History of Philosophy: A Reader's Guide

History of Philosophy: A Reader's Guide

by Donald Phillip Verene


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810151970
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/28/2008
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Donald Phillip Verene is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy and director of the Institute for Vico Studies at Emory University. He has published widely on Vico and Hegel, including his recent books Hegel’s Absolute: An Introduction to Reading the Phenomenology of Spirit and Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico's New Science and Finnegans Wake.

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Copyright © 2008

Donald Phillip Verene
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5197-0


Philosophical Education

The aim of this book is to offer a guide to what Hegel calls "the long process of education towards genuine philosophy." The mark of philosophical culture is the ability of its practitioner to carry on a conversation with its past. The reason to carry on this conversation with the past is to become a philosopher. Education is the past revived by memory and brought to bear on the present. This revivification requires a friendship with those who have written the great philosophical works. Only through a friendship with the past is new philosophy born. The modern agora, or marketplace of ideas, is history. In the agora of history all known philosophies are able to present themselves and speak to the contemporary thinker. The great conversation of the liberal arts, of which philosophy is properly a part, is a conversation with the past, not as something fixed and dead, but as alive and agile. The history of philosophy is a whole, not the whole of a single truth, but a whole in the sense of a temporal totality, a totality of what is, was, and will be. Without memory there is no culture, and without its own memory there is no philosophy. As the human self requires memory to make and maintain its identity, so philosophy requires its memory for its identity. Philosophy without memory has no inner form; it is a vacuous actuality, a logical exercise, a form of debate.

Philosophy is as hindered by the avoidance of argument and by confinement to prescribed study as it is by the purely argumentative approach. Misology, or the hatred of argument, as Socrates says in the Phaedo (89d), is a philosophical vice. But argument requires the rhetorical power of language to bring forth, from human experience and from the meanings of words, the starting points of rational thought that argument itself cannot provide. Logic never supplies its own starting points. The production of these beginnings and the process of their logical development stand to each other as counterparts-as strophe to antistrophe. Internal to philosophical conversation and thought is the movement between these two poles. The end of philosophical education, as with human education generally, is style. The great works of philosophy are the source, not only of what may be said but of how it may be said, the possibilities of language to express the true, the good, and the beautiful, although the wisdom that the philosopher loves is never fully captured in words. In philosophy as elsewhere, the new is always born from the old.

There are two ways to comprehend the history of philosophy. It can be regarded purely historically or it can be regarded philosophically. The history of philosophy is first and foremost history. As history the history of philosophy can be understood as intellectual history, as a part of the history of ideas of Western thought. To treat the history of philosophy as a part of intellectual history is to explicate the sources and influences of the figures, movements, and periods it contains and to connect them with the forms of society and culture in which they occur. Intellectual historians, in interpreting a particular philosopher, often proceed as if all that can be said is said when the precedents and sources of the philosopher's thought and works have been elicited, when these have been placed in their own time and their influences shown. This is rightly the most that can be accomplished from the standpoint and methods of the intellectual historian, and it is indispensable for the student of the history of philosophy. The full study of a given philosopher requires an understanding of what is known of the philosopher's life, times, and ideas, and the place of these ideas in the historical development of philosophy.

Beyond the historical comprehension of the history of philosophy is its comprehension as philosophy. The philosopher approaches the history of philosophy where the historian leaves off. The philosopher is concerned with the truth of what a given figure in the history of philosophy has said once the philological and historical meanings of what he said have been established. This philosophical concern for truth takes two forms: critical and speculative. The critical understanding of philosophical ideas is essentially reflective. Critical scholarship focuses on evaluating the coherence, comprehension, and evidence for the arguments, claims, and doctrines held by any given historical figure or philosophical position. Critical thinking by its nature aims at evaluating the truth or falsity of what it examines. Any figure or part of the history of philosophy can be the subject of this critical, reflective examination and interpretation. The critical approach as such produces no new ideas. It aids the student of philosophy to settle on what is said by historical figures and movements and to access them logically, evidentially, and hermeneutically.

