Rule 15 for history of philosophy: be broadminded about what counts as “philosophy”

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Rule 15: Be broadminded about what counts as “philosophy”

This is in a way a generalization of the previous rule to take religion seriously. The point I want to make with this rule has as its obvious starting point the frequent observation that, until very recently (like, only the last couple of centuries) the word "philosophy" included much more than we would include today. Still during the Enlightenment people we would call "scientists" would have referred to themselves as "natural philosophers." Of course that by itself might just mean that the word has changed meaning. But we need to remember that historical figures would have seen topics of inquiry that for us are no longer "philosophical" as being part and parcel of "philosophy"; they didn't make the same disciplinary boundaries that we do, so they moved very freely from topics like epistemology and metaphysics to topics like astronomy, mathematics or medicine. This is why I have devoted so much attention to "scientific" and even "pseudo-scientific" subjects in the podcast, covering things like medicine, astronomy, and astrology.

But it's not just science: historically the boundaries between philosophy on the one hand, and theology or mysticism on the other, have been quite blurry or just non-existent. I won't go into the theology point again, except to refer back to the Islamic world episodes and all the philosophy we saw being done by representatives of "kalam" (systematic theology). We also saw some philosophically interesting material in Sufis and Kabbalists, with mutual influence and re-purposing of ideas about negative theology, the soul, and so on, from philosophy to mysticism or vice-versa. Even a topic like Islamic jurisprudence turned out to have important implications in ethics and epistemology.

The moral of this story, then, is that historicans shouldn't restrict their attention to texts, figures and movements that seem "philosophical" in our sense. Philosophical material is not philosophical because of where it appears, but because (to make a long story short) it is philosophically interesting.

Brett Harris on 20 January 2015

I have nothing interesting to

I have nothing interesting to add, simply wanted to thank you Peter for providing these rules.

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