The nature of philosophical knowledge

Is it necessary to understand the evolution of modern philosophical thought in order to debate their value?
Do we have to be able to understand how Existentialism was influenced by all the theories before it…back to Socrates in order to have a deep debate about its merits?

A part of me says that we need to have the historical context in order to really understand the nuances of the theories. But another part says that if it is indeed a good argument it should stand against debate independant of its evoutionary history.

I guess my question is a practical one in that i am trying to uderstand the valued of reading vast amounts of philosophy in order to better understand a current school of thought. Is the time better spent thinking about the current than trying to learn about the past? Sure i understand that we may learn alot about thinking in general by studying the older philosophies but will it allow us to better understand the schools they influenced?

I don’t think a knowledge of the history of philosophy is essential, but it would certainly help.

Many philosophical ideas are simply extensions of earlier ideas, which means - basically - if you can grasp the earlier ideas, it makes it much easier to grasp the latter ones. A better understanding of preceding philosophical thought - of course - does not make the strength of the current idea any greater or less, but it puts you, the reader, in a far better position to analyse it.

Case in point: I was reading some Satre today (as one does). If I was completely unfamiliar with Descartes, Kant, Heidegger or Hegel then I would have doubtless missed much of what Satre had to say (as he explicitly and implicitly referred to these philosophers throughout the essay). He also made several references to Husserl though - who I am not at all familiar with (except by recognising him as the father of phenomenology) - so, from this point of view, I have certainly missed much of what Satre was aiming at. This gap in my knowledge translates into gaps in my reading of the text, thus putting me at risk of misunderstanding some of Satre’s ideas.

So, in short, a knowledge of the authors who directly affected the views of the author of the book you are reading, will doubtless place you in a better position to understand the ideas offered, and, as such, in a better place to critique them properly.

While the subject matter is primary to the study of philosophy, the history of philosophy is much too valuable a resource to be ignored.

A novel thinker of the highest caliber might purposely avoid this history from a fear of falling into the traditional thought patterns (and traps). For example, a humorous account of Wittgenstein’s Ph.D. defense has Bertrand Russell mention John Locke, to which Wittgenstein replies, “John who?” … dstein.htm

Of course Wittgenstein was a special case. One wouldn’t expect a “bull in the china shop” would bother to read about the plates that he’s so busy smashing. The rest of us enter the china shop with a bit more reverence. We carefully turn the plates over to learn their origins. We note how the china display is organized according to style and function. We eventually set our own table with the style of china that we find most appealing. But even those who prefer a pottery studio to a china shop; those who choose to create their plates and bowls with their own hands benefit all the more from a knowledge of past designs.


// Sartre made several references to Husserl

Moreover, before WW2, he made quite an extensive study under the guidance of Husserl. I would say, Being and Nothingness is closer to the phenomenological method of Husserl than Sein und Zeit, notwithstanding the fact that Heidegger had been assistent of Husserl.

I think it might help. But this opinion is coming from a human that doesn’t have a vast knowledge on the history of philosophical thought. I could understand what the topic is without having a deep understanding on the previous arguments. This is what I do here.

But the value of knowing some of the greats is awesome and helps alot in the progress of your own philosophical style.

Wittgenstein was indeed a special case, his biography is a good philosophy for me. Studying the tomes of dead guys also keeps us from making the same mistakes they made. I stll have many philosophers to study. Like many have said earlier, studying a thinker’s predecessors can aid in the understanding of the current philosopher under study. If a great philosopher neglected to do this (which he could only do to a degree) he would have to be highly original or highly brilliant, or both.
existent said

I think you start to see something like a law of diminishing returns. Sure you could study Existentialism back to Socrates, but it would be more history and other philosophy, rather than existentialism. Some philosophers are easy enough to understand that studying their predecessors may provide only limited understanding in relation to the original philosopher’s thought. But, as in all things, it depends on your aim. I’m purposely not very focused, i study several different thinkers, but if you’re concentrated on existentialism your methods will be different.
Existent went on to say:

Any good philosophical theory will stand the acid test of time. But philosophical theories, to an extent, can be a product of their times, a cultural expression so to speak,or negatively, Argumentum Ad Populam.
Existent concluded with:

I have lived this question myself. For me it took the stance of scholar vs. thinker. I think it important to have a solid foundation, and to that end, every thinker is a scholar, every modern a purveyor of the past.