Studying Philosophy for the Right Reasons

If as much time were spent meditating on our own philosophical ideas as is devoted to refuting those of other philosophers, we would probably realize how much more important it is to set forth truth than to fight error. — Etienne Gilson, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant

Gilson makes an excellent point. Much of the philosophical discussion in our lives is often of a “negative” nature. Criticism is both good and necessary, but it should not dominate our intellectual vocation. In order to break the rules you first have to know them. Artists like Picasso were successful because they had studied the rules. They could produce excellent representational pieces before they moved on to abstract work.

The emphasis on philosphical criticism stems from the fascination it has held for thinkers since the end of the Renaissance. Take for example Francis Bacon, who devoted himself to repudiating the older scholastic norms. “As a rule,” says Gilson, “it takes much more cleverness to understand a philosophy than to refute it.” When approaching gifted thinkers with ambiguous reputations it may be more helpful to understand them before we refute them. Speaking of Bacon, Gilson argues that “men should be appreciated for their positive contributions rather than for their deficiencies… and the fact that Bacon himself has often failed to recognize the positive contributions of his predecessors does not justify us for making the same mistake.” The modern philosophers covered by Gilson offer some important insights, which I hope to discuss later.

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