One doesn’t study philosophy these days with the goal of landing a high-paying job. What use is it?
Aristotle’s answer, at the beginning of his Metaphysics, is perhaps best: “all men by nature desire to know.” As Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Everest “because it is there,” so all normal human beings have a desire to understand their environment. Some confine their search to Lyotard’s “little narratives,” but as we’ve seen, it is not easy to observe that restriction.
Socrates, the great saint of philosophy, said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
But let’s make the question more specific: why should anyone study the history of philosophy? And since this book [History of Western Philosophy: forthcoming] seeks to look at questions from a Christian perspective, let me ask why a Christian, specifically, should study the history of philosophy.
Of course, not all Christians are obligated to study this topic. Not all are suited to it by ability, education, interest, and calling. But for those who are, the subject promises a number of benefits:
1. Philosophers are in the business of thinking clearly, cogently, and profoundly.
To understand and evaluate their work is excellent mental exercise. People involved in nonphilosophical fields can benefit from exposure to the rigor of philosophical formulations and arguments. That includes Christians. And in my view, Christian theologians, preachers, and teachers generally need to improve the quality of their thinking, particularly their argumentation.
2. Philosophy over the centuries has had a major influence on Christian theology.
The concepts nature, substance, and person found in the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, for example, are philosophical terms, not found in the Bible. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When we apply Scripture to situations and controversies, we must often translate Scripture into language relevant to those situations.7 Of course, fields of study other than philosophy have also influenced Christian discourse: science, history, literature, and so on. But remember that the work of philosophers is to formulate and examine worldviews. Insofar as Christian theology is also the articulation of a worldview, its interaction with philosophy is especially important.
3. Gospel Witness
Sadly, through most of the history of Western civilization, philosophy has been governed by non-Christian assumptions.
The dominance of these presuppositions was interrupted during the medieval period, and there have been Christian philosophers since the beginning of the church. But from around 600 B.C. to A.D. 400, and from around 1650 to the present, the dominant influences in philosophy have been non-Christian.
Now, since the business of philosophy is to think clearly, cogently, and profoundly about the world, the hardest challenges to Christian thought have come from the discipline of philosophy. So when Christians study philosophy, they become acquainted with the most formidable adversaries of the gospel: non-Christian thought in its most cogent form. Acquaintance with these is very beneficial for gospel witness.
This article is adapted from History of Western Philosophy by John M. Frame