26 July 2005

A Silent Spring

A question directed at those who think that there is, or might be, a 'perennial philosophy', pagan or Christian, expressed in the writings of Plato and Aristotle:

If there is such, why is no one writing books that are new contributions to this philosophy?

Why do we have only historical studies, which are half-hearted, almost cowardly ways of affirming a Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical viewpoint? It's much too easy, isn't it, to profess belief in something like eros (f0r instance) through an exposition of the Symposium, rather than through writing something like the Symposium (however imperfect it might turn out in comparison).

Why do we find works such as After Virtue, which point and say that philosophy should be done in a certain way, but which fail actually to do philosophy in that way?

Presumably, if Aristotle's Physics (for instance) is correct, it is still basically correct. Where are the works in philosophy of science that don't use the name 'Aristotle' even once but which make sense of contemporary science in the fashion and spirit of the Physics?--so that any intelligent person might read it and become convinced that that is the most sensible way of looking at the natural world.

An exception: Fred Sommers' work on term logic. Perhaps another: Philippa Foot on ethics.

25 July 2005

A Single, Perennial Pagan Philosophy

"... one of the most important contributions to the study of ancient Greek philosophy in our time."

That's how Lloyd Gerson describes Richard Sorabji's project of translating the Greek commentators on Aristotle into English, in Gerson's review in BMCR (read it here) of a three-volume sourcebook derived from that project.

Yes, that is undoubtedly true. And yet, I cannot make sense of Gerson's two arguments for that claim.

First, he says, now that the commentators are translated into English, "the study of the entire canon of ancient Greek philosophy will be reinvigorated". This will correct for the "overfishing in the waters of the 4th century B.C.E. and a consequent marginalization of ancient Greek philosophy within the larger enterprise of professional philosophy."

This strikes me as bizarre. Ancient Greek philosophy is currently marginalized (is it, more than any other specialization?) because of attention to Aristotle and Plato primarily? And then because they can now read in English lots of ancient commentaries on Aristotle, scholars (students? philosophers generally?) will be motivated to study (say) Xenophanes and Epicurus? I don't get it.

Second, Gerson says, the Greek commentators show us a different way of reading Aristotle. They believed that Aristotle's thought was a unified system which did not develop; that it was in harmony with Plato's thought; and that the study of Aristotle was a good way to become initiated in the higher mysteries of Plato's thought.

Yet one might suppose that this different way of reading Aristotle will prove significant, in English translation, only if it is correct. Is it true that Aristotle's philosophy did not develop? Is it true that his thought constitutes with Plato a single, harmonious philosophical outlook? In what seems a relativistic passage, Gerson stops short of endorsing this:

([T]he commentators assumed that Aristotle's philosophy was a whole... and [that] that philosophy was a version of Platonism, albeit a version coming from a dissident within the Platonic school. Accordingly, they read all of the works in the corpus as based on identical (Platonic) principles. But of course their assumption was no less of an assumption than was Jaeger's.
But Jaeger's view was a conclusion, not an 'assumption'. And can't we judge whether the commentators were right in what they 'assumed'?

My suspicion is that Gerson gives such poor reasons, because he does not quite state his real reasons. The review looks to me as if written by someone who wants to say--but does not quite find the nerve to affirm it outright--that there is indeed "a single perennial pagan philosophy" (as Gerson puts it), which is a vigorous alternative to philosophy as practiced since Descartes; that the study of this philosophy could in principle replace, almost without loss, philosophy as now practiced; and that we can see that this is so--and perhaps even become converted to it--by entering into a community in which this sort of philosophy is practiced, which is precisely what is constituted by the ancient Greek commentators. The Greek commentators, on this view, are meant to play a role relative to this 'single perennial pagan philosophy' analogous to Aquinas' Summa and an ostensible 'single perennial Christian philosophy'.

I don't know; this is speculation. But it's how I would make sense of the strange mixture of noble enthusiasm and poor argument that I find in that review.

23 July 2005

The Troubling Mix of Scholarship and Politics

"I became thoroughly disgusted when one day he came into class, sat down, and asked, 'Now what would Plato have said about the train strike?' How fatuous! And Vlastos was his student, but he put an end to that sort of thing. He changed the field, and, with Gwil Owen, brought in English and European standards, so that it became completely unacceptable even to say that sort of thing."

Thus remarked once my teacher, Burton Dreben, about Raphael Demos. (I think I remember it correctly.) Which raises the question: Is it ever appropriate, and if so when, to consider 'What would Socrates (or Plato, or Aristotle) say?'

