How to Read a Text from the History of Philosophy

Reading Philosophy Texts

Reading and Understanding Material from the History of Philosophy

If you haven't read the basic entry on reading philosophy texts, I recommend that you do so, since this is meant as a  supplement only.

Reading texts in the history of philosophy is not hard, if you look at it this way: The historical text you are given is just part of a larger book that you have to curate and read. This book contains your i) primary source and some explanations on the meaning of the technical terms and ii) some information on other positions the author has endorsed and other authors of the time would generally hold. This is a step-by-step guide to reading texts from the history of philosophy.

I. The Primary Source

The process of reading a text from the history is in principle no different than with philosophy texts in general, there is just more uncertainty and there are more puzzles. I will demonstrate this with an example:

“Of those who declared that the first principle is one, moving and indefinite, Anaximander […] said that the indefinite was the first principle and element of things that are, and he was the first to introduce this name for the first principle [i.e., he was the first to call the first principle indefinite]. He says that the first principle is neither water nor any other of the things called elements, but some other nature which is indefinite, out of which come to be all the heavens and the worlds in them. The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time, as he says in rather poetical language.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics 24.13-21 = 12B1+A9)

The first step is to read the passage once superficially and note down what you understand from the text. Obviously in this random passage from Simplicius’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics the topic are something called "first principles" which are indefinite.

But there are large parts of the text that don't make much sense, if you're not familiar with ancient Greek philosophy. I immediately had many questions that I wanted to answer in order to understand what was going on. What’s a first principle? Why would it be moving and indefinite? Who is Anaximander? What are things that are? Why does Anaximander rule out that they are water? What are elements? What’s a nature? What did the ancients think about the heavens and the worlds in them? How do things perish? Necessity, in which sense? What does it mean to pay penalty and retribution? What did the ancients think about the order of time? And who is Simplicius?

So, the second step would be to note down what is unclear and find out about it.

You may of course use google to find out about some terms. But I recommend finding sources which explain terms within their historical context. Here is why:

For instance, when typing "first principle" into google the first result is this text:

A first principle is a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. In philosophy, first principles are taught by Aristotelians, and nuanced versions of first principles are referred to as postulates by Kantians.

What's the problem? Google tells us that first principles are assumptions or propositions, linguistic phenomena. How could they be moving? The sentence "This word moves rather fast" is just meaningless to us. 

But when consulting the academic literature which is more sensitive to context, a lot more nuance appears. This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which deals with Anaximander's notion of first principles: 

"[...] there is an original (and originating) indefinite stuff, from which all the heavens and the worlds in them come to be. This claim probably means that the original state of the universe was an indefinitely large mass of stuff that was also indefinite in its character. This stuff then gave rise through its own inherent power to the ingredients that themselves constitute the world as we perceive it." Full text here

So, the first principle is some stuff which is the origin of the world, rather than a proposition. It's an entity with physical features, not some idea alone. The Stanford Encyclopedia also contains a lot of further explanations that sensibly contextualize the passage and explain many of the questions I had.

Good sources to consult: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a Cambridge Companion on your topic.

II. Bad News: This May Not Be Enough 

Here's where it gets hard. We may not find answers to our questions in these sources. Why?

Unfortunately, as is common with historical texts we may not be able to fully understand the problem at hand and the context of the debate. This is so because sometimes there is limited original material available. Sometimes all we have are two snippets of text one of which is philosophy and the other a shopping list. The Stanford Encyclopedia and the Cambridge Companions seek to provide us with the least common denominator within the literature.

And with historical texts, it is often difficult to find a definitive interpretation of all aspects the material. You almost always are confronted with competing interpretations. 

A difficulty for interpretation is for instance that the meaning transported through language is not clear. The meaning of these text will evade us if we don’t understand ancient Greek, and even for someone trained in the language it will be impossible to say with certainty what is meant. Ancient languages are lost and so is the meaning of the words in them. All we have nowadays are our best guesses. And the further we think about this aspect the more it becomes clear that other aspects of meaning are likewise inaccessible. Just like “braces” and “trainers” means something completely different in Britain and in the U.S., the social, political, scientific, mathematical and logical context of an author’s world might shape the meaning and make it hard to recognize for us.

We may be forced to give an interpretation ourselves. And the most common first approach to this is to look for contextual cues. But this results in further difficulty: Even if we have access to archival material and other writings explaining the context, it is not easy to decide which context is the relevant one to clarify the passage. 

I suggest to look into further material in this order:

  • First, I look at the author’s other works, to see whether there is some more material available that may explain things.
  • Then, I look into other authors’ works of the time and with whom the author is debating. Maybe Anaximander is just replying to a contemporary’s theses without explicitly mentioning him (in this case, he is indeed answering to Thales).
  • And finally, I will look for cues within the larger intellectual and social context of the time. I’ll sit down and read some history books.

Fortunately, that is not what you need to do as an undergrad! This is the task of us, historians of philosophy and we are here to clarify these contexts as best as we can. But you might share with us the initial confusion while reading and you might want to find your own independent interpretation rather than relying on us.

At minimum, you should flag and underline what you don’t understand and bring your questions to the lecture or to discussion section. But for developing some useful analytical skills, you should read the text and think about its structure along these lines.

Good luck finding your path through the text!