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Why read old philosophy? (meteuphoric.wordpress.com)
227 points by Hooke on Jan 8, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 180 comments



I realize there's a (stereotypical) tendency for scientists and engineers to look down on philosophy - and I think this tendency colors this whole discussion to the extent that it almost borders on being a touchy subject.

But a lot of the claims about the uselessness of philosophy in the modern world are probably based around the fact that, at least from the perspective of an Ancient Greek like Aristotle, there was no actual distinction between "science" and "philosophy". It was all just sophia (wisdom) to him. It was applying abstract inductive reasoning to arrive at universal truths.

And this is patently obvious from simply reading Aristotle or the Pre-Socratics. These writers routinely make what modern readers would consider outright scientific claims. A lot of what Aristotle wrote is testable and falsifiable, and has indeed been falsified. But to Aristotle there wasn't any inherent epistemological difference between reasoning about physics and reasoning about justice. But today, we clearly separate these two spheres via empiricism - a method of thinking that wasn't really available to the Ancient Greeks, because it wouldn't be truly appreciated as part of a formal, scientific method, until the Medieval Arabs and later the European Renaissance thinkers really formalized it.

So in that sense, it's understandable why some modern students might find reading Aristotle as silly as reading, say, a Medieval book about medicine or alchemy.

I would argue, however, that Aristotle (and many of the ancient philosophers) are actually very valuable to read precisely because of their historical impact, and how their works shaped the course of human thought for millennia. Aristotle's particular ideas about physics might be hopelessly wrong, but his thought processes and writings influenced Europe and the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. It is therefore critically important to have a good understanding of Ancient Greek philosophy if you are to have any hope of understanding the history of Western thought in general.


I'd say you're overstating the extent to which Aristotle was "hopelessly wrong" in his physical theories. It's more that the things he was right about have become so deeply ingrained in us that we don't even consider them questions of physics — they're just "how things are".

For example, his breaking down of the 4 types of causes: what a thing is made out of (material), what makes it what it is (formal), what process or force made it that way (efficient), and its purpose (final). What we today mean by "cause" usually only includes the efficient cause, so calling the rest "causes" can confuse more than it illuminates (at least at first). But everyone of course understands how to analyze things in terms of their matter, form, and purpose, even though we don't call them "causes" and we don't consider it "physics."


With Aristotle in particular, I was thinking mostly of his statements about gravity and objects moving towards their natural place.


This is an interesting take on how Aristotle's physics was more correct than he is usually given credit for:

https://arxiv.org/abs/1312.4057


The point is that yes, there are some things he was wrong about, and when we think of the questions that "physics" amswers, those are the ones that come to mind. But that ignores the contributions he made that we don't think of as contributions at all because we take them so for granted that it's not at all clear to us that people could ever have thought otherwise. I don't know if the aitiai are the greatest examples of this, but the entire approach of questioning why objects move and change the way they do and trying to reduce it to a concise set of rules? My understanding of history is that that was very novel.


I agree. I don't downplay Aristotle's massive contribution to the development of human knowledge. I just claim it is more of historical significance than practical significance. I mean, Aristotelian physics has no real technological applications in the same way that Newtonian physics is used by rocket scientists or Einsteinian physics is used by your GPS.


Absolutely! I was actually thinking of the change and movement stuff too but I couldn't think of a concise way to express it like you can with the causes.


How far of Lagrangian mechanics this is ?


Most philosophers will readily acknowledge the pitfalls of early philosophy - many pre-Socratic views are indeed falsifiable, and Aristotle makes all kinds of silly physical qualifications surrounding virtue and its prerequisites.

The view that empiricism is what divides science and philosophy is a controversial one. Many philosophers and students of philosophy (including myself) think that there exist empirical truths in the fields of ethics and metaphysics, the latter of which is not scientifically testable by definition.

I like to distinguish science and philosophy in terms of their object of study - the sciences inform our knowledge of the external world, while philosophy informs our knowledge of ourselves and (the rightness of/the reasons for) our behavior within that world. I don't think that's a perfect definition, but it comes close to explaining the need for empiricism in both fields.


What do you mean by empiricism? I was always under the impression that observation and experiment are what empiricism is all about so I don't understand what you mean by saying that it is empirical but not testable.


Philosophy engages in observation and experiment just like the sciences do. It's just that those observations and experiments tend to (but don't always!) run orthogonal to scientific ones.

You can test metaphysical claims via a metaphysical framework or even "pure logic" (according to some), just not via normative physics. For example, how can physics even begin to prove that you or I exist? It can qualify our existence as objects in a world, but this says nothing about our minds, their "location", why they exist, why they're different "things" (if they are different things), and so forth.

Edit: To the downvoter, please respond as well. Silence hurts more than disagreement.


I did not downvote you (I have no time for people who downvote without explanation), but I do think that philosophical 'experiments' are not at all like science experiments, and the salient difference is precisely the lack of an empirical arbiter. Your second paragraph is a good argument for that point.

One consequence is that philosophical experiments rarely reach a conclusion (except when science does catch up, as will probably happen over consciousness, for example.) I have come to realize that reaching a conclusion is not the point; the discussion is the point.


I think the point of the empirical arbiter is an interesting one. My second paragraph can indeed be used as an argument for the absence of one in philosophy.

But where is such an arbiter in science? After all, science is inductive, not deductive. It can give you lots of good reasons and evidence to believe a theory, but the principle of falsifiability requires that a counterexample must plausibly exist.

If either philosophical or scientific experiments were to reach an unfalsifiable conclusion, I think we would have a serious problem on our hands.


Can you give any examples of philosophical ideas proved experimentally?


Proof theory itself. You can thank Boole, Cantor, Peirce, Russel, Frege, and Peano (among many others) for that.

Depending upon what you mean by a proof, there are also "ideas" in philosophy that are trivially true:

1. I am.

2. There is a thing that I am.

3. The thing that I am is me.

4. I am me.

These are completely trivial, but they're also interesting from a language-and-object perspective.


I'd expect philosophy to try and dive into what point 1 actually means rather than to jump to conclusions with points 2 to 4, otherwise it becomes mostly a practice of defining axioms within the realm of thought and manipulating concepts and relations, much like mathematics but without the practicality (in most cases). Of course, answering what point 1 means could require venturing beyond the scope of what can be reached by thought alone, which would place it outside the acceptable scientific boundary. It appears to me as if philosophy is in the unfortunate position where on one hand, it is ill equipped to answer the deepest questions and on the other it can't arrive at any important and empirically falsifiable conclusions.

Would be happy to be proved wrong, though.


Oh, they were meant to be individual axioms, not a cohesive argument. That's what makes them interesting - they're four things that say essentially the same thing, but with profoundly different implications and preconditions.

> otherwise it becomes mostly a practice of defining axioms within the realm of thought and manipulating concepts and relations, much like mathematics but without the practicality (in most cases)

That tradition in mathematics comes from analytic philosophy. That's not to say that all philosophy is about defining and manipulating relations (it isn't, and shouldn't be), but that language-games (to borrow Wittgenstein's term) are a subject of valid inquiry.

> It appears to me as if philosophy is in the unfortunate position where on one hand, it is ill equipped to answer the deepest questions and on the other it can't arrive at any important and empirically falsifiable conclusions.

Yeah, it often appears that way. However, we except such a sorry state of affairs in theoretical physics and the workings of the mind -- why should we be any less charitable with philosophy?

> Would be happy to be proved wrong, though.

With emphasis added: wouldn't we all? ;)


> However, we except such a sorry state of affairs in theoretical physics and the workings of the mind -- why should we be any less charitable with philosophy?

Well, personally I don't expect nor accept any non-falsifiable theories from any branch of science. There is a tendency to relax this requirement in some theoretical fields of physics and to say that it suffices if a theory is empirical and unambiguous. Of course one can make the line fuzzy with some of them and say that they are tentatively falsifiable (i.e they can be once humanity will be reach a certain level of progress), but as far as I'm concerned, those type of theories are more suitable as a special branch of mathematics than of physics. Perhaps philosophy can help in categorising these theories ;)

>> Would be happy to be proved wrong, though.

>With emphasis added: wouldn't we all? ;)

Yes, well, I never claimed to be free from the constraints of thought :)


Why would you file proof theory under philosophy as opposed to mathematical logic? Proof theory isn't any less mathematical than, say, the integers. You start with a fully formal set of ground rules specifying the system you're studying, and then use a specified mechanism of formal deduction to determine features of that system that are a product of that specification.

You can use proof theory to strengthen/weaken claims in the philosophy of mathematics, like how Godel's incompleteness theorems removed the possibility of a universal logical framework for all possible mathematics. But you're doing the same when you shoot down Aristotle's claims with the physical sciences, so I don't see why you would that would be a reason to file it under philosophy.


If you are going to exclude anything that could be considered mathematics or science from the domain of philosophy, then trivially, you will find that philosophy concerns things which can't be precisely quantified or empirically proven.

Proof theory does, however, originate from the work of philosophers (Aristotle being a salient example), and issues relating to proof theory are central to epistemology and metaphysics.

One problem that philosophy has is that its most conspicuously successful branches often become disciplines in their own right, so that philosophy doesn't get any credit.


There's a difference between excluding them from the domain of philosophy, and co-opting them as developments of philosophy. The distinction here is that the methods used to develop proof theory look exceedingly similar to how mathematics is developed, and quite alien to the methods of philosophy both of that time and now. Frege didn't develop his proof theory by spending years doing literary reviews of previous philosophers, or by writing papers and books based on suppositions.

You're right that proof theory, like mathematics and science, branched off from philosophy some time in the past. But looking at the successes of these branches as evidence that you should read old philosophy or engage in the mainstream methods of contemporary philosophy when their methods are worlds apart does not make much sense.


>The distinction here is that the methods used to develop proof theory look exceedingly similar to how mathematics is developed, and quite alien to the methods of philosophy both of that time and now.

Logical reasoning has always been one of the methods of philosophy. It seems quite bizarre to say that the development of proof theory has nothing to do with philosophy, which for millennia prior had been interested in the question of what distinguishes good arguments from bad arguments and which arguments are formally valid.