Dreben apparently thought never. But I wonder: was he consistent? (Did he equally disapprove of Martha Nussbaum's applications of ancient philosophy to contemporary politics? I don't know.)

And Vlastos certainly did not engage in ancient philosophy without serious ethical aims, at least. (I don't know his politics.) But if you allow ethical applications, why not political ones?

Moreover, don't all of us--perhaps especially when we are caught up in some philological or logical technicality--think that ancient philosophy should lead to something good, some good change (in ourselves, in society), besides being inherently worth thinking about, as it surely is? But if we allow in some general way that it should lead to some good, why not try to figure out how, more particularly, it might do so?

And Dreben had no difficulty with Rawls' political idealizations. Now suppose Rawls were to confess: "My theory of justice is entirely the result of thinking about how Kant would respond to contemporary questions of justice." (He did not say that: but he might have.) What's the difference between speculating in this way about Kant (or Mill, or Hume) and about Plato?

Your thoughts appreciated.

Did I Miss Something?

We discussed at some length in this blog the theory of G.R. Lear that ethical reasoning, for Aristotle in Nic. Eth., is an 'approximation' to philosophical contemplation, and yet, unless I missed something, we never succeeded in clarifying that relationship.

Here's an attempt by Henry Dyson in his review, in BMCR, of John Cooper's second volume of collected papers, in which, recall, Cooper declares himself persuaded by the 'approximation' view:

The first thing to note is that moral action is not subordinated to contemplation as a means to an end. Rather, Cooper notes that moral virtue and contemplation are both excellences of the reasoning part of the soul. The proper selection of independent goods is undertaken with an eye to the perfection of this expression of our rationality. Contemplation, however, is the highest and most perfect expression of our rationality and moral virtue merely aims at the same good as contemplation via lower instantiation. Thus Cooper concludes: "One would, as a result, be fairly described as pursuing even in one's moral actions the ultimate end of excellent theoretical thinking" (305)
Okay, I understand that it is not supposed to be a means to an end (and I acknowledge relations of ordering that are not instrumental orderings). Also, I understand what it would be to want practical rationality to be a 'lower' version of philosophical contemplation. But I still don't understand how it is supposed to be that--and, if that isn't explained, isn't this wishful thinking rather than an interpretation?

In reply to the old difficulty that, if practical rationality is a 'lower' version of philosophical contemplation, then presumably one must always prefer and choose philosophical contemplation over practical expressions of rationality, when these are exclusive, Dyson represents Cooper as holding:
... excellent contemplation is sufficient in and of itself to insure the choice-worthiness of a life. Carrying on such an activity over a greater period does not make the life thereby more choiceworthy than it would have been otherwise. On the contrary, to disregard one's moral duty for the sake of a greater extension of contemplation "would entail the loss of the value not only of the omitted moral action, but of all the 'moral' actions one had done while harboring the misunderstanding of morality that allowing such 'exceptions' would imply." (308). Thus, what is required is first to satisfy all the demands of morality including those that might take one away from contemplative activity, and then to give oneself over to such contemplation as the circumstances permit. In this way the appreciation of moral virtue as a fundamental human value is not undermined by the recognition that contemplation is the highest human good and the final end of human life.
So once someone actualizes the virtue of sophia even once, then nothing more is to be gained by further actualizations? That idea hardly jibes with Aristotle's e)f o(/son e)nde/xetai a)qanati/zein kai\ pa/nta poiei=n pro\j to\ zh=n kata\ to\ kra/tiston tw=n e)n au(tw|= | (1177b33-4).

And what Dyson takes to be, or represents as, a consequence ('Thus, ...') looks to me like a distinct, unsupported idea.

Shouldn't we expect more from a critical review?

22 July 2005

A Philosophical Docudrama?

What Roochnik gives us in Retrieving the Ancients is a kind of television miniseries presentation of [Stanley] Rosen's ideas in the form of a historical introduction to Plato and Aristotle. The book before us is indeed derived from a set of recorded lectures "produced for the Teaching Company" (10 n1). Roochnik's book is plot-driven, rather than technique-driven, and it gives us a lecture-style digest of ideas, without much attempt to tell where his debts lie. Nor does he introduce the reader to the scholarly tools required to wrench these ideas out of the Greek texts.[[4]]

Ouch!!! A fairly harsh judgment by Michael S. Kochin in his review in BMCR of David Roochnik's attempt to give an accessible if schematic overview of the history of ancient philosophy. You may see the review with its other unflattering comments here, or order Roochnik's book and judge for yourself here.

