Read History Of Philosophy Backwards

Back when I was in college, my chief complaint about my philosophy course was that it spent all its time teaching stuff by Aristotle or Plato or Descartes that was just obviously wrong. I sort of annoyed my professors by constantly raising my hand and being like “Sorry, isn’t Plato completely confused here because now we know that actually X”, and my professor would be “Well, that’s a very interesting theory” and then continue teaching Plato.

None of these classes were billed as “history of philosophy”, but as “philosophy” itself. I knew better than to expect to be taught a single thing that was definitely right, but I had kind of hoped they would limit it to things that weren’t totally outside what modern opinion would find plausible.

As Dave Barry puts it:

“I was terrible at history. I could never see the point of learning what people thought back when people were a lot stupider. For instance, the ancient Phoenicians believed that the sun was carried across the sky on the back of an enormous snake. So what? So they were idiots”

I still believe that if you only have four years to teach an undergraduate philosophy, you shouldn’t be teaching this stuff before you teach genuinely useful things like what the heck concepts are and why you can’t suddenly change the moral value of things by calling them different names. But I’m starting to appreciate why it might be useful.

Take Sartre. His main point – that no one else can tell you who you are, and you choose what your own values are – seems so cliched, so much like what an uncreative graduation speaker might say – that it hardly seems worth elevating him to the Canon Of Philosophical Greatness.

My hypothesis – and I don’t know if it’s true – is that this only sounds cliched because Sartre won. The point of studying Sartre isn’t to learn that you choose your own identity, but to read him backward – to start with this idea that choosing your own identity is obvious, and then read Sartre to learn exactly how controversial it was at the time and what sorts of arguments Sartre had to go through to get people to accept it, and eventually understand the position that the original reader of Sartre was supposed to have started with. If you succeed, you might still believe that you choose your own identity, but you’ll also understand that this isn’t an obvious necessary fact of the universe, that there used to be people who believed you didn’t and that they had some good arguments too.

When I first studied Hobbes, I figured nobody agreed with Hobbes these days – after all, Hobbes was a believer in absolute monarchy, and now everyone is strongly opposed to that. But later I realized that pretty much everyone is a Hobbesian in that Hobbes was one of the first people to think in terms of people coming together to found a government for their mutual self-interest; previously governments were either just the natural state of human affairs, or part of the hierarchical nature of the universe under God, or composed because the telos of man only flourishes in a community, or not even something you thought about. In fact, Alasdair MacIntyre seems to be at least partially advocating a return to pre-Hobbesian ideas about government, even though he doesn’t put it in those terms.

The only reason I had Hobbes pegged as “the absolutism guy” was because that was the only place in which his theories differed from my own and so I assumed it was his only idea that wasn’t “obvious”. If I’d read him backward, I would have gotten a lot more out of him.

Under this model, reading philosophers who were completely wrong is another way of unlearning your assumptions. For example, I originally thought the term “reductionism” was essentially meaningless; the opposite of “reductionism” was “not thinking things through clearly and having incoherent ideas”. After I read Aristotle, I changed my mind; he proposes a non-reductionism which for all I know very well may be the case in some other dimension, even if it isn’t how things work here on Earth.

Here the point of reading history of philosophy is to unlearn your assumptions. Growing up in a certain cultural tradition not only influences the answers you think are right, but the potential answers you’re able to generate and the questions you’re able to ask.

For some people this is important because the past was actually correct or close to it. I hang out with a disproportionate number of these people. I was briefly taken aback when Chris claimed here that he doesn’t have to constantly listen to claims that the Enlightenment ruined everything.

But what if, like me, you think the past was pretty thoroughly wrong about most philosophical issues?

Then I still think it’s important to have a non-parochial worldview, because the next big idea is likely to be just as different from present philosophy as present philosophy is from past philosophy. And unless you realize how different present philosophy is from past philosophy, you won’t even have the mental mechanism to expand your search space large enough to capture something worthy of participating in the future.

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42 Responses to Read History Of Philosophy Backwards

  1. komponisto says:

    A related point (which indeed you make with respect to Hobbes) is that when you see respectable people saying things that seem clearly wrong, you should ask yourself what the default beliefs of their target audience are; often they will turn out to be even more wrong.

    My example: for years I’ve been complaining about how terrible music theory is, but only relatively recently did I finally realize that “folk” music theory is even worse. (So now I don’t complain as much, and simply try to work on getting a better theory out there.)

    The key insight is that people don’t know how to be properly agnostic or uncertain; instead they default to unjustified and overconfident conclusions based on whatever data they happen to have been exposed to.

