Why read old philosophy?

I’m going to try to explain a mystery that puzzled me for years. This answer finally dawned on me in the middle of one of those occasional conversations in which non-perplexed friends patiently try to explain the issue to me. So I am not sure if mine is a novel explanation, or merely the explanation that my friends were trying to tell me, in which case my contribution is explaining it in a way that is at all comprehensible to a person like me. If it is novel, apparently some other people disagree with it and have an almost entirely satisfactory alternative, which has the one downside that it is impossible to explain to me.

The puzzle is this:

Why do people read old philosophers to learn about philosophy?

We read old physicists if we want to do original research on the history of physics. Or maybe if we are studying an aspect of physics so obscure that nobody has covered it in hundreds of years. If we want to learn physics we read a physics textbook. As far as I know, the story is similar in math, chemistry, engineering, economics, and business (though maybe some other subjects that I know less about are more like philosophy).

Yet go to philosophy grad school, and you will read original papers and books by historical philosophers. Research projects explore in great detail what it is that Aristotle actually said, thought, and meant. Scholars will learn the languages that the relevant texts were written in, because none of the translations can do the texts the necessary justice. The courses and books will be named after people like ‘Hume’ as often as they are named after topics of inquiry like ‘Causality’ and larger subject areas will be organized by the spatiotemporal location of the philosopher, rather than by the subject matter: Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Continental Philosophy.

The physics situation makes a lot more sense to me. Hypothetically, who would I rather read an explanation of ‘The Alice Effect’ by? —Alice, the effect’s seventeenth century discoverer, or Bob, a modern day physics professor authoring a textbook?

Some salient considerations, neutrality not guaranteed:

  • Alice’s understanding of the Alice effect is probably the most confused understanding of it in all of history, being the first ‘understanding of the Alice effect’ to set itself apart from ‘confusion and ignorance about the Alice effect’.
  • In the billions of lifetimes that have passed since Alice’s time, the world has probably thought substantially more about The Alice Effect than Alice managed to in her lifetime, at least if it is important at all.
  • Alice’s very first account of the effect probably contained imperfections. Bob can write about the theory as it stood after years of adjustment.
  • Even if Alice’s account was perfectly correct, it was probably not perfectly well explained, unless she happens to have been a great explainer as well as a great physicist.
  • Physics has made many discoveries since Alice’s time, such as Claire forces, Evan motion and Roger fields. It might be easier to understand all of this by starting with the Roger fields, and explaining the Alice effect as a consequence. However literature from the likes of Alice is constrained to cover topics chronologically by date of discovery.
  • Bob speaks a similar version of English to me
  • Bob can be selected for having particular skill at writing and explanation, whereas Alice must be selected for having the scientific prowess to make the discovery.
  • Bob is actually trying to explain the thing to a 21st Century reader, while Alice is writing to pique the interest of some seventeenth century noblemen who lack modern intellectual machinery and are interested in issues like whether this is compatible with religion. An accurate impression of a 21st Century reader would probably cause Alice to fall over.

I think Bob is a solid choice.

How might philosophy be different?

Some pieces of explanations I heard, or made up while hearing other explanations:

  • You have to be smarter than the original philosopher to summarize their work well, so there are few good summaries
  • The translations are all terrible for conveying the important parts
  • Philosophy is not trying to communicate normal content that can be in explicit statements, of the kind you might be able to explain well and check the understanding of and such.
  • Philosophy is about having certain experiences which pertain to the relevant philosophy, much like reading a poem is different to reading a summary of its content.

I don’t find any of these compelling. If I understood some material well enough to make use of it, I would generally expect to be able to summarize it or describe it in a different language that I knew. So if nobody is capable of summarizing or translating the material it is hard to believe that I am getting much out of it by reading it. ‘Some content can’t be described’ isn’t much of an explanation, and even if it was, how did the philosophers describe it? And if you found it, but then couldn’t describe it, what would be the point? And if philosophy is about having certain experiences, like poetry, but then it would seem to be a kind of entertainment rather than a project to gain knowledge, which is at least not what most philosophers would tell you. So none of these explanations for learning philosophy to involve so much attention to very old philosophers seemed that plausible.

Ok, so that’s the mystery.

Here’s my explanation. Reading Aristotle describe his thoughts about the world is like watching Aristotle ride a skateboard if Aristotle were a pro skater. You are not getting value from learning about the streets he is gliding over (or the natural world that he is describing) and you should not be memorizing the set of jumps he chooses (or his particular conceptualizations of the world). You are meant to be learning about how to carry out the activity that he is carrying out: how to be Aristotle. How to do what Aristotle would do, even in a new environment.