Since Roochnik is a colleague of mine in BACAP, I read the book when it came out last year. I'm puzzled because the book that Kochin describes, and the book that I remember, are quite different.

Here's something that troubles me about Kochin's review. It's a small concern but the sort of thing that, in my mind, casts doubt on his judgment. If one looks to footnote 4, appended to the end of the passage quoted above, one finds:

4. See e.g. p. 17, where Roochnik, discussing Thales, cites a "statement of Aristotle, listed by Diels as an A fragment," though Roochnik nowhere in Retrieving the Ancients explains who Diels is or the distinction between A and B fragments. For a model account of these tools and the philosophical commitments embodied in them, see the beginning of Heidegger's essay on Anaximander, translated in Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, ed. and tr. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Heidegger's account would not, I think, require much reworking to be presented to an American popular audience.

But this is not true. Roochnik introduces Diels, albeit briefly, and explains the distinction between 'A' and 'B' fragments, on p. 11.


We know that Kochin had the book open to that page, since he refers to Roochnik's footnote on facing page 10. So why the mistake? For my part, I cannot have confidence in a reviewer who, it seems, reads a book so sloppily, while criticizing its author so harshly.

Oh, and we'll be waiting for Kochin's efforts to rework Heidegger's scholarship for American popular audiences.

This Blog to Resume

Did you ever notice how students writing dissertations have the cleanest apartments? Even sweeping the floor, in comparison, looks good as a diversion. I half wonder whether I've had little inclination to blog because I'm between major writing projects: resume that translation of Nic Eth (for instance), and the blog will take on once again an aspect of inevitability.

But probably the reason is that I'm a man of extremes. I either work with intensity at something, or do not work at all, and my travels this summer has made the former impossible, as regards this blog at least.

You know about my trip to Vancouver, and immediately after that was the May Week Seminar in Cambridge. A couple of weeks after that, I participated in a colloquium at Princeton, at the James Madison center, and read a paper on "Lincoln's Intellectual Virtue". The colloquium was devoted to how one teaches the American Founders and Abraham Lincoln's thought in undergraduate classes. Lincoln is a side interest of mine. Lincoln is of course often taken to be a paradigm of phronesis, correctly so. In my paper, using (roughly) Aristotle's framework, I broadened the focus slightly and asked whether and how he exemplified intellectual virtue generally.

In the first two weeks of July I was teaching in an institute in Mexico City, called the North American Leadership Institute. The course brought together exemplary students from Canada, Mexico, and the United States with the aim of fostering pan-American solidarity in an era of NAFTA and globalization. Students took courses in philosophy, the history of indigenous peoples in Mexico, and in the language and culture of Mazahua. They went on various cultural excursions in the city and on weekends visited health clinics in Mazahua villages. I designed the philosophical curriculum for the institute, the theme of which was how the understanding of human rights developed through the encounter of Old World civilization with the indigenous peoples of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The centerpiece of this was of course the famous debate between Bartolome de Las Casas and Sepulveda.

While in Mexico City I gave two seminars in the philosophy department of the Universidad Panamericana, on the Doctrine of the Mean and on the two discussions of pleasure in Nic Eth. The Universidad Panamerica is distinctive in centering its undergraduate philosophy curriculum on ancient philosophy and (even) medieval commentators. In theory, their best students finish well-prepared for graduate work. (For instance, all undergraduate majors take two years of Greek and a full sequence of logic courses.) I particularly enjoyed my discussions with Hector Zagal, a prolific Aristotle scholar; Luis Xavier Lopez, an accomplished scholar of medieval Arabic philosophy; and Rodrigo Guerra, a phenomenologist and 'personalist' who is a friendly critic of Aristotelian ethics. I also had the opportunity to meet Ricardo Salles of UNAM, an accomplished ancient philosopher, who attended the seminars.

I'm at home for this week and next, and then I travel to Vienna, via Munich and the Salzburg Music Festival, to teach in another institute. I'll try to blog in the midst of all this, but I cannot promise much success until late August, when I'll return to my old regimen.

But there will be a development. I've been collaborating with IT students at Clark to design a BACAP website, which will have many attractive features: a forum for discussing BACAP lectures; a place for scholars to post 'working papers' in ancient philosophy; a place for syllabi and teaching materials in ancient philosophy to be made widely available; etc. The website should be extremely useful in assisting BACAP's mission to promote both scholarship and pedagogy in ancient philosophy. I expect it will come online by mid-August.