05 April 2007

Diversity in Ancient Philosophy

One must congratulate the recently founded Ancient Philosophy Society (recent, that is, for the time-scale on which we operate) for their good sense in holding their annual conference in Boston, and for their good taste in holding their annual banquet at the Gardner Museum. The program for the entire conference, which runs April 12-14, may be found here.

According to its mission statement:

The Ancient Philosophy Society was established to provide a forum for diverse scholarship on ancient Greek and Roman texts. Honoring the richness of the American and European philosophical traditions, the Ancient Philosophy Society supports phenomenological, postmodern, Anglo-American, Straussian, Tubingen School, hermeneutic, psychoanalytic, and feminist interpretations of ancient Greek and Roman philosophical and literary works. It is the intention that, within the larger aim of assessing the meaning and significance of ancient texts, the Ancient Philosophy Society serve as the site of critical engagement among these various schools of interpretation and that it encourage creative and rigorous independent readings.
--which is to suggest apparently that, outside of the Ancient Philosophy Society, one finds an insufficient diversity and richness, and that, within the Society, one distinctively finds 'critical engagement' among differing 'interpretations'.

But is either of these suppositions in fact true? A glance of the past programs of the society suggests that its conferences are not very different from what one finds elsewhere, except for a large dose of Heidegger thrown in. And it isn't clear that the conferences, at least, are especially structured to encourage critical discussion as to the merits, or weaknesses, in the various 'interpretations' mentioned in the mission statement.

Another interesting question is whether the supposition of different 'interpretations' should be made at all, and whether it is helpful to foster these directly. The Society's statement at the end seems to say that its ultimate aim is the fostering of creative, rigorous, and independent readings. Would it be preferable, perhaps, to aim directly at these things, and let diversity and richness of interpretation fall as they may?

One suspects that the Society is presupposing that inevitably everyone does fall within one of the mentioned 'interpretations', or some others not mentioned explicitly, and that, if this fact is not acknowledged, then creativity, rigor, and independence suffer as a consequence. But is that presupposition actually true? Couldn't a scholar aim--and largely succeed--at spurning 'feminist' or 'psycholanalytic' interpretations, or any other sort of interpretation such as that? Isn't the project, for instance, of explaining and evaluating, e.g. what Plato said and argued for, a viable project that is different from that of offering a specific 'interpretation'? But, if so, then the Ancient Philosophy Society, to the extent that it succeeded in being distinctive, would actually not be an ancient philosophy society--it would be a place where various 'interpretations' could meet and (perhaps) exchange their reflections on these 'interpretations', insofar as these reflections have been inspired by a relatively accidental encounter with ancient philosophy.

Against the charge that what appears to be a neutral position is actually an 'analytic interpretation', one may distinguish three approaches:
1. The use of tools in analytic philosophy in order to explain better and evaluate (e.g.) what Plato said and argued for.
2. The use of some tools, and principles, of analytic philosophy to read some ancient texts, on the supposition that the former are continuous with the philosophical project found in the latter.
3. Taking for granted some project which is motivated solely from within analytic philosophy (say, logicism, or specifically scientific reductionism or naturalism), and then looking to ancient philosophy for inspiration or assistance as regards the advancement of that project.
1. cannot be faulted, if accomplished with suitable sensitivity, except for being incomplete. (Yet this would not be an incompleteness that could be made up for with an 'interpretation'). 2. is perfectly respectable where the supposed continuity actually holds. Only 3. looks as if it is aiming at something analogous to a 'feminist' or 'psychoanalytic' interpretation; but 3., I take it, represents only a small slice of work in ancient philosophy over the last 50 years.

Admittedly a residual concern is false consciousness--someone thinks and claims he is making clear (e.g.) what Plato said and argued for, but, because he does not know himself, he has actually gotten that wrong and is, rather, advancing some 'interpretation'. And then, precisely because he thinks that he is neutral, and everyone else is offering a biased 'interpretation', he dominates the field and unfairly excludes others.

But I don't see that there is any remedy for that sort of problem except: extreme care in reading texts; good scholarship (as that has always been understood); wide reading; historical senstivity; and --very important--a willingness to be changed through an encounter with an ancient text.

But if we place all of these things first, as apparently we should, wouldn't this be (again) to favor above all 'rigor, creativity, and independence', and let diversity fall where it may?


Jason_Pappas said...

My first response to reading their mission statement was to ask: do they not support Aristotelian and Platonic interpretations of Ancient Philosophy?

Anonymous said...

Michael, I'm largely in agreement with your comments. But I suspect they wouldn't impress the hypothetical APS missionary: he/she/it likely accepts, more or less explicitly, some version of the Nietzschean thesis that there are no facts, only interpretations. Thus the project of explaining what Plato said and argued for would be of no more (or less) interest than any other project relating to Plato. And, by perspectivist lights, diversity would naturally be a -- maybe the -- virtue.

Michael Pakaluk said...


The obvious rejoinder to such a view is that we could not distinguish the various 'interpretations' unless we were able to grasp what Heidegger, Freud, Kraemer, et al. separately said and argued for.


David said...


In the process of arguing for a position which is neutral viz. any specific school of interpretation you tip your own hand with regards to your own presuppositions about Plato. While I'm certainly in agreement with you that we should pay more attention to Plato and less attention to what "X" community of scholars thinks about Plato, your answer illustrates the near impossibility of this within what is essentially a guild. The APS's mission statement just sounds like it wants to be a clearing house of sorts for the inevitable plethora of scholarly opinions the way Blockbuster wants to be a clearing house for the inevitable proliferation of romantic comedies.