25 March 2005

Just Curious

Jon Miller (Uppsala) has a review of Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko (eds.), Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations (Cambridge University Press, 2004), in NDPR, which concludes as follows:

This reviewer would take issue with many of the claims but since the (alleged) problems don't diminish the basic originality and importance of the volume, they will be bypassed in favor of one global criticism. It concerns the objectives of the volume. In their generally helpful introduction, the editors say that "[t]he essays in this volume are intended to . . . [explore] how Stoicism actually influenced philosophers from antiquity through the modern period in fields ranging from logic and ethics to politics and theology" (1). In keeping with this mandate, many of the individual authors -- Engberg-Pedersen, Normore, Lagrée, Rutherford, Nussbaum -- do speak of instances of "actual influence" by Stoicism on this person or that concept. It would be absurd to deny that Stoicism was influential; yet, it is another thing entirely to prove specific cases of influence. And it is unclear why philosophers should care all that much: what we're more interested in is how the ideas and arguments compare, not where they came from. The task of determining influence is distinct, both conceptually and scholarly, from that of determining philosophical kinship. The former involves studies of the transmission and reception of texts; the latter, the analysis of the proximity of arguments. Whether they think so or not, almost all the papers in the volume engaged in the latter; many of the most important errors would have been avoided if they had recognized as much.

If we look past thinking papers, and the unscholarly use of adjectives--mistakes to be attributed, surely, to NDPR's editors--Miller's criticism seems a serious one.

Let me restate that criticism, to underline the point:

“Here’s a volume intending to document examples of the influence of Stoicism. But only half the contributions in fact try to do this. Yet those that do, argue fallaciously from similarity to causation: e.g. ‘This idea in St. Paul (or Aquinas, Grotius, or Descartes) is similar to this Stoic idea; therefore St. Paul (or Aquinas, or Grotius, or Descartes) was influenced by this Stoic idea.’ But in any case questions of influence are irrelevant to philosophy. Moreover, the authors' concern with that project distracts them from giving due attention to the interesting conceptual differences between the Stoics and the other philosophers they examine.”

Fair enough. But suppose one were to accept Miller’s criticism and insist that the contributions be re-written, so that it was clear that no claims about influence were being advanced. The volume might then be re-released as Observed Similarities to Stoicism in Various Thinkers. But then (just curious): Why would anyone want to read such a book?

(And I don't think anyone will write the other book that could by written from the same material: Why Stoicism is True--with Supporting Passages from Various Thinkers.)

1 comments:

Monte said...

Michael, I'm glad you commented on this review. I find Jon's position here as ridiculous as it is condescending. If we don’t care about “actual influence” then why bother writing a book on Stoicism at all? Why not just state the “philosophical” ideas? Jon says, “it is unclear why philosophers should care all that much: what we're more interested in is how the ideas and arguments compare, not where they came from.” But studying influence is a form of comparison; in fact it is one of the most rigorous forms. It is far more rigorous and interesting, I’m sure, than what Jon later calls “analysis of the proximity of arguments.” If idea B of philosopher Y was influenced by idea A of philosopher Z, then “we” should surely be interested in why and how. Suppose it is a direct influence, e.g. Leibniz got some idea from the Stoics as reported in Cicero. Presumably it is interesting why and how Leibniz himself came to adopt and adapt the idea—that is, how exactly he was influenced by it. And this applies perhaps all the more so where there is a less direct line of transmission (as between Augustine and Descartes—see Stephen Menn’s book on this—very philosophical, and I think a lot of “us” philosophers are very interested in it). “The task of determining influence is distinct, both conceptually and scholarly, from that of determining philosophical kinship. The former involves studies of the transmission and reception of texts; the latter, the analysis of the proximity of arguments.” So our own "analysis of the proximity of arguments” (whatever that means) is going to be more interesting than how or why Leibniz might have come to know and adopt the argument? That’s absurd. Leibniz recognized the proximity of arguments—I mean the proximity of the ancient idea to the modern problem he was addressing—and the details of this are interesting to us for the same reason that our own recognition of the proximity of arguments might be interesting. Only I would want to stay that it is more likely that Leibniz’s “analysis of the proximity of arguments”, and the story of how those ideas got into “actual” proximity, is more interesting than Jon’s or even most of the philosophers in the anthology (which is probably why the authors did, responsibly and reasonably, bother to describe or speculate about relations of influence). Of course there can be more interesting “arguments from proximity” than the historical reasons developed by philosophers, but to suggest that we philosophers aren’t interested in the original reasons why a certain text was transmitted and received as it was is silly. “Whether they think so or not, almost all the papers in the volume engaged in the latter; many of the most important errors would have been avoided if they had recognized as much.” Apparently the authors did not even recognize what they were doing: thank god we have philosophical reviewers around to point it out to them. I think this allegation about errors that are never documented or even described is cheap and anti-philosophical. I challenge Jon to show us the “most important errors” in the book that could have been avoided had the authors recognized that we philosophers shouldn’t care all that much about where ideas come from.