Also, proof theory does not look that much like the rest of math. It certainly doesn't look much like the math that people were doing in Frege's time. So I don't really buy the argument that proof theory is distinctively "mathematical" as opposed to "philosophical" (to the extent that these terms are meaningful in the first place).

>Frege didn't develop his proof theory by spending years doing literary reviews of previous philosophers,

I'm not exactly sure what "doing literary reviews" is supposed to refer to, or why you think that this is more characteristic of philosophy than logical argumentation, but Frege certainly read previous philosophers. To a significant extent Frege's work is a reaction to the limitations of Aristotelean logic. And it's pretty clear from reading Aristotle that he didn't think of the study of logic as a branch of mathematics.

>But looking at the successes of these branches as evidence that you should read old philosophy or engage in the mainstream methods of contemporary philosophy when their methods are worlds apart does not make much sense.

Could you elaborate? I'm not sure which methods you're referring to.


> Logical reasoning has always been one of the methods of philosophy. It seems quite bizarre to say that the development of proof theory has nothing to do with philosophy, which for millennia prior had been interested in the question of what distinguishes good arguments from bad arguments and which arguments are formally valid.

Logical reasoning in the form it takes in the philosophical works of any of the philosophers you mentioned and the kind done in mathematics are worlds apart. Comparing Spinoza's "proofs" which are supposed to follow the style of geometric proofs with actual geometric proofs reveals a pretty stark contrast. More generally, philosophers rarely phrase their logic in a formal language (although they do on occasion), while mathematics has been done only in a formal logic since the advent of proper axiomatic foundations in the early 20th century. Informal reasoning is often used to assist formal arguments at an intuitive level, but no mathematician takes it seriously on its own.

How many philosophical works do you see start with a list of fully precise axioms and then continue only use those as assumptions, making their uses clear? There are a few I can think of, but they are far from the norm.

> Also, proof theory does not look that much like the rest of math.

How so? Even early results like Godel's incompleteness theorems look strikingly like other mathematical proofs. He lays out the precise definition of a formal system, and even sets up an encoding for sentences of that language in the natural numbers. A significant part of it is also pretty much straight out of Cantor's diagonal argument.

More modern proof theory looks even more like conventional mathematics, with a lot of it being phrased in the language of category theory.

> And it's pretty clear from reading Aristotle that he didn't think of the study of logic as a branch of mathematics.

Yes, because the mathematics of Aristotle's time was not equipped to handle something like proof theory. Frege (as well as the others you listed) at the very least thought the right way to study logic was through mathematics.

> Could you elaborate? I'm not sure which methods you're referring to.

Okay, pick 10 papers at random from a philosophy journal of your choice. How many of them are yet another examination of the one of the works of "old philosophy" the original article was imploring us to read, and how many are exploring something new? I don't mean "something new" as in standing completely alone and without any references to past works (I've yet to see such a paper in math or science), but simply drawing conclusions that are something other than a response to an age old argument. And as I said before, how many use formal logic as opposed to informal logic?


>More generally, philosophers rarely phrase their logic in a formal language (although they do on occasion), while mathematics has been done only in a formal logic since the advent of proper axiomatic foundations in the early 20th century.

I don't see any distinction between the two disciplines here. Philosophers make use of formal logic when it makes sense to do so (lots of discussion of the ontological argument makes uses of formal logic, for example [1]). Mathematicians follow exactly the same strategy. It's quite false to say that mathematics is now done only in a formal logic. The vast majority of mathematical proofs are presented informally (even in textbooks on logic!)

>How so? Even early results like Godel's incompleteness theorems look strikingly like other mathematical proofs.

I guess the best example is Frege, whose work was ignored by mathematicians and logicians alike because it looked completely alien. But I was thinking more of, say, proofs of completeness for systems of propositional logic, which are highly notation-dependent and consist in running through a bunch of cases in a boring mechanical way. Peirce and Gauss seem worlds apart.

> Frege (as well as the others you listed) at the very least thought the right way to study logic was through mathematics.

I'd say he thought that the right way to study mathematics was through logic. In other words, he was trying to put mathematics on proper logical foundations. (This is the project that Russell tried, and essentially failed, to complete.)

>how many are exploring something new? I don't mean "something new" as in standing completely alone and without any references to past works (I've yet to see such a paper in math or science), but simply drawing conclusions that are something other than a response to an age old argument. And as I said before, how many use formal logic as opposed to informal logic?

Most conclusions in philosophy are responses to age old arguments for the very simple and obvious reason that people have been thinking about philosophical problems for a long time. Occasionally people do come up with new problems, of course. The philosophy of language would be one example where lots of genuinely new questions have arisen and been given interesting answers (partly as a result of developments in mathematical logic).

It's quite common for philosophy papers to use formal logic, but only when it is helpful. In exactly the same way, mathematical proofs are presented formally on occasion, when it is helpful, but not as a matter of course.

[1] https://philpapers.org/archive/OPPOTL.pdf


These are not trivial at all. Read Metzinger's "The Ego Tunnel" for more information. There are neural nets within neural nets, but there is no such thing as "me", "you" or "I". Also additionally Dawkins's "The Magic of Reality" is quite a food for thought.


Look at something like archaeology. You can find an artifact in a garbage pit and record it as an observation. Few would challenge this activity as unempirical. On the other hand, no experiment will be able to reproduce your find: once you've dug it up, you've dug it up. The best you can hope for is to find something similar at another site.


I think the poster may be thinking of the kinds of statements that Kripke argued were necessary truths that could only be known a posteriori.


I have Naming and Necessity on my bookshelf ;)


>that there exist empirical truths in the fields of ethics and metaphysics, the latter of which is not scientifically testable by definition.

This is a digression off the main subject, but at least with respect to ethics I think that's a pretty bold claim. Ethical naturalism is a perfectly mainstream school of thought, and they don't share this definition of ethics.


> sciences inform our knowledge of the external world, while philosophy informs our knowledge of ourselves and (the rightness of/the reasons for) our behavior within that world

How would you categorize ethology, behavioral neuroscience etc?


Not sure I can get behind this. We read primary sources in history, but in those cases it is to get understanding that can only come from a first person account, like subjective experience. With philosophy, it is argued that Aristotle's thoughts can only be fully conveyed BY Aristotle (aside from the hero worship of some philosophers I know).

My sense is that you're really on to something with empiricism. Philosophy is now largely about purely social phenomena, like epistemology and ethics, that don't have a physical "correct" answer (at least to most people--maybe not Kant). That being the case, there really is something unique about, for example, Aristotle's take on virtue ethics, since there is no virtue ethics outside of his conception of it (and our practicing of it). So the pure thing being studied in philosophy is Aristotle's conception and the surrounding literature of virtue ethics, whereas with physics and Newton his theories and equations are pure things and there is no value to his particular exposition.


Ancient Greek is stained by history - it was the only science taught in Universities for what? a thousand years. That's the catch - its revered beyond all reason due to history. Simultaneously its old-fashioned and outdated for the same reason. Hard to disentangle the two.

I read the Philosophers in College. But I cannot imagine I would ever again pick up a book of Ancient Greek Philosophy. There's just nowhere to go from that stuff. Informative as history, and as an intro to the subject. But I been there; done that.


>There's just nowhere to go from that stuff.

Many of the questions Aristotle was grappling with are still open questions. E.g., are there essences? Do statements about the future have a truth value? What is the good life? What is causation?


>Ancient Greek is stained by history - it was the only science taught in Universities for what? a thousand years. That's the catch - its revered beyond all reason due to history.

That's reversing cause and effect. It's not a mere accident of history that it was "taught in Universities for a thousand years".

>But I cannot imagine I would ever again pick up a book of Ancient Greek Philosophy. There's just nowhere to go from that stuff

Actually it's one of the best investments in one's personal development and understanding of the world they could make.

Physical philosophy aside, philosophy, like arts, doesn't get deprecated over time. Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Epictetus, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, etc are as relevant as they ever were.


Sure it was. It was all they had for 'science' for a thousand years. Something about the 'dark ages'.

And, as stated above, been there and done that.


>Sure it was. It was all they had for 'science' for a thousand years. Something about the 'dark ages'

There was not much "dark" about the dark ages (as 20th and 21st century scholarly research increasingly showed), and what little was was due to the collapse of a huge organized empire, not because because "that was all they had for science" (I guess "that" being Aristotle).

In any case, this is an extremely shallow assessment of the role of philosophy -- like someone reading Cliff Notes on Shakespeare and thinking they got all there is to it.


> It's not a mere accident of history that it was "taught in Universities for a thousand years".

What are your reasons for this that are not historically contingent?

> Physical philosophy aside, philosophy, like arts, doesn't get deprecated over time. Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Epictetus, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, etc are as relevant as they ever were.

Except Kant and Leibniz believed things about mathematics and logic that were later found to be unequivocally false. Plato's view of mathematics is still arguable if you rephrase it enough, but it needs some big modifications. Spinoza's attempts at writing his arguments as if they were geometrical proofs are a joke, he pulls axioms and rules of deduction out of the air.

That's not to say that the things they said about the non-physical (even the ones already found to be wrong) are not valuable, but they're a far cry from being "as relevant as they ever were."


That's funny, I've seen Stoicism making inroads in various places lately, including this very hallowed forum.


Because when people hear "ancient Greek philosopher" they think of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Figures like Zeno and Epicurus are mostly overlooked.


You could also history is stained by the ancient Greeks--and thus the present is stained by ancient Greek thinking, which is exactly why it's so important to study. Aspects of morality or the scientific method that we take for granted need to be understood in a historical context, and if you want to understand the modern world, you need to understand the thousand-year foundation it's built on.


My criticism of philosophy nowadays is not that it isn't valuable to read, but that it's not read from a historical perspective. Instead, people to often read i.e. Aristotle as if it contains modern truths. While some parts of Aristotle remain true, his ideas have been greatly refined over centuries, and integrated into our culture to the point that uneducated people in the modern world often have a stronger grasp of practical philosophy than Aristotle did.

But too often old philosophy is taught and read in a vacuum, not as history but as a source of practical modern philosophy. This results in repeated resurgences of bad ideas that were refined away by more modern advancements in philosophy, but are revived when people read old philosophy uncritically. Few people have an understanding of the refinements to even refute many older philosophers claims.

