Perhaps more than any other discipline, philosophy is preoccupied with its own history. This preoccupation manifests itself both in pedagogy and research. We use the ideas and writings of historical figures to introduce students to the central philosophical problems. We require our graduate students to gain familiarity with the history of philosophy. Cutting edge philosophical research is often inspired and informed by engagement with the work of of philosophers from the distant and not-so-distant past. This engagement with its own history appears to be a somewhat distinctive feature of philosophy. Physicists or economists, for example, need not be knowledgable about the history of their disciplines in order to make contributions to current research. Indeed, it is arguable that knowledge or ignorance of the history of their disciplines does not measurably affect the ability of physicists or economists to make such contributions. With philosophy, things appear otherwise. Judging from the amount of discussion of historical figures within philosophy, often within the context of research without an explicitly historical focus, many philosophers think that reflection of the work of figures from the history of philosophy is integral to their ongoing research. Why should philosophy be so different in this way? Perhaps it has to do with the rate at which philosophy makes progress. Philosophical problems have proven stubborn, not to say intractable, and so even ancients such as Plato and Aristotle still have much to teach us and we ignore them at our peril. But even if one day we experience philosophical progress to the degree that the doctrines and arguments long dead philosophical greats have become fully obsolete, the philosophical past will still remain a fascinating and wonderful place, as worthy of study as the accomplishments of Archimedes and Newton. Reading the books of long dead thinkers, as Descartes once remarked, has all the benefits of travel. It can broaden one's horizons and reveal the parochial nature of one's own perspective. No matter how much philosophical progress we make, we will never cease to benefit in this way from the study of the history of philosophy.
The Rutgers Philosophy Department has a very active group of philosophers studying the history of philosophy, covering ancient, medieval, modern, and early analytic. The historians of philosophy at Rutgers are also very engaged with contemporary philosophy and often their research and teaching makes connections with non-historical work.
A number of former students at the Rutgers Philosophy Department have written dissertations on historical topics. These include: Stewart Duncan (University of Florida), Raphaella De Rosa, (Rutgers, Newark), Antonia LoLardo (Virgina), Paul Lodge (Oxford).
- Robert Bolton: Ancient
- Martha Bolton: Early Modern, including early modern women philosophers
- Brian Leftow: Medieval
- Martin Lin: Early Modern