The Idea of a Global History of Philosophy

Førelesning. Kvar bør filosofihistorie vere og korleis bør ho skrivast i ei globalisert verd? Professor emeritus i vitskapsfilisofi ved Universitetet i Bergen, Gunnar Skirbekk, har også engasjert seg i dette spørsmålet. I fjor heldt han ei førelesing om temaet under den 24. verdskongressen om filosofi i Beijing. No trykkjer Khrono ein redigert versjon av førelesinga.

Publisert Oppdatert

Introductory remarks

The title of my lecture is «the idea of a global history of philosophy». Hence, there are three terms to consider: «Philosophy», «History of Philosophy», and «a Global History of Philosophy».

I shall briefly explain how I understand these terms, one by one, and thereby, how I conceive the idea of a global history of philosophy. On this background, I shall state a few principles for writing such a history of philosophy, followed by some remarks on my experiences in trying to do so. Consequently, this is the structure of the lecture:

First my comments on the three terms, «philosophy», «history of philosophy», and «a global history of philosophy», and then a few comments on principles and experiences.


Gunnar Skirbekk

Gunnar Skirbekk (f. 1937) er professor emeritus i vitskapsfilosofi ved Universitetet i Bergen.

Skirbekk er internasjonalt kjend for dei filosofiske arbeida sine, og plasserer seg i spenningsfeltet mellom tysk kontinentalfilosofi og nyere analytisk filosofi.

Han har vore redaktør for Norsk Filosofisk Tidsskrift, og har site i styret for Nordisk institutt for filosofi.

I 1989 fekk Skirbekk oppretta Senter for vitskapsteori ved Universitetet i Bergen.

Kjelde: UiB og


The term «philosophy» is used in different ways, often quite widely, about all kinds of «world views» or «life views». Here I shall delimit the definition to those who raise some epistemic claims, some validity claims, to the extent that they operate with some degree of a «give and take» of arguments, of reasons of some kind. Not only «give», also «take», being in principle open for counter-arguments. That is, for reasons of various kinds, as to what makes sense, as to what is reasonable, right, or true. Worldviews based purely on tradition, or on dogmaticclaims, blind for possible counter-arguments, are not conceived as «philosophy», according to this definition.

«History of Philosophy»

There are two questions.

First: (i) What did former thinkers say or write? Be it Thales, seen as the first among ancient Greek philosophers, known for us largely by the writings of later thinkers. Or Confucius. Or Hegel. What did they actually say or write, word by word, and what did they mean, with their utterances? Hence, both textual studies and hermeneutic interpretations are required. We could say: this is the realm of the «history of ideas».

Next: (ii) Does it make sense, is it true, or right, what they were saying or writing? Here we take validity-claims (epistemic claims) seriously. For instance: Hegel said so and so, but does it make sense? Is it true, or right? Is it reasonable and relevant, in some sense? If so, we may learn from these thinkers, not merely learn about them. Learn about valuable insights and interesting points, but also about what could be conceived as interesting misconceptions; for instance, the Cartesian soul-body dualism, which is often seen a philosophically interesting «mistake».

Hence, according to this notion of philosophy, taking epistemic claims of former thinkers seriously, this is also the main approach to the idea of a «history of philosophy».

Now, one way of writing a history of philosophy is that of presenting a chronological series of famous philosophers, one after the other. Fair enough! However, in so doing we miss an essential point, namely, that when philosophers argue, they tend to refer to other philosophers; they tend to discuss with each other. Surely, not always, but sometimes.

For instance: Anaximander and Anaximenes refer to Thales. Heraclitus and Parmenides problematize, in two opposite directions, the presuppositions of these three thinkers, and Empedocles and Anaxagoras try to mediate between the two, before Democritus responds with his theory of unchangeable invisible atoms and empty space. Moreover, since these early Greek philosophers could not agree, the Sophists (Thrasymachus, Gorgias, Protagoras) became skeptical, which again trigged reactions from Plato, defending a notion of universal truth, which again was modified by Aristotle.

Likewise, after the empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) and rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) Kant defended his transcendental philosophy as a better solution to basic epistemic questions, a position which Hegel tried to situate historically, which again triggered reactions, in different directions, by Marx and Kierkegaard.

In short, in addition to seeing each thinker alone, according to his or her own approach and presuppositions, it is also worthwhile looking at references and argumentations between various thinkers. In some cases, as among the early Greek thinkers, we may even talk about learning processes, in terms of a trying-out of different positions and thereby a conceptual development.