Moreover, there are many accepted ideas which we take for granted that should be more deeply questioned which come from philosophy. For example, the pervasive Socratic idea that mind and body are separate entities is all but disproven by modern understanding of the nervous system, but it's deeply ingrained in our culture, and needs less reinforcement, not more.


> I would argue, however, that Aristotle (and many of the ancient philosophers) are actually very valuable to read precisely because of their historical impact, and how their works shaped the course of human thought for millennia.

You could make the same argument for theology, yet you rarely hear people talk about the importance of reading someone like Irenaeus (for example). And if someone like that is studied, it's often looking at their historical context and their historical impact, rather than someone like Aristotle where the focus is often on the works itself. You don't see many people saying we should be reading and arguing Irenaeus' theological theories.

A class on Aristotelian epistemology is not a class on "Western thought," and trying to mask the former by disguising it as the later only suggests that there isn't a terribly great reason to study it.


I wouldn't equate Aristotelian epistemology to "Western Thought", but I could surely imagine a course on the history of western thought that took Aristotle's treatment of epistemology (or whatever else) as an important landmark.


Sure. I once took a course on modern Iranian history that had us read Khomeini's "Islamic Government." But that's very different from how the book would be studied in an Iranian seminary. A historical look is interested in how something ties into the surrounding history, and doesn't pass judgement on the quality of the writing or spend time trying to determine its soundness.


It sounds like we agree more than we disagree. I would substitute a term like "ties into" for "influenced/gave rise to/made possible."

We don't really need to know much about the merits of any particular Aristotelian investigation these days. But that material can be critical for helping us understand, and yes, helping us critically evaluate, the schools of thought it gave rise to.


It's interesting that even within the field of philosophy the term sophist/sophistry from the root sophia has come to denote deception and fallacy rather than knowledge or wisdom.

I would agree that philosophy has evolved somewhat (Nozick and Rawls), but for me it never really achieved the level of empirical usefulness (past perhaps rule utilitarianism), because it has never been clear enough how (or even when it was appropriate) to apply it. If there were such a thing as "Newtonian" philosophy that had useful testable equations, perhaps I would view it differently.

At least I have some idea when physics rules break down and when they are useful approximations. In my experience most philosophy is written as if it is completely true not a model of reality.


In Greek you can use the same root for different purposes. I.e. it is not the word sophia or sophos that came to denote deception or fallacy. Sophist is someone who deceives using the pretense of philosophy.

I do not see knowledge as something that comes with an application manual. I.e. there is no manual defining how will use number theory, but still it has applications, sometimes completely unexpected.

I would argue that philosophy navigates the fields where the testability of equations and "hard" science fails. That is also why some scientists do philosophy when/where the rules break down.


>wouldn't be truly appreciated as part of a formal, scientific method... until... [later] thinkers really formalized it.

They didn't formalize empiricism or the scientific method. They couldn't have because they didn't have the tools. In fact, it's still not formal.

The reason nobody formalized the scientific method is that science depends entirely on the process of induction, and nobody understood induction in any kind of formal, rigorous, mathematical way until the middle part of the 20th century, with the work of men like Kolmogorov, Solomonoff, Vapnik, and Chaitin.


Aristotle had historical impact, but there are ancient philosophers whose ideas were much more useful. In particular, I would point to Zeno (of the Stoics), Epicurus, Democritus, and most of all, the Buddha.


I'm not convinced by the author's argument. The difference between philosophy and physics is that old philosophical arguments do not become less correct over time. In physics, later physicists build on the earlier body of knowledge and refine it, making it more correct. In philosophy, later philosophers may suggest a counterargument to the early philosopher, but as philosophy does not normally deal in absolutes it is impossible to say the later philosopher is now more correct and worth reading instead of the earlier philosopher.

For example: a philosopher may argue that murder is morally wrong, and a later philosopher may argue that murder is morally right. Neither answer is factually wrong or right. We should therefore read the work of both philosophers to get the most value out of our studies and to form our own opinions.

---

I'd also argue that it's not always worth reading the earlier philosopher's work if someone else can rewrite it in a better form. Personally I think Immanuel Kant's philosophy is interesting but poorly written, and you'd get more value out of reading a later text about his philosophy that his works himself.

Other writers such as Plato have stood the test of time and are worth reading (assuming you have a good translation).


You're generally right, but I take issue with the claims: "philosophy does not normally deal in absolutes it is impossible to say the later philosopher is now more correct and worth reading instead of the earlier philosopher" and "Neither answer is factually wrong or right".

I hope you and everyone else realizes that these are philosophical claims, and controversial ones at that!

I would tenatively assert that the majority of philosophers now and in the past have believed the following two things: 1) moral statements like "murder is wrong" are objectively true or false. 2) philosophical statements are also objectively true or false.

(Note that I say "objective", not "factual" as some people would make a distinction between the two, as in the fact-value distinction).

Like any philosophical issue, there is a lot of debate. But when characterizing what philosophers think, how philosophers act, you have to make clear what's your own view, as opposed to settled fact.

That said, I agree with you the central claim that the works of historical philosophers are often of equal or greater insight than contemporary work.


> I would tenatively assert that the majority of philosophers now and in the past have believed the following two things: 1) moral statements like "murder is wrong" are objectively true or false. 2) philosophical statements are also objectively true or false.

That is not entirely true about Heraclitus. Aristotle accused him of believing that there is no "true" or "false", and even though Aristotle was biased (don't know the reasons, but it seems like he holds a grudge against Heraclitus) by skipping through the remaining fragments from Heraclitus I'd say that Aristotle was at least partially right, there are indeed moments when you think that for guys (they were mostly guys) like Heraclitus there wasn't a clear distinction between "true" and "false".

I've said it before on HN, in slightly more eloquent terms, that Aristotle and his principle of "tertium non datur" is what allowed our civilization to scientifically and economically prosper, it's what allowed us to put a man on the Moon and to hold mini-computers connected to the Internet inside our pockets, but if one reads those Heraclitus fragments there are hints of possible intellectual/not-sure-what-to-call them worlds where indeed the difference between "true" and "false" is relative, where a thing can be "true" and "false" and in any other state at any-one time.

I can't comment about Heraclitus's or pre-Socratics' views on morals, AFAIK that was mostly a thing that started to matter with Plato and then with the Stoics. It certainly became "a thing" in later Anglo-Saxon philosophy, where things like "sins" and the like started to become important.


Eastern philosophy also holds some middle path values that reject true/false dischotomies. However, the vast majority of western philosophy—what people tend to refer to with "philosophy"—is built on objective truths and deductive reasoning. I'm comfortable with his point #2 above.

The actual existence of truth--that's another story.


Good point. I'd edit my comment to read "Western philosophy" if I could still edit it.


He just means that great philosophers tend to talk about relationships in the abstract and not historical artifacts that become dated. Murder is wrong is not going out of date any time soon, and yet "murder by electric chair is wrong" is hardly going to be considered a great philosophical statement because it depends on incidental artifacts.


> moral statements like "murder is wrong" are objectively true or false

That is an incredibly controversial statement... Moral relativism much?


I pretty clearly said it was controversial, so I'm not sure what you're trying to say.

That said, moral relativism has a very low status in philosophy. Many philosophers think it is simply incoherent (the fifth paragraph here dances around one reason: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/#MetMorR...).

It is much more common for philosophers to hold that there simply are no moral facts, or that moral statements are merely expressions of approval or disapproval, or some similar position (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism/).


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_war_theory

The value of something like just war theory isn't so much to say the concept is right or wrong, or this historical war was right or wrong, although plenty of people love to derail the discussion to grind their own particular axe on those topics, but the real value is to define the right way to talk about the topic, and that doesn't change much with time.

As a minimal example of a very small corner of the field today, look at the current Catholic dogma where they say the right way to talk about it is WRT the damage an aggressor or proposed victim is causing must be "lasting, grave, and certain". Arguably the order the arguments are discussed implies a certain priority to the issues.

Hopefully I've managed to offend grand op by pointing out that as long as it takes PR to cause a war, then the philosophical subfield of just war theory will be living and growing continuously over time, while also offending great grand op by pointing out that just because you haven't read Saint Augustine on the topic of just war (or possibly anything else) doesn't prove he has nothing of value in 2017. Or my genealogy of posts might be inaccurate, but whatever.


There is an outstanding issue though: it really is the case that contemporary analysis of philosophical issues are far better than historical ones.

Since the middle of the 20th C. every academic discipline, including philosophy, has devloped to the point where there are many new issues -- and of the old outstanding issues, these are presented much more clearly.

There are a great number of mistakes in the history of philosophy which only became apparent after a systematic treatment.

The reason I think, people read old philosophy is due to how academic contemporary research philosophy is. Research conducted on clearly identified and analysed problems exists in journals and in quite forboding books.

Historical philosophy is part of a cultural discussion and is often presented in a simpler, smaller and more digestible way. As far as research goes, contemporary research philosophers in academic depts do not read the history of philosophy. Lay people do.


> As far as research goes, contemporary research philosophers in academic depts do not read the history of philosophy. Lay people do.

I'd say that is a very grave mistake, and I admit I'm a lay person. Just a week or so ago there was a philosopher that died and whose views on morals and life and death were shared on HN, and I have to say that they didn't seem more profound than what a high-school pupil would have written, I certainly learned more from skimming through the pre-Socratics than reading that philosopher's views on stuff.

Maybe that is an issue with the US Analytical school of philosophy, which seems to me that it really tries to answer "serious" questions like what's the difference between right and wrong and other nonsense like that, like there is a "guaranteed" answer to these types of questions. It's a stupid positivist view on human understanding that I thought died in the early 1800s.


I agree with you, I think it's the difference between the US (analytic etc) and continental philosophy approach.

If anything a good grasp of the "history of philosophy" protects one from 100% of the crap that passes for deep thinking in politics, culture, current events analysis, self-help, etc.


Then as a lay person you've made a profound misreading of the situation.

