Philosophy Old and New

When we begin to study philosophy, we read what others have written about it. At that beginning point, there is a pair of opposed errors, either of which we can easily fall into: contempt for what is old, and contempt for what is new.

Some people beginning to enter into philosophy will think that things written a century ago are already ancient history, and that anything older will certainly be not much better than a systematization of superstitions.

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Others will believe (often under the guidance of some contemporary thinker or school of thought) that any major thinker more recent than Duns Scotus, or Plotinus, or Aristotle, is just some shade or another of trendy garbage that has lost touch with the original, ancient philosophical impulse.

My own bias is to say that “contempt for what is old” is by far the worse of the two errors. It’s an understandable error, and it even contains some traces of truth, but not enough to justify it. The person with a love for the past has deep roots. The person who idolizes the present will have become ridiculous and worse in only a decade or two.

Still, in the end they are both errors. They are both, indeed, obvious errors. Each denies rationality to a group of people on the basis of prejudice rather than of proof.

Don’t reject the great minds of the past. There is so much wisdom and insight and beauty there, often of a sort that we cannot easily find today apart from their help.

But also don’t reject the leading minds of the present day. Just remain agnostic about them until there’s a chance to study them in more detail. We don’t need to say “They’re so awful,” in order to justify putting off thinking through their work in favour of what will seem like more basic or valuable or pressing studies. We can instead simply say, “That sounds fascinating, and I hope to be able to spend some time looking into it someday, but it’s simply outside my knowledge so far.” We can escape those situations without being rude or arrogant and simultaneously without jumping to unjustified conclusions.

And if we never get around to reading this or that random contemporary thinker, it’s definitely not the end of the world. But we really should try to grow more familiar with contemporary philosophy when the moment is right. There will be some insights that we couldn’t have had without their help, and also it opens up the possibility of becoming part of that contemporary conversation if we ever choose to do so.

To despise either the old or the new is a barrier to effective engagement with philosophical learning.

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