14 October 2006

Another Apoblogia

I have so far looked at two texts where, I believe, Whiting has proposed a mistaken interpretation, and I shall shortly look at another.

But someone may be thinking, "Why are you focussing on such small points? It looks as though you are evading the important philosophical issues and taking refuge instead in pettifoggery. It's easy, isn't it, to take pot shots about minor details while ignoring what is truly important."

To this I would say, first, that this is not a fight that I picked. In her essay, Whiting looks at a string of passages, devoting one or two pages to each, and claiming that she is giving the correct interpretation of them, where others have "missed the point", committed "errors", or offered impossible renderings. If such passages warrant a couple of pages of attention in a published book, then surely they warrant one web page of attention on a blog. And this is not to mention that, as a translator and interpreter of those passages, I have some standing to make a response.

Second, it seems that only on a blog will such things come to light. Certainly puff-piece reviews will do nothing to cast light upon them. But even a good review will typically not be able to devote attention to such details.

Third, far from being pettifoggery, these details are the very substance and data of a sound interpretation. Whiting herself recognizes this, which is why she devotes a fair amount of space to them in her essay. It simply is not possible to do scholarly work on Aristotle that has enduring value, without getting such details right.

We should distinguish: an interpretation which aims to get it right about Aristotle's thought, from an interpretation in which the interpreter, really, is engaging in a kind of 'systematic' philosophy, though using a discussion of Aristotle as a means to doing so.

The latter is, to my mind, disreputable, although it is extremely common. Systematic philosophy should stand on its own. To such interpreters I would say: "Instead of giving us an interpretation of Aristotle as a Rawlsian, please write an essay on justice using Rawls' ideas. Instead of an article arguing that Aristotle is a 'naturalist' (in our sense), write an article defending philosophical naturalism (if you can). " And so on. Each philosopher is what he is, and not another philosopher. Aristotle is not a naturalist (in our sense) or a materialist; he is not an exponent of Rawlsianism or Parfitianism; Aristotle is not a thomist or a neo-platonist. Aristotle is Aristotle.

But the alternative, the only legitimate path, in my view--to get it right about Aristotle's thought--most definitely requires great accuracy in reading and understanding an Aristotelian text. So these are not simply small points.

3 comments:

V. Caston said...

"Each philosopher is what he is and not another philosopher … Aristotle is Aristotle."

Cf. Metaph. 5.29, 1024b32-1025a1 (tr. Kirwan): "That is why Antisthenes naively considered that nothing can legitimately be described except by its own proper formula, one to one; an opinion from which it resulted that there is no such thing as contradiction, nor even pratically as falsity. But there is such a thing as describing each thing not only by its own formula, but also by another's; this may be done altogether falsely, but also in a way truly, as eight is double, from the formula of two." 

Posted by V. Caston

papabear said...

The latter is, to my mind, disreputable, although it is extremely common. Systematic philosophy should stand on its own. To such interpreters I would say: "Instead of giving us an interpretation of Aristotle as a Rawlsian, please write an essay on justice using Rawls' ideas. Instead of an article arguing that Aristotle is a 'naturalist' (in our sense), write an article defending philosophical naturalism (if you can). " And so on.

Hear, hear!

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear V. Caston:

Well done. The only thing I can add, in this contest of wits, which is consistent with my own words, is to declare you to be Victor.

Best,
MP