Rule 20 for history of philosophy: things are always more complicated than you think

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Rule 20 for history of philosophy: things are always more complicated than you think

I have hesitated a long time before posting a final rule. It seems like 20 is a good number to end on, and I wanted to end on a high note. I considered a few other options, like “learn some geography” which is definitely a good idea (compare to rule 6 about learning some dates), or exhorting people to explore philosophy from more than one culture or more than one branch of philosophy (not just ethics, but also epistemology, etc). I think these would also be good tips. But eventually I decided the best piece of advice to close with is this: “things are always more complicated than you think.” In a way this sums up the core message of my so-called “rules.” Like plain old history, history of philosophy is very complicated and there is no real limit to the things you might want, or need, to know if you really want to understand how and why ideas developed. Hence my earlier pieces of advice to explore the context of historical texts, the role of lesser-known authors, and so on.

But I also suggest this last piece of advice with a view to the core activity of the historian of philosophy, which is reading philosophical texts. One thing I have learned from participating in many philosophy reading groups over the years (and not least from MM McCabe, who was for many years a colleague of mine at King’s College London) is that a good philosophical text will keep yielding insights the longer and more closely you read it. Of course you can’t, for practical reasons, just keep reading and re-reading the same page forever, even if that page was written by Plato or Kant. But one should also resist the thought “ok, I basically get the point of this text,” or “I already know what this author thinks about this topic,” and swiftly move on. Slow reading, and repeated reading, is crucial. Towards this end, it is useful to remind yourself that the text you’re looking at is more complicated than you think. Just assume you haven’t yet figured it out fully. Of course not every text rewards this kind of scrutiny; perhaps there are even some bits of Plato that aren’t this rich (if so I haven’t found them). But with any given text, as for the history of philosophy as a whole, it doesn’t hurt to assume that there is always more to discover.

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