The critical approach takes a stand outside what any philosopher in the history of philosophy says; it takes what is said as an object of investigation, a subject matter. In contrast to this, the speculative approach seeks out the inner form of what a historical figure says and how that philosopher's thought is formed. To consider the history of philosophy speculatively is to see it as a basis for philosophizing, for continuing the processes of insight and reasoning exemplified by the great figures in the history of philosophy. The critical approach reasons about some part of the contents of the history of philosophy. The speculative approach selects some aspects of the contents and uses the interpretations it develops as the ground for further philosophizing. What the speculative student hopes to learn from the history of philosophy and its figures is how to philosophize, how to attain the inside of philosophy by penetrating the thoughts of its greatest practitioners. The critical approach can manifest elements of the speculative, but the principles of its reflective study cause it to stop short of the speculative. The speculative presupposes and employs the results of the critical, but its ultimate intent is not simply the evaluation of ideas. The great philosophers of the canon all manifest this speculative standpoint. They take from their predecessors what is needed to communicate and continue their philosophical vision. The critical approach walks around its object from the outside. The speculative approach goes to the object's inside, and penetrates its inner being.

It is rightly said in the study of philosophy that the most inaccurate interpretative claims about the views of great philosophers are to be found in the works of other great philosophers. Great philosophers take what they need from others. The speculative approach, when practiced on a less grand scale, must hold to a more modest standard. But the speculative approach makes ideas come alive. It pursues the fundamental truths preserved in the history of philosophy, takes instruction from them, and resurrects them for the furtherance of the love of wisdom. In this way the history of philosophy becomes more than a subject for scholarship. "Truth is the daughter of time" in the sense that the past makes the present what it is. To study the history of philosophy speculatively is to philosophize in terms of it and in so doing to give new shape to the spirit of philosophy.

To philosophize in the thin air of the present, uninvolved with the past, is to argue with one's contemporaries, to cut oneself off from the forms of imagination and memory that can be found only in the past. The history of philosophy is part of the great conversation of the republic of letters of the liberal arts, the arts which humanize. To restrict philosophy largely or wholly to the life of the present is to make it less than human, to cut philosophy off from itself, to make it a smaller thing. As with a human self, whose own story enters into each significant moment of its activity, so with philosophy-its story is the guide to its present speech.

Each of the great philosophers is a complete university. Unless one decides to read the great philosophers simply for pleasure, which in itself is a legitimate and noble goal, the reason for reading them is to become a philosopher. Thinking of his own pursuit of natural philosophy through the direct observation of nature, Galileo expressed in memorable fashion what is required to become a philosopher in any sense of the term.

The difference between philosophizing and studying philosophy is that which exists between drawing from nature and copying pictures. In order to become accustomed to handling the pen or crayon in good style, it is right to begin by redrawing good pictures created by excellent artists. Likewise in order to stimulate the mind and guide it toward good philosophy, it is useful to observe the things that have already been investigated by others in their philosophizing; especially those which are true and certain, these being chiefly mathematical.

But men who go on forever copying pictures and never get around to drawing from nature can never become perfect artists, or even good judges of painting. For they remain unpracticed in separating the good from the bad, or the accurately from the poorly drawn, by means of recognizing in nature itself (as a result of countless experiences) the true effects of foreshortening, of backgrounds, of lights and shadows, of reflections, and of the infinite variations in differing viewpoints.

In the same way a man will never become a philosopher by worrying forever about the writings of other men, without ever raising his own eyes to nature's works in the attempt to recognize there the truths already known and to investigate some of the infinite number that remain to be discovered. This, I say, will never make a man a philosopher, but only a student of other philosophers and an expert in their works.

Tetralogy: Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel

The 100 great philosophical works that precede the outline of the history of philosophy in chapter 3 are the skeleton of the canon. These 100 works can be comprehended only in terms of their connections with the further works noted in the outline, which provide a corpus for the skeleton of the list. To give the canon shape as a history and to aid in its study, some commentaries are listed that illuminate the various periods in this history. The heart of the corpus is the tetralogy of Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. The first pair, Plato and Aristotle, divide ancient philosophy between them. Medieval through Renaissance philosophy is incomprehensible without a command of the ideas of Platonic and Aristotelian thought. The second two, Kant and Hegel, are the pillars of modern philosophy. The systems of modern rationalism and empiricism cannot be understood apart from their summation in Kantian critique. Kant is needed to understand Leibniz and Locke. The methods of dialectical materialism and pragmatism cannot be comprehended apart from the Hegelian conception of experience. Hegel is needed to understand Marx and Dewey and also to understand Kant. The study of the whole history of philosophy emanates from the mastery of the major works of the two great ancients and the two great moderns.

