepts that now look obvious and historically contextualize others, such as Plato's distrust of "art" or Kant's concern with a universal morality compatible with science.

Philosophy is forever overturning the authority of its ancestors, so usually arguing against a particular history. Ideally, then, one would read philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the present to grasp how its questions evolve "dialectically," as Hegel describes it. Then, after Descartes one would have to start reading philosophy in parallel with the evolving natural sciences. It is quite common, even in academia, to skip big chunks, such as the Neo-Platonists or the medieval scholastics.

But since philosophy is historical and does not "solve" problems like math and science, there is more than anyone can read. And since philosophers are forever trying to wipe the slate clean and start anew, you can probably pick up large areas starting with, say, Locke or Husserl or Wittgenstein that would not require much in the way of precedent. But to answer your question, no, philosophy does not get "easier" the further back you go, usually quite the opposite.

  • As one very familiar with the history of philosophy, your remarks resonate with the echo of complete unfamiliarity. From my perspective philosophy ends where Frege begins. 'Wipe the slate clean', there's a new one. Only analytic/academic studies believe in that position. Academic studies, ( I can't bring myself to call it philosophy), involves itself in vacuous word games unaligned with reality. I am happy for those who enjoy it and find it challenging and engaging. But it's not philosophy. And that friend ends today's demonstration of you dismiss me,I'll gladly return the favor! Excelsior – user37981 Nov 4 '20 at 18:08
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    Well, you should provide an answer to the question, I'm not really sure what this comment means. There are many schools of philosophy, but to say nothing after Frege counts as philosophy is pretty random. I am merely trying to point out that most of philosophy does form a "coherent history," but with many divergent paths, some dead ends. And thinkers like Descartes or Locke or Husserl or the Logical Positivists do claim to "start anew." I don't tend to carve up the lineage into who is or isn't a"real philosopher." But you should provide your own answer. – Nelson Alexander Nov 4 '20 at 19:35
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    Well, you can start reading philosophy anytime. I never read any till later in life and, because of an interest in history, I started with Hegel. Big mistake! From there I had to walk slowly backwards towards the Greeks. – Nelson Alexander Nov 4 '20 at 23:23
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    You could post that as a question. Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" is a very readable, if opinionated, overview. Some of the shorter Platonic dialogues are enjoyable, the Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Symposium. From there, an overview of Aristotle, then jump to Descartes, then an overview of the British empiricists, then Kant. Then an overview of the Logical Positivists and maybe A.J. Ayer's – Nelson Alexander Nov 5 '20 at 1:30
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    "Language, Truth, and Logic," as a sampler of the positivist's project. Anyway, those are some main stops. It is generally hard to read original texts without a guidebook. It's just slow going, more like learning a language than solving a puzzle. In addition to his history, Russell wrote a number of other popular works. – Nelson Alexander Nov 5 '20 at 1:42

The key difference is that mathematics is linear, it progresses forward, and each new step builds on the last. Philosophy is cyclical, it returns to certain topics and modes of thought repeatedly. Accordingly ancient philosophy is often of current interest and relevance in a way that is rarely true of ancient science or mathematics (except the the extent those have been assimilated into modern science and mathematics).

The Socratic dialogs, for example, are all about forcing people to confront their assumptions and question their beliefs. That's an evergreen project, and it is just as difficult and uncomfortable to undertake today as it was in the distant past.

There is something else that makes old philosophy difficult in a way that is not true of old mathematics. Mathematics is a universal language. But philosophy often can only really be understood in context. There's much of what Aristotle wrote that cannot be understood without at least some understanding of ancient Athens, and much of what Confucius wrote that relies on familiarity with the values and customs of ancient China.

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