15 September 2005

The Analysis of Presocratic Thought

Refute me if I'm wrong. You'd be doing me a favor.

I've been harping on Xenophanes, I now realize, because I want to make a larger point about how we analyse presocratic thought and therefore properly assess its contributions.

The interpretation of Xenophanes that I see in McKirahan and Hussey strikes me as 'encyclopaedist' history, in MacIntyre's sense. It takes a distinction from the Enlightenment, which opposes Reason to authority and tradition; it holds that 'Reason' is a single, uniform, framework; it supposes that 'Science' arises once the viewpoint of 'Reason' is adopted; and therefore it looks to find, in the presocratics (who are at the origin of science) the adoption of this viewpoint and framework, to the exclusion of competitors.

Besides going beyond the evidence, that sort of interpretation seems to me on broad grounds to be inappropriate. Thales perhaps takes his ideas from Near Eastern creation myths--or at least, if he did, no one would be surprised. Pythagoras is evidently not a proponent of Reason, in any usual sense. Parmenides presents his doctrine as if a revelation. So does Heracleitus (although he is doing the revealing). One sees the same thing in what comes after: Socrates accepts revelations from a spiritual being; he takes received views seriously, as received. Plato takes inspiration from myths. Aristotle's method of sifting through endoxa is all about giving authoritative views their due weight. Etc.

Yes, of course, there are various moves one can make--"It's insofar as they adopt the viewpoint of Reason that they are philosophers (or scientists)"; "The religious language is allegorical (conventional, demythologized)"; and so on--but at what point is theory driving data, then?

However, a more serious concern, for me, is that this reason vs. tradition opposition is too blunt. It may, therefore, lead us to overlook more interesting things, that perhaps better account for the importance of the presocratics ... even Xenophanes (yes, yet another post to come).


David said...


This may be old news to you but Peter Kingsley's book on Empedocles argues in a similar vein to what you are saying. What always struck me was how decisions made by the 20th century editors of Empedocles's work profoundly influenced how scholars viewed his philosophy even though those editors possessed an understanding of the cosmos far different from his.

Apollodorus said...

Your dissatisfaction with the tradition/reason dichotomy as applied to the pre-Socratics, or to virtually anyone in Greek philosophy, seems entirely warranted. You've gone back and forth, though, between contrasting 'reason' with tradition and contrasting it with revelation on the other hand. Revelation tends, historically, to get itself embodied in tradition, of course, but the two concepts differ significantly enough that it might be best to separate them for a consideration of Greek attitudes to them. As you say, Parmenides presents his thought as though a revelation, but he maintains a distaste for the ideas passed down by 'tradition,' while someone like Protagoras apparently paid quite a lot of attention to 'tradition' even though he took a strictly agnostic view on gods, and therefore on divine revelation.

Further complicating things is that the Greeks never seem to consider 'tradition' per se; the closest explicit considerations would be, what, discussions of nomos in general? The idea of 'reason' that usually gets invoked seems fairly unexamined, too. What, after all, is 'reason' that it is somehow opposed to tradition in the sense of things passed down over generations? Even Socrates, whom one would think of as a pro-reason, anti-tradition figure if anyone would be, seems actually to require a context of tradition in order to operate. The same goes, of course, for Aristotle and endoxa, as you mention. Even the 'mythos/logos' distinction seems to overlook the fact that poets in the Greek tradition were not all unreflective and uncritical, despite some less apparently unsupported distinctions between the way that Greek authors handle the two concepts. Perhaps a better way to frame the question is to ask how Greek thinkers conceived of the relationship between individual thinkers and the traditions of thought which they inherited qua inherited thought? Some fairly clear answers suggest themselves in the case of Aristotle, perhaps less so in Plato, but would our evidence for pre-Socratic thought even be full enough to tell us very much in that regard?

Anonymous said...

These are helpful distinctions. And I find the questions you pose at the end helpful as well. Broadly, one finds among Greek thinkers not a jealously over the 'autonomy' of Reason, but rather different stances (as I think you are suggesting) as regards how much someone wants to think of himself as an 'individual' or even 'loner'. Someone who was a 'loner' might still have his own way of picking through tradition, authorities, and (what he took to be) revelation. 

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