In meta-ethics there are a variety of positions. If moral realism happens to be popular among philosophers working in meta-ethics it would be because they have been extremeley well informed about a whole vareity of arguments in a systematic way that you're not informed about. And equally, the reverse.

It will always be the case however, that contrary positions will receive a capable defence by some one.

Lay people often come in with a scepticism that is often rooted in some intuition that ends up being quite unfounded when spelled out clearly.

Analytic philosophy is not a school. Its just another word for "research philosophy" really, by which we mean a practice of being systematic about arguments, problems and how they interact. There is no deliberate conensus on the basis of some ideological agreement that makes them "a school".

This is all historical, guid-hall style ideological grouping that has no place in modern academia. Of course, this is exactly what continental philosophy idealises.


> In meta-ethics there are a variety of positions. If moral realism happens to be popular among philosophers working in meta-ethics it would be because they have been extremeley well informed about a whole vareity of arguments in a systematic way that you're not informed about. And equally, the reverse.

Maybe I read this wrong, but you're just saying something of the like: "Experts know better, you're not expert, so just shut up".

> Lay people often come in with a scepticism that is often rooted in some intuition that ends up being quite unfounded when spelled out clearly.

I generally don't interfere in subjects I don't know many things about or which don't have a direct effect on my life, but I'd say that philosophy interferes with our lives (of all of us) each and every day, there are no "lay-men" when it comes to philosophy (I'll refer you to Heraclitus's speech about how one can "talk about philosophy even in the kitchen", but you seem not to care about dead people from the past), because each of us makes philosophy-related decisions every day.

> Analytic philosophy is not a school. Its just another word for "research philosophy" really, by which we mean a practice of being systematic about arguments, problems and how they interact.

That's the positivist approach I was criticizing, when it comes to social sciences there is absolutely no way for one to be "systematic", it's just a "glasperlenspiel". Someone above me mentioned that we already know "that murder is bad", to which I'd say: Is that so? Then how come that we allow abortions? How come that we allow euthanasia? How come we allow wars? (and before anyone here accuses me of being anti-abortion or anti-euthanasia, I'm not, I'm just calling them for what they are).

> This is all historical, guid-hall style ideological grouping that has no place in modern academia. Of course, this is exactly what continental philosophy idealises.

I don't care a damn about academia, pardon my French. I just want to be able to better understand what's been happening around me (and what's been happening for around the last 2-3 thousand years), and I found philosophy to be a good tool.


Would you have a reference for, say, a modern, systematic take on moral philosophy?


Names: John Rawls, Philippa Foot, Michael Sandel, Mary Midgely, etc.

Something like: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Contemporary-Metaethics-Introductio...

perhaps.


Not sure if I agree with the contention that old philosophical arguments don't get less correct over time. Look at logical positivism. I don't think anyone believes that there is a clean divide between positive and synthetic statements anymore.


If you think Plato is cool with the 'but that's just you're opinion' defense, I'd suggest a reread.


Philosophies absolutely deal in absolutes. See for example -- Hegel.


> In philosophy, later philosophers may suggest a counterargument to the early philosopher, but as philosophy does not normally deal in absolutes it is impossible to say the later philosopher is now more correct and worth reading instead of the earlier philosopher.

Absolutely wrong. I have heard this on several occasions - where do people get this misconception from? The whole point of materialism (and especially new materialism, and even the "materialist Hegelianism" of Badiou and Zizek) is to show that idealism, whether in Greek or Eastern form, is wrong and misleading, and the negative effects it has had on people's every day lives in terms of religion, politics, and thinking about "the way the world works."


This is not a very good article. Like a lot of writers in the Lesswrong-rationalist sphere, the author is very smart and describes her thought process in great detail, but has too many erroneous premises and ends up with wrong conclusions.

I understand her conclusion as "people study old philosophers, not to learn about their views, but to learn about their thinking techniques". In contrast, I would say that the primary reason for studying old philosophers first-hand is to properly understand philosophy.

(I wouldn't start by studying the old philosophers - I would start by reading modern summaries, especially those that focus on the actual philosophical problems. Study the old philosophers only if you want a full understanding).

You have to understand what philosophy is. It's studying the fundamental nature of reality and our thoughts about it. When you get down to fundamental issues, there are often a very small number of plausible answers, and much of philosophy is extrapolating the consequences of those answers. These issues are timeless and still relevant.

The pervasive modern belief is that philosophy is mostly meaningless word-games that can be dismissed, and science should be the basis of everything. But collecting more observations of reality does not help answer these questions. Furthermore, without knowledge of the implications of certain answers, you easily wind up advocating positions that don't actually hold up. (E.g., many people think neuroscience has disproved the existence of consciousness, when all it has proved is that consciousness is closely related to the brain).

Like Katja, I used to follow Lesswrong-style rationalism, but after studying different philosophies I concluded that Objectivism made the most sense. (Whatever you may have heard about Ayn Rand, I recommend evaluating her views for yourself). Leonard Peikoff gave an excellent and comprehensive course on the history of philosophy from an Objectivist POV: https://campus.aynrand.org/campus-courses/history-of-philoso...


> The pervasive modern belief is that philosophy is mostly meaningless word-games that can be dismissed, and science should be the basis of everything. But collecting more observations of reality does not help answer these questions. Furthermore, without knowledge of the implications of certain answers, you easily wind up advocating positions that don't actually hold up. (E.g., many people think neuroscience has disproved the existence of consciousness, when all it has proved is that consciousness is closely related to the brain).

One thing I will add to your commentary on science and philosophy is that more recently (the last 30-50 years, especially), several sub-fields of evolutionary biology like evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have begun to fundamentally unlock new ideas about why humans behave in ways they do and why and how we created many aspects of our culture, philosophy, and sense of being (consciousness included). This overlaps significantly with what philosophers have been discussing for millennia, but now we have many more scientific tools to help understand some fundamental questions. These are complementary disciplines for understanding our existence.


Furthermore, the philosophy OF science is of incredible importance, since so much science is about creating and interpreting frameworks so that we can build systems of knowledge and prediction, rather than just useless collections of statistics. There are a number of approaches to this framework building, and I think one of the major failures of scientism is that it cannot comprehend alternative ideologies with which to construct knowledge so long as it continues to deny its own status as ideology.


I'd recommend a classical treatment of presocratic philosophy. I'm watching the Heraclitus episode and he completely misrepresents him. The sparseness of fragments that remain make it very easy to read into them what you like, and that is exactly what happens here.


"Complete misrepresentation" of philosophers (and, well, everything else) is probably to be expected with Peikoff around. He has made his bones on Objectivism being a closed system, the incentives he's got necessitate doing a lot of rearranging of reality when he's doing his preaching. And "preaching" is chosen specifically; he is a megachurcher with a different bible.

I have no use for David Kelley, like I have no professional, personal, moral or ethical use for any Objectivist (if I dropped my wallet around an Objectivist I'd have to think about kicking one home before I bent down to get it, just to be safe), but that Peikoff tried to tell him and his adherents to leave the "Objectivist Movement" because they didn't think philosophy started and stopped with Ayn Rand, because they didn't think that you have to "revere" [Peikoff's word] Rand, because they didn't think it was impossible to consider as potentially valid or edifying other systems (be they Marxism or libertarianism) that had the temerity to not put Ayn Rand on an altar...well, it's telling.


Why read old philosophy? Why not read the work that's created now?

Why study programming languages? Why not just use the best programming language?

Just as we don't know or agree about the best programming language (or we admit there's no "best" for every purpose), one answer is that the ancients may be right.

That's a fine answer, but I think it's actually secondary. Just as you don't have to think a programming language is the best to want to learn about it, you don't have to think the ancients were right to study them.

What studying other programming languages/older philosophers gives you is insight into the different ways you can formulate ideas or see the world.

It's a struggle to enter into a new way of thinking, much harder than learning a new programming language. You have a tremendous number of assumptions that you can't even state that interfere with your understanding. When you start out, a historical philosopher often either looks incomprehensible, or like a modern who is constantly wrong.

With enough work you can come to understand how that philosopher conceived the world, so that their arguments begin to make sense.

Those different ways of seeing the world are themselves of philosophical value, but they also help you understand how our contemporary understanding arose, and therefore also help you understand which aspects of our contemporary understanding are accidents or optional.


Interesting article, and I agree that a lot of the reason for reading old philosophy is so that you know how philosophers should think and argue.

But I always thought there was another practical reason - old philosophy is referenced all the time in newer philosophy - you have to read the older stuff to kind of learn the "language" of philosophy with all of the issues that have been covered and are still being covered.

Plus, old philosophy isn't necessarily irrelevant to contemporary ideas - Pre-socratics had theorized about atoms, for example. Or it's not like ethics, epistemology, or phenomenology will suddenly become irrelevant, though theories surrounding them might change a little bit and be refined and lose references to god.


> But I always thought there was another practical reason - old philosophy is referenced all the time in newer philosophy - you have to read the older stuff to kind of learn the "language" of philosophy with all of the issues that have been covered and are still being covered.

Sorry to disagree, but that's a "just so" argument: you have to do this because everybody else does. She asks, "why does everybody else do this?" which is a good question.

My thoughts on this are in another long comment on a different thread so I won't waste your time by pasting them again here.


Not at all: if other people reference old philosophy, you may need to understand old philosophy in order to understand them, regardless of whether or not they should be referencing old philosophy.

Compare: if there is a guy speaking French to you in the US, you need to understand French to understand him, even if it would be a whole lot more effective for him to speak English.


Sure, what you say is true but that's not the question she raises. Yours is simply a functional question. A very useful question, but not an insightful one.

To reframe her question with your example, she's asking: "Everyone says I should learn to write French to talk to French people. But the French froze their spelling in the 17th century, while languages like English and German have modernized their spelling. Why should the French be different?"

That is an interesting question. Hers is also: why is philosophy treated differently from, say, Physics in this regard?


Yes, a key reason to read it would be so you don't have to think of it yourself.


During my first year as a student at University I stumbled upon the book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke in the philosophy section. It was the critical edition by Peter Nidditch, beautifully typeset and bound. I flipped through it and the style of English looked intriguing so I took the book out.

I spent about a month reading through it and when I finally finished it I felt like it had profoundly changed my way of thinking and moved me deeply.