An old work of philosophy does not describe the thing you are meant to be learning about. It was created by the thing you are meant to be learning about, much like watching a video from skater-Aristotle’s GoPro. And the value proposition is that with this high resolution Aristotle’s-eye-view, you can infer the motions.

There is not a short description  of the insights you should learn (or at least not one available), because the insights you are hopefully learning are not the insights that Aristotle is trying to share. Aristotle might have highly summarizable insights, but what you want to know is how to be Aristotle, and nobody has necessarily developed an abstract model of how to be Aristotle from which summary statements can be extracted.

So it is not that the useful content being transmitted is of a special kind that is immune to being communicated as statements. It is just not actually known in statements. Nobody knows which aspects of being Aristotle are important, and nobody has successfully made a simplified summary. What we ‘know’ is this one very detailed example. Much like if I showed you a bee because I thought I couldn’t communicate it in words—it would not be because bees are mysteriously indescribable, it would be that I haven’t developed the understanding required to describe what is important about it, so I’m just showing you the whole bee.

On this theory, if someone doesn’t realize what is going on, and tries to summarize Aristotle’s writings in the way that you would usually summarize the content of a passage, you entirely lose what was valuable about it. Much as you would if you summarized a video of a skater in motion into a description of the environment that they had interacted with. I hypothesize that this is roughly what happens, and is why it feels like summaries can’t capture what is important, and probably why translations seem bad always. Whenever a person tries to do a translation, they faithfully communicate the content of the thoughts at the expense of faithfully communicating the thinking procedure.

For instance, suppose I have a sentence like this:

We have enough pieces of evidence to say that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

If not quite the same words were available in a different language, it might get translated to:

We have seen enough evidence to know that friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

Which tells us something very similar about whether friendly banter is for counter-signaling.

But something subtle is lost about the process: in the initial statement, the author is suggesting that they are relying on the accretion of many separate pieces of evidence that may not have been independently compelling, whereas in the latter that is not clear. Over a long text, sentences like the former might give the reader an implicit understanding of how disparate and independently uncompelling evidence might be combined in the intuition of the author, without the issue ever being explicitly discussed. In the latter, this implication is entirely lost.

So I think this explains the sense that adequate summarization is impossible and translation is extremely difficult. At least, if we assume that people either don’t know what is really going on.

As an aside, I explained my theory to Ben Hoffman, and also asked him what on earth Plato was trying to do since when I tried to read him he made some points about fashion and sports that seemed worthy of a blog post, but maybe not of historical significance. Ben had a neat answer. He said Plato is basically doing the kind of summarization that a person who knew what was going on in my theory would do. He listened to Socrates a lot and thought that Socrates had interesting methods of thought. Then instead of summarizing Socrates’ points, he wrote fictionalized account of conversations with Socrates that condense and highlight the important elements of thinking and talking like Socrates.

This doesn’t explain why philosophy is different to physics (and basically all of the other subjects). Why would you want to be like Socrates, and not like Newton? Especially since Newton had more to show for his thoughts than an account of what his thoughts were like. I suspect the difference is that because physicists invent explicit machinery that can be easily taught, when you learn physics you spend your time mastering these tools. And perhaps in the process, you come to think in a way that fits well with these tools. Whereas in philosophy there is much less in the way of explicit methods to learn, so the most natural thing to learn is how to do whatever mental processes produce good philosophy. And since there is not a consensus on what they are like in the abstract, emulating existing good philosophers is a plausible way to proceed.

I was in the CMU philosophy department, which focuses on more formal methods that others might not class as philosophy—logic, algorithms for determining causality, game theory—and indeed in logic class we learned a lot of logical lemmas and did a lot of proofs and did not learn much about Frege or Gödel, though we did learn a bit about their history and thought at other point in the program.

(This story would suggest that in physics students are maybe missing out on learning the styles of thought that produce progress in physics. My guess is that instead they learn them in grad school when they are doing research themselves, by emulating their supervisors, and that the helpfulness of this might partially explain why Nobel prizewinner advisors beget Nobel prizewinner students.)

The story I hear about philosophy—and I actually don’t know how much it is true—is that as bits of philosophy come to have any methodological tools other than ‘think about it’, they break off and become their own sciences. So this would explain philosophy’s lone status in studying old thinkers rather than impersonal methods—philosophy is the lone ur-discipline without impersonal methods but thinking.

