Note on the history of thought

Ideas can only advance if they are persuasive, but this aspect frequently gets left off of accounts of the history of ideas. We can easily talk about the advance of ideas as though they propagated by microbes – as though subjectivism, nominalism, nihilism, etc. were all transmitted by coughing or rats or a failure to wash our hands. In fact they were propagated because a great number of people found them convincing, or found some other reason to believe them.

Ideas aren’t believed by everyone for the same reason, and historians can’t be asked to read minds, but there should be more of an effort to figure out exactly what was so convincing in those ideas we see as catching on, especially when they define whole eras or movements.


  1. Alan Aversa said,

    April 16, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Have you read John Deely’s Four Ages of Understanding? It is very good.

  2. peeping thomist said,

    April 16, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Yes. A thousand times.

  3. DA Armstrong said,

    April 19, 2011 at 6:44 am

    Funny thing is that my History of Philosophy class taught this very thing. We evaluated ideas and then why certain ideas became prevalent. Not that one can know with absolutely certainty why certain ideas were more persuasive, but I think one can develop a pretty good picture. I personally think when it came to Kant the biggest reason he was influential and persuasive is the difficulty to refute his ideas coupled with its explanatory powers. If I recall correctly, Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience develops some of these thoughts.

  4. Kristor said,

    April 20, 2011 at 7:04 am

    In his book Deliberation, John Dewey worked through this question of why and how people decide they believe something.

  5. Kristor said,

    April 26, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Sorry, not “Deliberation” but “Human Nature & Conduct.”

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