Rule 7 for history of philosophy: ask yourself why they care

Posted on 23 September 2014

Rule 7: Ask yourself why they care

This and the next couple of rules are going to be about avoiding anachronism. That seems obvious enough, but anachronism is surprisingly hard to avoid in history of philosophy, so I thought I would break the issue down into several aspects. This first one is, I think, often overlooked. Instead of assuming that the historical figures we study are motivated by the same philosophical worries that worry us, we need to understand why they care about each issue they raise. Often it will be because of something in the historical context (see rule 4), a view held by a predecessor, or something else in their own philosophical system. Seeing what led them to a particular argument or discussion will help us understand that argument or discussion.

My favorite example here is the medieval debates over the eternity of the world. We might even be tempted to dismiss the whole debate as uninteresting, since modern physics has rendered the debate obsolete. But if we dig into the motivation for the debate (as I tried to do in, for instance, episodes 144 and 161) we see that the eternity debate was not only about eternity. It was about God's relationship to the world, and more abstractly, about how to understand the concepts of necessity and causation.

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