This suggests a research project: try summarizing what Aristotle is doing rather than Aristotle’s views. Then write a nice short textbook about it.

54 responses to “Why read old philosophy?

  1. I have a somewhat more cynical version of this theory.

    Philosophy is the science of questions about which we are thoroughly confused. That is, philosophy studies questions s.t. we don’t know what would it even mean to have an answer, and we don’t know whether we will ever know. Those questions to which satisfactory answers, or at least satisfactory criteria for answers were found, became separate fields: natural science, some of mathematics (e.g. logic), probably economics too.

    When you compare texts about physics, you compare their objective merits. A text in physics is supposed to provide you correct answers to questions and teach you concrete, applicable, testable skills. Therefore, famous physicists are physicists who successfully found answers to questions and good physics texts are texts that are good at communicating those answers and teaching those skills. As you correctly observed, the pedagogically optimal text is usually not the original text.

    On the other hand, the merit of a text about philosophy is much more subjective. The text communicates some ideas and opinions about the questions it studies, but it is hard to know whether these opinions are close to truth, or even whether there is a “true” answer to the question. Therefore, the aesthetic, literary value of the text becomes much important. Famous philosophers are philosophers that produce aesthetic texts and they should be read in the original because with aesthetics, the form is no less important than the content. In fact, it seems that there are famous philosophy texts s.t. modern philosophers don’t even agree about their meaning.

    So, yes, reading original texts may teach you how to become a good writer in the same genre, but it is less certain it will teach you to make progress on the questions themselves.

  2. Richard Kennaway

    That view of philosophy suggests the question, why? Why is it worth studying how to be Aristotle, when it is not worth studying how to be Newton? Is it worth studying how to be Parfit? If education in philosophy was explicitly organised around the idea of learning how various philosophers thought rather than what they thought, how would it be done and what would it look like?

    In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Pirsig offers a different view. He contrasts the teaching of philosophy and music. Music students spend most of their time learning to perform on their instrument. They will spend some time on the analysis and history of music, i.e. musicology, but musicology is only a small part of the whole. Philosophy courses, in contrast, do not teach philosophy, but what Pirsig calls by analogy philosophology: studying the ancients as a geographer might study the continents. No student is expected to actually do any philosophy themselves, and they will be dismissively marked down for it if they try. This is why a Ph.D thesis in philosophy consists primarily of an exhaustive scholarly history of everything of significance that has already been said about the chosen subject. At about chapter 9 the author adds their own modest contribution, and then adds a few more chapters discussing how this relates to all of the past. In science, the literature survey is done with in the first chapter and the rest is what the author has done themselves.

  3. Thank you for the interesting question and explanation.

    It seems to me that we read past philosophers because they examined persistent questions in ways that remain interesting but controversial.

    Because experts disagree on how successful were the accounts these people supplied, students of philosophy are encouraged to begin by consulting the original texts rather than the experts.

    In addition, famous philosophical examinations of questions that remain open tend to be more accessible to non-experts than, say, physicists’ examinations of the questions that remain open in physics.

    Nevertheless, your proposition that we read famous past philosophers in part because we can learn a lot from the ways in which they conducted their examinations seems sound also.

    For example, a good deal of what famous past philosophers have written now looks obviously wrong. While it might be of some value to read expert commentary on these errors, it might be much more instructive to explore at first hand attempts by eminent writers to support conclusions that over time have grown much less attractive.

  4. Philosophy isn’t science. So, the framework of discovery isn’t really useful. Philosophy is arguments: premises and logical structure which leads you to conclusions. But, arguments are typically present as text in a language, which means you have to engage with that text and in that language to really understand the argument.

    If you rely on Bob to explain Hume’s ideas of causation to you, you are still parsing arguments, just Bob’s arguments and not Hume’s. So, why not just use the source material?

  5. “This story would suggest that in physics students are maybe missing out on learning the styles of thought that produce progress in physics.”

    I think this is true. I think the ‘learning from a modern textbook’ method is ideal when something is formalisable in a clear cut way, whereas ‘learning from the original’ is best when a subject has a lot of hard-to-unpack intuition-type content. Physics and maths tend towards the formalisable end of things, whereas most of philosophy doesn’t, so it’s not surprising that the textbook approach mostly works OK, but there’s plenty of hard-to-unpack intuition-type content that’s useful for making progress in physics and maths too. Then it’s sometimes worth reading back into the conceptual foundations of the subject.

