Often times, to better understand a philosopher's position, it helps to understand their circumstances. To what extent is it acceptable to ask about the history of philosphers?

For example, I know the Socrates taught Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle. I was curious what direct influence Socrates might have had on Aristotle, or if their age difference was too much to have ever really interacted directly. I was going to ask the question on main, but I decided to ask this on meta first because it wasn't a question about philosophy, but rather about philosophers.

I tried to think about how this might go over on a site like Programmers.se. Would asking about the personal history of Bjarne Stroustrup and who his mentors were (to better understand why he did what he did) be appropriate there? And I couldn't come up with a clear cut answer. So I figured I'd ask here.

2 Answers 2


I take quite the opposite stance to Joseph. I think that there is nothing wrong with talking about the history of philosophers, so long as it is in some way relevant to either the evolution of their own or others' ideas. Many philosophers were largely shaped by the context in which they were raised. For example, if someone were to ask about Machiavelli's history, I think it is incredibly relevant: the Pope was waging war on Italian city-states while Rome, France, and the Swiss were deeply battling for regional hegemony. It was tumultuous, full of danger and mistrust. Reading about the Prince largely feels like a description of the time, for example.

In this sense, I fully support the asking of such questions.

  • Perhaps needless to say I disagree. History of philosophy is one thing; I am not sure we have to explain World History to boot (unless, and i agree wholeheartedly with your example, it is required to get at the ideas and work of a philosopher.) I am encouraging digressions into history only on the condition that the primary focus be about arguments and ideas -- I guess it was phrased a bit negatively, but do you disagree with this?
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 29, 2011 at 1:14
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    @Joseph: I mostly agree. My problem is that someone might ask about the history of a philosopher to see if it did affect his ideas. If it didn't, then any answer would be independent of the ideas of the philosopher in content. But I certainly agree that discussing trivialities in the history of a philosopher for personal amusement does not belong on PhilSE. Jun 29, 2011 at 1:48
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    +1, It is common practice to use historical, social and personal information to interpret ambiguities in a philosopher's work. Jun 29, 2011 at 23:28
  • I agree, especially with "so long as it is in some way relevant to either the evolution of their own or others' ideas". I actually think Joseph agrees as well: his answer was just formulated with different emphasis.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 30, 2011 at 19:21

Questions should ideally concern arguments and ideas, though wider ranging discussions are always welcome on chat. Note that there is a History proposal on Area 51, so if you are interested in asking/answering history questions I would encourage you to follow and commit.

So I would say off-topic as generally speaking history questions aren't philosophy-oriented, at least without a specific theoretical context. My line would be whether the question concerns ideas or is only concerned with biographical trivia.

UPDATE: I'm sorry for the tone of the above. I didn't mean to imply questions about the personal lives of philosophers would be not be welcome. To attempt to clarify, my feelings are this are pretty straightforward -- this is Philosophy, and so the history of philosophy is always on topic.

Within the bounds of "history of philosophy" we should understand something which generally speaking includes the lives and deaths of philosophers, their vital biographical details, and so on.

Questions should attempt to address philosophy and its history through the medium of specific ideas and arguments. Because these do have important connections to the time, place and atmosphere in which they were created or debated, and indeed the details of the lives of those who created them, these details are at least potentially on-topic as well.

I certainly don't intend to direct people over to the History proposal with all of their interesting and useful questions about the way the lives of thinkers are shaped by the their biographies. All I was really trying to convey was that references to a specific thinker and theory will definitely make such questions more focused and easier to answer.

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    So then a question like "How might ___ have realigned his theory of ___ if ___ never happened to him" would be an applicable "history of a philosopher question" because the primary subject is the idea, not the person?
    – corsiKa
    Jun 28, 2011 at 23:52
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    @glowcoder, personally I don't really like counterfactuals as they amount to asking "what would (have happened) if...?" and are kind of open-ended -- in my opinion, more suited for chat than the main page. That being said, as long as the question is qualified, and tries to address itself to ideas I think it will be welcome.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 29, 2011 at 1:52
  • I think the intent of a history question is not about the history all by itself but how it might affect intellectual culture (or specifically philosophy). If it is just a question about whether Machiavelli visited on e particular town in one particular year, without noting the relevance to something philosophical, then it's not relevant here. Otherwise, yes.
    – Mitch
    Jun 29, 2011 at 20:47
  • @Mitch, that is my point exactly -- it has to have theoretical context/philosophical relevance -- maybe I should reformulate to clarify? At any rate I'm not sure we are in disagreement here.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 29, 2011 at 22:04
  • I read the import of your answer as emphasizing 'no, go to the history site', even though you qualify about relevance to philosophy itself.
    – Mitch
    Jun 30, 2011 at 0:21
  • @Mitch, that is certainly not what I am saying, I will definitely reformulate it. I was (ineptly) attempting to respond the broader problem of history questions in general -- it sounds like we are agreed pure history questions really don't belong here, but that is a broader question than what was being asked. I will try to improve it -- thanks and cheers.
    – Joseph Weissman Mod
    Jun 30, 2011 at 0:36

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