The History of Philosophy and Making Sense of the World

I wrote somewhere previously that a knowledge of philosophy is valuable for helping us understand ourselves, products as we are today of a social arrangement that was shaped through centuries of philosophical reflection and dispute.

I certainly believe that’s true, and greater self-understanding has indeed been a beneficial product of my studies of philosophical history.

However, it occurred to me that that’s not actually why I started studying the history of philosophy, and that it probably would not have been sufficient reason for me to do it if someone had proposed the idea in that light.

I wanted to understand the world around me, my experience of the world, the nature of reality, the social and political and logical connections between different things, and over time I became convinced that studying the history of philosophy was the best way for me to do so.

Now, there are two questions which can’t help but arise at this point: why the history of PHILOSOPHY, and why the HISTORY of philosophy?

In other words, why focus on the study of philosophy, rather than on science or political history or social science or literature or myth? And secondly, why focus on philosophy under the aspect of its development through human history, rather than focusing specifically on only one moment of philosophy’s history (namely, the present moment)?

I realize that the natural sciences sometimes seem to have all the answers these days, but philosophy has the advantage of reckoning with our prescientific experience and understanding of the world, the framework of thought on which natural science is constructed (both historically speaking and also conceptually). Philosophy also stretches further than natural science can, posing questions that science is not equipped to answer and using tools that science has no familiarity with.

And studying literature or history or religion can be very worthwhile, but it doesn’t take long to see how making sense of them requires in turn an engagement with philosophy. As much as their study might illuminate or complicate the philosophical approaches that intersect with them, a thorough study of any one of them will ultimately demand a knowledge of and engagement with philosophy.

Well, fine then. But why the whole history of philosophy? Why not just the philosophies of the present moment, which is what the scholars in other disciplines tend to interact with anyways?

It is because there are no philosophers who can be properly understood apart from the philosophies that formed them and against which they were reacting, and this is true in a chain that stretches all the way back to the first beginnings of philosophy in the ancient world.

And it is because there are no terms or concepts of any importance today which can really be understood simply, directly, apart from their history. There are certainly some today who will try, who attempt to answer purely formulated questions through the careful manipulation of ahistorical notions. It’s a worthwhile goal, but to me it seems like trying to sail around the world without a map; it might be doable, but failure or massive inefficiency is a far more likely outcome.

And so wherever your starting point, if you truly seek to understand, you will find yourself drawn into the study of philosophy, and then into the study of the whole history of philosophy.

And eventually, we won’t be seeking to understand that field of knowledge so much as a means to an end, anymore — its study will have revealed itself to be a satisfying and abundantly beneficial end in itself.

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