Two thousand years of philosophy on the margin

A little less than two years ago I began to read Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. It’s a big book, on the order of ~1000 pages. But that’s not the reason I’m just now finishing it. The book is divided by chronologically and thematically. I read about the ancients in about a week, but struggled to get past the medieval section. I’ve mentioned this before.

And yet in my self-pity I did wonder: is this partly just a function of the fact that ancient philosophy provided most of the answers (or non-answers) in what we think of as philosophy over a few centuries? As they say, perhaps the rest is simply commentary and extension.

If society collapsed and we reverted to barbarism it seems it would be a loss if we didn’t have the Principia. But if we had philosophy up to Seneca, would we miss what came after?

21 thoughts on “Two thousand years of philosophy on the margin

  1. Medieval philosophy and its handmaiden, medieval theology, are both rather dismal. At any rate, whatever use they had isn’t very relevant to an urban world.

    Our world is more like classical Rome than it is like medieval Europe. We have big cities as Rome did. We vast swaths of territory that are peaceful and passable. Our wars are asymmetric ones between civilized military forces and barbarians. We live in a time of religious diversity. We live in a time of unprecedented social and technological change. Faced with similar challenges, similar takes on life make sense.

    Maybe medieval philosophy would seem relevant to someone who lived much of their lives bound to a primitive farm in anarchic states like Somalia or Afghanistan or South Sudan, or autarkic states like pre-Cold War Albania or modern North Korea.

  2. “Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: “Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” he said. “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

    – Stephen Hawking

  3. But if we had philosophy up to Seneca, would we miss what came after?

    Well, if German idealism had never existed, we might have been spared Marx and Nietzsche, and their students, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

    But we would be poorer for not having Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Smith. OTOH, Al-Ghazali, the man who almost single-handedly destroyed science in the Islamic world, is what Hume would have been if he had been a religious nut.

  4. I agree that scholasticism probably had little influence on modern philosophy or secular thought. It only makes any sense at all if you share the medieval philosophers’ religious beliefs.

    If you do, its consistent from there; it’s a matter of salvation or damnation.

    A good essay, by a historian, on why medieval philosophers were the way they were:
    http://www.exurbe.com/?p=3084

  5. People from all other disciplines seem to enjoy kicking around philosophy and philosophers.

    But ask them if they actually have any answers themselves to major philosophical questions, and you get absolutely nothing of value out of them. They can’t come up with any satisfactory account anymore than the philosophers can. In fact almost invariably they produce — if they produce anything — “explanations” that are at the level of a rather ignorant freshman in an introductory philosophy course, and riddled with obvious errors.

    What account do any of them have for, say, the problem of free will, or the mind/body issue? Every last thing outsiders have said about these issues has merely replicated what philosophers have long ago said, or, more often, exhibits a deep failure even to understand what the issues are about.

    Stephen Hawking thinks philosophers are useless? Well, where is his answer to ANY philosophical question that would stand up to scrutiny? It’s so easy, why isn’t he doing it? He could establish himself as one of the most famous philosophers of all time merely by solving one major philosophical problem. He won’t deign to do it?

  6. well, obviously, because advanced science has moved on. free will? free from what? that question is stupid and doesn’t even need to be asked. people just do neuroscience now.
    I.e. theoretical physics is a continuation of philosophy only much more advanced and partly based on math and actual experiment rather than talking about black bile or some crap like that. Read Leonard Susskind, you won’t even be able to understand it – and that’s why people stick to traditional philosophy.

  7. But ask them if they actually have any answers themselves to major philosophical questions

    a lot of them may be insoluble with analytic methods…. (the argument being that ‘philosophy’ is what you get after you remove the soluble parts for science & social science).

  8. a lot of them may be insoluble with analytic methods….

    That may well be true. But the problem is, the questions and issues won’t go away.

    Philosophers themselves have tried to dispense with them as best they could. This was effectively the point of early Wittgenstein and the so-called Ordinary Language philosophers. Likewise, but coming at the problem from the standpoint of modern science, the Logical Positivists attempted to rid us of all but “scientific” questions. None of these attempts is now regarded as even close to a success — not least because these approaches couldn’t account for their own assumptions without including language that the approaches wouldn’t permit.

    Perhaps the overarching point here is that maybe we can’t live with philosophical questions, but we also can’t seem to live without them.

