Some 2,400 years ago, the government of the city of Athens condemned Socrates to death, the first of the philosophers, accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth. In Spain, the LOMCE has voted to once again condemn philosophy, relegating the course History of Philosophy to being an elective in the curriculum for the 2nd year of secondary studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. This decision will inevitably bring to mind the famous quote by our philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Étienne Gilson’s affirmation in his William James Lectures (Harvard, 1936-37) seems far away today, i.e. that the history of philosophy is the laboratory of thought, the true test bench of philosophy. Why should we renounce the history of thought and of ideas, which is what, ultimately, can help us most to understand the present? It seems to me that the radical response is that the powerful, together with the apparatus of the State, prefer that citizens not think for themselves; they believe that anesthatizing the populace with candy, videogames and reality shows is sufficient.
Barbarianism advances and slowly takes up the collective space: one need only watch the news programs that have ended up being merely a chronicle of spectacles. The barbarians that finally conquered the Roman Empire thought that they brought progress with them. Just as in the Middle Ages, those of us who dedicate ourselves to thinking and to inviting others to think—those of us who are philosophers and professors of philosophy—are being marginalized by society. We are sealed up in the ivory tower of our own specialization so that nobody can hear our denunciation of the direction the world is taking. This is why they want to eliminate History of Philosophy from secondary education: they do not want the adults of tomorrow to be able to think rigorously and freely.
But, is a single class that important? The answer is yes. The history of philosophy is the best vaccine against the dominant relativism. We find ourselves in a society that lives in an impossible amalgam of a generalized skepticism about values and a supposedly scientistic fundamentalism about facts. This is a mixture of a naive trust in Science with capital S with that perspectivist relativism that the poet Ramón de Campoamor expressed so well: “nothing is either truth nor lie; it’s all the color of the lens that one views it with”. Anyone who studies the history of thought immediately recognizes that this is not so, that—as Stanley Cavell writes—there are better and worse ways of thinking about things, and that via the contrast with experience and rational dialogue human beings are capable of recognizing the superiority of one opinion over another.
The question about the role of reason in our lives and in our civilization is probably the central philosophical question that has impregnated the last two centuries of Western culture and philosophy. Those philosophers who—in the expression of Edmund Husserl—feel ourselves to be “servants of humanity” have a great responsibility towards our fellow citizens, as Socrates had with Athens. With our work we are not only transmitting philosophical knowledge to the new generations, but we are also keeping alive the flame of free and rigorous thought, the flame of how to be fully human.
In this regard, the history of philosophy has a tremendous importance. It is a class that provides some of the keys for helping students to grow in their confidence in their own manner of thinking, which is the most efficacious means for resolving—almost always provisionally—the problems that arise in life. In addition, it helps those young people to open up to the opinions and experiences of others, to deciding to learn from others and broaden too their own capacity to love. This ambition is not small. As Hannah Arendt emphasized, it is only if every one of us lives creatively, thinking with radicality, that we can resist that banality which is, in the end, the greatest danger that looms over us as we build our own, authentic, lives.
At times one hears people speaking about saving the Arctic, because it is shrinking at an accelerated rate. It seems to me that hardly anyone speaks about saving Philosophy, which for human beings is a territory that is much more vital. The attack against the class on History of Philosophy at the Bachelor level is the tip of an immense iceberg which truly seeks to eliminate our culture.