Notes on History of Philosophy I -- Phil A211

William Jamison - Instructor

Lecture 1

1. What are these notes for? The main reason I post lecture notes is for my use in the class. They are a handy way for me to have materials available that may be useful during the lecture and discussion. I find a screen with Internet access a more interesting way to lead class than using a power point presentation. Some students have critiqued this but by far most appreciate it. It also enables me to outline the main topics for the lecture which helps keep discussion on those topics - though not always. You may also bring laptops and use them in class to take notes or research topics of interest associated with the lecture. In this way class can be an active dialog and questions that come up can be investigated quickly.

Before class it may be useful to see what the plan is especially if there is time to follow up on some of the resources. Familiarity with the topics adds to the success of the discussion and makes it more of a discussion among people ready to voice their opinions on the issues. After class (or before!) suggested additions are welcome to improve the notes for future reference and as a guide to any who were unable to attend. Yes! Some people occasionally miss class! Snow, traffic, military deployments, personal issues, family vacations in the middle of the semester, all can interrupt plans. For those who miss class these notes can help get a sense of what they missed. Since there is an overall narrative to the course missing a lecture can make it difficult to make sense out of subsequent lectures. To sum up: these notes are an attempt to improve class before, during, and after. You can help! Email your suggested additions or add them to my blog if you would rather do that.

2. I will try to race through practical things about my plans for the course including the syllabus on the web, the requirements for the course, and these pages.

3. Taking my lead from  Hans-Georg Gadamer an important topic concerns defining the beginning of philosophy: This may take some explaining since some members of the class may find our contemporary philosophical point of view WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies). Gadamer argues the concept of "beginning" already presumes a narrative that we have to be aware of lest we be fooled by our own prior beliefs - in this case those defined by Hegel on Aristotle on Thales. I will argue for this narrative by initiating a discussion regarding the nature of progress. Do we believe there is progress? Scientific perhaps? But how about moral progress? Do we know more about healthy living, good living, and about God, today then people years before? Hundreds of years before? Thousands?

4. If we accept our current academic narrative we then have other topics to address: the nature of language, society in prehistory, the de-mythologizing of the world, water and civilization.

There are four major philosophers central to Ancient and Medieval Philosophy that will be central to this course. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. But we will also look at quite a few of the lesser known philosophers for familiarity and to see how rich the traditions are.

The first philosophers, Thales and water.

(Do we need to discuss this? This is an issue I cover in Introduction to Philosophy) If 5 is skipped we go to Thales.

5. Reasons why this study is important to us today. by explaining what philosophy is.

What is philosophy?

Doing Philosophy - love of wisdom

learning the tradition

taking up the quest

Study of the tradition

read the texts

learn the interpretations

Explanation: "Philosophy" is Greek for "love of wisdom."

Our university system has an institutional tradition associated with the subject of philosophy. This tradition entails the study of a certain corpus of philosophers and views them in certain categories. Idealism, realism, empiricism, rationalism, are some of these main categories. They are also broken up by historical period: ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary, are some of the traditional periods used. Most refer to our day as "Postmodern." One task of any philosophy course is to learn this tradition.

Philosophy is also a quest. The things we will discuss are the most important things in our lives: our values, beliefs in God and religion, and how we think the world works. Since these topics are so important to us, it becomes a great concern to us that we find the values we hold confronted by radically different views, especially when those views are presented in a manner that argues our previous views and beliefs are error. Depending on how well this presentation is done, we can easily find ourselves desperate for answers to questions that pull at our heart and soul. Philosophy in this light becomes a quest.

Study of the tradition: the texts we are using are perfect examples of core materials in the university tradition of what is important in the history of philosophy. You have to read these. Learning how to read them is part of learning the tradition. They do not read like anything else you may be familiar with. They are various in their presentation, and age, -- most are in translation -- which always makes things difficult. It is very much like learning a foreign language even in translation. The vocabulary is different and technical. Many of the words are familiar from other uses in everyday life, but in philosophy take on very specific meanings that can lead to confusion. To add to this, there are too many texts easily available for anyone to read even a small part of the tradition in a lifetime. How should we choose which texts to read? Which ones are most important?

Learn the interpretations: just as reading the Bible can lead each individual to come to their own interpretation of what they read, so reading philosophical works results in many interpretations of what is written. To some extent, this is actually encouraged by our tradition, and each student is encouraged to reach their own opinions. But there are also major parts of the tradition that should be interpreted in certain ways or points that have been successfully used throughout the tradition become lost. Reading the text on your own is important, but becoming familiar with the main points of the tradition in those texts is also important. This means the true benefit of the texts only comes after multiple readings. The "aha!" feeling only comes after work.


Why study philosophy?

As answer to the three main questions:

Who am I?

What is my place in the universe?

How do I maintain that place?

As part of a Liberal Arts Education:

to learn the craft of Free people

to understand the virtues

because we are curious

To understand other people

why do they believe and act the way they do?


Key issues:

texts are old the vocabulary is new

Texts are difficult Most are in translation

Cultures of the authors are not ours their ideas are easily misunderstood

You have to read to learn the tradition You have to learn the tradition to read

Some of our problems are different Some of our problems are the same



3 approaches to history of philosophy


inquiry will lead to truth and knowledge of the world

belief in progress of reason


inquiry traces a tradition to undermine it

paradox of truth is there is no truth


understands truth to belong to a tradition

seeks a view that explains all traditions

Explanation: How should we approach the study of philosophy? For reasons that will be more clear towards the end of the course, we will take the approach of "tradition." This was somewhat discussed with slide one, but the two alternatives need mention here. The method of "encyclopedia" follows the belief (primarily associated with the "Enlightenment" and the Britannica tradition (!)) that we can use scientific methods to find out all there is to know about the universe. As we find out each fact, and fact by fact compile all the facts we need to know all there is to know, our job will be done. This approach has been discredited and is no longer viable -- as we will see. The method of "genealogy" (primarily associated with Nietzsche) follows the trail of a tradition but then seeks to discredit that tradition by arguing that there can be no truth in mere accident. This tradition becomes hypocritical in the sense that it denies it's own genealogy, or plays with the nature of truth by recognizing that it all becomes nonsense. This is still a very popular view. I argue against using it towards the end of the course.

The approach that studies traditions -- very much as the genealogist does -- but holds that truth only makes sense within a tradition, seems to be the most cogent approach.

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