20 February 2008

Presocratics Commentary in an Introductory Course

I have an idea for two regular features on this blog: (1) a translation quiz or workshop, and (2) a periodic workshop about teaching. The translation quiz might pose a Greek text and sample translation, and then solicit comments for changes or improvements (and, really, anyone might propose these for us, not simply myself). The teaching workshop would raise a question about teaching and solicit views.

For instance, as regards (2), here's a question about teaching the so-called presocratics. Some professors assign only collections which have no commentary (Freeman's Ancilla) or minimal commentary (Barnes' Penguin volume), preferring to give their own. But others like to assign a secondary source which in any case gives an alternative commentary.

I usually count myself in this second camp. Now my question is: Which secondary work offering a commentary, or historical narrative, do you think is best? If only one such commentary were to be required reading in a unit on the presocratics in an introductory course in ancient philosophy, which should that be? (Assume that if the commentary does not itself contain the testimonia and fragments, as e.g. McKirahan does in his Philosophy before Socrates, then these would otherwise be somehow made available to the students.)

In the past I've used McKirahan, Hussey, and Waterfield's congenial The First Philosophers in that role. But recently I've been looking at James Warren, Presocratics: Natural Philosophers before Socrates (U Cal Press, 2007), which I'm now thinking may be the best of the lot. It is brief, accessible, clear, comprehensive in its way, and to my mind shows good judgment.

But what's your view? No need to answer the question in the terms set: thinking outside the box is welcome.


Anonymous said...

David Furley, The Greek Cosmologists

Anonymous said...

Pardon the non sequitor. Do you know where in the Republic Socrates talks about the speculators, those too weak to do real work?

Anonymous said...

Rep II 371C (not speculators but retailers)

mr. maurer said...

Thank you

Mason Marshall said...

For whatever it's worth: I hope (1) and (2) do become regular features on Dissoi Blogoi.

Anonymous said...

My opinion is that it's best to dispense with the available commentaries and force students to come to grips with the fragments (at least the most important of them) on their own. Making one or another commentary required reading, I think, gives the impression that it's fairly clear how the fragments are to be interpreted (even if the commentator goes out of her/his way to say that it isn't so clear and/or discusses alternate interpretations). Also it places an unnecessary obstacle between students and the philosophers in quesiton. Of course, without requiring a commentary, the teacher will have to provide a little background and commentary of her/his own, but this, I find, is far better than making students read and (try to) understand what some other teacher or scholar said about these philosophers. This approach allows for more creative thinking about the fragments. Then again, if one is interested in quick sketchy "surveys" of what these philosophers are supposed to have said, one may as well require them to read some modern commentary - and, while one is at it, one may as well dispense with the fragments themselves. But this can hardly pass for an education in Presocratic philosophy.