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Value of Reading Old Philosophy

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Objectivists tend to emphasize reading primary texts, including the classics of philosophy, in my experience.

So, I have a question: What's the point of reading, for instance, Nietzsche or Locke?

Either their ideas were good, in which case they will have been built on by modern thinkers, or they are bad, in which case they will have been discarded by modern thinkers.

So, why not just read the modern thinkers?

Edited by ctrl y
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So, why not just read the modern thinkers?

I can only speak for myself, but I have found in reading, say, Locke's Second Treatise on Government along with a number of articles written about it,opinions can differ significantly as to what he meant. What's more, and more to the point, there are understandings which can be gleaned from the original which are not necessarily covered in any treatment of it you happened to read.

An overly obvious argument against your suggestion would be that in reading Thomas Jefferson's(more modern) "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," nothing would be lost in not reading Locke's "life, liberty, and property," most especially is rather lengthy defense of property rights which Jefferson had chosen to exclude.

There's nothing wrong with reading more recent works but I think you would be kidding yourself to think that your understanding of an author was very extensive if you had read his critics and supporters but not his own words.

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Either their ideas were good, in which case they will have been built on by modern thinkers, or they are bad, in which case they will have been discarded by modern thinkers.

First of all, you're offering a false choice. Distortion is also a possibility. (Example: straw man fallacy)

Second, going to the source is a habit that is consistent with thinking for yourself, and forming your own judgement, rather than relying on someone else to do it for you.

Third, it is not necessarily just a matter of their ideas being good or bad, but also how they reach those ideas -- their process. Great Dialogues of Plato, for example -- look what Socrates can do just by asking the right questions! You would be missing an opportunity to learn from a master.

Edited by Sirius1
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I'm not at all sure that all good ideas survive and are carried on by modern thinkers. I'm also not at all sure that all bad ideas do not survive - do not many modern thinkers till adhere to a good bit of Kant's ideology?

I agree, therefore, that reading the originator's version of an idea should be important.

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Comparing Locke's theory of abstraction in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding with Ayn Rand's in ITOE will help deepen ones understanding of Objectivist epistemology. Teasing out the ways in which the two theories are superficially similar but essentially different is great philosophical exercise. Also, reading Berkeley's (A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge) and Kant's (Lectures on Logic) criticism of Lockean abstractionism may also be valuable. Seeing how Objectivism can answer their criticisms of abstractionism will deepen your understanding of Objectivist epistemology.

Given that Aristotle is like Objectivism beta, all Objectivists should be almost as familiar with Aristotle as they are with Rand. One of the best ways to learn to think philosophically is to see masters like Aristotle critique other philosophers. Familiarizing yourself with Plato, and then thinking through Aristotle's (and Aquinas's) criticisms of Plato will make you a better philosopher.

Reading someone like Hume and finding the assumptions which lead him to disaster is a good exercise in philosophical detection.

Currently, I am working through Wilfrid Sellars' criticisms of foundationalism and concept empiricism, and figuring out how the Objectivist theory of concepts can answer him. I won't know if that's worthwhile until I'm done, but so far I've gotten some value out of the project.

The value of reading primary sources depends on your goals. If the above projects sound like something you'd find value in, primary sources are a must. Given that you would be interested specifically in using those texts to deepen your understanding of good philosophy, you can't rely on secondary sources that often miss what one needs to accomplish that goal. If you are just interested in knowing the basics of the history of philosophy, something like W.T. Jones' A History of Western Philosophy would be preferable.

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Either their ideas were good, in which case they will have been built on by modern thinkers, or they are bad, in which case they will have been discarded by modern thinkers.

As was said before, these aren't the only options. For one, sometimes modern thinkers aren't better thinkers at all, worse at times even. Just because a modern thinker built on something does not necessarily mean they built on it well. Newer is not always better. Some ideas aren't across the board bad or good, so really, the value of reading old philosophy entirely depends on your reason for studying philosophy in the first place.

I'm not sure why you are lumping "modern thinkers" together here; there are such a variety of modern thinkers of ALL sorts that I don't even know why you brought this point up.

Edited by Eiuol
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All respondents so far have made good points, while nevertheless not quite addressing my main motivation for posting this thread. Maybe I didn't make myself clear enough in the opening post.

People tend to be focusing on Locke, so let's go with him for a second. In the second chapter of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke argues against the claim that there are innate ideas. He bases his argument on quaint facts, such as the fact that children and idiots don't agree with the Law of Identity.

Obviously, there's a lot more to the debate over the existence of innate ideas today than there was when Locke wrote this. Locke did not (and obviously could not) incorporate rebuttals to all of the modern thinkers who believe that there are innate ideas, because he was dead before they set pen to paper. Nor did Locke integrate all of the scientific discoveries that now bear on the question of whether there are innate ideas, because he was dead before they were made.

This passage does not justify any modern reader in thinking that there are no innate ideas, nor does any other passage in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It would be irresponsible to base a belief that there are no innate ideas on this passage, because there's been a lot of progress since it was written.

My concern isn't so much that there's no value in reading Locke. I'm sure that there's lots of historical value in reading him. It's that Locke might have been refuted. Locke's ideas might be laughable in light of some modern discovery, and you would never know it just by reading Locke's work. Indeed, there is actually decent reason to think that Locke has been refuted or at least rendered irrelevant: other very smart people have had three hundred years to make scientific discoveries and to pick his work apart logically.

So, why not just read the modern thinkers? Even if you read Locke, you're going to have to read them anyway in order to understand the arguments relevant today. And if Locke's arguments were relevant, then the modern thinkers will use Locke's arguments anyway.

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So, why not just read the modern thinkers?

You're specifically addressing what is now a scientific claim by Locke. In cases of science I tend to agree with you. Little point in studying Aristotle's Parts of Animals, but that does not then disqualify his analytics or ethics, for example.

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