The Treasure Island of Old Philosophical Ideas

When one looks at which philosophers command the most scholarly attention, one finds a distribution drastically skewed in the direction of the (distant) past:

  1. Plato (428–348 BCE)
  2. Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
  3. Kant (1724–1804)
  4. Hume (1711–1776)
  5. Descartes (1596–1650)
  6. Socrates (469–399 BCE)
  7. Wittgenstein (1889–1951)
  8. Locke (1632–1704)
  9. Frege (1848–1925)
  10. Aquinas (1225–1274)

Not a huge surprise, but does it make any sense? How is this possible? Why should the distribution of philosophical importance be so heavily lopsided in favor of the past?

These are the questions that a young Professor of Philosophy at Utrecht University formulates and discusses in a paper(1) published this month:

What credence should we assign to philosophical claims that were formed without any knowledge of the current state of the art of the philosophical debate and little or no knowledge of the relevant empirical or scientific data? Very little or none. Yet when we engage with the history of philosophy, this is often exactly what we do.

The paper is, well, provocative:

Imagine a tiny island somewhere far away. The island only has a few million inhabitants. They have no modern technology, no scientific knowledge of contemporary physics or biology or astronomy or psychology, no real mathematics or logic and, perhaps worst of all, no internet. Many of the people on the island have never talked to each other, and they never will. Indeed, many are unaware of what the world outside of the island is like, or that such a world exists at all. But they do engage in philosophical thinking, and sometimes, they write their thoughts down.

Meanwhile, the rest of world outside of the island spends a disproportionate amount of time studying the writings of the islanders,

Hanno Sauer argues that we have good reasons for thinking that historical authors were not equipped with the theoretical sophistication nor the empirical knowledge required for their writings to still be relevant to contemporary debates. The cure he is recommending is a healthy dose of historical amnesia (anti-historicism) to counterbalance the burden imposed by the weight of history.

Not everybody is sure he is serious about it.

Yet, I would say there is a deep connection with one of the core ideas in Mind The Post: that there is something rotten about some old ideas, and we do not know how to isolate them.


(1) Sauer, Hanno. ‘The End of History’. Inquiry 0, no. 0 (19 September 2022): 1–25.

Feature Image: Here we go! Talking about our current “ideas” for the future in our Future Studies Course


  1. Very intriguing. Congratulations for the post!
    I would agree that Quantum physics and relativity, perhaps also Chaos, are impressive “discoveries” but perhaps, really, there is nothing new under the Sun, even if we might think there is…
    A different possibility is that the possible conclusions are disappointing.

    • That is my impression after my, limited, understanding of Kant, Frege and Wittgenstein, the three more modern of the 10.

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