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.