It also made me never want to read another "summary" or anything but the original work of a philosopher ever again. It's very hard to explain or understand if you haven't experienced it yourself.

I feel the same way after reading Schopenhauer, although I've never had the privilege of reading him in German. The translations by Saunders is so amazingly good in English and I've read that Schopenhauer's German is a real delight, so I can't even imagine how good it must be to read him in the original. But I imagine it would be something as beautiful and touching as Locke if you're a native English speaker.


German is very suitable for abstract thinking because you can form compound words with ease and put the function at the end of the sentence. These compound words are hard to translate (aufhebung - sublation is a famous example). Hegel wrote about this in his Logic. German is like a different programming paradigm compared to English.


That is a very Whorfian view, but McWhorter, among others, would question whether it is at all plausible that these differences in what is little more than syntax can really make a profound difference in meaning. To put it another way, if these language features do make that much of a difference, then is there much more to these texts than a self-referential discussion of the meaning of the language used in these texts?

Your programming-paradigm analogy is perhaps unintentionally apt, as underneath their particular representations, they are all Turing-equivalent.


Program languages can be Turing equivalent however an alternative view of language is its like any other data encoding and via some kinds of Shannon's Law for human speech your language has to be able to achieve a certain SNR equivalent minimum to get an idea across in a small slice of a lifetime devoted to a book at a reasonably low enough error rate to claim a meeting of the minds on a topic. So you can write Kant in German and maybe its possible to understand an English translation of Kant with a bit more effort but there exists a hard lower SNR limit below which it doesnt work such that a Lojban translation of Kant is simply a fliba. Note that its difficult to find a Lojban-English dictionary that isn't also an English thesaurus in practice. There are indications Kant could be translated into Esperanto but nobodies tried in public, or maybe because its also quite impossible.

Now as a counter example (or is it?) see the whole concept of "a quran isn't a quran unless its written in arabic at which point its a real quran" vs the similar fun the pre-reformation christians had with the same belief WRT the new testament.


That is a very interesting point, but I wonder if Lojban's avoidance of ambiguity is the root of the translation difficulty - I doubt that Kant is unambiguous.

I think the quran and new testament issues arise from theology, not linguistics.


Stack based, and concatenative, like Forth.


I'm a philosophy Philosophy PhD student. There can be a number of different reasons to read the original text of some older work of philosophy. But two central reasons that seem to be ignored here are:

1. Philosophy is closer to logic/math than science. And the reason to learn 'what Aristotle said about X' is similar to the reason to learn 'what Pythagoras said about triangles'. The pythagorean theorem doesn't become outdated in the way that scientific knowledge becomes outdated. (The difference here is just between a priori and a posteriori domains of knowledge.)

2. Explaining philosophical reasoning is, itself, doing philosophy--it requires careful reasoning and argumentation. The central thing we do (in UC Berkeley Philosophy classes) is evaluate philosophical reasoning. And so you can't simply rely on some interpreter's take on the original text--you must grapple with it yourself. Sometimes interpreters do get things right, but sometime's they don't. And telling the difference requires doing some philosophy.


About 1:

Only a small groups of researches of mathematical history reads what exactly Pythagoras said about triangles, in mainstream mathematics people just have a general idea of the results of Pythagoras or some rehash of his ideas and a few later/former mathematicians. Moreover, most theorems names are misattributed. The name of Pythagoras is more a nice historical anecdote about triangles and the equation x^2+y^2=z^2. Moreover, IIRC none of his books have survived. It's just a mix of folklore and indirect sources.

A better example is the work of Euclid. He wrote some books and some copies survived and you can still read them. Anyway, most mathematician don't read them, they have only a general idea of what Euclid wrote. I'm not sure what parts of his books were original and what parts were only a recompilation of the common knowledge of his time. He had a very interesting idea. You can choose some sensible axioms and derive all the geometry from them. [Whatever sensible means.] This idea survived, but the axioms he choose were wrong. Some are confusing, there are some missing cases ... IIRC with the Euclid's axioms you don't get the "real plane" with all it's points of , you can use them in a smaller plane were x and y are algebraic numbers, like fractions and square roots, ... but the point (x=pi, y=e) doesn't exist. IIRC the modern versions of axiomatic geometry use about 20 axioms, and some are very technical.

With most people like Gauss or Euler gets a few theorems named after them and a few anecdotes, but most mathematicians don't read the original material.

In some cases, it's nice to see as a curiosity a copy of the original publication. IIRC there are some copies of the work of Newton, Leibnitz or Cauchy were you can see that the notation they used is very similar to the current notation.

In other cases, the following mathematicians buried completely the original work and only the original name remains but most of the intermediate steps and notation are not made by the original author. IIRC all what you usually study about Galois theory is actually the version that was written later by Artin and Noether.


I didn't read your whole post but I think I agree with your point which I would phrase as saying that:

In mathematics (and science) it doesn't matter much what the researchers thought; the ideas stand on their own. So we shouldn't study Plato, but it would be good to study his ideas which are still relevant and insightful.


I'm not a mathematician of physicist, but I suspect that these disciplines are ahistorical largely out of necessity. They now require the grasp of so much technical material that there simply isn't time to teach the history of the discipline. I see no reason to think that this is a particularly good thing.


Somehow you are implying that philosophy is so simple all the material can be covered, so there is time to study the history?

What's important is understanding. If studying the history aids understanding it might be worth the time.

I believe studying the history in physics impedes understanding, because it builds up mistaken ideas that become hard to tear down.

For philosophy I'm not sure but I suspect it's better to order learning so as to make a logical progression and that isn't the same as the historical order.


I didn't mean it as a dig at philosophy for being simple. But I think it's true that there is less "essential technical material" to cover in philosophy. There's no equivalent to spending 3 months practicing solving differential equations.

>I believe studying the history in physics impedes understanding, because it builds up mistaken ideas that become hard to tear down.

This can be true in some cases of course, but there are also good ideas that get forgotten about or become unfashionable. And without studying the history of the discipline, you will often end up rejecting straw man versions of historical ideas rather than the ideas themselves.


That's the best description I have heard.


“This concern with aim or results, with differentiating and passing judgement on various thinkers is therefore an easier task than it might seem. For instead of getting involved in the real issue, this kind of activity is always away beyond it; instead of tarrying with it, and losing itself in it, “this kind of knowing is forever grasping at something new; it remains essentially preoccupied with itself instead of being preoccupied with the real issue and surrendering to it. To judge a thing that has substance and solid worth is quite easy, to comprehend it is much harder, and to blend judgement and comprehension in a definitive description is the hardest thing of all.”

Excerpt From: G. W. F. Hegel. “Phenomenology of Spirit.” Oxford University Press.


My best philosophy reads were almost always when I felt connected to the writer. They mostly all talk straight to the reader, but that doesn't mean I'm always feeling on the same level as them. But when I do it's like A close friend is telling me a story and I can understand their mind's machinations.

Hegels quote there is why I never spoke up in philosophy class. The other students would hear the tone of my voice or maybe the first 3 words out of my mouth and nothing else. They'd respond to fewer. It made me feel alienated.

As for why people should read philosophers: to learn. You can learn about wild individuality through Thoreau and Ed Abbey. Ethics from Kant, Aristotle, and many others. Life, death, and the meaning of both from many. We all have lives to lead and philosophers can help in the day to day and the big struggles.

Oh and the Socratic method is worth it, too.


I feel somewhat similar.. on a side note Hegel's way of thinking is very "algorhythmical". For example the art of the metaobject protocol explores common lisp in a similar way as Hegel explores the absolute spirit. Hegel is a macrologist par excellance!


I have an old, leather bound "History of Philosophy" text from Harvard Press - printed around 1913, I seem to remember. It's about 1200 onion-skin thin partially transparent pages. I have it sealed in an air tight bag in a strong box now, but back in the mid 80's (during my undergrad fascination with Existentialism) I read most of the book. My favorite is Ionian philosophy, the first humans to try to reasoning about their world, and they concluded that the Gods were both evil and insane, the world is their navel, and we are the lint inside. Literally.


Amy idea who the author is?


Looks like many authors, the binding says "Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy" and "Harvard Press". Inside it says published 1923; I got the date wrong above. It's very fragile now...


With a date like that, it should be out of copyright. But I can't find it in any of the usual sources. I'll keep an eye out, though.

Thanks!


A professor of Marxist political philosophy at my university told our introductory course that the point of (political, at least) philosophy wasn't to learn the philosopher's ideas on how to fix his world but rather how his thought process could be used to analyze and fix ours. I don't remember much else from the course but that bit has stuck for all these years.


Sounds like he was quoting Marx himself

> The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.


Haha, could well have been. :-)


Towards the end:

> This doesn’t explain why philosophy is different to physics (and basically all of the other subjects). Why would you want to be like Socrates, and not like Newton?

And I don't feel convinced the author has an answer.


She walks up to it but doesn't get there (yet -- it doesn't sound like she's read much philosophy yet).

All other disciplines have split off / descended from philosophy (not just in the case of western/Greek philosophy) because "philosophy" essentially just means "science". I say "disciplines" because I mean the formal study of action; thus I include Engineering in this (the Greeks recognized a difference between tradecraft (techne) and theory of which modern engineering is the amalgam). She clearly hasn't yet been exposed to this (she writes, "The story I hear about philosophy—and I actually don’t know how much it is true—is that as bits of philosophy come to have any methodological tools other than ‘think about it’, they break off and become their own sciences."). This is precisely true, yet wrong!

Think of it as abstraction: chemistry and physics broke off semi-independently; they are clearly highly related disciplines; yet trying to work with chemistry solely at the subatomic level would be a disaster. Likewise biology and ecology. I can very well believe that there are very interesting quantum sensing phenomena involved in how, say, a group of pitcher plants lure insects, phenomena which are very important to the integrity of the rainforest; yet trying to save it by working at that level would be futile.

It's better to think of chemistry, physics, ecology, and religion as technologies (trades) and work with them. They practical use has shifted from the brain to the hand. These fields still have useful roots in philosophy and can make valuable use of "traditional" philosophical tools. For example it's clear that almost all (but not 100%!) of the arguments against worrying about anthropomorphic global climate change are made by people who have a very limited understanding of epistemology, which is probably the most important subject to understand for anyone in the practical sciences.

