I'm off to NYC this morning for the NYC Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy this afternoon. But here's a brief comment on Annas' essay in the Leiter volume.
Her strategy seems to be: identify an objectionable way of doing ancient philosophy, popular in the '60s (she uses the literature on the Third Man, which Vlastos originated, as her stalking horse), and then take the reaction against that approach as determining the direction of the field for the next century.
Some initial questions, already posed by commentators:
1. Why identify the career of ancient philosophy within analytic departments with the career of ancient philosophy simpliciter?
2. Is this 'new direction' taken within analytic departments a discovery so much as a (rather late) recognition of the soundness of the approach that all along was favored by others?(Friedlander and Ross have been mentioned; one might add the Louvain school.)
But what I want to ask now is: What was so bad about the approach of the 60s? (Please hold your eggs and rotten tomatoes!) No, what I mean is: we need to identify accurately what was wrong with it, and I'm not sure Annas does this, although she does acknowledge the need: "In recent years we have seen a rejection of the plain ahistorical approach. This of course forces us to be more specific in defining what is meant by 'ahistorical' here"(29).
What does she say?
Annas first observes, sensibly, that rarely do cultural or historial circumstances bear on the interpretation of a philosophical text. (I don't suppose the Peloponnesian War might affect the soundness of the One Over Many.) Then, after summarizing the Third Man objection and the literature following Vlastos' famous article, she begins to set out her criticism:
All of this presumes that the 'theory of forms' is a defining part of Plato's thought, and that the issue of whether it can be held despite the 'Third Man' argument is one the answer of which is going to determine the central issues about Plato's philosophy (31).
But why isn't that a reasonable presumption?
Yet the 'Third Man' does not remain as a pressing unsolved problem. Rather, we can now see that a great deal of the time and fuss was off the point, and that the argument yields far better philosophical understanding if instead of plucking it out of its context and treating it as though it were straightforwardly a modern argument attacking a modern kind of theory, we try to put it into its broader philosophical context (31).
But I don't understand: aren't arguments such as the One Over Many, and the Third Man as directed at this, meant to have weight on their own? (No need to call them 'theories', just arguments.) And doesn't Aristotle, not a 'modern' philosopher, deal with them in the way that Vlastos did? Why is a concern with the argument a 'modern' approach that comes from our distance from Plato? (How could 'modern' or 'ancient' affect whether these are arguments, or whether if so they are sound or not? Would the passage of time render De Int 9 a non-argument? Or Word and Object chapter 2?)
She then says that acknowledging the context of the Third Man "involves...recognizing that the Parmenides is a dialogue, not a philosophical treatise". (Hard to tell from the second half of the 'dialogue'!) From this, the lesson to be drawn is that:
Plato presents us with arguments in a way designed to encourage us to pursue them as arguments. Only if we think about the conclusions, and the way they are reached, for ourselves are we making headway towards philosophical understanding (32).
But one might have thought that that was what Vlastos was doing!
Annas then gives an interpretation of the Parmenides which she presents as if it comes with the endorsement of this new 'contextualizing' approach, when in fact it is on the same level as every other interpretation of the dialogue so far put forward:
In the Parmenides it is Socrates who is the overconfident purveyor of a position which Parmenides' questions show that he doesn't really understand. ...Once we take this point seriously, we can see why the result in the dialogue is not that Parmenides tells Socrates that his forms are no good, but rather that he tells him that his commitment to the idea has been premature: he must train himself further in various kinds of positive and negative abstract argument before he can claim to have understanding of it (32).
Interesting interpretation, worth thinking about. But even if it is true, then, after we've done our dialectical homework... Do we say that the Forms exist or not? It looks like we eventually need to consider the soundness of that objection.
The fate of the copious literature on the 'Third Man' gives us a cautionary tale as to what happens when an ancient text is seized upon too unreflectively and treated as though we had a confrontation of theory with counter-argument like those in analytic philosophy journals (33).The 'fate' of the literature, to which Annas refers, is that grad students and professors don't get impassioned about the force of the Third Man any more: it 'does not remain as a pressing unsolved problem' for us. But then why isn't this a 'cautionary tale,' rather, as to how our concern for the soundness of arguments and philosophical truth is not as great as that of the generation that preceded us? Why aren't they admirable, and we lamentable?
I don't see the argument, or reasons, for the lesson that Annas draws. It looks like an inference from influence to merit. Might makes right, for philosophy.