    (Even biblical young-Earth creationism is a step up for people who would otherwise have believed the world was a couple hundred years old.)

    • Raemon says:

      Curious if you could elaborate, or point to something more detailed, on what’s wrong with music theory? (I don’t study it but have felt like I should be lately)

      • Aaron Brown says:

        I encourage komponisto themselves to answer but here’s a relevant komponisto comment on LW. (And some more: 1 2 3 4 5.)

      • komponisto says:

        Curious if you could elaborate, or point to something more detailed, on what’s wrong with music theory

        The links that others have provided should give you an idea, but I’ll make an attempt at a high-level summary. I have two basic complaints:

        (1) The purpose of a musical theory is to provide a method of storing and manipulating music in one’s mind. The method for this implied by traditional theory is so inefficient as to be unworkable. (Which is why no one takes traditional theory literally; instead they rely on tacit knowledge — often referred to as “talent” — and tell you that some musical phenomena are outside the scope of music theory!)

        (2) Traditional music theory not only obscures but outright denies the continuity between pre-1900 music and post-1900 music. It assumes (and thus promotes) what I call the “discontinuity thesis” — the idea that post-1900 Western art music is so different from the Western art music of previous eras as to effectively constitute a distinct musical tradition (i.e. not in fact “Western art music” at all). I view this idea as very harmful, not least because it is false.

    • Alex says:

      You sound like the owner of Mathemusicality – are you the same person? I’m curious about the folk music theory that you mention, would you mind elaborating on that?

      • komponisto says:

        You sound like the owner of Mathemusicality – are you the same person?

        Hmm….I certainly have profound sympathies with that person, although unlike them I have continued to exist well beyond 2009, even into 2013.

        I’m curious about the folk music theory that you mention, would you mind elaborating on that?

        It’s a mess of incoherent and mutually contradictory beliefs such as:

        (1) Music is not made of parts and is created by magical wizards. Wizards discover their powers instantly upon their first random attempts at creation.

        (2) Non-wizards can (sometimes) learn to perform music, but not to compose it. However, non-wizards are just as good as wizards at listening, modulo unimportant details.

        (3) Music is made out of atoms that have a well-defined property called “pleasing to humans”. To compose music, it suffices to concatenate a string of such atoms.

    • Federico says:

      I too was intrigued by this aside, and had to google komponisto + music theory, whereupon I discovered Mathemusicality.

      I was in short order convinced that Westergaard and komponisto are correct: tonality and chord progressions are a bad paradigm. Mathemusicality joins Lockhart’s Lament, direct instruction, John Holt and John Gatto on my short list of great moments in educational theory.

      • komponisto says:

        I was in short order convinced that Westergaard and komponisto are correct: tonality and chord progressions are a bad paradigm.

        “Chord progressions” are the bad paradigm; they shouldn’t be confused with tonality. Tonality is central in Westergaard’s theory (indeed he would say that it is what his theory is a theory of! — hence the title of his book, An Introduction to Tonal Theory), and indeed in my current one (which by this point has gotten radical enough to be considered distinct from Westergaard’s, though the relationship is still fairly easily traceable).

        • Federico says:

          Ah, I see.

          It seems that you deny any distinction between “atonal” and “tonal” music, since the former is quantitatively more complex than the latter but not qualitatively different. Perhaps I should have said: “tonal vs. atonal music” is a bad paradigm.

    • Damien says:

      “who would otherwise have believed the world was a couple hundred years old”

      Uh, but who would have believed that?

  2. Deiseach says:

    A great part of the point of history of anything is to overcome precisely that chronological snobbery; I know Dave Barry is making a joke, but if people back then were so stupid, how come they managed to survive? And if we think people were stupider than us two/five/eight hundred years ago, how stupid will the people of two/five/eight hundred years in the future think we are?

    As you say, growing up in a certain culture at a certain time makes us all inclined to go “But X is so clearly obvious, how can anyone doubt it? Unless they are stupid, evil or stupid and evil!” It’s good to be exposed to the reasons why people may not have seen X as obvious, or that X is maybe not as obvious as we think it is. Again, what theories or proposals are out there currently that are being lambasted as too weird, and in another fifty years, it will be “But Y is so obvious!”

    And finally, it does no harm to let those bright undergraduates work out if they really understand why they believe what they think they believe, or if they’re only floating in the waters of their own culture and reciting the ideas they’ve absorbed without understanding their bases 🙂

    • Mary says:

      Or, perhaps we will be saying “But Q is so obvious!” because we’ve gone back to it.