Moreover, philosophers also relate to epistemic claims raised by the various sciences and humanities. For instance, in the aftermath of the new mathematically formulated, experimental natural sciences (in the Renaissance), and in a certain opposition to Aristotelian lifeworld-based conceptions, philosophers like Descartes promoted the mechanistic worldview, and a dichotomy between body and soul (res extensa and res cogitans). Moreover, philosophers like Locke promoted a representational notion of experience and knowledge (tabula rasa), whereas philosophers like Francis Bacon argued for the usefulness of the new sciences (cp the saying: scientia est potentia). Later, there were also influences from humanities, like history and hermeneutics (Vico and Hegel), or from Darwin and biology, or Freud and psychology. Recently, not least from neuroscience and brain research. Thus, Kant’s fourth question, «Was ist der Mensch?» (What is a human being?), cannot be dealt with purely philosophically, not even conceptually.

However, it is worth seeing that the argumentative interaction between philosophy and the various sciences and humanities goes both ways. For example, neuroscience challenges philosophy, e.g., as to the notion of human freedom; but philosophy also challenges neuroscience, as to its presuppositions as a human activity raising validity claims for their own utterances. In short, both challenged by and criticism of – in both directions.

Moreover, philosophers relate to, and respond to, various challenges and events in human history. In so far, philosophical thinking is «situated», socio-historically. For instance, both Confucius and Plato reacted against what they saw as deep crises in their own society – Confucius in China around 500 BC, Plato in Greece somewhat later. Interestingly, both reacted by proposing an educational system that should promote wisdom and virtues. Good and just actions, by inner motivation, that was their common goal. Right actions proscribed and regulated by law was seen as the second best, since law was seen as an external force, not as an internal motivation. But later, in the dialogue Nomos, Plato modified his position, emphasizing that in our imperfect world laws are needed, whereas Confucians, confronted with an opposite school of thought, the Legalists (as during the Qin dynasty), defended the normative priority of a virtuous life. Today, we have the ongoing discussion as to the optimal relationship between legal regulations on the one hand and settlement of disputes or social anomalies by discursive counseling or lifeworld traditions on the other.

Another example: consider the reactions among philosophers after World War II: A North- American thinker like Richard Rorty could allow himself to refer to his own background as a North-American, without an attempt to justify his main position with universally valid arguments (which he would have conceived as illusions anyway), whereas German post-war thinkers, like Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas, who personally had experienced the civilizational brake-down during the Nazi regime, struggled seriously with the question as to how we could possibly justify some universally valid norms and principles. Evidently, socio- historical events, like crises and wars, do matter, also for philosophers.

This means, all in all, that a history of philosophy has to look at the socio-historical «situatedness» of various thinkers and schools of thought. The socio-historical context matters – as a background to better understand their concern, and hence to understand their questions and the way they argue.

Moreover, philosophers also relate to epistemic claims inherent in political ideologies, or in religious and cultural convictions. This is well known, not least in political philosophy, as to the interplay with political thinkers in various liberal or conservative traditions, or in popular movements of various kinds, from labor movements to women’s movements, civil rights movements and environmental movements, not to forget Marxist and socialist thinkers, as well as those of a libertarian and neoliberalist blend. In these cases, interrelations are reciprocal.

The same holds true as to the relationship between philosophy and various epistemic claims inherent in religious and cultural convictions. Surely, «religion» is an ambiguous term, and various aspects of what is usually seen as religious, such as rituals and religious feelings, might have little to do with epistemic claims. Nevertheless, in all the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – there are basic epistemic claims, e.g., related to the notion of the Godhead, often seen as merely good, omniscient, and almighty. Hence, confronted with major evils (like the tsunami in Lisbon in 1755), we have the «Problem of Evil», head on. In this sense, religious validity claims are challenged by philosophy (and the sciences). On the other hand, according to Jürgen Habermas in his recent writings, «religion» (in its benign versions) may challenge secular thinkers, urging them to be open for inherent insights in these religions. Insofar, once again, challenge and criticism in both directions.

To sum up, our restrictive definition of philosophy, emphasizing the importance of epistemic claims, leads toward a broadened conception of the history of philosophy, referring to epistemic claims and dominant ways of thinking in the various sciences and humanities as well as in politics and religions, and also to decisive socio-historical events and constellations, as a background for philosophical questions and concerns.

