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.
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.
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.
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.
Unlike science, which has a more linear progression, philosophy is cyclical. Very old ideas can gain new relevance, and long dead philosophers often argue with--and sometimes get the better of--current ones. So while ancient science is largely a historical curiosity, ancient philosophy is very much a live subject.
I personally follow a version of Bretano's classification system (https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Four_Phases_of_Philosophy/YPz2Na2LlYQC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA2&printsec=frontcover) in which philosophers can be classified as follows:
- Skeptics: Socrates, Chuang-Tzu, Hume, Sextus Empiricus, Descartes (1st Meditation), Ecclesiastes, Zizek, Derrida
- Mystics: Plato, Lao Tzu, Sufis, Kierkegaard, Descartes (3rd Meditation)
- System Builders: Kant, Hegel, Aristotle, Descartes
- Didacts: Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, Covey, Singer
Out of these four types, the didacts and the system-builders are the ones most tied to a given time-period. Their work is often best studied historically. But the mystics and skeptics (despite Bretano dismissing them as the worthless half of the cycle) are perennial. Their work--properly understood--is as relevant and as current now as when it was first written.
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.
- All terminology regarding philosophy, thinking and sciences is rooted in the ancient Greek language.
- If you don't study the historical evolution of knowledge, I doubt that you can make sense of anything, other than what you are told.
- If you go deeper in what human civilization is, you will understand that everything thought-of is always present. (unless it is forgotten)
- You cannot rely on one person to tell you what another person said, or thinks, or feels. You must verify on your own.
- A meaning can be derived only by reference to experience; extending your experience to the past, makes the scope of the meaning larger.
Is it essential to study all of it in detail? Definitely not. Can it be useful and interesting to have some familiarity with it? Sure. Be selective and use your common sense. Much ancient and even more recent philosophy is now well past its shelf-life. No one believes that everything is made of four elements, for example. But some older ideas still resonate today, and if you know nothing at all about them, you will soon wish you did if only because they are cited endlessly by everybody else. There are so many resources on the internet now that you can pick up the key knowledge in no time. Part of the difficulty I experienced in approaching philosophy without any background knowledge is that there are many conventional uses of words within philosophy that differ from everyday usage, and sometimes the only way to get a proper understanding of their shades of meaning is to put some effort into understanding the historical context in which they arose. My recommendation would be not to make a point of studying old philosophers up-front as a kind of foundation, but read-up selectively as and when you find a need to.
One final point. Some of the old ideas seem very strange now. Why and how they seem strange can in itself be a sobering focus for reflection, since there is every chance that what we smugly consider to be our up-to-date thoughts will seem equally wrong-headed in another millennium.