Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On learning from our betters

Bill Vallicella has an interesting post that touches on, among other things, the aversion some analytic philosophers have to the history of philosophy. I've never understood this aversion. Doesn't common sense and basic humility suggest that if you want to explore a subject this should involve looking at what other people thought about it -- people who a) were smarter than you and b) did not share your cultural biases and habitual thought patterns? Yet this doesn't seem to occur to some (or persuade them if it does). Gilbert Harman, one of the best philosophers around, allegedly had a sign on his office door that said, "History of philosophy: just say no!" I simply don't understand this attitude. It reminds me of a wonderful Orson Scott Card short story, "Unaccompanied Sonata", where a child is determined to have great musical talent, and so is whisked away to his own private house to compose music in complete isolation from the deep history of music, only ever hearing what he himself composes. That way his music would not be tainted by, for example, Bach or Massenet or whoever. It was more important for his music to be original than for it to be good. Personally, I'd rather produce music that's good and philosophy that's true. And if I have to give up originality to accomplish this, it doesn't strike me as a particularly grave sacrifice.

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