Sunday, May 18, 2008

Neoplatonism and the History of Philosophy

Last week, from Tuesday 13 till Friday 16, there was at the University of Fribourg a conference on Proclus' Elementatio Theologica and on the Liber de Causis. More precisely, in the morning, Philippe Hoffmann and Cristina d'Ancona Costa offered a detailed analysis of those texts and, in the afternoon, PhD students from Fribourg, Lausanne, and Genève delivered papers on their areas of research. Now, the two key speakers discussed different Neoplatonic theories and these discussions made me think about a couple of things. First, I couldn't help thinking that a Pyrrhonist could have had found, in those metaphysical doctrines, a lot of material to which he could have applied his argumentative weapons very easily.

My second remark refers to something which is not new at all. At the end of the conference, I dared to say something for the first time. I told the two key speakers that, as far as I could see, their analyses had been brilliant from a historical and philological point of view and that their knowledge of the texts was impressive. That said, I asked them if they could say something, from a strictly philosophical point of view, about the doctrines or theories expounded in the texts they had examined. In other words, I asked them if they could tell me something about the epistemic status, as it were, of the theories they had discussed. Of course, I didn't get an answer to my question. My question was in fact very simple given that the event had been organized by a philosophy department. I mean, it should be the question that anyone working in the field of philosophy should ask. Note that I'm not saying that I myself can think philosophically, since I believe that most of the things I've ever written are more historical than systematic. But at least I don't lie to myself by saying that I'm doing real philosophy. However, during the conference I did hear the word "philosophical" and its cognates so many times that I was kind of upset. Of course, this leads to the question about the status of the history of philosophy. My own view is just that one of the main (if not the main) functions of this discipline is the discussion of problems: either to see what others had to say about a problem one is currently thinking about or to be aware of philosophical problems one hasn't thought of yet. I think that good examples of this kind of approach may be Jonathan Barnes, Michael Frede, Myles Burnyeat and, perhaps, Ernest Sosa.

An objection I've often heard is that one becomes less rigurous when one approaches past philosophical systems that way. This is a huge mistake. If one bears in mind the methodological distinction between analyzing a text or a system and discussing a problem, there should be no methodological problem. I mean, I can't stand those scholars who attribute to Parmenides or Heraclitus doctrines expounded in their 800-page books. They should say: reading those Presocratics makes me think about certain things so I construct a given philosophical theory. But insofar as one keeps the distinction in place, one is allowed to discuss or "dialogue" with past philosophers.

No comments:

Post a Comment