08 August 2005

Teaching Ancient Philosophy

As the new academic year approaches, perhaps some of you, like me, are thinking about new ways to teach ancient philosophy in the fall.

Here is a question I'd very much like to pose to readers of DB--timely, too, given our discussions of the relationship between doing history of philosophy and doing philosophy.

I've always taught history of ancient chronologically. But has anyone had success teaching it by topic (or 'problem', even)? E.g. logic, ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of nature, theory of knowledge, psychology ('philosophical anthropology'), etc. I've thought of changing to teaching it in this way, and I'd be very interested to hear about others' experiences. Can this work in a semester? How?

4 comments:

John Partridge said...

Irwin's Classical Philosophy (Oxford 1999) and Annas' Voices of Ancient Philosophy (Oxford 2001) are organized topically (and amazon.com has the tables of contents up so you can see what topics are included).

In addition to the work it would take to reorganize my Ancient course in this way, without a clear sense that I'd be improving the course, I fear I'd miss the chance to assign whole (or large parts of whole) texts. Perhaps the way to ease in is to teach the chronological course and then assign a single topic toward the end of the course. In a sense, I do this now with Plato's Forms (telling the familiar story that Plato took some inspiration from both Heraclitus and Parmenides when wrestling with the Forms in the Republic, then seeing whether the Forms might meet the demands of Socrates' search for definitions, and ending with Aristotle's criticism of the Forms).

Jimmy Doyle said...

Anthony Kenny has tried, with some success, to combine a chronological and topical approach in his recent history of ancient philosophy (and in its successor-volume on medieval philosophy).

I suspect, however, that a topical approach involves more of a risk of misrepresentation in ancient (and possibly medieval) philosophy than in modern. The scientific revolution gave everyone the idea (mistaken, in my view) that we could talk about the nature of reality and the possibility of knowledge completely independently of 'value-involving' (or 'normative') concepts. The ancients didn't believe this, so it's potentially very distorting to teach (eg) Plato's metaphysics and epistemology independently of his ethics: the foundation of all being, according to the Republic, is also the highest object of an emphatically ethical knowledge. I realise Plato is an extreme case, but I think that no ancient philosopher achieves the kind of separation of different 'areas' of philosophical activity characteristic of the moderns. All viewed reality as imbued in one way or another with properties modern philosophers would be inclined to think of as ethical.

Thornton said...

A "topical" approach needn't subscribe to the topics or subdisciplines which modern philosophers have, and Annas' book--referred to in Patridge's post--makes no such anachronistic mistake. Rather, it focuses upon questions which occupied generations of ancient philosophy thinkers, e.g., are humans independent of fate? what is the best way of life? can we know real causes of the things we perceive?

Richard Bosley and Martin Tweedale have a medieval reader (Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy) organized in a similar way, viz. according to the topics or questions that generations of medieval philosophers addressed (e.g., whether the world is eternal or created, whether God possesses freedom, etc.) that I've taught with and found much better than the chronological approach.

Contrary to what Doyle suggest, I'm suspicious of the claim that most ancient (or medieval) had some systematic account of being, goodness, etc. Maybe Doyle isn't saying exactly that, since he limits his observation to Plato, but the very notion that Plato had a comprehensive system begs the question of why he wrote a whole panoply of dialogues, often addressing the same topics in different contexts and even providing different analyses. The notion of systematic philosophy itself strikes me as very modern (post 18th century) and foreign to ancient thought (although perhaps more at home in some versions of medieval thought).

Anonymous said...

"I'm suspicious of the claim that most ancient (or medieval) had some systematic account of being, goodness, etc."

So am I. That's why I didn't say anything of the kind. I wasn't talking about systematicity (the word appears nowehere in my post). I was talking merely about the assumption that (roughly) metaphysics and epistemology can or should be understood independently of ethics. One can reject this assumption without being remotely systematic in one's philosophy. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard seem to be examples of this.

"Maybe Doyle isn't saying exactly that, since he limits his observation to Plato..."

Actually, as far as an illustration of Plato's view of the inseparability of ethics, metaphysics and epistemology goes, I limited my observation to Plato's Republic. Although I wasn't talking about sytematicity, now I come to think of it, I don't see how anyone could deny that the Republic presents a highly systematic philosophy; hence I don't see how anyone could affirm that "The notion of systematic philosophy itself strikes me as very modern (post 18th century) and foreign to ancient thought."

"...[Plato] wrote a whole panoply of dialogues, often addressing the same topics in different contexts and even providing different analyses."

I am aware of this. It has no bearing whatsoever on anything I said.  

Posted by Anonymous