Which brings her to the second part of her answer, which she also gives: "...suggest that in physics students are maybe missing out on learning the styles of thought that produce progress in physics.... might partially explain why Nobel prizewinner advisors beget Nobel prizewinner students." Well, umm, yes. If you study under someone who works on "X" you'll become skilled in "X". If your goal is the areas in which the Nobel committee award prizes, yes, this can help. But the problem is broader than that and applies to all disciplines. If you want to become a master craftsperson/artist like Noguchi, you should study under him (except he's dead) -- not to duplicate his work but to understand how he thought.

This is no different in programming: we read others' code to learn how to think about programming. There are still many gems in the old literature, overlooked by cultural stigma.

In fact the characterization of "old" is a misnomer. In my professional life I have frequently had recourse to Wittgenstein, Heidigger and Plato (sorry, I don't like Aristotle) and they are not only useful in shaping my direct work but when discussing it with coworkers -- essentially this understanding itself forms a techne.


Dare I hope "arguments against anthropomorphic global climate change" was not a typo? If not, please share!


Ha ha good catch. I tried to think of a witty explanation but kept laughing. Thanks!


I haven't read a ton of philosophy, but I'm almost always surprised by how different the original is from the interpretations. People are weird and surprising. Textbook explanations smooth out the rough edges. And they always take out the jokes.


It's worth noting that philosophy grad school is not necessarily focused on history. I went to Pitt (philosophy, not History and Philosophy of Science), which is arguably a department dominated by Kantians and Aristotelians, and in general people who care a lot about the history of philosophy, and the requirement was still 3 historical courses (1 modern, 1 ancient, 1 of either) out of the 12 courses needed for comprehensive evaluation.

Also, not all contemporary philosophers like history. There are plenty who think that the philosophy worth worrying about starts sometime around Quine, or maybe David Lewis. I think they're wrong, but they're out there.


There are so many reasons to read philosophy none of them have to do with philosophy as such.

Just because you know a lot about philosophy does not make you a great philosopher. But what reading philosophy do IF you are able to combine it with other skills is to provide you with an ability to think about what you do in a differen perspective.

The actual questions as interesting but not as such why you should read philosophy. You should read it because you want to have another perspective to think about what you do.


The author seems to take the goal of studying philosophy to be knowledge/technique collection, for an eventual goal of some type of measurable output. In other words, she expects philosophy to have something in common with the study of physics that it just doesn't have. One reads Plato (for example), not to collect facts about the world, but because Plato's Socrates still represents one of the most noteworthy and admirable ways of being towards the world. You read Plato to learn how to comport yourself better towards death, injustice, and most of all, your own ignorance.

The bias I'm trying to get at is shown here: > And if philosophy is about having certain experiences, like poetry, but then it would seem to be a kind of entertainment rather than a project to gain knowledge, which is at least not what most philosophers would tell you.

Dividing experience into "knowledge" and "entertainment" belies an ignorance of much of the subject matter Plato treats. Many works of ancient philosophy are still some of the most worthwhile texts to read because they are education in how to live. They represent some of the most admirable and imitable responses to the puzzle/experience of being a fragile creature who knows that it will die but doesn't know why it's here nor quite how to find out. Scientific inquiry can treat "why" questions when we understand "why" to mean "by what means?" but not when we understand "why" to mean "for the sake of what?" Many today would contend that "why" questions in the latter sense are not meaningful nor admit of answers, and you can't present empirical data in rebuttal, nor do much else besides try to inspire a sense of skepticism about their broadest assumptions, habits, etc. And encourage them to read Plato.

As others have observed, many of Aristotle's scientific claims have been falsified, and personally I didn't get much out of reading his Physics. But the Nic. Ethics made a permanent change in the way I think and feel, in part because it revealed to me how incomplete and shallow my justifications about ethics had been my whole life, and that a coherent way of thinking about ethics was possible.

Also, studying the history of philosophy and philosophy of science are the best ways to become aware of the (often questionable) philosophical assumptions that underlie the contemporary scientistic attitude towards knowledge.


This section stuck out to me also:

> Why would you want to be like Socrates, and not like Newton? Especially since Newton had more to show for his thoughts than an account of what his thoughts were like. I suspect the difference is that because physicists invent explicit machinery that can be easily taught, when you learn physics you spend your time mastering these tools. And perhaps in the process, you come to think in a way that fits well with these tools. Whereas in philosophy there is much less in the way of explicit methods to learn, so the most natural thing to learn is how to do whatever mental processes produce good philosophy.

The notion of having "more to show" is beside the point. The goal of philosophy can not be described as "producing good philosophy." The goal, at least for many of the ancients both in and outside Greece, is coming to know the truth, possessing wisdom, but not in the sense of holding in mind a set of facts about the world. It is a goal of reconciling oneself to the world, reaching the best understanding of how to live and think properly that is available to human beings.


You know how, when your opinionated uncle reads a very high level description of some tech thing you know a lot about and then tells you how it will or won't work, you kind of sigh and don't even bother to try to explain just how much he doesn't know about the subject? Engineers who've taken a few philosophy undergrad courses should keep that in mind when drawing broad conclusions about philosophy. I'm not saying you shouldn't opine, but I'd suggest doing so with the appropriate amount of humility.


I felt like the author was kind of getting at the difference between know-how and know-what, although perhaps was not aware of those terms/concepts. I would summarize her point as: you can learn the what of science and philosophy via modern books, but to learn the how of science requires practice (ideally in the lab of a Nobel prize winner), and that the point of reading old philosophy is to attempt to learn the how of those philosophers.

Whether that is actually the point of reading old philosophers, or whether that is a good way to learn the how, I do not know the answer to.


Having done a philosophy degree and been a programmer, in my opinion you're adding far too much weight to what is a very easy domain to understand. All the complicated bits became their own discipline (maths/physics/chemistry/social science/psychology).

Philosophy's not particularly complicated to someone who understands basic logic.

In some ways it's not a real subject as there's nothing to study as it's all thought experiments. There's no weird data mucking up elegant theories, or strange earth movements, or bizarre lights patterns.

These days philosophy tends to be just an argument about what a word actually means.

It's certainly nothing like a programmer dabbling in maths and claiming they've solved p v np.


> "Philosophy's not particularly complicated to someone who understands basic logic."

As with what others have said, you're completely missing the point if all you got from philosophy was logic. Logic is a prerequisite, not philosophy itself.

Philosophy is about exploring big, unanswerable questions. As soon as a field becomes objectively answerable, it splits from philosophy into a subfield usually.

My guess is that you find philosophy to be not a subject and uncomplicated because you don't care about the questions being asked by it, and parse them out, leaving you with the logical structure. If I was left with that, I would think it's a useless field too. But ignoring the interesting parts of a subject doesn't make them disappear from the field itself.

> "there's nothing to study as it's all thought experiments."

Very, very far from it. Is communism a thought experiment? Seemed pretty real to me. What about theory of law and ethics? What about politics? The most effective role of government for human happiness? Is happiness what humans need? All of these are centrally tied to philosophy, in particular ethics. It seems like your philosophy focused so much on logic that you lost most of the subject.


Where did you pick all that up from? Every replier has put lies and assumptions into my mouth, because you believe you've a "special" understanding of philosophy. You're not a special snowflake. Again, like the other repliers, you haven't even hinted what you studied, how you studied it, any qualifications, serious academic credentials. I have no idea if you're a fool who's read Sophie's World, or a Doctor in Philosophy. Then again, I doubt you're a Doctor as you've not put forward any cogent arguments. Your arguments are glorified "Oh, no it's not, 'cause I said so!".

I cared about the questions and the content. I'm past that and out the other side.

It's when you realise that despite asking all these questions and coming up with all these wonderful thought experiments that it gets you no closer at all to improving your understanding of the world, of ethics or politics or history or science, even the basics, understanding the meaning of life. All you've got are empty, hollow frameworks that you can break with simple thought experiments that make it obvious real life is far more complicated than armchair philosophy.

And worse still, the further you get along in philosophy, the more advanced work all comes down to petty arguments about the meaning of words.

I was merely using a subset of philosophy, logic, in another comment to highlight how little a module in philosophy actually teaches.


I picked it all up from college philosophy courses and practical application of philosophy (yes, it does exist, just not often taught). I plan to eventually earn a Ph.D. in philosophy and currently have enough credit to be between a major and a minor, though it isn't my major (CS). I skew towards practical philosophical subjects (social, political, contemporary ethics) for probably many of the reasons behind your frustrations, which I both understand and even share to some extent. Again, as I have said in another comment chain here, your frustrations do not make the field simple, only useless to you, which is a valid stance.

> "It's when you realise that despite asking all these questions and coming up with all these wonderful thought experiments that it gets you no closer at all to improving your understanding of the world, of ethics or politics or history or science, even the basics, understanding the meaning of life."

This has not been my experience nor would it be agreeable to many others. I think there are many people that find it useless, and many who find it useful. Just because you find it useless does not make the field generally useless to all.

You criticize my argument but fail to refute or address any of my response to the content of the field. In fact, you ignore it and keep using the assumption that philosophy is only thought experiments. When every replier has a similar opinion, you probably are better to at least examine it rather than pretending that everyone believes they have a "special" understanding of the subject. No one has pretended to have any big or even small insights on the field, or some huge understanding of even a single philosophy on its own.


This is one of those moments when you sigh and don't bother. If you've done an undergrad in philosophy and still don't think there are parts which aren't very sophisticated and difficult, we'll... Sigh.


This is one of those moments when you wonder why someone bothered to reply without mentioning a single one of these "sophisticated and difficult" parts of philosophy that we could then happily explain in simple terms. You only had to mention a single name or sub-discipline.

For example one of my modules was philosophy of mathematics. It was sophisticated and difficult, but not complicated or meaningful.

It was just a fairly pointless thought experiment. The actual important bits are just called "mathematics".

