Hegel, don't bother me: The belief that philosophers were approaching the final judgement on their subject led to a disastrous dismissal of past great thinkers. But now, says Ray Monk, there is renewed interest in the history of philosophy

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In the middle decades of this century, many philosophers, intoxicated by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and fortified by the more robust attitudes of the logical positivists, thought they were taking part in a transformation of their subject.

Gone was the system-building of the past, gone even the attempt to answer philosophical questions. In their place was the more humdrum activity of clearing up conceptual confusion by linguistic analysis. 'The nimbus of philosophy has been lost,' as Wittgenstein once put it, with a note of both triumph and despair. 'For we now have a method of doing philosophy, and one can speak of skilful philosophers. Compare the difference between alchemy and chemistry.'

At that time, all the talk was of the 'revolution in philosophy' and the 'linguistic turn'. A feeling prevailed that at last progress was being made in the subject, thanks to the method derived from Wittgenstein's work of locating philosophical confusion in grammatical mistakes. Eminent philosophers appeared on radio and television to explain this epoch-making development of thought. There was among them the heady conviction that, as the Cambridge philosopher John Wisdom put it, they were 'in at the death'.

In the preface to a collection of essays called British Philosophy in the Mid-Century, its editor, C A Mace, expressed the prevailing apocalyptic mood when he wrote: 'The age is a sort of Last Judgement. The protracted process of this Last (Human) Judgement may well continue to the end of the century; but whatever may be (its) exact form there can be little doubt that after Moore and Wittgenstein, philosophy can never be quite the same again.'

The feeling of finality was misplaced, as such feelings almost always are. But the confidence that gave rise to it provided philosophy with an enormous boost. It was, one felt, a subject in which 'something was going on' and many of the brightest people were attracted to it.

Such confidence, however, had one unfortunate consequence: it bred in philosophers a lack of interest in and respect for the great philosophers of the past. A division, sharper than ever before, was drawn between 'doing philosophy' and studying the work of philosophers, between creative thinking and scholarship - the first being the work of first-rate minds, the second a lesser activity pursued only by the second-rate.

Throughout those years, there was no philosophical journal in Britain dedicated to the history of the subject, and the leading journals, such as Mind, refused to consider articles that were historical or exegetical. In undergraduate courses, the history of philosophy was taught as a series of more or less grand illusions that were finally dispelled in this century by Wittgenstein, G E Moore, A J Ayer and others.

In the past few decades, as the confidence of the Fifties and Sixties has been eroded, and philosophers have stopped talking about being in at the death, interest in the history of philosophy has revived. The most decisive manifestation of this trend occurred with the publication this summer of the latest book by Michael Dummett, probably the best-respected philosopher of the past 20 years. For, as he makes clear in the preface, this book is, in essence, a work of intellectual history.

The book in question, Frege: Philosophy, Mathematics, must be one of the longest-awaited works of philosophy since Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. It was first announced in Duckworth's catalogue in 1973, the year that Dummett's book, Frege: Philosophy of Language, was published.

The influence of the latter has been pervasive. Until its publication, Frege (1848-1925) was known chiefly as the founder, together with Bertrand Russell, of the 'logicist' philosophy of mathematics (the view that mathematics and logic are the same thing). Since Dummett's book he has been regarded as the founder of the whole tradition of analytical philosophy.

The impact of Dummett's work is such that today there is hardly a book or an article published in the mainstream of British philosophy that does not owe something to it. Like its successor, it is ostensibly a study of a past philosopher's work, but it has never been read in that spirit. The question of whether Dummett has interpreted Frege correctly has taken second place to the discussion generated by Dummett's own views on metaphysics and meaning.

The new book, Dummett tells us, was first conceived in a similarly ahistorical way, its structure dictated not by the development of Frege's thought but by the divisions, as Dummett sees them, in the subject of the philosophy of mathematics. Two- thirds of the book was completed according to this plan in 1973, but Dummett then shelved it and did not resume work until 1982, when he took it down and was so appalled that he swore to start again.

However, it was not until the summer of 1989 that he set about rewriting the book on a completely different scheme. Dummett says in the preface that, 'instead of arranging the book as one might arrange a systematic non-historical treatise on the philosophy of mathematics, I composed it as a close study of Frege's texts'.

'This book is a historical study,' he concludes, 'but it has been written in the belief that we can still profit greatly by reflecting on what Frege wrote about the foundations of arithmetic, and therefore in the hope that it is not merely a historical study.'

But is any historical study of the work of a philosopher merely a historical study? Surely the reason we are interested in the history of the subject is that it is practically impossible to study the great works of the past without profitable reflection?

A heartening sign that this view is gaining ground is that at last there is to be a British journal dedicated to the history of philosophy. The recently established British Society for the History of Philosophy will, from next January, have its own journal, the British Journal for the History of Philosophy. Its first edition promises, among other things, a new reading of Descartes by G P Baker and K J Morris (the former better known for his studies of Wittgenstein in collaboration with P M S Hacker).

The journal is published by Thoemmes Press, an offshoot of an antiquarian book business in Bristol run by Rudi Thoemmes, who is doing as much as anyone to keep alive enthusiasm for the great works of philosophy. His catalogue of antiquarian books bears ample testimony to the continuing worth of the philosophical classics. For example, a leather-bound volume containing John Locke's 'Letters concerning Toleration' in their first editions is priced at pounds 7,500. A better bargain might be an original copy of Kant's Critik der reinen Vernuft priced at a more modest pounds 2,500, while a copy of the first (and only) edition of Bertrand Russell's An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry is just pounds 550.

Thoemmes Press itself specialises in reprints of neglected philosophical works. I found it impossible to resist the reprint of David Hume's An Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature, the pamphlet discovered by John Maynard Keynes and Piero Sraffa, in which Hume tried (unsuccessfully) to arouse some interest in his masterpiece by writing an anonymous puff for it. Some of the books reprinted by Thoemmes are important works that it is hard to believe had gone out of print, such as F H Bradley's Ethical Studies, John McTaggart's A Commentary on Hegel's Logic and Gilbert Ryle's Collected Papers.

The Thoemmes catalogue brings to mind an announcement on the back of a spoof edition of Mind, brought out by F C S Schiller in 1901. 'Just Arrived from Germany,' the 'advertisement' states, 'a Fine Consignment of Assorted Weltanschauungen'. Below is a message from a satisfied customer: 'Your latest 'Immoralist' Weltanschauung was a great success. It was showy and wears well. It quite paralysed the Examiners, who proved utterly incapable of coping with and even of understanding it. Please send me another for the Civil Service Exam. A cheap one with plenty of facts and few ideas will do.'

Almost a century later the market for a fresh Weltanschauung is as buoyant as ever. Now, however, we look for it not only from across the channel, but also from our own history. Far from seeking to deliver the Last Judgement on the past, we are striving for ways of learning from it.

Ray Monk is the author of 'Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty Of Genius' (Vintage, pounds 9.99), and is writing a biography of Bertrand Russell.