I am a philosophy enthusiast and I study philosophy on my own. I wanted to know whether a philosophy scholar in the modern world needs to study the ancient philosophical ideas, such as those by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.? In some subjects such as political philosophy, those ideas seem to be old and irrelevant to our modern days.

  • It's worth saying, political philosophy is not the exception you suggest. It requires a great deal of history, & the impacts of thinkers like Rousseau & Locke on that will be essential. I found this account of the importance of philosophy on Einstein in honing his thinking, salutary: britannica.com/story/…
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 2, 2022 at 19:58
  • I wasn't going to say anything, but I believe the almost universal opinion expressed here needs to be challenged. Although it is good to have a basic idea of what Aristotle, Plato, and the pre-Socratics had to say, none of it is really relevant to most modern philosophy and unless you find it appealing, I wouldn't dedicate too much time to any philosopher predating Descartes. Apr 3, 2022 at 11:17
  • Edit to my comment (again) because it may give the wrong impression. It's not so much that you must read about, say, Aristotle, but you likely will. Making larger and larger circles around any philosophical topic to understand it better will lead you to ancient Greece sooner or later. And probably you end up spending time there more than expected, of course guided by the best secondary literature available today.
    – Johannes
    Apr 4, 2022 at 1:10

4 Answers 4


Look at the following three statements:

  • Euclidean geometry is basically about straight lines.

  • Newton saw the motion of a particle without any net force acting on it as moving in a straight line.

  • Einstein saw this particle moving on a straight line on a curved surface.

Here, we can see the most modern ideas traced back to that of earlier ideas, to ideas of the most ancient epoch. Newton said, that the only reason he could see further is because he stood on the shoulders of giants. And it is because that they are giants that we remain in dialogue with them.


There is a mode of philosophy, which goes straight to modern ethical conundrums, and to thought-experiments. And it is notable ancient philosophy is rarely referenced in deciding what priority a self-driving car should give in who's life to prioritise in an accident, eg this paper.

Modern tools like game-theory can help us avoid simply telling people what they should do, and look at social dynamics, eg Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

I'd also argue a great deal of ethical thinking is summarised by the Golden Rule, probably the most culturally universal ethical principle. And that through the idea of intersubjectivity, inviting others into our perspective and sharing their perspective, we can do a great deal to reduce the need to cover the details of things like Kant's Categorical Imperative. Discussed here: Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)

But you have to ask, you must ask, what is philosophy? How is it different from religion, from science, from mysticism? What are we doing, when we say we are doing philosophy? This kind of demarcation of disciplines, and defining of terms, is key philosophical work. I argue here, that we have to understand what socratic dialogue is, and that academia must be understood at least in major part as founded on it: What is the difference between western and other philosophies?

Philosophy fits into an older and wider tradition, the cultivation of wisdom. Understanding the history of philosophy, can greatly help in seeing the need and the mechanisms, for understanding how wisdom helps us be better at solving dilemmas, by acting from the integrated centre of pur concerns: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?

You don't have to become a specialist in the history of philosophy to have your opinion taken seriously. But it really helps to have a short-hand, a shared tool-box of ideas, to have more productive and concise discussions. I discuss here how language and shared-intelligence, arise from shared-modes-of-life like reading the same books or having the same kinds of classroom discussions, and that through these we can create salience landscapes and effective terminology which help encode and transmit intelligence: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? A great deal of detail can be dropped, but I think a broad-brush understanding of developments, like Vervaeke's series, is invaluable.

And if you want to get into the thorniest debates, like free-will, consciousness, the nature of time, or the status of mathematics, you will need substantial terminology and background reading just to get at what the contentions are, although most of the reading will be modern thinkers.


It depends on which tradition you are talking about.

In the analytical tradition, like it is prevalent in the US or UK, it is sometimes not needed at all. That does by no means mean that you don't have to know about these philosophers or their ideas. You can learn these via handbooks and the like though. For example, one of my senior lecturers in the UK never actually read much before the 1800s. He talked and read a lot and learned about earlier philosophers from others though. On the other hand, this depends on the university. Many more prominent universities use ancient philosophy as standard text even across all studies, like for example the ivy league.

In the continental tradition, like it is prevalent in continental Europe, it is much more common that it is expected that you have actually read all the canonical philosophers' main works and some secondary literature on them. For example, one of my German professors didn't actually care much about older philosophy first and finished his undergraduate studies without reading anything written before 1960, which he was proud of. At that point, his supervisor told him that he has to study the roots of these ideas if he truly wanted to understand and develop the contemporary ideas further. In general, we argue a lot more based on primary literature.

In other words: from graduate studies on, it is expected you have studied ancient, and in general all the canonical philosophy at some point in continental Europe. In the UK or the US, you also have to be acquainted with the traditions in some way but there is much more emphasis on discussing and studying contemporary literature.


Yes, modern scholars interested in philosophy are well advised to study ancient philosophy too, and to study also philosophies in non-European tradition.

The philosophical method presents arguments and argues with others about their arguments. Other people come from different points of view. In particular when they lived in other time periods and/or in other cultural traditions. But it is always necessary to question the own point of view, it is difficult to find out my personal prejudices. By symmetry, it is necessary to question what others consider as self-evident.

When one concludes

Certain approaches from antique or medival philosophy are outdated,

then it is a challenge and a good exercise in philosophy to present arguments for this conclusion.

Aside: Indeed, I consider several approaches from former philosophers outdated resp. wrong.

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