The first time I read Spinoza's Ethics, I was flying to Tampa for an on-campus job interview. At my arrival I was informed that I 'was the last-man standing;' they would either hire me or nobody that year. I was shown the beach, and loved it, including the palm trees and all the convertibles. In addition to a formal job-talk, I was also asked to guest-lecture on the Ethics in an early modern survey course, which was only fair given that I was applying as an Early Modern specialist. In hindsight I am surprised that the students (and I) were assigned the whole work. I found the book very strange, and I read it twice through, enraptured, during the day of travel from Connecticut. The next day I gave the students a very Neo-Platonic Spinoza; I have a dim memory of drawing a sun to represent the causa-sui/Substance, with two emanating rays [the attributes], in which I located the modes, on the black board. (Don't try this at home; I didn't get the job.)
A few years later, when I moved to Leiden, a few miles from Spinoza's house in Rijnsburg, in the midst of an (ongoing) Spinoza-mania in the Netherlands, I decided to structure my early modern survey course around the Ethics. The idea was that the students should be prepared to read the book cover the cover. (I assigned five weeks to it.) In addition to assigning relevant background bits from Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes, I followed the very sensible advice from my supervisor, Dan Garber; I had the students read the Appendices and Prefaces of the Ethics first. These give the reader a very good sense of what the Ethics is about. So, by the end of a first-year, 'intro' course, students are in a position to read one of the most challenging, most difficult, and exciting books in the history of Western philosophy.* It's exhilarating to teach, and the students tend to adore it.
Moreover, as we try to place great historical philosophers in their times and cultures, we can learn in a general way how efforts at philosophy are shaped by circumstance. No one writes in a vacuum, of course, though Descartes and Spinoza tried. As we come to understand how each philosopher is rooted in some historical period, we come to understand how the philosophy that is generated is an existential reflection on that period. We see, that is, how humans have wrapped their minds around the universe in specific times and places. This in turn gives us more to think about as we craft our own responses to our own times and places. It is really the same insight one gains through travel: seeing how strange other places are helps us to see how strange our own place is. There is some self-knowledge in this, a kind of philosophical humbling, which I believe contributes to a deeper sympathy toward the thoughts of those with whom you disagree.--Huenemaniac.
Charlie is echoing (recall) Quentin Skinner's idea that in doing history of philosophy we encounter “alien problems.” Among professional philosopher's the idea was made famous by Bernard Williams’s advocacy that history of “philosophy . . . can help us in reviving a sense of strangeness or questionability about our own philosophical assumptions.” I'll take Charlie's word for it that he is reflexive enough to find his own place strange after visiting foreign lands. I doubt, in fact, that this is a common response. If another place is, indeed, found strange or unsettling, one has a tendency to revel in one's own culture's purported superiority. This is, of course, not the only response to travel. As it happened, when I visited Charlie in Logan, Utah, I adored it; undoubtedly I have projected some charm onto it. Even disaster tourists (recall), don't end up being humbled by the suffering they encounter--rather, they end up feeling good about their own lives.
I do not deny that there is a special kind of receptivity that Charlie possesses and is characterizing in the quoted passage; but most of us require, I suspect, skilled mentors and guides to end up with a deep sympathy with those with whom one disagrees. Neither Descartes nor Spinoza, for example, exhibit such sympathy themselves--they are both notorious ungenerous to those with whom they disagree (e.g., Descartes on Hobbes; Spinoza claims that Descartes dreams with open eyes!) Their arrogance can, in fact, be off-putting (if it does not amuse).
It is bad marketing for the history of philosophy to say that it generates "philosophical humbling." True philosophy is difficult enough in the present (don't be fooled by the bravura performances of some hot-shot); we really do not need to read dead philosophers to be humbled. Each one of us can look into our own soul, and discover the despair and anxiety accompanying our philosophical efforts. We all know that nearly all of what is published today by even the leading professional philosophers will not endure beyond the latest fashion. We do not need more reminder that triviality and insignificance may catch up on our efforts every second.
The original philosophical impulse to turn to history is to understand how we got into our present predicament (recall). So, the sense of strangeness precedes the visit to the past. But, of course, there can be many other motives to study the history of philosophy. Here I report that I derive a selfish, albeit expansive pleasure from reading philosophers of the past (men and women), whose thoughts are complex yet acute; they inspire in me a desire to emulate and to enlarge my scope--sometimes they promote in me a desire to vindicate (especially when they are unjustly ignored). If they touch me with their ideas and arguments and thereby infiltrate my writings, I feel like they go on existing and -- with a nod to Spinoza -- become eternal.
*I like emphasizing that one can get to climb the highest peaks of philosophy in one's first semester.