Bob Pasnau — noted medieval scholar in my own CU Boulder Philosophy Department and generally awesome guy — makes a compelling case for young philosophers specializing in the history of philosophy. Here are a few choice quotes:
The discipline of philosophy benefits from a serious, sustained engagement with its history. Most of the interesting, important work in philosophy is not being done right now, at this precise instant in time, but lies more or less hidden in the past, waiting to be uncovered. Philosophers who limit themselves to the present restrict their horizons to whatever happens to be the latest fashion, and deprive themselves of a vast sea of conceptual resources.
Despite the above list of names, many philosophers today are presentists – they think that the only philosophy worth reading has been written in the last 100 years, if not the last 30 years. This attitude is hard to justify. The historical record shows that philosophy – unlike science and math – does not develop in steady, linear fashion. Perhaps the very best historical era ever came at the very start, in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. If that was not it, then one has to wait some 1600 years, for the century from Aquinas to Oresme, (Who’s Oresme?, you may ask. Exactly.) or wait 2000 years, for Descartes through Kant. I’m leaving out important figures, of course, but also many quite fallow periods, even in modern times. Maybe subsequent generations will judge 2011 and environs as the highpoint up until now of the whole history of philosophy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Every generation of philosophers has been equally prepossessed by its own ideas.
Of course, I am no more capable than others of judging my own times, but certainly I am not alone in feeling some amount of dissatisfaction with the way philosophy looks today. Tyler Burge nicely expresses my own worries when he remarks, in the preface to his recent book, that “if philosophy is not to slide toward irrelevance and become a puzzle-game-playing discipline, good mainly for teaching the young to think clearly, some central parts of philosophy must broaden their horizons.” Burge mainly has in mind science as a broadening influence; I think the history of philosophy can play a similar role. Although a background in the history of the subject is obviously not a prerequisite for doing deep and original work, it helps, and I fear the discipline’s present collective neglect of its past contributes to its often insular character.
Personally, I was always far more interested in the history of ethics than in contemporary ethics — for many of the reasons that Pasnau discusses here. While the history of ethics is taught (somewhat), philosophy departments don’t recognize a research specialty in the history of ethics, except for ancient ethics. The history of philosophy, with the exception of ancient philosophy, is focused on metaphysics and epistemology. So if you write a dissertation on the history of ethics, the standard result is that ethicists will regard you as a historian and historians will regard you as an ethicist, such that you’ll have a devil of a time getting a job. (That happened to one of our sharpest and most talented professors at Boulder.)
In academia, my two favorite areas of philosophy for study and teaching were philosophy of religion and the history of ethics. I just loved to dive into the ethical texts of the great figures in the history of philosophy — Kant, Hume, Mill, Aquinas, the early Christians, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and of course, Aristotle — so as to develop a clear view of their ethics. That’s something that I hope to return to doing soon, in some form.