The history of philosophy is much more part of philosophy itself than the history of science is part of science, for it is not impossible to become a competent scientist without knowing much about the history of science, but no man can carry very far his own philosophical reflections unless he first studies the history of philosophy.
I am profoundly convinced of the truth of this claim. Both reason and long experience of philosophers who fail to heed this warning demonstrate beyond question that the thoughts of those that do not learn from past sages are solitary, nasty, brutish, poor and short.
Nevertheless it's a pressing question just how much work to put into the historical side of philosophy before daring to begin to think for oneself. Because in principle there's no reason why one should ever put aside the quest for mastery of past systems and begin to reflect afresh. Many find scholars have never done so.
Gilson's remark reminded me of a comment Vos made somewhere in The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus, which I referred to recently. Vos was discussing the opinions of some scholars who tried to find evidence of Scotus reacting to the teachings of Meister Eckhart and vice versa, and Vos states that the likelihood is all against their having ever responded to each other or read each other's writings. He pointed out that we're interested in possible interactions between them because we remember both of their names today and they were roughly contemporaries, but at the time they were two drops in a very big academic bucket. Vos points out that in Scotus' day there were so many doctors and masters and bachelors churning out thousands of pages of brilliant arguments a year that no one of their contemporaries could ever have kept abreast of them all.
In light of the obvious truth of this statement, how do we approach them as historical figures? It's clearly wrong to read a little Plato, a little Aristotle, a little Augustine and Aquinas, move on to Descartes and a few big-name early moderns, and then only read one's contemporaries. But on the other hand, I know very well how an enthusiasm for Aquinas becomes a passion for Aquinas and Bonaventure, and then a love for Aquinas and Bonaventure and Scotus, and then a compulsion to read Aquinas and Bonaventure and Scotus and Albert and Henry and Ockham and Godfrey and Dietrich and on and on, until you realize that mastering even a few decades of philosophy's richer periods is much more than a life's work.
At the same time we must remember that the liberal arts are a necessary precondition for good philosophy, which means that in order to be good philosophers we have to study other things besides philosophers past and present, for instance history, literature, mathematics and the sciences. I think that even the most devoted scholastic-lover, like the authors of this blog, would have to admit that part of the downfall of medieval philosophy was due to its exaltation of logic above the other liberal arts, leading to an imbalance which was "corrected" in terrible ways by people who abandoned rigor and logic almost altogether. This point is suggested by a passage in Armand Maurer's Medieval Philosophy:
One of the results of the rise of speculative grammar was to crowd out of the universities the reading of the Latin classics, which formed an integral part of the teaching of grammar in the earlier Middle Ages. The arts course came to be centered around logic and philosophy, to the neglect of literary studies. Incidentally, this was one of the main reasons for the decline in good Latin style in the latter Middle Ages. The allegorial poem of Henry of Andelys entitled The Battle of the Seven Arts, written about 1250, describes the defeat of Dame Grammar, the champion of the University of Orléans, supported by the humanists and the classical authors, by Dame Logic of the University of Paris. The Muse of Poetry goes into hiding after this defeat, but Henry of Andelys is not discouraged. He foretells the return to the study of classical literature in the next generation. In fact . . . [his] prophecy came true only in the fourteenth century, when Petrach began to revive classical humanism.
But Petrarch, the "first modern man", herald of the Renaissance, was anti-Aristotle and anti-philosophy. But even among those who did not abandon philosophy, the temptation to turn away from the logic of Aristotle to the poetics of Plato - as soon as this became possible - proved overwhelming for many. And when one reads much 14th century scholastic writings one sees that this is inevitable. Certainly the tiers and banks of careful, precise syllogisms in barbarous Latin are very impressive indeed, and the reader rejoices that reason can do so much; at the same time the mind feels the need for other nourishment. I wonder who in the 14th century would have been capable of writing a Metalogicon or Didascalicon, or if it would even have occurred to anyone.
Still, what's the solution? It took years upon years already to qualify for the doctorate in a medieval university; if the arts course wasn't centered on logic and philosophy, when would it get squeezed in? It was only the rigorous philosophical training theologians of that time endured as youths that made the theological glories of their adulthood, so unthinkable today, possible. When did they have time for the classics? My own education, from primary school to doctorate, took twenty-four years. A lot of that time, especially in the first half, was wasted by bad teachers and useless subjects. On the other hand, I did have time to learn and read a great many of the classics in a number of languages. But there is no question that I can't turn out an argument as could the least of my medieval brethren.
The kind of education I received is the kind that leads men to spend fifty years studying what Aquinas or Scotus wrote in fifteen or twenty, and never get one step beyond them. This is not standing on the shoulders of giants, it's standing on their feet and grasping their knees. I don't know how to balance between the dangers of dilettantism on the one hand and barren specialization on the other. It does seem to me that our modern educational system gives us the worst of all possible solutions, an undisciplined, nearly random, practically endless glut of information but without the cultivation of any of the liberal arts at all.