The philosophical literature is like an intellectual stream, running through the centuries. Some of its stretches are fast and quirky, some are broad and calm: novel ideas have been generated at times in astonishing number over a short period, while at other times a systematic working out took place, slowly and carefully elaborating details rather than shaking up the foundations. In part these philosophical texts constitute a dialogue, an exchange between past and present writers, with the later minds trying to understand the questions (and the answers) of the earlier minds, as expressed in their writing. Partly, it's a process of differentiation: getting deeper, more subtle, more thorough than anyone before. (In this respect, there is a parallel with science: we can today analyze natural phenomena much more finely, deeply and comprehensively than our predecessors, not least because technology has advanced so much.) In addition, it is also a process of transcending what's there, of overcoming old hindrances and stepping across borders. It's not merely stacking up more knowledge then, not simply adding to, but a genuine going beyond what's known already — broadening the scope of our intellectual endeavors further and further.

Yet these days, since we have a wealth of historical data and heaps of interpretations of them, any intellectual achievement might appear small in range and impact compared to what is already there. It's natural for it to seem so. But what this shows is not that intellectual achievements aren't what they were anymore, but that we should be wary of the instinct to automatically compare everything with what we take to be its historical peers. Good things are good because they're good, and not because they are like similar things in the past. (Part of the instinct to take something as good only if there is a historical parallel is the expectation, supported by long experience and observation, that something that worked well once will probably work well again. And there is nothing wrong with that; it's just that it doesn't follow that something which
doesn't have a parallel in the past will for that reason fail to work.)

We must be weary of the expectation that only the novel is worthwhile, and especially suspicious of the notion that primarily the spectacularly novel merits attention. Let us trace back this expectation a little.

When we admire novelty, what exactly is it that we admire? The arts provide us with an instructive parallel: we have come to admire novelty as a mark of great art, originality counts above all else (even beauty). Don't we discount a work of art, or a performance, if it doesn't do anything
new, if it doesn't show us anything that wasn't seen or heard before? Is it not a quick and nearly instinctive critical response to point out a similar work or performance that came earlier and did the same thing? Contrast this with former times; what was relevant then wasn't so much originality, but mastery of the material and the inherent rules of the game that was appreciated in art. It was a human excellence, not a historic event (the emergence of something novel) that was admired. Just copying things did not count as good, of course (since copying other works doesn't display mastery on your part), but there was nothing wrong with a simply conventional, though artfully crafted piece of work: you didn't have to break with all conventions and produce something historically unique in order to be appreciated. What guided appreciation was something else.

Philosophy is different both from science and art: it's not just about collecting truths and insights and building theories and systems out of them (thought it is partly that); and it's not just about bringing about something novel and unique (though it's partly that as well). Mere novelty and mere truth are not enough, they aren't the central thing. (They are part of it, however, and thus philosophy does overlap with, and connect to, both science and art.) There is an ongoing intellectual exchange in it, which is part of our culture; or more strictly, it is part of
any culture, even though not everybody in any culture would participate in it. It is first and foremost an attempt and effort to understand the whole of reality; and it involves a sedimentation of insights and attitudes from earlier traditions (and other cultures). That it is ongoing means to constantly take up, interpret, digest and assimilate earlier thought; it also means, however, to develop novel thought in response to changes in the world, emerging new insights elsewhere, observation of success and failure, and much more. When we engage with the literature in the intellectual stream of philosophy, running, as it is, through the centuries, we must at the same time admire and recognize great depth and difference, and have the courage to strive for it ourselves. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.