It's like today's social science. It's an extension of moral and political philosophy. But moral and political philosophy are fairly pointless and get bogged down by fairly meaningless arguments about the meaning of "self" or "altruism", while social science attempts to make people's lives better.

You know, I studied 3 separate modules on formal logic. I did 36 hours worth of lectures, wrote various essays and read multiple expensive philosophy text books.

I learnt more about logic from a single 1 hour high school electronics lesson than I ever did from all that.

pg has a good essay about why he doesn't particularly rate philosophy: http://paulgraham.com/philosophy.html


"You know, I studied 3 separate modules on formal logic.... I learnt more about logic from a single 1 hour high school electronics lesson than I ever did from all that."

Can you say more about that? I can't make any sense of it. In a 1 hour electronics lesson, you'ld presumably cover the gates, i.e., propositional calculus. In a first logic module, you'ld learn that and another, richer, form of logic, the predicate calculus. You'ld also learn about the proof procedures for both, which ought to lead on to learning the (to my mind, interesting and important) fact that there's a mechanical procedure that's guaranteed to prove or disprove any argument in propositional calculus, but there's no such procedure for predicate calculus. Later logic courses would probably include some formal semantics, so you'ld learn about the (again, to my mind significant) distinction between what makes something true, and how we prove that something is true. Did you learn all these things in your one hour high school electronics lesson? Or are they somehow not "meaningful" or "complicated"?


"It's like today's social science. It's an extension of moral and political philosophy. But moral and political philosophy are fairly pointless and get bogged down by fairly meaningless arguments about the meaning of "self" or "altruism", while social science attempts to make people's lives better."

That's not an error in the subject, that's an error in how the field is being practiced. There is also plenty of social and political philosophy that had nothing to do with what you said bogs it down. Writing off an entire field for a few bad pieces would be like saying program design is useless because look at how many people use bad design.

Additionally, a field's effect on people's lives doesn't have anything to do with its level of complication, which was your original claim.

I see no evidence for the idea that any philosophy is simple in any way.

The idea that you are trying to flaunt your credentials downthread but really fail to address any points relating to most of what philosophy studies and the questions it asks (ones I am sure you don't have the answer to, which would seem odd for someone who finds the subject to be uncomplicated.) is why many commentators don't think you understand what philosophy about, myself included. You're taking an incredibly objective approach with a subject that isn't. If you're looking to say that philosophy does little to nothing for society, there's an argument to be had there and valid arguments on both sides. I think a decent number of philosophers would even agree. That still doesn't make the subject uncomplicated. Your original posts seem incredibly ignorant of the subject you studied.


Did you have any exposure to the Continental tradition or did you entirely study analytic philosophy? I can't square what you're saying, with someone who has studied and at least partly understood the work of people like Nietzsche or Heidegger.


Pick one:

1. There's something you missed along the way and thus you fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues.

2. You're considerably more intelligent than the hundreds of thousands of very intelligent people who struggle with the issues.


Even my math books admit that math is less subtle than human interaction. A single mathematician can nail down a truth for all eternity, but that'll never be the case for ethics.


> Philosophy's not particularly complicated to someone who understands basic logic.

Yes, of course — modus ponens has a lot to say about how we should live.


More like modus pwnens.


>Having done a philosophy degree and been a programmer, in my opinion you're adding far too much weight to what is a very easy domain to understand. All the complicated bits became their own discipline (maths/physics/chemistry/social science/psychology).

That's the kind of thing somebody who doesn't understand philosophy would say.

The "complicated bits" (physical philosophy) were never much of what's important about philosophy in the first place.


OK, so there's me + pg saying it's not complicated. We've said why, and have a background, experience and relevant degrees.

And there's you and N72, who haven't said why, can't put forward a single argument to support yourselves or even what backgrounds in philosophy you have.

And you accuse me of not "understanding". Pathetic. It's the precise antithesis of the very discipline you allude to support.


It's about time. I'm not willing to put in the time to attempt to enlighten some guy on the internet who's claims imply that he considers himself considerably more intelligent than the great thinkers of history who have struggled with issues in philosophy.


As an undergrad there was a brief point where I got really into philosophy i.e. its core disciplines such as metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, because I had never encountered it before but after about a year and a half I got completely sick of all the confused vagueness and have never returned.

The impracticality of the whole discipline is what frustrated me in the end, and is why all my free reading to this day is about maths, physics, engineering, computer science, etc. topics that are applicable in the real world and help me solve problems. I suppose that if you plop logic, game theory, and enough other formal science disciplines under the philosophy rubric you can make philosophy seem more reasonable but to me that's just mathematics and you're fooling yourself calling it philosophy.

I know many will disagree, but IMO there is hardly a discipline more pointless than philosophy, its continually losing ground to science in every area and its methods are questionable at best i.e. armchair I think its so so its so.


> its continually losing ground to science in every area and its methods are questionable at best

Philosophy is a very broad school and many areas do not lose out to science. While science helps answer such things as the free will debate, it cannot answer the question of morality or the debate over how to govern society correctly.

Often science can bring us closer to understanding the world but not provide an answer on how to act. The classic example is abortion. Science can tell us when the heartbeat starts, or brainwaves begin firing, or when we feel pain; but it cannot begin to answer whether it is ok to take a life before/after any of those biological points - that is where philosophy comes in.

I'd go as far as arguing that it is one of the most practical disciplines. It gave me answers on how to act rather than relying on pure feeling. Too many of us support the same political parties as our parents or having the same moral code as our peers, without questioning whether that is actually the ideal way to act. These philosophical arguments go to the heart of society, morality, politics and law.


Science can settle (or at least inform) a debate over how to govern society correctly if you define certain tangible features or goals that a correct society should have. If you agree upfront that a correct society should seek to e.g. maximize individual happiness, or maximize economic output, or whatever, there are scientific arguments that would support one policy over another.

It's also worth noting that a lot of what Aristotle (as opposed to Plato) as well as many of the Pre-Socratics actually wrote about would today be considered scientific topics. Aristotle speculated about physics and natural systems using abstract reasoning. Many of his conclusions are empirically falsifiable and have been falsified. It's simply that empiricism itself as an epistemological tool had not yet been fully appreciated in Classical Greece.


> If you agree upfront that a correct society should seek to e.g. maximize individual happiness, or maximize economic output, or whatever, there are scientific arguments that would support one policy over another.

And that's the key. How do you define what a 'correct' society should seek to do? What might make some people materially/'objectively' better off may also make them miserable. What makes people happier may make the world worse by encouraging people to 'waste' their lives on meaningless things (like say, virtual reality experiences). What makes most lives better might make a lot of other people happy (the utilitarian issue).

Science cannot say what the goal you're trying to achieve is. That's where philosophy comes in.


> If you agree upfront that a correct society should seek to e.g. maximize individual happiness, or maximize economic output, or whatever, there are scientific arguments that would support one policy over another.

These are both utilitarian concessions, building upon a philosophical model of the Right in terms of a maximized final Good.

You may be able to find a "scientific" answer within them (Bentham did exactly that), but you'll be hard pressed to conclude that such an answer is reasonable in any of the ways that we would expect a theory of perfect government to be.


>maximize individual happiness

But even this goal falls apart at the abortion debate. When the argument is about whether or not you are killing a human, then there are very different paths to maximizing individual happiness depending on the conclusion.


>it cannot answer the question of morality

Sure it can, moral realists make empirical claims. Science can test them.


How do you test the claim that murder is wrong, or that happiness is the chief human good?


I think "Hm. Would I like to be murdered? Do I like to be happy?" And I answer. Its a simple question to a biological entity, easily answered. Maybe a survey, or even a lie-detector while taking a quiz, or hey! even murder a few people and see how they like it.


You've answered questions about yourself, not questions about the acts or principles themselves.

You may not like to be murdered, but someone who is terminally ill and suffering might. Is it okay to murder them then, even if they can't explicitly ask you to? Should I murder one person to save five? What about four, three, or two? What about one to save a more "important" person? What about children?

You may like to be happy, but what is happiness? Is it simple pleasure, or is that too "piggish"? Is it a flourishing life? Is it egoistic? Can your happiness be said to be "right" if it makes others unhappy?

I am skeptical that any scientific inquiry can ever provide compelling (i.e., consistent and universalizable) answers to these questions. That's not because scientific inquiry is flawed, but because they're just not scientific questions -- they require a different toolbox.


Regarding the abortion point: I agree that science cannot answer the question regarding morality of abortion, but can philosophy answer it? In my view, philosophy can at best provide certainty of the kind "If you hold these moral values as correct, then option Y is not compatible with these values", but how can you "prove" scientifically that a certain value is correct?


Do you also find things like art, literature and film pointless because they don't help you solve problems? Humans have wants and needs that exist outside of the type of problems that can be solved with CS & engineering. Present day science isn't even very useful in helping us understand human emotion. Your attitude reminds me of traditional economics, anything that doesn't fit neatly in the model we might as well pretend doesn't exist.


> Do you also find things like art, literature and film pointless because they don't help you solve problems?

The point of philosophy is to discover answers to questions. Such as how does the mind work? Is there a mind? What is the right action in a given situation? How do we know we know something? etc. This is not even remotely related to the goals and reasons for art, literature, and film, which exist for aesthetic enjoyment. My point is that for answering most of the questions philosophy tries to answer the best method is the scientific method and its framework of approach.


Serious question: Does science have an answer for what is the right action in a given situation? Is that something we can determine from a study or a calculation? That actually sounds like the perfect question for modern philosophy.


It can if you define desired goals or outcomes.


"I want to stop feeling bad about myself and the world around me" ...


A purely scientific approach to that would be a pair of electrodes inserted into the pleasure center of your brain.

Philosophy (or parts of it, anyway) studies why this isn't actually a desirable approach for most of us.


The scientific method tells you how to approach and reason through questions, but now how to ask questions in the first place. The latter is the "point" of philosophy, not the former.


So why do you know the scientific method is the best method or even a valid method? Any answer you give to this question will be a philosophical answer. You are doing philosophy whether you like it or not.


> This is not even remotely related to the goals and reasons for art, literature, and film, which exist for aesthetic enjoyment.

