The more time I spent on this, the more I feel there isn't a simple answer to this question.

In some fields, such as political philosophy, students are encouraged to read the original works such as Leviathan.

In the other extreme, in biology, almost no one reads Darwin's original book. Whatever he has discovered is (assumed to be) subsumed by subsequent textbooks.


Now, this is usually not due to trying to do justice to Hobbes -- I don't think we care about him per se, but only his thoughts. Then, why can't his work be put aside and summarized in future textbooks, just like Darwin's theories?

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    Because in hard sciences the focus is on impersonal underlying content, on which broad consensus is usually reached, while in philosophy and humanities typically there is no such consensus, and the focus is instead on individual delivery and arguments for one of many personalized perspectives. Summarizing does not work very well for peculiarity, context and nuance, not the way it works for content. Imagine "summarizing" Mona Lisa.
    – Conifold
    Jan 16 at 0:16
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    Not to mention that, with the advance of science, many of the arguments of the original book become flawed, in the case of Darwin. But there are, however, many papers more than 50 years old that are still read today.
    – Rodrigo
    Jan 16 at 0:21
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    @Conifold I agree with you 99%. I sometimes wonder if the goal of having students read Leviathan isn't for them to judge the ideas in there, but just for them to become familiar with "those were the ideas that influenced people in the past, and thus will help you understand people in that period".
    – J Li
    Jan 16 at 0:22
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    There is a historical aspect to it too, but it is not the main one. First, "the ideas" are not detachable from context in which they are featured, except in cases when they are coined into depersonalized common currency and spread far and wide, as with "correct" science. Second, an even bigger point than "the ideas" as such, which may well be outdated, is developing a practical handle on ways they are arrived at, which is reusable know-how. And both require extensive immersion into the material that mere content summaries can not provide.
    – Conifold
    Jan 16 at 0:52
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In the "hard" sciences, the passage of time provides better and better observational tools and so it is possible to obtain definitive answers to questions posed years before. Those answers then motivate deeper questions, which get addressed as better tools are developed. In this manner, progress towards understanding is incrementally built upon successive generations of discovery and analysis, and "original" questions become settled matters- which then are not usually revisited. This effect renders older texts obsolete except as historical artifacts.

In the sphere of philosophy, there are no such settled issues: there are only opinions and viewpoints, no universally-accepted solutions to outstanding problems, and the body of knowledge consists of different opinions, not a catalogue of solved problems. This means that early texts aren't rendered obsolete by modern work.

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