Why is such a high value placed in reading the "Classics"? It's one thing to honor the past and honor the fact that, but for those who came before, we wouldn't be where we are today, and another thing entirely to pretend that those "classic" thinkers and thoughts of the past are worthy of the scrutiny of self-respecting truth-seekers today. If I'm being honest, the Pre-Socratic writings are simply idiotic by today's standards, claiming matter is all "water", or "fire", or some other random element. Leibniz, Spinoza, and those guys aren't any better. None of them had even the most rudimentary concept of physics. JS Mill and Kant read like some High Schooler, discoursing at length about Happiness and motivation without even a whiff of suspicion about the basic facts of psychology, treating those terms as if they were transparently obvious, monolithic concepts. Even an idea like the more recently vaunted Veil of Ignorance seems ludicrously vulnerable to someone of even mediocre intelligence, like me. It takes me about 2 minutes to realize that just because I might design a world a certain way behind the veil doesn't mean it would be just. I might choose to have 90% of people happy and 10% utterly miserable simply because of the odds - that doesn't mean my design is just. I have the feeling there is a conflation happening within the university - conflating education with celebration of the history of a subject. Reading Leibniz or JS Mill isn't likely to ready you to produce contemporary philosophy; it isn't even going to ready you to produce interesting enough ideas to hold your own at a dinner party. To me it's obvious that such "Classics" contain purely historical interest. Am I alone on this?

If one thought that the only true goal of philosophy was to describe, as precisely and accurately as possible, using the very latest scientific findings, the nature of the universe or of the human mind, then indeed there would be no need to read the 'classics' of philosophy. In that case, however, I wonder whether one needs philosophy at all, since what was just described is not in essence different from physics or psychology themselves. So, there would also be little point in reading contemporary philosophy.



Within the history of philosophy, of course, many have seen their work, or a substantial part of it, in just this way, in part because science and philosophy had not yet fully branched off from one another. Very often, these were first class scientific minds (Aristotle or Leibniz, for example). But their primary interest today is not as scientists.

Here are the main ways that I try to 'sell' my students on reading the history of philosophy:

1. The philosopher is not there to tell us what is true, but what truth is; not what is the cause, but what causation is. That is, he or she is giving an analysis of the concepts that could be said to underlie the discourse of any science.

2. As students of philosophy, our job is to learn to think. In an important sense, it matters less what we are thinking about than that we think carefully, clearly, resourcefully and critically. The history of philosophy is the history of the greatest thinkers. From them we can learn not what to think, but how.

3. As creative literature. As Borges says, and he does not mean it as a rebuke, the philosophers are the finest and most imaginative fantasy writers.

4. As challenges. What is now known (or believed to be true) within the various fields of science, within ethics or politics, and so forth, will almost certainly change. And in any case should not go unchallenged by alternatives. Very often, when dominant ideas change, a contribution is made by philosophical analysis. Indeed, sometimes an idea or argument that seemed long antiquated proves a fruitful way forward.

I agree with Douglas Burnham and would like to add another point:

5. Philosophy is a conversation that has been going on for over 2500 years. To join in the conversation, it helps to be familiar with what has already been said, in order to bring you "up to speed".

I can't resist piping up to defend Rawls's Veil of Ignorance. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls anticipates and rebuts the questioner's objection. The deliberators behind the Veil of Ignorance are choosing the most general principles of justice that will govern their society, and hence they have no basis for the specific prediction that a given principle will make "90% of people happy and 10% utterly miserable": as Rawls says, behind the Veil of Ignorance such numerical estimates "are at best extremely insecure" (p. 154). Given that insecurity, Rawls argues that it would be irrational for you to risk being among the utterly miserable, particularly if your gain in happiness (compared to what you'd experience in a less unequal society) is small compared to what you'd lose if you end up among the utterly miserable. His argument may not be conclusive, but I don't think it's as easily dismissed as the questioner suggests.

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