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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: August 2012

2 - Early Modern Uses of Hellenistic Philosophy


In considering the ways in which early modern philosophers used Hellenistic philosophy, the concept of appropriation is particularly useful. Rather than being the disembodied transmission and reception of ideas, the metaphor of appropriation gives agency to individual thinkers, and enables us to understand them in their own particular historical and intellectual contexts. Ideas do not influence subsequent ideas, nor do they develop by their own intrinsic power. Rather, particular individuals in real historical contexts deploy and develop earlier ideas to solve problems of their own. Thinking in terms of appropriation leads us to think about the historical agents as well as the content of their ideas. We must consider why particular figures were attracted to one tradition or another; how the way they asked their questions affected the use of the ideas they borrowed; and what role their own presuppositions played in their use of the appropriated ideas and texts.

Early modern philosophers often appropriated ideas from ancient philosophy and used them to solve new problems in new contexts. Looking back to classical times, philosophers considered an array of texts that had been deemed canonical, in terms of which they could develop their own positions. In part, this approach was an outgrowth of Renaissance humanism, which was devoted – among other things – to the recovery of ancient sources.

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