Philosophy and the History of Philosophy

by Jonathan Rée

"Historians of philosophy project into the past an idea of philosophy as a professional academic specialism—treating Aristotle and Descartes as though they were participants at a modern philosophy conference . . . they do not explore historical sources other than explicitly philosophical writings; they do not know whether they should be concerned with great philosophy or with influential philosophy; they never consider general problems about the interpretation of philosophical texts; and they are so preoccupied with explicit controversies between philosophers that they fail to notice areas of agreement or of silence." [p. 2]

"The History of Philosophy is not an optional appendix to philosophy. It identifies the main theories and controversies of philosophy; it canonises the great thinkers and the basic texts of the discipline; and it defines the chief tendencies and periods of its development. In this way, it provides an implicit definition of philosophy, indicating that being a philosopher means being a successor to Plato, Aristotle, and the rest and perpetuating the practices which—according to the History of Philosophy—these Great Men have bequeathed." [p. 2]

"Updating the origin of philosophy and separating it from religion enabled Brucker and, following him, and philosophes [sic], to enforce the most pervasive, most influential, but perhaps least conscious elements of the enlightenment conception of the history of philosophy. First, there was the idea of philosophy as the product of the self-conscious and explicit philosophical activity of 'philosophers', rather than as something which, like religion, had sources deep in the wordless experiences of masses of non-intellectuals." [p. 6]

"Within the modern academic tradition it became normal to allot a smaller territory to philosophy than Brucker had done. [For example, Christian Wolff . . . .] This relatively circumscribed idea of philosophy in its turn reinforced the conviction that the history of philosophy was the history of the self-conscious work of philosophers, and that this developed independently of the ideas of everyone else." [p. 9]

"Hegel's second insight into the inadequacy of conventional histories of philosophy was concerned with the idea that philosophy is the product of the self-conscious activity of philosophers. Hegel's description of the whole history of philosophy as the work of 'the divine Architect' implies that the development of philosophy is more than the succession of the doctrines of individuals. Indeed it suggests the possibility of a history of philosophy which would not mention individual philosophers at all—and Hegel attempted such a history in the Phenomenology of Spirit. For Hegel, the doctrines of philosophers are the highest intellectual expressions of the spirit of their age; this spirit is also manifested in all other human activities and cannot be understood independently of them." [p. 13-14]

"The traditional outlook has brought with it the same two alternative conceptions of the tasks of philosophy which haunted both eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers. The first, 'conservative' conception is that modern philosophers must take up their own positions on the age-old positions defined in the histories of philosophy. . . . . The second, 'revolutionary', conception is that old style philosophy must be abandoned and replaced either by a completely new kind of philosophy or by silence." [p. 18]

"The History of Philosophy . . . hides the way in which philosophical problems and the range of conceivable philosophical 'positions' vary historically; and the ways in which the present—including one's own philosophical outlook—is a product of the past. Nor does it address itself to the problem of how human conceptual resources have expanded and developed in the course of history or how they can become material forces; still less does it try to locate the activities of intellectuals or 'philosophers' in these developments. This enables it to present philosophy as a self-contained, eternal sector of intellectual production, where battles between professionals have been fought since the beginning of time."


SOURCE: Philosophy and Its Past by Jonathan Rée, Michael Ayers, Adam Westoby. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: The Humanities Press, 1978. (Philosophy Now) Chapter 1, pp. 1-39, excerpts.

Compiled 24 September 1994, revised 19 June 2002.


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A Bibliography in Progress


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