09 September 2005

Why Xenophanes?

Forgive me for pressing the point, but why is Xenophanes important?

An odd question for a blog, perhaps, but relevant to professors who actually teach Xenophanes. Why teach him? Why include him as a philosopher? Why is he interesting?

The problem is illustrated well by Hussey, who seems to contradict himself on this matter. Moreover, in chapter 2 (p. 14) he promises to say more about Xenophanes, whereas in chapter 3 (p. 33) he refers back to the preceding chapter, a nearly empty circle.

The seeming contradiction is this:

..whether or not any inspiration came from these quarter, Xenophanes' theology is still something quite new. ...He relies on entirely on certain general principles--certain conceptions of what it is reasonable or fitting that a god should be....This way of thinking, it must be repeated, was something quite new. For the first time, a conscious and deliberate attempt had been made to set up a standard of what was and was not 'reasonable' or 'fitting' in theology. Everything was to be judged in terms of this standard alone, and the authority of tradition, or of a general consensus, or of a great teacher, was to count for nothing (p. 14, my emphasis).

Xenophanes, a poet and a professional reciter of poetry who wandered about the Greek world, was not an original or systematic thinker (p. 33, my emphasis).
The circle involves this reference forward (coming after the just quoted lines):
Xenophanes will be considered again in the next chapter. He has been introduced here, out of turn, because it is by working back from his fragments that one may best hope to understand the intellectual atmosphere of the earliest Presocratics, the thinkers of sixth-century Miletus (p. 14).
Followed by this fulfillment of the promise:
Xenophanes, a poet and a professional reciter of poetry who wandered about the Greek world, was not an original or systematic thinker. There is nothing to suggest that he tried to improve the Milesian framework where it seemed in danger of inconsistency. His own views were in certain crucial places vague and incoherent, if we may trust Aristotle, and in one fragment (fr. 34) he takes refuge in the thought that, after all, no man can know anything for certain. Still, Xenophanes is illuminating: he casts light, as has been seen, on the Milesians, and his difficulties and deficiencies cast light on the situation as it presented itself to the other Ionian thinker of this period, Heracleitus of Ephesus (p. 14).
That's all on Xenophanes' importance in Hussey, about 30 lines of text, less than a full page.

KRS are equally uninformative on this point. They say that "Widely different views have been held on the intellectual importance of Xenophanes," but then they quote a difference in the extent, not the nature, of his importance, with Jaeger saying that he was enormously influential in theology, and Burnet saying that Xenophanes would have been amused to find that he had become regarded as a 'theologian'. "He was a critic, primarily," KRS add, "with an original and often idiosyncratic approach...His opinions on almost all subjects deserve careful attention" (168).

Okay, but why?


Anonymous said...

Though I don't know it well Popper has a piece called "The unknown Xenophanes: an attempt to establish his greatness," in The World of Parmenides, a collection of his essays. He thinks X is important for his epistemology.