Aestehtics is decidedly NOT the goal and reason for art. At best it's the scheme by which art keeps getting funded, but art has always been inextricably linked with ethics, politics, and the human experience. Reducing all art to "things that are pretty" is... reductive.


I like Richard Feynman's position. He attended one philosophical seminar, complimented cleverness of arguments, then he hadn't attended philosophical seminars anymore.


Science and logic are products of philosophy, so I would hardly call philosophy useless. By "armchar" I presume you mean philosophy is not empirical. This is true to some extent, but you could level the same criticism against math, and math still turn out to be usable to solve problems in the real world.


My response exceeds the character limit for HN comments.

https://paste.sh/E9PffNWX#AZXcIrCSKFfooOhxEW0-E0Ot


I've really enjoyed the time I've spent listening to PEL[0]. If you start from the beginning and listen in order, they mostly try to build on previous episodes.

[0] https://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/ it's worth it to become a PEL citizen for access to the archives


I like reading both old and new philosophy, because I feel philosophy tends to explore ideas with less bias and polarity. The point isn't to be "right" as much as it is to think and explore. For example, one philosopher can ask "Why shouldn't we eat babies," without other philosophers engaging in political demonstrations, leaflet campaigns, and anti-baby-eating benefit concerts. The goal isn't to leave the philosophy meeting and find a baby to eat, but rather to explore the topic intellectually.


Just FYI for the folks here, every time Aristotle's works were translated they caused a golden age, Rome, Classical Arabia.

No scientist would ever disavow epistemology, no matter how much they pretend once an issue really comes down to it, it really matters.

For example I will link a picture out of Gregory Clark's a farewell to alms that shows that Classical Athens was ahead pound for pound than 1800's England!

Classical Philosophy is also important for learning how to rule well w/o over reliance on the industrial revolution, the entirety of science's false glory is the glory of industry and technology.

The below link shows that Athens/Ancient Assyria had a better economy than 1800's England, much better, and Roman Egypt is competitive. https://twitter.com/SanguineEmpiric/status/81818406860496076...

Afaik, modern sociological research is proving Hegel correct see Ricardo Duchesne, the real problem is, is that the civilizational distance isn't that large, or actually doesn't exist between Rome and say 1800's England, I effectively consider it continuous if you know what I mean.


My problem lately hasn't been a lack of need to read philosophy. It's been a lack of time. When I do have idle moments I want to turn my brain off.


After old philosophy, came several centuries of war and monotheism. This dark age gave wrong explanations to several important questions. Once Renaissance rediscovered old philosophy, then came back the strategies to formulate questions relevantly and avoid wrong answers. From there, monotheism was doomed. And eventually, rationalism was on its way to success. Nowadays, old philosophy and rationalism are considered too complex and abstract. We are coming back to simple (wrong) answers: monotheism and war (and I would add propaganda). The difference with the previous dark ages is that nowadays old philosophy is still widely available. Just that no one considers it as a way to ask good questions and never be fooled by wrong answers.


I'm not sure about philosophy, but for physics, the most elegant expression of new discoveries is mathematical equations and numeric measurements. The words used by the original discoverer are not that important, because they just introduce the equations and numbers and provide context. When they appear in textbooks, the equations are usually expressed in the same form as the original discoverer expressed them, so in that sense, you are reading the original (equations).


I think at least two of the explanations dismissed by the author are intriguing, even if not fully adequate as answers to her question.

>Philosophy is not trying to communicate normal content that can be in explicit statements, of the kind you might be able to explain well and check the understanding of and such.

I think there's something to that. Some forms of philosophy advocate broad conceptual systems that "hang together" in a way. I don't know how you would teach Kantian philosophy without reading passages from Kant, for instance.

>Philosophy is about having certain experiences which pertain to the relevant philosophy, much like reading a poem is different to reading a summary of its content.

I think that applies to writers such as Nietzsche, and some of the more substantive writers continental philosophers. It also applies, for better or worse, to writers who in my opinion wrote nonsense, but are nevertheless written in a style intended to be "experienced." And at least in principle I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

And beyond those two bullet points, I can think of a few more.

One is we're supposed to believe that philosophy deals with timeless subject matter. So it's not necessarily surprising that at certain points in history some people might do a really good job writing about it, expressing ideas that continue to be relevant and which aren't improved upon by attempts to elucidate.

Another reason to read old philosophers is the same reason some courses teach math or physics in a way that emphasizes the historical circumstances where the ideas first originated. I've even heard of some courses that teach almost entirely in primary sources. You can view the ideas with a sense of discovery and an appreciation for the ingenuity involved. A lot of the magic in very beautiful ideas tends to die when it's clinically summarized in a textbook.

Now, all of that said, I still think there are many branches of philosophy where you don't need to read old sources. Things like language, logic, meta-ethics, and probably many others can just be summarized while ignoring historical sources, saving a lot of time. But again, contra the author's suggestion, from what I know it's at least relatively common to have graduate level courses on philosophical subjects that are focused on cutting edge literature.


I read them because I find there timeless truths.


These are good points. I don't consider philosophy outmodded, and I do think that in every field you should study its history too to learn it's dirty secrets and biases. But I don't think that in philiosophy this is any more or less true, as the author seems to also suspect.


Really enjoyed reading this - Robert Pirsig had a similar criticism of philosophy in academia.


There's also this one from pg: http://paulgraham.com/philosophy.html


>> "In high school I decided I was going to study philosophy in college. I had several motives, some more honorable than others. One of the less honorable was to shock people."

Really miss PG being more active on his blog, HN, YC, etc.

PG is active on Twitter:

https://mobile.twitter.com/paulg


The same could be said about any other time period. If it was 1970 you could say we have televisions and cars, how could the ancients' advice possibly benefit us. Next the author will tell us about an article he read about the Singularity.


Lindy effect.


Wisdom is the product of knowledge and knowledge is often times the product of foolish mistakes.

A butterfly flaps its wings in Africa and changes the weather in California.

Unknowns is the one word answer to your question.

You have your known knowns, your known unknowns and your unknown unknowns.

We have to make decisions every day with known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Philosophy is a body of knowledge that is in built up on trial-and-error over time. Those first trials start for us when history first started. We've been building on them ever since. We still know next to nothing about consciousness. Philosophy today primarily deals with consciousness. Once we've modeled the conscious brain and can completely control and predict human nature then there truly will be no need for philosophy.


Don't forget about the unknown knowns! The things we know but which we don't know that we know.


So, entertainment with role models.

That is the best description of philosophy I ever heard.


The paradox goes away once you realize that philosophy is more like literature than it is like science.


There seem to be a couple of different questions and concerns in this post that have been confused (the first step: clarify the question). One seems to be the question of why we study old philosophers in the first place (1), another is the question why we study them in their original language (2). The most discernible answer the author proposes, to the first question at least, is that reading old philosophers is a way of learning about the methodologies employed by a philosopher. My brief response...

(2) The original text is the original data. The first task is to understand what exactly it is that a philosopher said. Nailing that down can itself be the subject of debate. As multilingual people who've used more than one language in the course of intellectual work know, translation is often an approximation of the original text. Language is bound up with culture and what words denote, their connotations, their significance, etc, aren't always translatable in a straightforward fashion. By comprehending the language, we have a better grasp of the content the philosopher was trying to communicate to us. That doesn't mean good translations can't exist, but that, too, can be the subject of debate. From there, we have all manner of commentary which begins a tradition and can spin off into still other traditions. Science operates in essentially the same way. There is a scientific tradition with important figures that have initiated fruitful traditions themselves and who are likewise inheritors of still older traditions. Some traditions fade for a number of reasons. Understanding both the commentary and the original text can clarify things better than understanding just one of the two. Your understanding becomes more perfect.

(1) The notion that philosophical theories at time T+1 are necessarily better than those at time T is an appeal to novelty, i.e., a fallacy. Theories fall out of favor not necessarily because whatever takes their place, so to speak, is more formidable. That kind of progress isn't a given nor is it that straightforward. For example, that Cartesianism and its fallout has dominated a good chunk of western thought for the last few centuries does not mean that the Aristotelianism it "replaced" was inferior.

In response to the proposal that we read Aristotle to absorb his methodology, I'd like to answer in the context of what I wrote above. The methodologies he uses are communicated through the tradition and numerous commentaries have been written on the methodologies Aristotle employes (they vary depending on the subject matter he is attending to). However, it is a mistake to think that that is the only thing Aristotle offers. Aristotle's methodology, after all, is a means to the truth. Philosophy is a theoretical endeavor where "theoretical" means it is done to know things for their own sake.


The old philosophers had much greater breadth because the whole vista was open to them. They were treading on soil for the first time. Newer philosophers are dry academics who are just filling in a few details. Who wants to read that?


Too add most modern 'philosophers' publish for the sake of publishing, not because they actually have anything new or interesting to say.

Philosophy is an unbroken conversation going back thousands of years, why would we want the cliffnotes summary written by 'academics' who most times demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of what they're writing about when we can go straight to the source and read the original.


Well, Aritotle is famous for his description of fly with eight legs. He was so much in empireae, that did not bothered to count the fact, flies have 6 legs.


I read old books because I would rather learn from those who built civilization than those who tore it down.


The problem with modern philosophy is it rides the curtails of physics and other sciences. It basically exists to explain the phenomenon the physics cannot (think schrodinger's cat).

Ancient philosophy was all intertwined with science because the philosophers were the scientists. Ancient philosophy still has its place in teaching readers how to think better and more rationally. And I think modern philosophy will increase in value as we build more intelligent machines.


The author is ignoring the 800-lb gorilla in the room which is the anti-truth, anti-rationality fashions -- modernism and post-modernism -- that have dominated and corrupted philosophy for the past century. The analogy to physical science would make sense only if the mainstream of science since about 1910 was dominated by politics and founded on a premise that whatever makes you feel happy, man, must be what makes the universe go round. In such an environment, it would be entirely reasonable to ignore the modern trash and have your kids read Newton...


Cultural marxist straw feminists ruining modern civilization, oh no!


Oh, cmon. You don't need to buy into that whole "cultural Marxism" conspiracy theory to believe that postmodernism is a cancer to philosophy (and so much else). All it takes is reading some postmodernist writings, really.




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