Teaching the History of Philosophy
Although perhaps obvious, it is important always to bear in mind that ancient philosophy is part of the history of philosophy. With this in mind it should be remembered that just as the philosophy of history is a philosophical investigation into the nature of history, so the history of philosophy is an historical investigation into the past of philosophy. While its subject matter is philosophical, its methodological approach is principally historical.
Some academic philosophers may not have much sympathy with such a claim. For them, the study of the history of philosophy must always be subordinated to contemporary philosophical concerns. One reads Plato only insofar as this might shed light on a current philosophical problem. Yet, as Jonathan Barnes has observed, the problem with such an approach is that, firstly, any serious study of an ancient philosopher will soon involve historical and philological questions, and, secondly, if ones study is motivated solely by the desire for philosophical inspiration then there is little incentive to get ones subject right. A balance must surely be struck, then, between philosophy and history. Again, as Barnes has noted, those who read ancient philosophy claiming to have a purely philosophical goal will simply produce poor scholarship, while those who define themselves as historians may think that this absolves them of any need for philosophical insight.
A course in ancient philosophy should do more than simply report who said what when. It should stimulate students to reflect for themselves on the philosophical issues explored by their antique forebears. But that should not allow philosophy teachers to deny the essentially historical nature of such a course or to neglect the need for a sensitivity to historical and philological issues that the subject matter deserves. However, a sensitivity to historical issues need not limit one to a dry report of the ideas of past masters. In fact, one would expect such sensitivity to lead one to pay due attention to the often vigorous philosophical debates from antiquity, such as those between the Stoa and the Sceptical Academy. Moreover, a historically sensitive approach would, for instance, place the ideas of Plato and Aristotle within the broader philosophical context out of which they grew. It would also pay attention not just to what they said but also to why they said it and to the philosophical problems that provoked their ideas. In sum, teaching ancient philosophy historically need not mean teaching it unphilosophically.
Indeed, Ofelia Schutte has suggested that a historically orientated course in philosophy may often provide a better stimulus to critical thinking than a contemporary problems orientated course. Students who follow the latter, she reports, often fail to develop any real critical distance from their own cultural presuppositions and the debate of the real philosophical issues tends to take place within the confines of the students own cultural context. Students come with their pre-existing opinions, repeat them, and search the contemporary literature for arguments to justify them. By contrast, students who follow a historical introduction to philosophy begin to develop a historical awareness and a certain critical distance from their own culture. One obvious example relevant here is Platos anti-democratic political philosophy in the Republic and the way in which this calls into question current widespread assumption (in the liberal West) that democracy is the only credible political system. Thus one could make an argument for the claim that a course in the history of philosophy (ancient or otherwise) offers a better philosophical education than a course devoted to contemporary philosophical problems.
Next Section: The Interdisciplinary Nature of Ancient Philosophy
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.