Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to Approach Ancient Philosophy

In my last post of the year, I’d like to write about some discussions about ancient philosophy I had with both classicists and epistemologists during my short stay in the US a couple of months ago. But before doing so, let me wish you all a great new year.

In my discussion with classicists, I argued that scholars of ancient philosophy should examine the problems addressed by the authors they study and not merely carry out a philological analysis or comment on the texts or write paraphrases of the texts. Actually, I shouldn’t say “should” because I’m not making a normative claim, but I do think that, if you’re in the business of philosophy, or even the history of philosophy, it may be natural to expect some kind of discussion of philosophical problems. The best examples of this approach in the field of ancient skepticism are Barnes, Burnyeat, and Frede. But most of the time one finds specialists in, e.g., Neoplatonism or Presocratic thought who affirm that the views of the thinkers they study are philosophically important, but are unable to explain what the hell those thinkers are talking about. They only aim at figuring out the internal logic of each system, as it were. But then what they do actually amounts to studying the rules of a game. In a post from more than three years ago, I made similar remarks regarding a workshop on Neoplatonism I attended in Fribourg. Regarding Presocratic philosophy, we’re faced with another problem: can you really spend thirty years studying the philosophy of, e.g., Parmenides or Heraclitus and write several books on the subject? Well, of course you can: I know a couple of people who have done so. I’m not denying that you can get somehow “inspired” by the few extant fragments of a Presocratic and write a book about your own philosophical outlook, but only calling into question that you can find out what Thales, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, or Heraclitus really meant. I may be wrong, though, because despite the fact that so far I’ve mainly worked on ancient skepticism, I’m clearly not an ancient philosophy scholar in the strict sense of the term, and I work as much as I can in contemporary metaethics and epistemology—although I’m not a metaethicist or an epistemologist either.

On the other hand, when talking with epistemologists about ancient philosophy, I was told that knowledge of Greek (or Latin) isn’t necessary to do excellent work in this area. For my part, I argued that, even though this may be true to some extent, they underestimated how useful, and necessary, it is to have some knowledge of those languages. As it is usually pointed out, any translation involves interpretation and it is therefore useful to be able to take a look at the original text when reading a translation. This gives you more independence: otherwise, your interpretation will fully depend on the translator’s interpretation. I was told that there are nowadays excellent, authoritative translations of most ancient works, so one can entirely rely on them. But the problem is that, in many cases, there are several good translations and they don’t agree on certain key points. But even in cases where there’s only one translation, one is still relying on an interpretation with which one would perhaps disagree if one could read the original text. Moreover, thinking about my own work on Sextus Empiricus, some of my views on specific questions were based on my interpretation of the Greek text, and such views have had a significant impact on my overall picture of Sextan Pyrrhonism. Thus, knowing some Greek has in the end contributed to forming a specific picture of Pyrrhonism as a philosophical outlook—an outlook to which I’m extremely sympathetic. I now also remember that, last year, I read a paper by an epistemologist for a volume I edited in which he dealt with Agrippan Pyrrhonism. He used a translation, so I took a look at the Greek passages and found out that the original Greek was closer to his own view than the translation and that, therefore, there were fewer differences between him and Sextus than he had thought.

Now, what was amusing was that in these discussions I was accused of opposite sins. The classicists argued that I was some kind of narrow-minded analytic philosopher utterly ignorant of the fact that, in order to properly study ancient philosophy, it is key to know the historical context and to be able to read some Greek or Latin. For their part, the epistemologists believed that I didn’t realize that, as philosophers or historians of philosophy, we are supposed to think about the problems and arguments found in the ancient texts. I respect both views and think they are perfectly compatible. However, I perceive a considerable degree of blindness and stubbornness in the two camps, which entails that most of the time they talk past each other—if they talk at all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Skepticism about Moral Expertise

Sarah McGrath (Princeton) recently published "Skepticism about Moral Expertise as a Puzzle for Moral Realism," Journal of Philosophy 108 (2011): 111-137. The paper can be found here. It can also be found on Philosophy Documentation Center's website.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

SSS APA Session

Here's the information about the session that the Society for Skeptical Studies will hold at the Eastern division meeting of the APA (thanks to Richard Greene for the info):

Wednesday, Dec. 28th. GV-10. 5:15-7:15 p.m.


Patrick Hawley (Hong Kong University)


Otávio Bueno (University of Miami): “Skepticism and Externalism: Still in Tension.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Skeptical Theism

A couple of years ago, Trent Dougherty (Baylor) published “Epistemological Considerations Concerning  Skeptical Theism,” Faith and Philosophy 25 (2008): 172-6. The latest issue of the journal features a paper by Jonathan Matheson (North Florida), “Epistemological Considerations Concerning Skeptical Theism: A Response to Dougherty,” Faith and Philosophy 28 (2011): 323-31, together with Dougherty's “Further Epistemological Considerations Concerning Skeptical Theism.” The papers can be found here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Religious Epistemology

I've just found out about this forthcoming volume on religious epistemology:

D. Lukasiewitcz & R. Pouivet (eds.), The Right to Believe: Perspectives in Religious Epistemology. (Ontos, 2012). Information about the book can be found here.

I imagine that several papers discuss skepticism; at least this one definitely does: "Scepticism and Religious Belief: The Case of Sextus Empiricus," by Renata Zieminska.

PS: Another paper dealing with skepticism is Fabien Schang's "Believing the Self-Contradictory."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Problem of the Criterion

The special issue of Philosophical Papers devoted to the problem of the criterion has finally been published. As expected, most of the pieces deal with skepticism. The issue can be found here.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Priori Skepticism

The latest issue of PPR features the article "A Priori Skepticism" by James Beebe (Buffalo). It can be found here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Second Issue Skepticism Journal

I'm glad to announce that the second issue of the International Journal for the Study of Skepticism is now out. You can check it out here. Among other things, this issue features a symposium on Ernest Sosa's Reflective Knowledge, with contributions by John Greco, Richard Fumerton, Michael Williams, and Sosa himself.