    I’ve definitely found that approach useful for learning myself, but to take a more impressive example the differential geometer Robert Bryant has read all of the works of the mathematician Cartan, who did foundational work in the subject in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Just from reading a little bit of Cartan myself (in translation), I can see how that would be incredibly useful. There’s a *lot* of geometric intuition packed in there that is much harder to extract from the more abstract modern formalisation.

    “My guess is that instead they learn them in grad school when they are doing research themselves, by emulating their supervisors, and that the helpfulness of this might partially explain why Nobel prizewinner advisors beget Nobel prizewinner students.”

    I think this is also true, and this bit also links up with my example! Bryant was a student of Chern, who worked with Cartan, so presumably some of this intuition was also passed down the chain directly.

  6. A clear, fair exposition on this puzzle would take way too long, but let me make a few points:

    1. This puzzle is tangled up with protracted unresolved disagreements between analytical philosophers and continental ones. People who disagree on the value of historical readings will often just be in separate camps.

    2. Many analytical philosophers eschew historical philosophy for the reasons you find intuitive. There is a quote I’m having trouble tracking down, perhaps because it’s apocryphal, where the chair of the Princeton Philosophy Department was asked why they don’t teach medieval philosophy, and he replied “For the same reason the math department doesn’t teach medieval mathematics”.

    3. I think even in fields like math and physics, real things *are* being lost when historical knowledge is distilled into textbooks. This isn’t because the ideas are inherently impossible to communicate or translate, but because most mathematicians and physicists are *bad* at it. For more on this, check out “Proofs and Refutations” by Imre Lakatos. [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proofs_and_Refutations ] The first 20 pages can be found here: [ https://math.berkeley.edu/~kpmann/Lakatos.pdf ].

    4. If this can happen even in math, it’s reasonable to argue that it’s so much worse in philosophy that eternal historical analysis is unavoidable. I don’t agree with this argument (I think it’s a matter of only of degree), and point to the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as an alternative direction.

    5. One possible explanation for why philosophy is different than all other subjects is, one could claim, that its (effectively) defining characteristic is that folks can’t agree on “ground rules” for how disputes are to be resolved. Once the ground rules for a subject are agreed upon, it ceases to be philosophy and becomes a science (or art).

  7. I’m still not satisfied with this explanation. There are also modern philosophers that you can read the thoughts of. Why would learning how to think like Aristotle be more valuable than learning how to think like David Chalmers?

  8. “Alice is writing to peak the interest of some seventeenth century noblemen…”

    One does not “peak” an interest: one “piques” it.

    Pedantry will never die as long as I’m around…..

  9. Physics can be theoretical, but it is NOT subjective. Philosophy is ALWAYS both, to varying degrees. (Yes, I said always. I can get away with that, because we are talking about the unquantifiable, unpredictable thing called: “thinking.”) Our brains are like calculators with computational quirks, that are caused by inaccurate “sensors,” misinterpreted data, and sometimes…miswired hardware. Physics by its logical process of elimination, tries to narrow the consensus down to irrefutable facts.
    Philosophy oftens seems inclined to “add another log on the fire.” (Often just so it can hear itself talking.) ;)

  10. Do we read Aristotle because we want to know how to do what he does, or to learn what he thinks? (Realistic answer: neither – we read him because he’s assigned to us, or because we want to appear cultured and well-read.) If we want to be good at philosophy, we may study summaries of his arguments, not only his conclusions, just as in physics, we can read about experiments, not only about the theories they proved. But if we want to learn from philosophers’ direct practice, it seems doubtful that the ancients have much to teach us – they tended to be pretty bad at it. It’s better to read contemporary papers and responses to them, because we’ve also gotten somewhat better at doing philosophy.

    If there’s one thing to be said for Aristotle, it’s that he may have ideas that haven’t been disproven or shown to be lacking, but just forgotten in a dusty corner, not touched upon by modern philosophy. But you can usually get those from summaries.

  11. A wonderful insight.

    It is interesting to think of it in terms of a spectrum of subjectivity. Humanities on one side, including philosophy, anthropology and the like, where as you say, the process of thinking is important. Here we question the subjectivity of the subject matter by answering questions with more questions.
    The social sciences sit somewhere in the middle, where we start to apply these philosophies any test their merit. As we move along the spectrum away from the humanities, the demand for data increases and hence tolerance for subjectivity decreases. The further away we move, the more significant data we demand. (In psychology for example an r squared value of 0.5 can be deemed significant).
    On the far right of the spectrum we hit the sciences. Laws backed up by data removes (for argument sake) all subjectivity. R squared values of 0.98 in engineering for example are demanded.

