From time to time I have separate interests which converge. I remember when I was studying ancient history one of the key texts was Aristotle (although textually speaking, it probably wasn’t actually him but a student), and at the same time I was learning in another context about Aristotle’s Hylemorphism. Although from the same character it wasn’t so easy to put them together except they were attributable to the same person.
I’m having a similar moment recently. I’m going through Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and I’m on the andalusian period. I’ve also been listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast on the History of Philosophy (without any gaps). Both narratives give a similar story: the western story that the ‘Greeks and Romans were great, but then we went backwards until the Renaissance’ is simply false at best and cultural erasure at its worst.
When you read about the history of early Christianity, one finds the presence of vibrant African Christian communities in Christendom taking part in church-dividing disputes over theology. The so-called Dark Ages had a great cultural presence of Jewish and Arab thinkers, as well as a cross-fertilisation of Hellenic culture into what became modern Europe.
There’s a certain convenience to preserving the ‘dark age’ narrative: European history seems more…European. Early Christianity has the North African Augustine; Late Antiquity had the emergence of Islam which had a definite impact on European countries, especially Iberia (modern Portugal and Spain).
I am so utterly refreshed when I read Gibbon. I know that there has been a lot of scrutiny to the accuracy and sources of his work since the 18th Century but I am impressed of how worldly he was during the time. So worldly in fact, that we today have much to rediscover about the history of what we now call Europe, North Africa, Central and East Asia.
Similarly, having a good understanding of the history of philosophy will invariably affect the breadth of topics of contemporary philosophy and the histories we teach, and teach badly. I hate for example how mistaken it is to consider the Vienna Circle as Logical Positivists, and then when asked to define Logical Positivism, we turn to AJ Ayer. I also find it deeply uninformative to think of a history of philosophy so plotted that it starts with Plato’s Apology, then goes to Aristotle’s Eudaimonian Ethics and then jumps to Descartes on Epistemology.
It is true that historically, the philosophers of history have had a poor education in the history of philosophy they knew of. There’s a certain resonance of how Kant was so obsessively interested in the philosophy of his immediate geographical and historical contemporaries (ignoring for not the influence of Hume) that it reads as dry, technical and almost irrelevant…sort of like contemporary journals in philosophy?
Of course, there were historical philosophers who eventually became better and more worldly not only about their philosophical history, but also their cultural world. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are arch examples of this!
Adamson’s narrative of philosophy shows me how important the impact of Christianity was, and is on philosophy today. Discussions on topics like mereology or haecceity and universals exist mostly because of religious oriented discussions on Christian theology. Adamson’s podcast also shows the inextricably close cousins of Arab, Islamic and Jewish philosophy and how they fed into the Medieval period and how they are part of the heritage of what became the European and Anglo-American tradition of philosophy. Re-viewing our history also allows us to re-view our self perceptions culturally and intellectually speaking.