Rule 1 for history of philosophy: independent discovery

Posted on 10 September 2014

I was thinking it might be an idea to suggest some guidelines encapsulating what I see as good practice in studying the history of philosophy. With any luck, these rules are exemplified, not routinely violated, by the podcast itself. These are only suggestions though: I would love to hear other ideas and start a discussion here on the website. I will be doing a series of blog post with proposed rules,

With those caveats, here is rule 1:

It's possible for the same idea to appear independently more than once

It strikes me that a common error in history of philosophy is to see that two figures/traditions have put forward the same idea, and immediately infer a historical connection. For instance: atomism or monism emerging in both ancient Greek and classical Indian philosophy. Or: al-Ghazali's and Hume's discussions of causation. Yes, the similarities are striking, and there _might_ be a historical connection, but the similarity does nothing in and of itself to show that there is such a connection. Rather it only raises the question of whether there was influence one way or the other. Often, the simplest explanation is just that people thinking about a certain topic will naturally tend towards a certain, limited range of positions (like, either bodies can be infinitely divided, or not - and in the latter case one is an atomist).

Chike Jeffers 10 September 2014

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Good rule... in my own work on the history of Africana philosophy, I have had instances in which I have sought to point out that even when it's obvious that the Western tradition has helped to shape and provide the context for the work of modern Africana thinkers, it is worth being cautious in drawing a line from a particular Western thinker's doctrine to something apparently similar in an Africana thinker's work in cases where the latter does not mention the former. It may well be a case of direct influence, but in the instances I've discussed, there were circumstances uniquely affecting the lives and thoughts of black thinkers that are equally if not more likely to have played a role in inspiring the apparently similar doctrine...

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I would love some examples of where you think false connections are drawn.

*if this appears a hostile comment, don't assume it is so. I'm legitimately interested in understanding your claim.

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Well, I suspect the Indian/Greek comparison is usually fallacious in such a way though I would be careful here before ruling it out definitively. And I've seen other examples in my own field of Islamic philosophy, for instance above I mention Ghazali and Hume on causation, or Epicurus and Razi on pleasure.

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Hi questorer, I'm not sure whether you meant to be asking this question only of Peter or if it was directed at me as well, given that you pressed "reply" on my comment. Just let me know if I should be answering too.

John Blechl 12 September 2014

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Independent discovery of key philosophical concepts shows a connection of mankind that transcends simple historical limitations. Is there Socratic influence in Plato and the Hellenistic schools? Yes, but influence does not have to mean domination: just because a previous thinker whom you are acquainted with historically or studiously has given a particular thesis and argument, it does not mean that you do not try to confirm or deny the thesis based on your own abilities. It might be that when we can make sense of an argument, or anticipate the next part of the philosophy, we are truly connecting to that previous thinker in a real way. If we are unacquainted with a previous thinker's corpus, this connection could be viewed in an even stronger way. Some of it must be that there could be a limited amount of alternatives, but independently discovering something without influence speaks to what it means for man to be philosophical. Personally, when I have come to a conclusion that was later given in a far more coherent and organized why by a philosopher, I feel connected to him or her, not because I think I am as smart or gifted, but because I feel like we have connected in a meaningful way as human beings. Removing any possible authority that thinker might hold, knowing that you are connected with someone through your thoughts and reason over the expanse of time is empowering. I think that the history of philosophy is not so much about the differences between philosophers, but it concerns their similarities and reasons for those similarities.

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