I have a question about reading certain philosophers, specifically Kant in my
In the full sense of the word this question is unanswerable. I don’t know a serious educated person who does not worry about it. On the one hand, if you do not read philosophers in the right order you are bound to miss the significance of something the later person says. I’m not saying you run the risk of missing that significance; you are guaranteed to do so.
And yet this is a half-truth, because there is plenty you will miss if you start back at the beginning of philosophy and proceed to the end. First of all there’s the obvious problem of motivation that your question implies. If you have to read Descartes before Kant, and Aristotle before Descartes, and so on, you will have been lost or sidetracked before you ever reached the people like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who first drew your attention. Demanding a strict chronological reading list is impractical.
There’s another kind of problem that affects even industrious people who are incapable of being bored or sidetracked. In many cases we don’t see the full significance of an earlier thinker until we encounter a later thinker. This is what makes some of the later people so important as philosophers, that they bring a new dimension and a new kind of interpretation to what their precursors had said. A passage in Plato on the coldness of ice means more after we read Aristotle on essential predication. Spinoza’s critique of negative emotions becomes livelier and psychologically more significant in light of the way Nietzsche develops the same points. In some ways you learn more about each philosopher by reading the chronology in reverse.
Well, no one can read through the history of philosophy in both directions at once. A general chronological approach, guided by a good teacher, is the best place to start. You acquire a sense of the history of philosophy as a whole and then read on your own to fill in the details. But if you are approaching this entirely on your own, I suggest you start with the philosophers who pique your curiosity. If you are inquisitive at all, you will go from them to their predecessors wanting to know more about why they say what they do. Eventually you’ll see that you need to have a sense of every philosopher on the list; and although Kant might seem like just words on the page if you begin with him, the day will come (after Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) when the Critique of Pure Reason reads like a page-turner, now that you see what its implications will turn out to be.