WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
PHILOSOPHY OR HISTORY?
I remember my first year as a philosophy student, I think it was towards the end of the second semester, I had to ask one of my lecturers if what we’re studying is really philosophy or history. Maybe I will write about that experience someday.
Even today, it’s normal for first-year philosophy students to begin their studies by reading Plato. So they really do start at the beginning, some two and a half thousand years ago.
Philosophy’s preoccupation with its own history is a threat to its scientific ambitions. Compare this with the sciences, where no one expects students to read, for example, the dialogues in which Galileo argues for the merits of a sun-centered cosmology. Scientists generally just take past discoveries for granted so they can get on with the business at hand.
Philosophers, however, aren’t in the business of taking things for granted. Many of the ideas we take to be obvious today had to be invented at some point in the past, and it’s sometimes useful to go back to the origins of an idea to scrutinize the historical conditions and arguments that produced it.
The area of philosophy that is concerned with interpreting the work of past thinkers is the history of philosophy. This work is, undeniably, valuable scholarship. The history of philosophy is a rich trove of ideas and an invaluable resource that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The problem is that today, there’s far too great a preoccupation with the history of philosophy. Much of what contemporary philosophy departments teach and publish is primarily concerned with interpreting past thinkers.
Professors today can spend their entire careers specializing in the work of a single thinker. One popular thinker is Nietzsche; apart from his own merits, he fathered a flock of Nietzsche scholars who dutifully publish annual papers on questions like “What did Nietzsche mean by ‘the eternal return?’”
The influence of the history of philosophy is becoming so widespread that it’s debilitating the discipline.
The trouble is, the people that promote the history of philosophy tend to be the people that disparage philosophy’s scientific ambitions. They reflect a growing view of philosophy as just a long record of different theories with no objective way to evaluate them. But in thinking of itself as unobjective, philosophy is in danger of making itself irrelevant!
After all, progress in any discipline usually doesn’t come from lauding its past achievements. More often, progress comes from engagement with other developments taking place in the present time. For this reason, philosophy often benefits from mutual encounters with other disciplines. As we’ll see soon, a lot of the most exciting philosophical work today is being done in departments outside philosophy.
It might seem like philosophy is only a marginal and unimportant subject today, since philosophy departments are so small. The truth, however, is that the spirit of philosophy is a part of every discipline. After all, disciplines turn to philosophical methods when they question their most fundamental concepts. Every discipline engages in philosophy to some degree.
Most disciplines aren’t as obsessed as philosophy is with challenging their assumptions all the time. Mostly, their work builds off of basic assumptions. But now and then, it proves useful to go back to basics. When this happens, their work becomes a lot less experimental and a lot more philosophical. This happens when, say, economists stop making models based on the assumption that agents always act rationally, and instead question how rational people really are, or question what it means to be “rational” in the first place.
Occasionally, other disciplines even find pause to question the validity of the logical laws we take for granted. This happened when quantum physicists, trying to understand what exactly is going on at a quantum level, suggested that the rules of logic that apply to us on a day-to-day basis might not apply at the quantum level. There were several attempts in the 20th century to establish a new field of “quantum logic,” although admittedly, these never gained much traction.
Other disciplines also make big philosophical contributions when discoveries made in their field go on to have deep and sweeping ramifications for traditional philosophical questions. One of the most famous examples of this is the advent of evolutionary theory in the field of biology. This shift in thinking had a massive impact on how philosophers would imagine what human beings are, not to mention the nature and origins of life in general.
For one, evolutionary theory made it impossible to continue imagining human beings as essentially separate from other animals. It showed that we’re are all related and we all share ancestors if you go back far enough. It also made it possible to understand humanity and life in general as dynamic things that develop and change over time rather than as static forms that merely beget identical copies of themselves one after another.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance or extent of philosophy, even if it’s done under a different name. Philosophical methods underpin all other disciplines, including those normally described as being scientific. If the latter are considered scientific, then philosophy should be considered scientific too.
Philosophy is a science, albeit a distinct one. It’s a science in that it’s a methodical and logical field of inquiry comparable with the natural sciences. Where the natural sciences study the natural world, philosophy studies the language and concepts we use to communicate about the world and the laws of logic that govern all forms of argumentation. Thus, philosophy is not in competition with the sciences. In fact, all scientific inquiry benefits from and ultimately depends upon philosophy.
Want to think like a philosopher? Here’s a simple assignment. Sharpen your analytical thinking skills by putting one of your convictions to the test.
First, think of something that you really, firmly believe. Write it down. It could be something as simple as “the sun will rise tomorrow.” Now, try to come up with two or three reasons why that belief may be false. Then, respond to each of the points with a good counter-argument.
Olusola Bodunrin is a social commentator with a passion for gathering facts on social issues. He is writer, businessman, blogger, and wardrobe consultant. He is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He anchors – ‘What You Should Know’ on SHEFFA.
‘What You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on general falsehood and myths.