    Maybe interesting research topic would be first to critique and actually map this spectrum, then to observe how say the philosophy of human rights has moved through it. From idea conception, adaptation in first world politics, impacts on economics all the way to infrastructure codes and standards.

    I’ve gone quite off topic here, but to link it back to your wonderful post, understanding the world requires different types of thinkers. The scientific mind as well as the abstract mind.

  12. I think this theory is exactly correct, and makes a very good case for reading old scientists and mathematicians as well as philosophers.

    (It’s also useful from the point of view of understanding past mistakes. This is Paul Graham’s view of the reason to read Aristotle, such as there is one.)

    People generally don’t learn this meta-knowledge, even in grad school. They are conditioned by school out of expecting it to exist.

    My one important disagreement:

    And if philosophy is about having certain experiences, like poetry, but then it would seem to be a kind of entertainment rather than a project to gain knowledge

    It is a mistake to view art, such as poetry, as “entertainment” and not a form of knowledge. This mistake arises from the prejudice (particularly associated with, but by no means confined to, contemporary “STEM-nerd” culture) that all knowledge is explicit and verbal.

  13. Brilliant!

  14. Good post. That’s actually why after reading only a subset of LessWrong sequences, almost all of the sequences become obvious. You learn a way to think like rationalist, after all.

  15. Great post!

    How come nobody has mentioned the cynical answer “because celebrity worship”?
    I’m honestly confused about it, having gone through all the comments in search of some mention of this hypothesis.
    And that’s not because I think this is necessarily a good answer. It’s just that I thought this hypothesis would so obviously come to mind for most people that not mentioning it at all seems confusing.

    If it’s because everyone but me thinks this answer is too obviously wrong to be worth mentioning, then I’m missing the reasons why. I think it’s very plausible that sheer celebrity worship accounts for a considerable portion of the phenomenon. Someone please help me out?

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      The “celebrity worship” hypothesis has its problems.

      (1) Math and physics have their celebrities, too. Celebrity is a constant across many fields. As they say, “You can’t explain a variable with a constant.” Why is philosophy different from these other fields when they all have celebrities? The answer will cant appeal to celebrity as a primitive concept, because celebrities are common to all of them.

      (2) Consider a field unquestionably dominated by celebrity-worship: pop music. The vast majority of people who are interested in pop music are interested in *contemporary* pop music. It’s easier to stay in the headlines if you’re alive. Yes, sometimes dying is good for a pop-singer’s career. But most people on the cover of Us Weekly are still kicking. Celebrity-worship causes a bias forward the modern. Who’s a mover-and-shaker *right now*? That’s who the status-chasing celebrity-worshiper will worship. So it’s hard to invoke celebrity to explain the opposite bias in philosophy.

  16. I find the argument sound, and the logic reasonable.

    I would add that the philosophers and thus their philosophies are subject to the time periods in which they are created. If you consider the societal frameworks they lived in influential to their work, then presenting the work in an updated format removes the capacity which allowed the philosophies to be created. Like you said, we are unable to extract exactly what is necessary in order to be subjected to their way of thinking, and thus reading the original text is required in order to gain the full picture.

    P.S. The Go-Pro bit was pretty good.

  17. Physics is about the territory. Philosophy is about the maps.

    In philosophy lessons you read Plato because philosophy is about Plato (and others), not about their thoughts. If you could somehow know every single Einstein’s thought, without ever hearing about Einstein, you would be great at physics. If you could know every single Plato’s thought, without ever hearing about Plato, philosophers wouldn’t take you seriously.

  18. A valiant effort to rationalize a practice for which you don’t really find much value.

    Not all philosophers have studied the ancients. The history of philosophy is really a separate discipline from doing philosophy. To accomplish valuable work in the history of philosophy, you need a solid grasp of the state of philosophy today; but the opposite isn’t true. Analytic philosophers don’t need to have read Aristotle or even Hume. But, of course, to do serious history, you need to know the original works (just as in studying the history of physics you would need to read Newton).

    There are historical and analytical factions in many philosophy departments. The question is why do the stay in the same discipline; the answer is political. The history of philosophy (and the dedicated reading of Aristotle) belong in the history departments, which isn’t to disparage them.

