Philosophy 56 - 4.1.1 Presentist Approach

A presentist approach to the history of philosophy examines philosophical texts for the arguments they contain and judges whether their conclusions remain relevant for philosophical concerns today. A presentist approach concerns itself with the present concerns of philosophy and holds past philosophers to present standards. This approach allows us to benefit from a rich body of past wisdom—even in our everyday lives. We might, for example, find strength from the Confucian proverb “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Inspired by the maxim of English philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797)—as restated by President John F. Kennedy—“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” we might volunteer, donate, or take action to help a cause. When attempting to understand a challenging situation, we might apply Occam’s razor, the idea that the most likely explanation is the one that requires the fewest assumptions.

The main limitation to this approach is that it neglects various contexts in which past philosophers lived and worked. This does not mean that the arguments found in philosophical texts are not important and that we should not focus on them. But the focus on arguments at the exclusion of anything else causes problems. It downplays the various ways that philosophers communicate their ideas and try to persuade readers of their truth.

In addition to reading philosophical texts too narrowly, the exclusive focus on arguments has been criticized for yielding a profoundly ahistorical understanding of the development of philosophy. Past philosophers are judged by contemporary standards instead of being understood in relation to the historical and cultural contexts in which they lived and wrote. Philosophers are found wanting because they do not contribute to contemporary debates in subfields such as epistemology (the study of the basis for knowledge) and metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality). Additionally, ideas from contemporary philosophy may be attributed to historical philosophers in a way that does not accurately apply to them. This ignores the differences in time, culture, and context between contemporary philosophers and historical philosophers, an error known as anachronism.

An example will clarify these points. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which describes humanity as prisoners within a cave reacting to shadows on the wall, might be read in terms of how it contributes to debates in epistemology or metaphysics. However, it is anachronistic and inaccurate to claim that this is exclusively what it is about, as the Allegory of the Cave also has political significance specific to Plato’s time and social context. We can only grasp the political significance once we understand the situation in Plato’s home city of Athens during his lifetime. Athens had suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Following the war, Athens’s democratic government was replaced with a group of wealthy tyrants who were sympathetic to Sparta, called the Thirty Tyrants. Plato, who had relatives among the Thirty Tyrants, was thought to be sympathetic to the Thirty Tyrants and suspicious of those who were advocating for democracy. But when we realize that the Thirty Tyrants were the government responsible for Athens’s humiliating defeat and for the death of Plato’s beloved teacher Socrates, we understand why Plato questions the limits of human understanding. Plato’s political project becomes easier to understand as well, for in questioning the limits of human knowledge and seeking a deeper understanding of the truth, the Allegory of the Cave attempts to solve what Plato sees as the problems inherent in both tyrannical and democratic forms of government. Plato’s hope is to foster generations of individuals who have a greater understanding of truth and will serve capably in government.


The chapter on metaphysics covers the Allegory of the Cave in more detail.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax