(Published in The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York: Scribners’ Sons, 2005).
A respected philosopher keeps a sign on his office door forbidding the discussion therein of any philosophy more than ten years old. At this late stage in his career the restriction includes a good deal of his own work. This may well be the limit case of the anti-historical attitude that has prevailed throughout much academic philosophy of the past 100 or so years, motivated by the view that philosophy, as an academic discipline, need have no more connection to its past than does any other positive domain of inquiry. A physicist, for example, may be interested to know how exactly Newton came upon his discovery of the laws of gravity. But this interest is, as it were, extracurricular, not a necessary part of the specialized knowledge of a competent physicist. It will be enough that the physicist learn the relevant laws in a textbook; Newton’s name need not appear at all, much less the details of his distinctly 17th-century concerns.
Can philosophy be understood in the same way? At the other end of the spectrum from our anti-historical philosopher, we find some maintaining that philosophy is entirely constituted by its history, that the study of philosophy can never be anything but the study of the history of philosophy. Between these two extremes, there is a vast number of intermediate positions concerning the value of philosophy’s history to its present practice. Among those who accept that it is in some degree valuable, moreover, there are vastly different conceptions of the nature of this value. Let us review, with the help of some slightly cumbersome “-isms”, some of the possible perspectives on the history of philosophy from within philosophy today, with an eye toward the deeper understanding of the nature of philosophy itself that informs these perspectives.