    [You can’t learn to be an Aristotle by reading him, as his arguments are crude by modern standards. Philosophy does progress, even if it doesn’t find much truth.]

  19. Pingback: Why read old philosophy?

  20. Math and physical sciences are built up on series of experimental results which allow to develop more modern and more fundamental theories. You can go and read Newton on gravity, optics, light. But you will not find anything about relativity, photons, wave/particle duality, quantum effects. As far as Newton was concerned, his laws of gravity may have been the fundamental laws of reality, nothing to be added nor subtracted.

    If you read Plato, Aristotle, Descartes on ethics, morality, meaning of life, it may be the case that they have the truest, most succinct, most effective insight as anything published in 2017. There isn’t anything like relativity theory which is provably more accurate. But it also cuts both ways: we know that Newton’s theory was provably highly accurate for its time and is still more practical and useful than doing relativity calculations at this time. In contrast, a famous philosopher may lose his standing and be forgotten; his place in history is only secured by a lot of people agreeing that his views were notable and/or influential.

    And that happens all the time – some philosophers go into vogue, others shift into obscurity.

  21. So I have a infant in one hand and an iPhone in the other. This is not going to be a long post.

    I think my point of view is compatible with yours although I think might be more general.

    Basically philosophy always deals in some capicity with the personal and internal experience first. It starts from the subjective I. Physics is about “it” stuff. As a science it makes external predictions that can be tested and everyone can see the results.

  22. Is the author kidding? She really doesn’t understand the difference between philosophy and science? Science is a progressive system of knowledge. Scientific theories are testable and can be falsified or corroborated through experience. In contrast, philosophy is based almost entirely on pure reasoning and largely deals with ideas which are untestable. That’s why Plato is just as relevant as modern philosophers: there’s no way to distinguish whose ideas are better.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      If there’s no way to distinguish which are better, then why not read the moderns? Why read only some ancients and not others? They’re all just as good, on this account.

      You can’t appeal to indistinguishability to explain a consistent trend that always favors certain members of a collection of allegedly indistinguishable elements.

  23. keithbuhlerphilosophy

    I’ve been enjoying this account (from a physicist) about why physics needs philosophy (i.e., metaphysics, logic, and some historical understanding of the development of philosophy):

    My own view is that philosophy is a science (in the broad sense — i.e., a cluster of methods and a stable body of knowledge) and that the various hard sciences such as physics and biology are branches of philosophy (in the broad sense — i.e., “natural philosophy” or philosophy of nature.)

    The attempt to separate out physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, computer science, qua material disciplines apart from metaphysics, epistemology, and logic qua formal disciplines is futile. The demarcation problem has no solution because there is no demarcation, other than the disciplinary one (different departments on campus, different professional organizations, etc.)

  24. Would Mortimer Adler’s “Aristotle for Everybody” come close to what you are looking for?

    As a layman with Computer Science background who took a handful of Philosophy classes as an undergrad, but read a reasonable amount of primary and secondary philosophy (both contemporary and historical), I fear coming off as a dabler, but I am curious about a few issues.

    First, aren’t modern text books in introductory informal logic a reworking of (mostly) Aristotelian logic in the same way that (mostly) Euclidean geometry is reworked into a high school geometry textbook?

    Also, what about the literature written by philosophers who only had fragments of Aristotle’s work but were influential in shaping early Aristotelianism (I am thinking al Farabi, ibn Rushd, and of course Thomas Aquinas.) Conpare this with, e.g., Francis Bacon who was able to bring attention too Aristotle’s empericism, for example.

    Finally, as a Computer Scientist by training, I do read a lot of primary and historical works: Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Progamming is not a good algorithms textbook to use in an undergrad or even graduate course, but it is a veritable treasure trove for someone doing original work. Most importantly, we often use the most primary and “raw” sources — that is papers (many of them written prior to the ENIAC, e.g., number theory for cryptography), and it is not uncommon for many upper division coursss to rely solely on papers.

    Finally, I personally credit reading original lectures and works by Lavoisier, Humphrey, Maxwell, and Faraday (and repeating their experiments!) for getting me into “sciences” and motivating me to learn English (not my native tongue, but currently the international language of the sciences) prior to coming to the U.S. Perhaps we could stand to benefit if use historical sources _more_ in physics AND make _less_ use of them in philosophy?