  9. Perhaps the overarching point here is that we can’t live with philosophical questions, but we can’t seem to live without them.

    my point is that perhaps for these sorts of questions we haven’t much further than the ancients.

  10. my point is that perhaps for these sorts of questions we haven’t much further than the ancients.

    Some of the most basic issues which philosophers deal with e.g., the mind/body dichotomy, weren’t even introduced until more recent times — Descartes really was the one who raised this issue. And for many other issues that do indeed go back to the time of the Greeks, it is pretty well accepted that the solutions they offered up are clearly deficient as they stand. For example, the problem of the universals was dealt with by both Plato and Aristotle, but nobody really thinks that their solutions could work without significant revision or elaboration, and most likely some other approach is the most promising. (Interestingly, the problem of the universals is one that the medievals attacked with a vengeance, coming up with some basic new approaches not entertained in Ancient times.)

    I think that anyone interested in how we know things, and what morality may consist in, really has to be aware of at least David Hume, and, as contrast, Kant. Even modern cognitive psychologists, sympathetic to evolutionary psychology, recognize the basic importance of David Hume. Indeed, Haidt describes his approach to morality as being akin to that of Hume (“Reason is the slave of the passions”).

  11. I think that anyone interested in how we know things, and what morality may consist in, really has to be aware of at least David Hume, and, as contrast, Kant.

    do you think we could stop at kant?

  12. do you think we could stop at kant?

    I’m not sure I’d wish Hegel and his Phenomenologist train on anyone. Frankly, I’d generally avoid almost all Continental philosophy after Kant.

    On the other hand, Nietzsche certainly bears looking at.

    I think the so-called Pragmatists — e.g., James and Peirce — are worthwhile to read for outsiders.

    Frege and Russell are important, but narrowly philosophical in interest.

  13. @candid_observer

    “I’m not sure I’d wish Hegel and his Phenomenologist train on anyone.”

    Why the lack of love for Hegel? His work is definitely a tough haul, but it is most assuredly worth the effort.

    That being said, I do prefer Schelling (a figure who has been the subject of excessive/cruel misunderstanding).

    On a personal level, the traditions of American Instrumentalism/Pragmatism and “process philosophy” strike me as being more interesting/dynamic than the stale “analytic/continental” divide.

    Although, I do think that the current resurgence of ontological speculation on both sides of the “analytic/continental” divide is beginning to yield some exceedingly fascinating work.

    Anyway, I must say that the notion of philosophy being “obsolete” (due to the conceptual encapsulation of the contemporary natural sciences) involves a hideously faulty understanding of what philosophizing even entails.

  14. well, obviously, because advanced science has moved on. free will? free from what? that question is stupid and doesn’t even need to be asked. people just do neuroscience now.

    This kind of materialism is sad (and it also sounds angry). Science tells us about the world and how it works. But it doesn’t tell us what to do or how to be as human beings. That is the domain of philosophy – and religion, for that matter.

    Don’t confuse intelligence and knowledge with wisdom and virtue.

  15. Critical theory, church, law majors, politics…those are our “philosophy” now. Don’t get mad at me, I’m just saying that obviously no one cares about philosophy anymore.

  16. Philosophy is about the emergence of very general questions (e.g. “how can you have several different instances of exactly the same thing”) out of reflection on specific topics and, like it or not, mediaeval philosophy emerges from theology. Also, Anthony Kenny is a former Catholic priest who became a linguistic philosopher and what he values in medieval philosophy is the way it often seems to anticipate the logic of Frege and Russell. I think you may find more to enjoy in the early modern section, as it is about the birth of science and the emergence from it of general questions like the validity of induction and whether nature comes mapped out into natural categories.

  17. People from all other disciplines seem to enjoy kicking around philosophy and philosophers. But ask them if they actually have any answers themselves to major philosophical questions, and you get absolutely nothing of value out of them.

    Alas, most of those questions boil down to, “How can you square a circle. Because we really, really, really want to.” Unfortunately, you can’t.

  18. do you think we could stop at kant?

    There’s the old saw about philosophy being a series of footnotes to Plato; it would be an exaggeration to say the same thing about all post-18th c. philosophy and Kant, but not as much of one as Whitehead’s line.

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