Reply posted Jan 15 2010 to the wave:
Why is it that when we learn Philosophy we start with ancient texts?
The reason we start with ancient texts is that we are extraordinarily lucky to have the works of Plato and Aristotle almost complete, except for Aristotle’s published works. What we have are his class notes. But Plato we almost have everything. And the depth of Plato’s philosophy is such that it is inexhaustible. As Whitehead said all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Aristotle’s work is the first huge footnote, in a whole line of very significant footnotes. Read the commentaries on Plato and read Plato himself and if you ever come out the other side, then you can think about other philosophers and what they have to say.
Second reason, is that the major transform our in fundamental ways. You cannot understand how deep the transformations are unless you understand the previous baseline of thought. Thus the Kantian revolution cannot be understood unless you understand Spinoza and Leibniz as well as Descartes, Hume, etc who were the non-critical philosophers who went before Kant. You cannot understand Hegel without having read Kant, and you cannot understand Husserl and Heidegger unless you have an understanding of Kant, but also for Heidegger you also need to understand Nietzsche, Hegel, Jaspers and others. In a way it is like evolution you need to go through the stages of the development of Western philosophy in order to understand them to any depth.
But this does not happen at first. At first one normally becomes fascinated with a contemporary Philosophy. For me that was Husserl and Heidegger. But then to understand them I had to go back and fish around in the tradition. But eventually you become serious and you start to read everyone who went before to try to understand the transformations that got you to whoever your starting point is and then go beyond that to newer philosophers. This is an organic process of intellectual growth.
Analytical Philosophy tried to create an ahistorical philosophy starting with the premise that all Metaphysical problems were mistakes in language. And also starting with the premise that Philosophy should be the handmaiden of Science. That is one of the major ways in which the Continental Tradition parts company with Analytical Philosophy, because the Continent is where the history of the Western philosophical tradition has been preserved and continued. Metaphysics is still taken seriously in Continental Philosophy. But even Analytical Philosophy has not been able to jettison tradition and now they have built up their own tradition as an alternative to real philosophy. The irony is of course they consider themselves the only philosophers. You don’t find Continential Philosophers denying the validity of Analytical Philosophy like you find the opposite. Normally the one who is denying the validity of the Other’s thoughts is the one whom we should doubt.
But even the Analytical Tradition has value within a narrow compass and it should be treated with respect, even though they don’t have much interesting to say. But even boring traditions have some validity when they touch on important issues in new ways, and that sometimes happens even in Analytical Philosophy. For instance, in the later Wittgenstein, whom even the Analytical tradition sometimes rejects. The key question is why we are reading translations of French works mostly, and not English or American works. Why are there no great American Philosophers besides Peirce, and perhaps polymaths like N. Rescher. The Americans and British just are not thinking deeply. And I put that down to their fundamental rejection of the Tradition. Your ability to think deeply is in direct proportion to your knowledge of the tradition of Western thought as a whole.
If you do not know the tradition you are part of how can you know where the cutting edge is in that tradition where you can make some small contribution. The great thinkers in the Western tradition are intellectual giants. They have transformed thought fundamentally and change the course of the way we think of ourselves. Right now the one trying to do that again is Badiou in Being and Event and his new book on the Logic of Worlds. He is trying to do Analytical Philosophy one better. He is saying that Set theory the core of Math is Ontology. Of course this is a bold claim and is probably wrong. But it ups the ante on how well the philosophers need to understand Set theory and Logic and how that can be interpreted within philosophy.
Reading the Philosophers of the Tradition teaches you how to think, and all the possible ways there have been discovered to think. It is not the history per se which is important. Rather it is their way of thinking that they are laying out which can be learned to apply to new problems or in new ways. Our philosophy departments are History of Philosophy departments. They are misnamed. In Art there is a difference between the History of Art and Art schools that teach you how to be Artists. Philosophers do not have Philosophy Schools where you can learn to become a philosophers and think for yourself new thoughts. Rather we merely have history of Philosophy department where we can learn what various thinkers thought in the past, but they do not teach you to think for yourself new thoughts building on the tradition at its cutting edge.
But you can learn that if you approach the great philosophers as teachers of How to Think, rather than merely learning what they did think themselves in their historical period. The French have not lost this ability to teach and learn how to think, and that is why they have produced a whole generation of great thinkers, thinking fairly deep thoughts. You just don’t see that coming out of the English speaking world. Here philosophers are isolated from society, they don’t know literature, psychoanalysis, and politics. Our philosophers are merely specialists in the history of thought, making small contributions to a stunted form of the philosophical tradition called Analytical Philosophy. It is well named because they have forgotten how to think about synthesis, emergence, and other hard problems. Sad.
But we don’t have to follow them, just because they dominate the universities here in America. Rather we can learn to think for ourselves by taking the tradition as our teacher and reading it for how the great thinkers of the tradition thought for themselves.