Aristotle both continues and opposes Plato's doctrine of the forms with his doctrine of the individual existent, and he continues and transforms the Platonic doctrine of virtue and the state into an ethics and politics. Goethe says that "Plato relates himself to the world as a blessed spirit, whom it pleases sometimes to stay for a while in the world." But "Aristotle, on the contrary, stands to the world as a man, an architect. He is only here once and must here make and create." Both of these souls live in almost all our great thinkers. This double soul of philosophy is preserved in the Middle Ages and resurrected in the Renaissance. Through the rich visions of the Renaissance, philosophy is brought forward for the modern world. The sense of critical judgment of the Enlightenment guides Kant. The need for a sense of the speculative judgment guides Hegel.

Hegel both continues and opposes Kant's idealism in moving from transcendental critique to the dialectic of the speculative sentence and in moving from the categorical imperative as the logic of moral judgment to the forms of ethical and social life comprehended as a development of spirit. In the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, thinking of Plato's Phaedrus, Kant says: "The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space. It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the pure understanding." Through his transcendental method of philosophical reflection, Kant will stand firmly on the earth within experience but allow the thing-in-itself to be outside our experience.

Hegel begins the Phenomenology of Spirit with the thing-in-itself as the object of sense-certainty, and through the dialectical exposition of illusion after illusion he penetrates to the inner form of the "in-itself and the for-itself" until the true as the whole comes into consciousness as the absolute. Hegel calls this dialectical exposition "the science of the experience of consciousness." This science presupposes the entire study of the history of philosophy, yet, Hegel claims, many would think philosophy can be done directly from the use of our powers of ratiocination. Hegel says: "When it comes to philosophy, there seems to be a currently prevailing prejudice to the effect that, although not everyone who has eyes and fingers, and is given leather and last, is at once in a position to make shoes, everyone nevertheless immediately understands how to philosophize, and how to evaluate philosophy, since he possesses the criterion for doing so in his natural reason-as if he did not likewise possess the measure for a shoe in his own foot." Hegel's metaphor plays on the proverb "ne sutor ultra crepidam" (the shoemaker should stick to his last), employed when a shoemaker attempts to be an art critic in Pliny's Natural History (35.85).

The combination of Kant and Hegel opens the door to the critical and the historical. Without them we cannot understand the modern world. They are its threshold. The ideas captured in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, circulate like the blood throughout the whole corpus of philosophy.

The Idea of a Canon

The Western canon presumes that philosophy, which takes its name from the Greeks, also takes itself from them. All great histories of philosophy, such as those that appear among the works of general interest at the end of the outline in chapter 3, presuppose that philosophy as the rational inquiry into the fundamental nature of all things human and divine is a Western invention, tied to the development of Western culture. I say this while fully acknowledging the indispensable influence of the scholarship and thought of the Middle East during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Although philosophy is an invention of the Greeks, the proper study of philosophy cannot exclude the study of sacred texts and systems of wisdom. Among these are the Babylonian Enuma Elish and Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Cabala, the Zohar, Corpus Hermeticum, and Asclepius, the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, The Life of the Buddha, Lotus Sutra, Lankâvatâra Sutra, the Analects, the Qur'an (Koran), Sufi writings, the I Ching, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tao Te Ching, Zen stories, and creation myths such as those collected in Barbara Sproul's Primal Myths. The reading of such texts provides a partial education in various comprehensions of the real that are not arrived at through a dedication to rational inquiry. For the past three decades I have regularly taught a course in Asian philosophy, emphasizing texts in the Buddhist and Taoist traditions and some basic study of the I Ching. No study of Western philosophy can avoid attention to what lies outside its dedication to critical and speculative reason. Within the great works of philosophy in the West there are many passages that provide points of transition to the ideas of the East.


Excerpted from THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY A READER'S GUIDE by DONALD PHILLIP VERENE Copyright © 2008 by Donald Phillip Verene. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Part 1: Philosophical Propaedeutics

·    One: Introduction: On the Historical Study of Philosophy

·    Two: 100 Great Philosophical Works

·    Three: The History of Philosophy in Outline

Part 2: Philosophical Perspectives

·    Four: On Reading Philosophical Books

·    Five: The Origin of Philosophy and the Theatre of the World

·    Six: Two Views of History and the History of Philosophy

Part 3: Philosophical Practics

·    Seven: Philosophical Writing

·    Eight: Philosophical Literacy

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