We should expect the history of philosophy to help us answer our contemporary questions.
I have spent considerable time studying Aristotle (and to a lesser degree other important historical thinkers), but I didn’t end up writing a dissertation in the history of philosophy. Yet, I cannot imagine having written my dissertation and doing my current research without this rich background.
As philosophers, we need to think hard about the role of the history of philosophy. Why? Because as philosophers, more generally, we need to think hard about the relationship between taking over already-formed sophisticated thoughts on the one hand, and keeping an open and ‘uncontaminated’ mind in order to think about a problem with fresh eyes, on the other.
Both seems to be critically important for philosophy. I think we would lose a lot if we didn’t take the time to study the history of philosophy (whose canon can and should be critically examined). At the same time, we should not lose sight of what questions we pursue when we study them.
I think we wouldn’t do justice to the historical figures in philosophy if we treated them merely as a repository of ‘past thoughts’. We should read and discuss them because they really did have some great ideas; ideas that can still solve problems today. Hence I think what we should do is no less than to expect them to help us answer our contemporary questions.
In this vein, my dissertation ended up arguing for some Aristotelian hypotheses while revising some aspects of them to fit our modern life.
I have also founded and led the Attic Greek Conversation group at Columbia University. The aim was to enhance our understanding of the Attic Greek language by actively speaking it. In other words, we tried to bring a historical language into our contemporary conversations, as another way of bringing the history of philosophy to life.