Rule 11 for history of philosophy: think critically

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Rule 11: Think critically

With all these worries about avoiding anachronism, you may have gotten the impression that I am only worried about "getting the text right," and in fact I do think that is a first step in dealing with any historical source material. However, just as I said in an earlier post that history of philosophy is a kind of history, it is also a kind of philosophy! Philosophy comes in not only when you are reconstructing the position (because you need to make sense of the ideas in the text "from the inside" which is a philosophical task) but also in assessing the arguments you've read and, hopefully, now understood in all their complexity, historical context, etc. 

Here I like something that we used to emphasize a lot when I taught at King's College London (it's much less emphasized in Germany, I find): that students should not just summarize and present a text in their essays or discussion in class, but also say what they think about it, whether there are possible counter-arguments, etc. Of course this often meant that students were being asked critically to assess arguments and ideas they weren't yet in a position to understand fully, but it's nonetheless a good approach because it trains students to think critically about what they are reading.

The most obvious reason to do this is that we are probably in the end interested in whether any of these philosophical views are true! But even if your motivation is strictly historical, you will often need to think hard about a given philosopher's ideas critically to understand why later philosophers (or even the same philosopher, after re-thinking) rejected, or carried forward, those ideas in certain ways.

Maël Goarzin on 16 October 2014

It reminds me of Alain de

It reminds me of Alain de Libera's inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, where he defends this idea: an historian of philosophy needs to be a philosopher as well, at each step of his editing, translating and commenting activities around a medieval text. One cannot study a philosophical text without thinking about it, and thinking critically obviously.
I find it very interesting and encouraging that two great historians of philosophy did take the time to remind this as a methodological point, because it gives more weight to the discipline, often opposed to analytical philosophy. This rule is an excellent way to overcome this too much fixed opposition, or even conflict, between what are only two ways of doing philosophy.

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