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.


  1. Very interesting post! It seems to me as well that there is a certain disconnect between classicists and more straightforward philosophers (though I would add that this is just one of _many_ such disconnects, both between philosophers and related fields and between different philosophical camps -- such disconnects are, both sociologically and epistemically, quite interesting, I think).

    How one approaches a text depends to a large extent, it seems to me, on one's purpose in doing so. Purely exegetical work in the philological tradition represents one sort of interest one might take in a text; but that interest, in itself, is quite far removed from a _philosophical_ interest in the text. As you suggest, the two approaches can -- and perhaps, when working in the history of philosophy, should -- complement each other. But they are separate interests.

    In my view, for what it's worth, purely exegetical work has limited value in itself. On the one hand, it take on a sort of fetishistic quality, the idle play and manipulation of symbols. On the other hand, given any reasonably rich and interesting philosophical text, there simply is no single correct interpretation of that text, no matter how much one loads one's interpretation with 'historical' or 'biographical context.' Interpretations inevitably foreground some elements while backgrounding others. Dominant interpretations 'stabilize' discussion of a text around a particular background/foreground alignment; but inevitably, it seems, the next generation comes along, rearranges the alignment, and declares, "See, see?! _This_ is what the text is _really_ about!" And lo, a new interpretive 'tradition' is born.

    But in all this aligning and realigning, where's the text itself? At the risk of inviting scorn and derision upon myself, I'm inclined to say that rich philosophical texts in particular are deeply elusive, unstable, their shape contorting to fit the hermeneutic spectacles through which any given tradition views them. As long as we persist in thinking that our accounts of these sorts of texts are capable of definitiveness (in the sense of answering directly to the text itself), then the dizzying array of interpretive roads taken can be explained only by the stupidity, recalcitrance, or ignorance of those who hold contrary views -- and the history of attempts to adjudicate differing interpretations makes the first option, stupidity, the only really convincing one.

    These problems disappear, or at least dissipate somewhat, if we choose instead to view our interpretations as something like _tools_. We look to texts with more or less specific interests; we want to get something out of the texts (even if only 'the text itself'). The adequacy and interest of an interpretation would then depend both on its relation to the text and on its ability to serve the purposes for which it was queried. Now, of course, if the purpose was to uncover 'the text itself' (or the 'meaning of the text itself'), then we're caught in a circle, where 'interpretation' and 'purpose' form a sort of feedback loop. Call it (somewhat clumsily) 'the myth of the purposeless interpretation.' It involves the denial that one's interpretation is shaped by some purpose, even if that 'purpose' does not point beyond the text itself.

    I think this view can accommodate a division of labor. It isn't that those who interpret and those who do something extra-textual with that interpretation need be the same people. The moral is rather that even the work of the strictest classicist ought to be seen -- or ought to see itself -- as serving an ongoing, living tradition of philosophical thought.

  2. It is indeed true that this kind of disconnection can also be found elsewhere. I’m currently working on the epistemology of disagreement and I’ve realized that the discussion of disagreement in metaethics is not taken into consideration, which is unfortunate because the two camps could learn much from each other.

    I’m well aware that the two approaches to which I refer in my post represent separate interests. My intention is not to criticize people with an exclusively exegetical interest—that would be silly because one can have whatever interests one wants. But it does seem to me that one should be careful not to mix things up: if one’s interest is exclusively exegetical or historical or doxographical, then one “should” refrain from claiming that one is a philosopher or that one is doing philosophy. (A caveat: I’m not claiming that I’m a philosopher or that I can do good philosophy.)

    I agree that it seems to be naïve to believe that there is only one objectively correct interpretation of any given text, that one can be entirely neutral. To use the language of philosophers of science: any analysis of textual evidence seems to be ineliminably theory-laden. The situation gets worse when one reads a text written in a language that is not one’s own, and particularly so in the case of ancient languages. I therefore think that your question “Where’s the text itself?” is key. This said, it seems to me that the text is even farther away when one completely ignores historical facts or have no knowledge of the original language, simply because one is just ignoring relevant information. I mean, if one is interested in philosophical thought in abstracto, then that would be acceptable: one wants to discuss ideas, problems, and arguments, and it’s irrelevant whether the author intended to say what one is saying. The problem arises when one intends to ascribe to the author a given view, because in that case one will make silly mistakes by ignoring certain pieces of information. But it must also be borne in mind that in at least some cases one might miss something philosophically crucial by not considering the historical context. Think of the dialectical argumentative strategies used by the ancient skeptics: sometimes the skeptical author makes it clear that he is arguing dialectically, but sometimes one needs to know a little bit about the views of his rivals to realize that he is doing so.

  3. Hello, Charles Collingwood here,

    One can, Greek/English dictionary in hand, always make a literal word for word translation.
    But there is still the problem of further interpreting the words. The world "Logos" for instance can refer to a few things, related but not synonymous. And then one must interpret the words of the interpretation and so on. In trying to banish the ambiguity of terms, it all becomes quite circular.
    And, we may not know truly the associations, the full meaning, that terms had in the context of Greece twenty-five centuries ago; assumption and speculation play a part in our modern understanding.
    On the whole it is not a very solid undertaking.
    We at least have, we think, enough expertise now to eliminate egregious errors---such as lead to turning Moses' beams of light in the Old Testament --into horns.

  4. I do get your point: I remember making similar considerations more than eight years ago while having lunch with two ancient philosophy scholars in Fribourg. They believed my view was too radical, as radical as yours. This said, I think that people who have studied ancient languages may become aware of this, whereas contemporary analytic philosophers usually believe that it's enough to read a good translation to understand what an ancient author meant. In addition, as you say, ancient philosophy scholars are much less liable to make gross mistakes.