A «Global» History of Philosophy

There are regional philosophical traditions, national and otherwise, and hence we may have «local» histories of philosophy. However, when epistemic questions are decisive for the definition of philosophy, any «local» philosophy will have to be judged as to whether it «makes sense», whether it has valid and interesting points, in short, whether we, living today, possibly in other cultural traditions, can learn something from these «local» thinkers, and not only learn something about them.

Hence, «local» philosophical traditions, if they are philosophical according to our definition, are already «global», at least potentially, in the sense that they in principle are available for other open-minded philosophical thinkers. In short, any «local» philosophy, given our definition, has to be able to show its philosophical relevance in our contemporary world.

This point becomes even more salient when we add that a history of philosophy should not end with thinkers like Kant or Hegel, but should go all the way up to contemporary thinkers. If so, we should ask ourselves whether there are common epistemic claims and challenges, and common normative challenges, in our contemporary world.

My answer to that question is affirmative: in our contemporary world, there are several common challenges, with relevance for our philosophical thinking, for instance related to the variety of sciences and humanities, new technologies, and ecological crises:

(i) With all the different sciences and humanities in a modern world, as we see them at full-scale modern universities, there are both instrumental and interpretive forms of rationality; and common to them all is argumentative reasoning, as during doctoral dissertations, trying out better reasons against less good reasons, in free and open discussions, being open for counter-arguments. – (ii) New technologies give rise to challenges and questions, also for philosophy. – (iii) And there are eco-crises of various kinds, challenging for all of us, also for philosophers.

In short, in our time there are common epistemic and practical challenges for contemporary philosophy. Insofar, we have modern challenges, within what rightly can be seen as a common modernity.

However, at the same time, in different nations and regions there are different institutional developments and different historical experiences. Insofar, there are «multiple modernities».


So far, these are my comments on the three terms: «philosophy», «history of philosophy», and «global history of philosophy». But what about the principles in trying to write such a history of philosophy, as defined about, and right into our contemporary world?

Two points: (i) epistemic claims should be taken seriously, and (ii) socio-historical events and constellations should be considered, as background for the questions that are raised. That is, a history of philosophy should at the same time be conceived as argumentative and situated.

But how? My suggestion, briefly stated: do not start with the answers! Rather, focus on these four points, one after the other: (i) First, comments on the background, to make sense to questions and concerns. That it matters! (ii) Then, comments on the reasons that are given (or could have been given), internally, within the philosopher’s own perspective, and maybe also externally, related to other philosophers or other agents with relevant epistemic claims. (iii) And then, the «answer» – the position, theory, learning (Lehre), heldt and defended by the philosopher. (iv) Finally, comments on implications of this way of thinking – what it implies, one way or the other.

Moreover, there are well known problems of how to choose and select among the various relevant and interesting thinkers and ways of thinking. Also, the choice of approach – how to write and for whom? In these cases, whatever the choice might be, it should be clearly stated in the preface.


In trying to write such a global history of philosophy, as a co-author, and at the same time being a teacher, using this kind of text with this kind of approach, and thereby receiving valuable reactions from students as well as from colleagues and translators, in so doing one learns to appreciate the various forms of collaboration and the various practical and professional experiences. I may summarize my own experiences in three points:

It is advisable to have a broad approach – philosophically, as to different ancient traditions, such as Greek, Indian, Chinese, but also trying to do justice to different national traditions, such as French, British, and German, and with regard to different schools of thought, not least in contemporary philosophy. Broad also in an extended sense, with references to epistemic claims and challenges in various sciences (and humanities) and ideologies – thus with reference to the historical development of various sciences and of various kinds of political thinking. Finally, broad in the sense that decisive socio-historical events and constellations are referred to, as a background for questions and concerns.

Moreover, it is advisable to try to go the whole way, right into main trends in modern philosophy, even if it has to be selective and sketchy.

Finally, when ending up with contemporary thinkers and ways of thinking, it is advisable to take contemporary epistemic standards, standards for good work, into account. The same holds true for contemporary challenges, both related to modern sciences and humanities and other forms of reason and rationality, and related to main events and challenges in the modern world, with the intricate interplay of institutional, cultural, and ecological factors.

So, where do we end? Starting with a restrictive definition of «philosophy», we end up with a broad history of philosophy, a global history of philosophy, that rightly can be seen as a history of global modernization, with its focus on the development of various forms for reason and rationality and their historical and institutional «situatedness» – both as common trends and as multiple modernities. Hence, all in all, it is a matter for self-understanding.

(A pdf version of the lecture, including foot notes, is available here)

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