    This is of course is an addendum to points already made, but perhaps the differences between philosophy, math, and physics are fewer in terms of how they are studied.

    Again, apologies if what I am saying is very.

  25. Aristotle and Plato have a big relevant difference. Most of Aristotle’s works would not be classified as philosophy today. He wrote in almost every field of natural and social science, and was for the most part interested in clear empirical matters.

    Relevant book: *The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science*, by Armand Marie Leroi.

  26. …I meant to say: it seems to me that reading about Aristotle could be grouped with reading about Newton at least as readily as with Plato.

  27. In many fields the original papers are far easier to understand than modern treatments.

    For example, 80% of the (little) information theory I know was learned from reading Shannon’s papers from the 1940s.

    Shannon wrote for readers to whom the field was new and unknown – he had to explain things simply.

    Modern treatments are abstract and generalized, and use lots of field-specific jargon. Even textbooks. I can’t make head nor tail of them. But I can understand Shannon’s papers.

    I don’t know if this explains anything about philosophy – perhaps not. As a philistine (can’t claim to rise to the level of a dabbler), it has always seemed a field without content. At least, every conversation I’ve ever had with a professional philosopher (and even with some merely trained in the field) has devolved into stupid semantic arguments.

    (What you describe at CMU doesn’t sound like the philosophy they teach at Harvard…)

  28. Age tends to be an indicator of quality. Same goes for books or technology, the things that “survive” tend to have survived for a reason (having the most value, being the most useful). (this idea espoused by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “Antifragile”).

  29. Maybe philosophy can be thought of as The Big Conversation. Like everyday conversation, you don’t do experiments to prove your points, you just try to be convincing and interesting and engaging, to get others to agree with you. To join in the conversation, the key thing is to know what has already been said so that you don’t waste everyone’s time by repeating it. The history of philosophy is the same thing as philosophy itself– both are the actual conversation itself.

  30. Pingback: Minimum Viable Concept | Perfecting Dated Visions

  31. Pingback: The Good, the True and the Undefined | Everything Studies

  32. Pingback: Co se urodilo na síti #9 – Wrent.cz

  33. There is a clear/nice corollary to this idea: We go to art to learn (call it GoPro style or “vicariously”) different ways to see, hear, move and live.

  34. Irrelevant Contributor

    A very nice and interesting reflection. The philosophical methodology that you describe here is called hermeneutics by the way and in case you yourself are interested in further inquiry.

    The question you ask was once posed by a professor of mine in a class on Hume. He himself said that he has not found a satisfying answer and we discussed your line (with similar illustrations even) for a while.

    I will not go on and try to reconstruct the arguments that completely destroyed your justification – you will find them best yourself. Just keep in mind that your explanation is one approach to do philosophy (or rather a philosophucal school) among several others (some have been mentioned before).

    I would give two arguments as the main reason why I sometimes recommend ancients would figure among „entertainment“ for you and therefore refuted.

    (1) We still read Plato and Aristotle and Demokrit and Aquin etc., because we think we can do so easily. Unfortunately this is not too true, as we will have a lot of difficulties to understand what we are reading. And this is not just related to language. But you know, it‘s just philosophy and as the saying goes: The difference between the mathematician and the philosopher is that both require only only pen and paper but the former also uses the trashcan.

    (2) In most sciences, one experiment is not sufficient to prove or disprove a theory. Nor is the use of just one sequence of repeatable actions sufficient. Easily shown: consider a prepared specimen, analysed by two microscopes with different but unknown defects causing you to see two entirely different sets of artifacts – how realistic is this? Highly. How do you interprete or evaluate the results? By using a third microscope – maybe.

    Philosophical results are the same. Take a philosophical problem and then think about it and draw your conclusions. Then come back 3 years later and evaluate your thoughts. You will discover something new and adjust your vision. If you are lucky, both are close, if not you have to ascertain if you are in the two microscope situation described above. What is the best way to do so? Discuss your solutions and related problems with someone else. The better they know the subject the better you can assess your philosophical microscope. Then think about this whole situation more abstract and as a social endeavour. And then you are in philosophy.

