Histories of Philosophy

It’s been a common practice among philosophers in the U.S. to distinguish the history of philosophy from "serious" philosophical work. Painstaking examination of the social, economic, psychological, and political contexts from which philosophical ideas often emerge is viewed as, at best, an interesting supplement to the rational reconstruction of a philosophical argument evaluated in light of “the philosophical problems of today”. In short, an account of the historical forces that may have influenced a particular philosopher’s views are far less important than the arguments themselves. (As a graduate student in philosophy, I was told by one of my mentors that "It’s not a bad idea to read some history of philosophy. That way you have something to do when you’re old and can’t think anymore.")
A conference at Princeton University in April, 2003, "Teaching New Histories of Philosophy", is a sign that an incremental shift in the received view may be underway. Over the course of three days, some of the most prominent figures in the field came together to examine both the importance of historical understanding of philosophical ideas and the role "new histories of philosophy" play in rethinking both what and how philosophy is taught in colleges and universities.
"Much recent work has stressed how important it is for students to learn about the contexts in which philosophy is done. Modern philosophers were often responding to dramatic developments in science, or to radical changes in European religious belief, or to social and political upheavals. They were frequently in dialog with their predecessors — using their work or deliberately rejecting it. Often they were arguing against authors we do not teach." (From the conference website.)
The questions raised go beyond the academic monitoring of professional practice. Anyone who wishes to engage with philosophical ideas and practices can benefit from considering how they were understood and how they functioned in the past. And I say that not as a dogmatic advocate of “tradition”, but to acknowledge the value of moving beyond the familiar and comfortable terrain of one’s own way of thinking toward a radical encounter with the unconventional, overlooked, and forgotten ideas of those whose experiences are very different from our own. Only then is it possible to think outside of ourselves and imagine things as being different than they are.

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