The History of Ideas

The discussions of every age are filled with the issues on which its leading schools of thought differ. But the general intellectual atmosphere of the time is always determined by the views on which the opposing schools agree. They become the unspoken presuppositions of all thought, the common and unquestioningly accepted foundations on which all discussion proceeds.

When we no longer share these implicit assumptions of ages long past, it is comparatively easy to recognize them. But it is different with regard to the ideas underlying the thought of more recent times. Here we are frequently not yet aware of the common features which the opposing systems of thought shared, ideas which for that very reason often have crept in almost unnoticed and have achieved their dominance without serious examination. This can be very important because, as Bernard Bosanquet once pointed out, “extremes of thought may met in error as well as in truth.” Such errors sometimes become dogmas merely because they were accepted by the different groups who quarreled on all the live issues, and may even continue to provide the tacit foundations of thought when most of the theories are forgotten which divided the thinkers to whom we owe that legacy.

When this is the case, the history of ideas becomes a subject of eminently practical importance. It can help us to become aware of much that governs our own thought without our explicitly knowing it. It may serve the purposes of a psychoanalytical operation by bringing to the surface unconscious elements which determine our reasoning, and perhaps assist us to purge our minds from influences which seriously mislead us on questions of our own day.1

One of the best reasons why we should read works from antiquity: they help to make clear to us how differently humans once thought about many things. And most of the greatest insights come to us when we question the assumptions we have not previously realized we were making.

  1. Friedrich A. Hayek : The Counter-Revolution of Science : Studies on the Abuse of Reason : Part Three, Comte and Hegel