      Indeed, nowadays we do say “But Q is so obvious!” Both in the 1930s and the ancien regime, people would cheerfully have assured you that society had evolved past that retrogressive form of government, democracy.

  3. Joe says:

    I think it would be great if you went back to critiquing Feser’s The Last Supervision. I was really shocked when in one of your previous posts you admitted to having very little exposer to the scholastic tradition while in college. It would be great for me to see exactly were Feser went wrong.

  4. Federico says:

    One must ward against presentism. Some historical ideas are indeed foolish, but equally one’s modern assumptions may have distorted their context.

    Consider Dante’s De Monarchia. Facially, it is a nonsensical tract of metaphysics that wouldn’t pass muster in our scientific age. Yet as Burnham describes, it is actually a sophisticated piece of political propaganda, merely garbed in the superstitions of its day. Dante’s epistemology was, in this light, probably not so different to our own.

    On the same note as yours, here is C.S. Lewis on the reading of old books.

    Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.

  5. Douglas Knight says:

    While I agree with your point, my impression is that you’re wrong about Hobbes. My understanding is that Hobbes did not win; that he was not part of the Enlightenment vanguard, but rather that he used Enlightenment rhetoric because it was already winning, or at least because he wanted to address his opponents on their own ground.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      And, by the way, that’s one definition of a reactionary.

    • Damien says:

      “Hobbes was a champion of absolutism for the sovereign, but he also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.[3]

      He was one of the founders of modern political philosophy.[4] His understanding of humans as being matter and motion, obeying the same physical laws as other matter and motion, remains influential; and his account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and of political communities as being based upon a “social contract” remains one of the major topics of political philosophy.”

      SEP says he argued only mildly in favor of monarchy, as opposed to the necessity for an absolute sovereign government in general… perhaps compatible with parliamentary supremacy?

      Also: “Political legitimacy depends not on how a government came to power, but only on whether it can effectively protect those who have consented to obey it; political obligation ends when protection ceases.”

      “While Hobbes insists that we should regard our governments as having absolute authority, he reserves to subjects the liberty of disobeying some of their government’s commands. He argues that subjects retain a right of self-defense against the sovereign power, giving them the right to disobey or resist when their lives are in danger. He also gives them seemingly broad resistance rights in cases in which their families or even their honor are at stake. “

    • endoself says:

      Hobbes lived before the Enlightenment, from 1588 to 1679, so it was hardly already winning. Really, he contributed to starting the Enlightenment.

    • David Schaengold says:

      Hobbes is a nearly perfect example. His influence on all subsequent political philosophizing was decisive, and modern states operate in objectively Hobbesian ways, though I’ll leave aside whether this is because of Hobbes or due to some non-intellectual historical shift that Hobbes merely understood at an early date. Moreover it is hard for people who don’t study political philosophy to understand his influence because non-Hobbesian ideas about politics don’t even occur to modern people.

      Some components of the Hobbesian view about state power:

      1. politics is the harmonization of individual interests. You don’t want to get killed, I don’t want to get killed; let’s start a state.

      2. state power is the monopoly use of violence (not articulated explicitly til much later, but it’s absolutely latent in Hobbes)

      3. political power is the ability to make decisions and have them be effected over a group of people (namely subjects). Who and whom are the essential questions about politics.

      Even something that now seems as straightforward as the existence of definite, infinitely thin borders between states has been traced to Hobbesian ideas.

      Incidentally, if he was trying to suck up to monarchs he did a pretty bad job of it. I have heard it said that most of the monarchs of Europe rejected his ideas because they were able to see clearly enough that their kind of pre-absolutist monarchy was not compatible with his idea of the state.

      • Federico says:

        I don’t know if you are alluding to this, but the view of government as monopoly-on-use-of-force is one characteristically modern belief that is both widespread and questionable. Nick Szabo says,

        [I]t is a sad fact that modern culture engrains the fraudulent sovereign government vs. anarchy dichotomy so deeply into our heads that it’s hard to imagine anything else. When I started realizing what was going on in these old court cases it seriously blew my mind. It’s a radically different political paradigm that our culture has utterly forgotten. I don’t know of any history or political science one can read from the 19th or 20th centuries that carries even a hint that the author is familiar with this paradigm. Even the stuff written about medieval and colonial era law takes an anachronistically sovereigntist view — the authors do not understand any other way of seeing things. Modern law assumes that “property” is merely economic and substantive, quite distinct from procedure. I only discovered the paradigm of political property rights by reading ancient court cases and recognizing the basic property-law structure of ancient legal procedure.

