08 April 2005

The Invention of 'Ancient Philosophy'

It is undeniable that the study of ancient philosophy underwent an important change in the middle of the 20th century, largely through the influence of Ryle, Austin, Ackrill, and Owen, but also, to some extent, of Anscombe and Geach. Maybe it was even invented then. But what was the nature of that development?

According to Julia Annas, in “Ancient Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century”:

Hallowed works by Plato and Aristotle began to be treated as equal partners in philosophical debate, rather than revered authorities. A very 1960s excitement developed as it became possible to argue on level ground with ancient thinkers… (25-26)

In the 1960s, she says, “…philosophers began reclaiming Plato and Aristotle as philosophers with arguments worth examining, rather than as historical figures important only for the influence of their conclusions”. The change, she said, was the result of “the impetus to treat Plato and Aristotle as fellow philosophers”; “the impetus to treat ancient philosophers as contemporary partners”.

To treat Plato and Aristotle as fellow philosophers meant extracting out arguments from them, which were then analysed for validity and soundness. But:

The idea that we can just ignore the differences between us and Plato, and can discuss one of his arguments in a way that concedes nothing to the historical distance between us, leads to a very selective approach to the ancient tradition. In practice, only issues and problems will be discussed which contemporary philosophers can already find relevant. So it is no accident that ancient philosophy as first practiced in the philosophical mainstream centred on a handful of texts, mainly in Plato and Aristotle, in which issues were discussed that lent themselves to treatment in terms of 1950s and 1960s assumptions, in particular assumptions about language and meaning, and the centrality of these themes for the rest of philosophy. Philosophers’ concern with the ancients was for some time very unbalanced, with great overemphasis on Plato and Aristotle, and on those few of their texts which lent themselves to focus on linguistic issues (27).

Yet it seems to me that this rather puts the cart before the horse. It wasn’t that there was an (apparently unmotivated) urge to treat ancients as equals, which led to selectivity in approach. It was rather that it began to seem as if, on certain limited matters at first, Plato and Aristotle might actually have deep and important things to say, so that they should no longer be dismissed or treated with condescension. (Ackrill’s Clarendon volume on the Categories and De Int, for instance, was written as if expecting that a close look at Aristotle would lead to progress in the sorts of concerns emphasized by Frege and early Wittgenstein.) And it wasn’t that Plato and Aristotle went from ‘revered authorities’ to ‘equals’; it’s rather that they were originally dismissed out of ignorance or with contempt (in the analytic movement--not by a Cook Wilson or a Ross), but it then began to seem as if, on select subjects, they might indeed be authoritative and worthy of even 'reverent' attention.

7 comments:

Monte Johnson said...

Might one take the view that a real impetus for the revival of ancient philosophy in the twentieth century was the availability of critical editions, translations, and commentaries? Take the case of Aristotle. In 1831 the Prussian Academy Edition of Aristotle was published, and then between 1892-1909 the Academy published its edition of the Greek Commentators on Aristotle (still the basis for the immense translation effort underway, which oddly was not mentioned in Annas article, unless I missed something). The Berlin edition of Aristotle, which included Bonitz's Index (vol. 5) proved a sine qua non for subsequent work on Aristotle. Sir David Ross' translations and commentaries based on them are still widely used. We all use Ackrill for the Categories and Interpretation, but the starting point for most discussions of the Analytics, Physics, On the Soul, and Metaphysics is still Ross. The Oxford translation that he edited (12 vols., 1908-1952) was modified for the Revised Oxford translation (ed. Barnes, 2 vols., Princeton, 1984). This is still indispensable. One might also point to the Loeb library’s Aristotle in 23 volumes (general editor H. L. Tredennick). These are still widely used. One might also mention Werner Jaeger’s Aristoteles: Eine Geschichte seiner Entwicklung (Berlin, 1923; 2nd ed. 1955; English tr. R. Robinson, Oxford, 1948). This was the most influential book on the philosophy of Aristotle in the twentieth century, by far. Perhaps it will be argued that these are contributing all causes, sunaition, hypothetical necessities, and not the real thing. I beg to differ. It seems to me obvious that the reason people started reintegrating Aristotle into philosophical discussions was the availability of his texts. Aristotle makes his own case for being included in these discussions. Owens, Anscombe, et al. were smart enough to notice that, but the idea that it is these people who are primarily responsible for philosophers using Aristotle seems to me a bit weird.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Annas points out, as I agree, that whatever the reason for the change in the field in mid-20th century, two features of this change were that (i) philosophy rather than classics departments became the natural home to work in ancient philosophy; (ii) interest tended to be focused on a relatively few areas involving philosophical logic and epistemology. But neither of these features would be explained by the availability of good editions and translations. (And it's not as if the main agents in this change did not read Greek.)

Anonymous said...

