10 April 2005

Know Thyself!

Near the beginning of her essay in the Leiter volume, Annas writes:

There are, of course, strands of the study of ancient philosophy which have escaped or ignored its engagement with analytical philosophy. In what follows I shall concentrate on analytical philosophy simply because it has been the main force in the field and its effects have been felt in all areas of philosophy (26).
But how is this not circular? Analytical philosophy is the main force in the field of ancient philosophy, when that field is defined as ancient philosophy in the analytical style. Clearly it's not the main force in those strands which have escaped or ignored analytical philosophy.

Or, if we say, as is plausible, that the distinct 'field' of ancient philosophy simply came into being with the analytical study of ancient philosophical texts (neither Cajetan nor Trendelenburg were doing 'ancient philosophy' in commenting on Aristotle), then one wants to know why one should identify philosophical reflection upon classical texts with this 'field', and the prospects of that sort of reflection with the prospects of this 'field'.

One might say that the task of the Leiter volume is simply to speculate on the prospects of various academic disciplines, and that there is now, as must be acknowledged, an academic discipline of 'ancient philosophy', which as a matter of historical fact is the offspring somehow of the analytical movement. But wouldn't it be misleading to describe such a project as a speculation on the future for 'philosophy'?--Admittedly a book entitled The Future for Academic Philosophy as Currently Practiced sounds much less interesting!

Suppose we say that a field should be understood as its practitioners understand it, or should ideally understand it. If those who call themselves 'ancient philosophers' understand themselves as doing the sort of thing that Owen and Vlastos began (use these for the purposes of argument), and no more than that, except for some relevant corrections (now it is less ahistorical and more contextual, etc.) then that's just what ancient philosophy is. But--am I wrong?--I don't think this is how 'ancient philosophers' most commonly understand themselves.

The most common self-understanding, I think, is that we regard ourselves as heirs to and custodians of a tradition, and ways of thought and investigation, which began with Socrates (or Parmenides, or Thales--it's not important) and which Owen and Vlastos, in their way, helped along. Academic departments and journals--everything we associate with professional philosophy--help it along also. But the project is not a project of professional philosophy.

This would be opposed to what what Leiter says in his introduction, by way of defending what ends up being (I think) a narrowly professional approach to philosophy:
Philosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline, has been plagued by debates about what the discipline is or ought to be. [Plagued??] Partly, this is due to the fact that 'philosophy' has a currency in everyday parlance and ordinary self-reflection that 'linguistics' or 'sociology' or 'anthropology' do not. One doesn't need an advanced degree to have a 'philosophy of life', and this has bred an expectation, even among those with advanced degrees, that the discipline of philosophy ought to be continuous with ordinary attempt to forge a philosophy of life (1).
Leiter offers these remarks as justification for regarding, in his volume, what professional philosophers say about their profession as definitive for philosophy. Yet of course professional philosophers might regard what they do as continuous with something outside the profession, in some other way than by thinking it was continuous with puerile notions of 'philosophy'.

I suggest that, in the end, the reason why "Engagement with analytical philosophy restored the study of ancient philosophy to philosophical vigor", as Annas so nicely puts it (p. 41), was not so much that analytic philosophy led us to find analogues of modern problems in ancient texts, as that it eventually allowed us to see ancient problems in modern texts--or (better) to rediscover ancient standards, by finding them once again in modern concerns for argument and rigor.

Thus whereas analytic philosophy at first looked like it would set the agenda, it has since been assimilated into a much more venerable philosophia perennis, so that now little more than a renewed concern for rigor and precision remains as a vestige:
We no longer defer to the interests of ahistorically minded philosophers, or take the concerns of late twentieth-century analytical philosophy to be unquestioned presuppositions to any properly philosophical enquiry. What we do do, is to apply to ancient texts the concern, associated with analytical philosophy, for precision and rigour in argument (40).


Mitch said...

I recognize that you have a particular heritage of "ancient philosophy" in mind, as shown by reference to Owen and Vlastos, but I think it is important to remember that there have been non-analytic work on ancient philosophy and that in some sense so-called continental philosophy never had to be reminded of the importance of ancient philosophy. I'm thinking of the work of Brentano on Aristotle, but also of Heidegger and Strauss - neither of whom would be considered "analytic". I suppose the question is: would they be consider "rigorous"? But, still, one finds treatments of ancient philosophy throughout the work of Husserl and the phenomenological tradition still takes the ancients (and medievals and moderns) seriously.

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