        He describes jurisdiction-as-property, an alternative to Hobbes’s locus of sovereignty.

      • Jaskologist says:

        1. politics is the harmonization of individual interests. You don’t want to get killed, I don’t want to get killed; let’s start a state.

        This idea can be traced at least as far back as St. Augustine:

        But the things which this city desires cannot justly be said to be evil, for it is itself, in its own kind, better than all other human good. For it desires earthly peace for the sake of enjoying earthly goods, and it makes war in order to attain to this peace; since, if it has conquered, and there remains no one to resist it, it enjoys a peace which it had not while there were opposing parties who contested for the enjoyment of those things which were too small to satisfy both.

  6. Is it clear that Sarte was right? This is a funny joke, but I’m not sure I actually have a choice about frowning on child abuse.

    I’d be curious to hear your gloss on Aristotle some day. The impression I got out of studying him is that he was very smart and doing about as well as anyone of his time could have, but it’s not clear his philosophy added up to a coherent way the world could be. It seems really easy, when you don’t understand something, to offer up a pseudo-explanation that sounds meaningful but doesn’t actually say anything.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      No, not clear at all. I said he was cliched and his ideas were popular, not that he was right.

  7. Doug S. says:

    My father said that, when he tried reading Aristotle, he found that everything that wasn’t stupid had already become part of his background knowledge (such as the concepts of deductive and inductive reasoning) so he didn’t get anything out of it. He went on to say that yes, coming up with that stuff for the first time does generally mean you’re a genius, but that doesn’t make it worthwhile for people living thousands of years later to read it straight from you.

  8. Damien says:

    “I was briefly taken aback when Chris claimed here that he doesn’t have to constantly listen to claims that the Enlightenment ruined everything.”

    You… were? I was thinking of saying what Chris did. I have to actively seek out people ranting about the Enlightenment, usually conservative Catholics on LJ.

    Tip: most people don’t talk about the Enlightenment regularly at all, so just being around people who say anything is several deviations unusual.

    “Hobbes was one of the first people to think in terms of people coming together to found a government for their mutual self-interest”

    One of the earlier moderns, and at length, but Epicurus had the basic idea: “Justice is an agreement not to harm or be harmed.”

    I wonder if Hobbes was enthusiastically monarchist or sucking up to monarchs. Then again if you’re inclinded to suck up you wouldn’t be an open atheist when he lived…

    • Damien says:

      Ah, Wikipedia tells me he denied charges of atheism… while espousing a very materialistic philosophy and denying incorporeal anything.

      • In Leviathan, Hobbes says we know God exists by the First Cause argument, but can’t know anything about Him. Which differs only semantically from “sure, I’ll give you a first cause, there’s no reason the first cause has to be God.”

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      You… were? I was thinking of saying what Chris did. I have to actively seek out people ranting about the Enlightenment, usually conservative Catholics on LJ.

      Same here, pretty much. The only people who my mind returns when I ask it to list “people talking about the Enlightenment a lot” are:

      * Michael Vassar
      * Reactionaries, and there it should be noted that most of what I know about them comes via this blog

    • Joe says:

      Hobbes lived through the English Civil War. He considered a strong, centralized authority, no matter how corrupt or evil, preferable to the chaos of civil strife or Puritan-dominated republicanism. And absolute monarchy, an autocracy with very clear lines of succession (i.e., primogeniture), probably seemed as strong and centralized as you could get at the time.

  9. Something I should have said in my first comment – I’m rather dubious of the value of a lot of history of philosophy, especially as an intro to philosophy, because in many cases philosophers from long ago are hard to interpret, and what they said is a matter of controversy even among the experts. So when you hear someone say, “here’s this obviously wrong position held by Descartes (or Locke or whoever),” you have to wonder whether that was really Descartes’ (or whoever’s) position.

  10. michael vassar says:

    We should debate reductionism some time. I think it’s legitimately not quite right. For instance, the truth value of a proposition, maybe particularly an unprovable proposition doesn’t seem to me to be made of parts… and the subjectively objective world seems to be made of truth values.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not sure if truth-values of propositions are the correct domain for reductionism. I would also say that reductionism holds true in propositions in that the truth-values of complex propositions (like A & B -> C) are a function of the truth-values of the simple propositions of which they are part.

      But I should probably hear your definition of “reductionism” before proceeding further. There are certainly some things that don’t seem like they reduce – like the number “0”. I guess the point at issue is whether the word “reductionism” includes a claim that they should.

    • endoself says:

      I’ve been wondering about/being confused about this recently.