What is Retrieval Philosophy?

Retrieval Philosophy is the study of the history of philosophy as a means to addressing contemporary philosophical problems. Retrieval philosophy (Ret PHI) uses the history of philosophy to bring concepts and figures from the philosophical past into dialogue with philosophical problems of the present.

Ret PHI is a movement within the discipline of philosophy. It is a move “back to the sources” (ad fontes). It is a call to return to classical philosophy, with the advantage of a rational presuppositional approach to critical analysis of basic assumptions. A rational presuppositional approach relies upon the critical use of reason to test concepts, judgments, and arguments for rational consistency, rejecting that which lacks meaning and retaining that which is meaningful. The rational presuppositional approach seeks to establish what is logically more basic prior to engaging with what is logically less basic in a step by step, systematic way. For example: Epistemology is logically prior to metaphysics, and metaphysics is logically prior to ethics. Ret PHI seeks to use the history of philosophy in a challenge and response method with the goal of removing the accumulated rubble of bad philosophy and rebuilding the foundations of the discipline of philosophy.

Ret PHI benefits from developments in analytic and continental strains of philosophy, with a critical eye to both past errors and contemporary assumptions. Yet, Ret PHI is post-analytic and post-deconstruction philosophy. It takes the critique of both traditions seriously, and promotes what is of value from both traditions, yet is not paralyzed by the skepticism of each tradition. Ret PHI is not mere genealogy, but is similar to genealogy. The method is to trace concepts or thinkers historically, and show their strengths and weaknesses. The method should get to the root of assumptions, uproot what is meaningless and false, and chart a course for what is meaningful and true.

Ret PHI seeks to avoid a naive reading of texts, which calls for careful and close interpretation and analysis of the text. Ret PHI also seeks to get to the root of philosophical problems and address them in such a way that does not allow for regrowth of the same problems later. Ret PHI is in essence a way of reading the history of ideas with the goal of rejecting meaningless, and thus false, positions and retrieving from the broad philosophical tradition what is true, good, beautiful, and just. It is a critical examination of received assumptions, a test for the meaning of those assumptions, a rejection of what is meaningless and a preserving of what is meaningful from the history of philosophy.

Ret PHI does not tacitly accept the assumptions of contemporary philosophy, which includes naturalism, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism. Ret PHI retrieves key arguments against these assumptions from the history of philosophy, providing contemporary philosophical discussions with historic counterexamples. Ret PHI is a platform within the discipline of philosophy from which to move the discipline forward and to explore alternative avenues such as retrieval rationalism, retrieval philosophical theism, and retrieval natural moral law.

It is a longstanding critique that analytic philosophy has not sufficiently recognized or engaged with the history of philosophy. It views itself as “objective” and ahistorical. Analytic philosophy has not sufficiently addressed its own problematic historical assumptions and position of power within the academy. This has been a consistent critique from continental thinkers. Continental deconstruction has been keen to point out the history of power dynamics within the history of what passes for “knowledge,” but deconstruction has not left any positive philosophy in the wake of its destructive forces. The discipline of philosophy, the foundational discipline of the academy, is in crisis. We are now post-reason, post-analytical, and post-postmodern. The only way forward from this moment of crisis within the discipline appears to be a reckoning with the past. This reckoning includes a critical analysis of the assumptions that led to the crisis, and a retrieval of what is classic in classical philosophy.

Retrieval philosophy is a way forward. The desire is not to return to mere tradition, Ret PHI is a “critical retrieval.” It is not a mere return, it is getting something back having dealt with the challenges that led to its being rejected and forgotten in the first place. Ad fontes, philosophers!


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