Philosophy: Ancient or Contemporary?

When reading and writing about philosophy, which is, or should be more instructive? Ancient or Contemporary?


3 Responses to “Philosophy: Ancient or Contemporary?”

  1. 1 Simon January 18, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Undoubtedly both are of fundamental importance. Studying and practicing philosophy in the ‘Western’ tradition would not be possible without a thorough understanding of Greek thought, its legacy is just far too profound! While Plato may not describe how to conceive of Jabberwocky he provides us with the tools to begin the approach. Anyone who picks up Plato’s Republic and reads only the fist book will be deeply impressed by Socrates’s dialectic.

    Contemporary philosophy is just as important however. I remember studying philosophy of the mind and you have contemporary philosophers (of course Descartes) like Block and Chalmers who can just tie everything all together in such a nice and succinct way. And who would have thought that I had China in my head too!

  2. 2 Brad January 30, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    I agree that the issues dealt with by thinkers in general, including philosophers, have personal motives. It is hard to imagine committing oneself to the study of something, whether it is a skill or theory or problem, if it inspires no personal interest.

    If the philosopher is concerned primarily with solving a contemporary problem; which I guess was equally the case for the Ancients; then he or she must consult texts and sources that have something relevant to say. On that basis there might be a reasonable argument for concentrating on the philosophical tools that the Ancients handed down to us whilst paying less attention to the issues they were applying those tools to. On the other hand, I am not sure how it is possible to do that filtering without first acquainting oneself with the entire mind and historical context of the Ancients in questions. I am not prepared to allow a contemporary philosopher, regardless of their reputation, to decide which tools or concepts are useful on my behalf.

    Personally I find issues of globalisation, climate change and social justice to be problematic and worthy of focused thought. I have also found it rewarding to study the texts of the Ancients for their own sake without regard for their value to contemporary debates.

    I can’t say that the problem solving approach to philosophy is any more worthy than a ‘philosophy for the love of knowledge’ approach, but I suspect that we leave ourselves open to faults and criticism if we do not judge the merits of the Ancients for ourselves. The relative age of the texts does not in itself reduce the value of the ideas. Only a complete understanding of the texts can serve as fodder for discounting their contemporary value in hindsight of study.

    I would also suggest that it would take more than a few lifetimes to make a complete study of all the texts of the Ancients, let alone those of our contemporaries. That is probably the best premise for being selective and probably the most depressing fact that this aging undergraduate philosophy student has come to terms with.

  3. 3 Waz February 1, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Hey Nath

    I have just finished a course on Parmenides (MSCP) and the lecturer is an “expert” on Hegel and Heidegger. He skipped over the early or ancient philosophers, but has since returned. Mainly because of Heideggers work on Parmenides. He now understands Heidegger a bit better now.

    What it did highlight for me was the way Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, et al, influenced some of our favourite philosophers. Just from Parmenides you can trace a direct influence in the works of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kant, Plato and a little looser in both Sartre and Derrida.

    We will have a chat about it soon.


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