    Remark: Check the number of proofs for your favourite mathematical problem. How come that there might be so many different ones uf one proof just suffices? Also, check how nany names there are for your favourite mathematical problem. Verify across languages and history (e.g. Bayesian or Laplacian probability). Read something about non-standard analysis, which surprisingly is not non-standard but just what physicists have to do without calling it so. You will find out that math textbooks are not different from philosophical textbooks – you learn through practice not by reading about some topics. Ancient problems have been prepared and passed on to students just as ancient philosophical questions. And sometimes the ancient formulations are easier and sometimes not. Also remember that one rarely studies a complete ancient text. Usually you get exposed to carefully selected passages. Once you read beyond these, you usually will not find additional (philosophical) insights, but often scientific crap (from our current state of knowledge). My favourite example for such a text is Empiricus‘ „Pyrrhonian Scepsis.“ An actual textbook from ancient times.

  35. Test for this hypothesis: role-playing games should be a superior teaching tool for philosophers. Luckily, the study is underway!


  36. Pingback: Monday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION

  37. Edward Measure

    As a retired physicist who just now survived a class in Ancient Greek philosophy, and found the experience immensely frustrating, I would say that the worst thing about the class was the failure to critique the ideas of the ancients from a modern point of view – or any point of view. That an exam system that focused on memorizing details like in which dialog Socrates cited a theory of Anaxagoras.

    Mostly, I suppose, I disliked all the ways that philosophy, or at any rate ancient philosophy, was not like physics – and the whole “there are no right or wrong answers in philosophy” – except on the exams, of course.

  38. There is much more to be learned by studying Euclid than from a modern plane geometry textbook.
    Ditto astronomy from Ptolemy, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler.
    Ditto calculus from Leibniz and Newton, evolutionary theory from Darwin, etc, etc, etc.
    The trick is to be able to understand the questions as questions, the way the original thinkers did. A fortiori in philosophy.
    Unless you think it’s all about “getting through the material.” Then you’re better off sticking to Wikipedia.

  39. I think you have it wrong. The reason you read Aristotle is to, as much as can be, directly engage with the mind of Aristotle. The reason you read Plato is to directly engage with the mind of Plato.

    You seem to treat everything as a nail and only understand explanations that are hammers. It’s not to learn to be like Aristotle. It’s to interface with Aristotle. In that way, it is much closer to experiencing art than experiencing a math problem or understanding the science behind gravity. Criticism of art is always secondary to experiencing art — whether a painting, a poem, a novel, music, whatever. Philosophy is the artistry of the mind and experiencing that requires reading Aristotle, not reading criticism or a summary of Aristotle, since Aristotle is dead.

    Not understanding this may be a good reason why so much AI sucks and shows so little actual human intelligence.

    • And the experience to be had from reading old (or new) philosophers is the dialectical experience, the experience of thinking and seeing along with your author and of conversing with him. You can also get that from Ptolemy or Newton.

  40. Below the first quote it says “We read old physicists” where it should say “We *don’t* read old physicists”.

  41. Robert dilts wrote a book about what Aristotle (and others) was doing. I don’t remember how good it was since I saw it many years ago.


  42. Your philosophical argument is interesting. But I think what old philosopher are saying has same importance like what they did or were doing. Their thoughts about a particular problem can show us some glimpse of thought of how actually they tried to understand that matter, and we can gain better insight from original text than from summaries. It is not a surety but there is a high chance of that.

  43. Pingback: Friday links: controversial ideas in evolution, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  44. Pingback: Why read old philosophy? - fringopost

  45. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Why read old philosophy? – ÇlusterAssets Inc.,

  46. Curiously, law is very much like philosophy in that there are few “textbooks” about law. Instead, law professors assign “casebooks”, which contain compilations of old and new cases, along with secondary notes about each case, so law students are reading decisions made by judges in actual cases (instead of textbook summaries of those decisions.

  47. I think if you zoom out, the entire “field” of philosophy is best understood as a conversation between thinkers through the ages, in which they explore questions about various aspects of experience. It is not so much a bunch of isolated attempts by individuals to uncover “the Truth,” but a social endeavor, in which each thinker carefully considers what has been said by their predecessors on the question, and then adds to the conversation. In a good, thoughtful conversation, each member should take pains to understand what each other member is saying before agreeing, disagreeing, or extrapolating. Otherwise you talk past each other.

    Reading the original works is about putting in this effort to understand what is being said before responding.

    It’s like joining a group conversation that’s been going on for hours. Yes you can jump in and add to the conversation right away, but you’ll have no understanding of the context: why XYZ questions are under discussion, what has been said so far, who has contributed what, etc. That context matters. And fortunately, in philosophy you can go back and read each contribution to the conversation that has occurred over time.

Leave a Reply to Katja Grace Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.