Why bother studying ancient philosophy?

Ross asked:

With all the knowledge we have from modern psychology and science do we need ancient philosophy any more? Does it contain any relevant wisdom for us today?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Rose, I should first come clean and say that I am a great fan of ancient philosophical wisdom, especially the Greek variety. Even if it eventually gets dismissed as no longer relevant, it teems with unforgettable and mysterious characters. It has  a character who died for his philosophy. Socrates may well have been killed because he was an annoying citizen who asked searching questions of people who did not like to be annoyed. Then there are the dark comments such as; “man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” (Protagoras) . Merely poetry perhaps? Or powerfully pregnant remarks just bursting to be interpreted? Then think of the powerful thought-experiments of Plato; the highly developed imagery of the prisoners in the cave. Many modern philosophers are envious of the ability of Greek philosophy to illustrate with poetry and imagery.

I also think I can anticipate a very pertinent objection to these remarks; that it reduces ancient philosophy to a historical and literary study. This view comes from the notion that modern science, following innovations in areas such as relativity, both special and general, quantum physics and neurology has produced a picture of the universe which is near complete, and replaces that of all philosophy. Didn’t Stephen Hawking remark (The Grand Design) that philosophy as practised nowadays is a waste of time and philosophers a waste of space? More precisely, he wrote that philosophy is ‘dead’ since it hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in science. I would reply in response to this, that science is political in its choices as to the desirable direction of research. In response to this, I would ask you to read Karl Popper, with his insight that science is not about finding confirming evidence for a theory, but about striving hard to find disconfirming evidence. Or Thomas Kuhn, who observed that science is not a continuous addition of new facts to existing ones, but a series of revolutions, where whole world-views may be replaced with others. Not forgetting Paul Feyerabend, who wrote that “scientific method” only partially describes the methods of science. In truth, there are no rules, many theories are flawed, science doesn’t always methodically approach “truth”.

This is not to criticise the achievements of science, which have been stunningly productive. Most of Hawking’s attacks on philosophy stem from the case of metaphysics, which the achievements of quantum physics are said to have displaced. However, there are weaknesses  in this view. The gap between the relativistic and the quantum physics view of the universe still exists. Many physicists are aware of this gap, but ignore it, and just perform the calculations. However, this has left many questions still open to philosophers. For example, do things really change? Why do we think that time flows? Does it really flow?  These matters were well anticipated in the to-and-fro of ideas between Parmenides and Zeno on the one side, and Heraclitus on the other. Most modern philosophers interested in exploring these ideas still think it very useful to begin with the ancient Greeks.

Even if we think that modern neuro-science has solved, (or will solve) the body-mind dispute, we still have the remaining problem of why humans feel they are unique, and have a specially privileged place in the cosmos. These matters continue to be important, and cannot be dismissed. Ancient philosophy has much to say on this matter.

I could write a lot more on this subject, but I would be in danger of over-egging the pudding; I certainly don’t wish to argue in favour of ancient philosophy against the modern science world view, as one might argue in favour of ones favourite football team.

I leave you with one reference. This the book “Anaximander” by Carlo Rovelli. This is a book written by a well-known Quantum Physicist who prefers to discuss his views of the nature of science by beginning with the ancient Anaximander. Enough said.

One thought on “Why bother studying ancient philosophy?

  1. Graham Thanks for your reply.
    The reason I asked was ancient philosophy relevant anymore is because it’s based on outdated ancient science, social and political systems. How could Plato or Aristotles Philosophy speak to us today 2500 years later as we live in a totally different society with totally different political, social , cultural and scientific systems. Surely it’s of more value to study contemporary philosophers whose thought is based on today’s society. I did a degree in Philosophy but I now wonder what was the point in studying ancient philosophy or even Philosophy prior to the 20th century. Isn’t it all outdated. I mean many of their ideas were coloured by religious or other biases. They weren’t as objective as contemporary thinkers.
    Regards Ross

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