But I’m agreeing with your original point that it’s probably not the case that people wanted to find some way to revive Aristotle and so saw some window of opportunity in epistemology and language. People probably weren’t thinking, hey! we can adapt some Aristotle to these new debates that these brilliant analytic philosophers are inventing for the first time. No. Rather, Aristotle wrote quite interesting and influential things on these issues. What’s more, he actually invented a lot of the ways of framing the issues, the terms in which the debates are carried out, the aporiai, and so forth. That’s not very surprising because, if you do the history, Aristotle ultimately had both a direct and an indirect influence on the issues the analytic philosophers were interested in. (I won’t get into the history of positivism here, unless necessary.) Most of the analytic philosophers were unaware of this, of course, due to their ahistoricity. (The problem with being ahistorical is that it makes it impossible to liberate yourself from your influences.) But those who did their history homework realized that these issues were nothing new, and so the old debates and debaters had a lot to contribute. This happens all the time. For example, Michael Rae recently wrote a very good article (‘Sameness without identity: an Aristotelian solution to the problem of material causation’, Ratio  3 (1998): 316-28) where he basically says, hey look, we’ve all been debating about material causation and getting nowhere. It turns out, Aristotle considered exactly this problem. And you know what, he had the best solution! The only thing I might add here is that he didn’t just happen to consider the same problem, rather, the problem itself has a more or less continuous history, going back to him. Many of the people that continued working on the problem recently didn’t realize this, because of they suffered from ahistoricity. Another good case in point is the recent Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics (2003, ed. Loux and Zimmerman). In the introduction the editors talk about how metaphysics was dead for a long time, due to positivism, but now it's back. And the most salient trends are category theory and modal metaphysics. And work on Aristotle seems to be a big moving cause of this. What I don’t follow is the idea that there was not philosophy going on in, say, Ross' commentaries, or in Jaeger's Entwicklung? If you define "philosophy" as what a certain group of Anglo-American analytic philosophers were doing, then you will think that all the real interesting work on Aristotle tended to focus on whatever they paid attention to, or what the people who worked similarly to them paid attention to. But suppose I say, look at all this interesting philosophy in Ross’ commentaries? Are you going to say, that’s not philosophy—that’s classics (after all, he was in a classics department, and big-time analytic philosophers weren’t reading him much)? Consider the various Symposia Aristotelicum-- volumes on the relationship between the exoterica and academy, the analytics, politics, etc. A lot of philosophy, as far as I can tell. Nothing to do with analytic philosophy and its concern with language, but why define philosophy so narrowly? Maybe we need a definition of philosophy in order to determine whether ancient philosophy suddenly became relevant to philosophy mid-twentieth-century. But to define philosophy would probably be tedious. Either we stipulate that it’s what analytic philosophers happened to consider philosophy (in which case the claim is trivial), or we allow that work on Aristotle’s physics, biology, politics, and so forth (and I can provide bibliographies of work before and during the decade of 1950 in these areas if needed) counts as philosophy (as well as, of course, ancient philosophy) too. To put it as simply as I can, just because analytic philosophers didn’t notice Aristotle until after the 1950’s (when editions, translations, and commentaries just happened to become widely available) does not mean that there was not a lot of interesting ancient philosophy going on.  

Posted by Monte Johnson

Michael Pakaluk said...

I don't think it's correct to cast analytic philosophy as the bogeyman here (indeed, it's almost the opposite), or to portray its attitude as solely decisive. Aristotle and Plato were widely regarded as discredited beginning with Descartes, and certainly in Locke and the empiricist movement; their ethics and metaphysics looked wrongheaded in the wake of Kant; their logic looked bad after Frege, Cantor and Peano. So it really was momentous when the movement that should apparently have been least open to the serious study of these figures, actually began to regard them as philosophers of the first rank.

Anonymous said...

How come Annas never mentions Friedlander or Gadamer? Basically she says that the ahistorical, rip-an-argument-out approach was fun while it lasted, but now we treat the dialogues as dialogues. Which was not news to Friedlander or Gadamer or Stanley Rosen, to mention a resident of a philosophy department who took Plato seriously during the 1960's. It seems like Annas acknowledges a change towards a way of reading that is hardly new at all.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, the greatest flaw in Annas' narrative of the development of 'ancient philosophy' is her assumption that 'philosophy' basically means 'analytic philosophy' or 'philosophy practiced in the recognizably analytic tradition.' Thus, when she says that we 'recently' realized that the dialogue form has 'epistemological' significance, she mentions that most of the writers who had talked about the dialogue form before this recent discovery were 'hostile to philosophy.' But of course Gadamer, Klein, and Rosen were never hostile to 'philosophy,' though they sure as hell were (and are, in Rosen's case) hostile to analytic  philosophy. One of the most important things about ancient philosophy is the role that it saw for itself. If there's anything that makes ancient philosophy more inspiring than anything that came after it, it's that it wasn't the handmaid of theology or the handmaid of positive science, but was itself the pursuit of wisdom. If 'ancient philosophy' can even be mistakenly understood as consisting primarily in the analysis of arguments made by ancient philosophic texts, then something vital has been forgotten about what those texts say. But for Annas, it actually makes sense to refer to someone whose task consists in analyzing ancient texts as an 'ancient philosopher.' I'd say that's a misplaced -er.

 

Posted by Anonymous

Alan Kim said...

Ryle, Annas's Doktorgrossvater, writes the following about the situation in the 1930s: "The conviction that the Viennese dichotomy 'Either Science or Nonsense' had too few 'ors' in it led some of us, including myself, to harbour and to work on a derivative suspicion. If, after all, logicians and even philosophers can say significant things, then perhaps some logicians and philosophers of the past, even the remote past, had, despite their unenlightenment, sometimes said significant things. 'Conceptual analysis' seems to denote a permissible, even meritorious exercise, so maybe some of our forefathers had had their Cantabrigian moments. If we are careful to winnow off their vacuously speculative tares from their analytical wheat, we may find that some of them sometimes did quite promising work in our own line of business. Naturally we began, in a patronising mood, by looking for and finding in the Stoics, say, or Locke, primitive adumbrations of our own most prized thoughts. But before long some of them seemed to move more like pioneers than like toddlers, and to talk to us across the ages more like colleagues than like pupils; and then we forgot our pails of whitewash." "Autobiographical" in Ryle: A Collection of Critical Essays, p.10, f. Plus ├ža change...