“I have already mentioned some of the lessons I believe I have learnt about philosophy: the ramifications which make study of the physical universe and of the mind relevant to each other, and to how to live. But what have I learnt about the history of philosophy, since I started in 1980 to read it as a continuous and continuing story, instead of skipping from one famous name to the next? I have already mentioned my first lesson, that intermediate philosophers may be needed for understanding later ones. In addition, I had learnt how ideas can be transmuted. One striking example was the transmutation of a Stoic theory of how to avoid agitation into a Christian theory of how to avoid temptation. Another was the harmonization of Plato and Aristotle, which, in the Neoplatonism, produced a new philosophy that was identical with that of neither.
But I also got a sense of how ideas can be revived in very different contexts. Berkeley’s idealism was designed to solve a problem ok knowledge – if we know only the ideas in our minds, how can we know about tables and chairs outside our minds? Answer: tables and chairs are bundles of ideas in the mind, sometimes of ourselves and always of God. This, I came to realize, is a revival of the fourth-century theory of St Gregory of Nyssa. Material objects, he said, are bundles of God’s ideas. But his reason was to do with a quite different problem converning causation. If cause must be like effect, how can an immaterial God have created a material world? Answer: the world is not material in the way you think. Material things are bundles of God’s ideas. Same theory: different reasons. Of course, Berkeley may have known of Gregory, and he does give Gregory’s reason as a supplementary one.
[...] I am inclined to wonder if there are any ideas that could not be revived in a new context. [...]
The possibility of reviving ideas is part of what gives point to philosophers studying the history of philosophy. It liberates us from the circle of ideas which happen to be most recent and expands the philosophical imagination. The opposite utility has also been illustrated, that history can make us question the soundness of some of our inherited presuppositions, as with the supposed harmlessness of killing animals.
This idea of history as liberating contrasts with the view that we are trapped in our circles of ideas and the ancients in theirs. On this view, ideas are so tied to the context of a given time that we can easily say they could not have been thought of before that date, or could not be taken seriously after it. There are also ideas, on this view, so entrenched that we can foresee that our own circle will not give them up. Again, history, on this view, mereley shows us why we have inevitably come to adopt certain views, and discard others. This is the opposite of what I think.
Admittedly if we revive an idea, we may need to detach it from its original background, as ideas about when it would be just to go to was may get detached from their backgraound in natural law. But detachability is not only an interesting historical phenomenon. It is also what helps to make ancient ideas directly applicable to modern philosophy, or, as in the examplo of justice in war, to life. As historian, one must be keenly aware of the original background, or one will miss significan differences. As philosopher, one may consider how far the background can be detached.
I do not wish to deny that there are limits to the repetition of ideas. A particularly itneresting one which I have mentioned is that I have found at most likeness, never exact similarity, in the case of non-Buddhist Indian philosophy, perhaps partly because it was until recently the guarded preserve of Brahmins who felt the west could teach them about technology, but not about philosophy.
To return to the ramifications of philosophy, they are so extensive, and the cultures which have studied them so varied, that Gregory of Nyssa’s charming idea is surely right: there is room for the understanding to make perpetual progress and one need never grow tired.