The Interdisciplinary Nature of Ancient Philosophy
There is, then, a balance that must be struck between doing history and doing philosophy. But ancient philosophy is not only an episode in the history of philosophy; it is also part of the culture of the classical world and so also part of the study of Classics. It is, I hope, generally agreed that the best contemporary research in ancient philosophy is interdisciplinary, by which I mean that it is sensitive to both classical and philosophical questions, and draws upon the resources of both disciplines. Should ancient philosophy teaching also be interdisciplinary? Should philosophy students bother themselves with information about a thinkers historical and cultural context? Should they be made aware of textual problems such as variant readings in different manuscripts or the processes by which texts have been transmitted from antiquity? Or should they read modern translations of Aristotle in plain wrappers, so to speak, as if they are no different to the works of, say, Kant or Davidson? I suspect that some philosophers will prefer this latter approach, focusing as it does solely upon the philosophical arguments of an ancient author and free from the risk of falling into either a sterile history of who said what when or a painstaking philological analysis that is unable to see the wood for the trees.
However, the principal problem with such an approach is that it will tend to assess ancient philosophical ideas and arguments from a modern perspective. It will apply current criteria regarding what should and should not be considered philosophical. It will be unlikely to pay attention to the way in which philosophy was conceived in antiquity and how ancient conceptions of philosophy might differ from our own. For instance, the Stoic philosopher Euphrates of Tyre does not appear to have produced any original ideas of his own and yet was praised by his contemporaries as one of the most famous philosophers of his day. By modern standards he is of slight philosophical standing, but he was clearly assessed according to quite different standards in antiquity. Euphrates is a particularly obscure example, but the general point is worth bearing in mind, especially when considering the role played by the schools in ancient philosophy. In sum, one needs to pay attention to the cultural and intellectual context in which ancient philosophical texts were produced. Is it fair to dismiss Cicero as a serious philosopher in his own right because he did not create his own philosophical system comparable to that of Plato? Was this ever Ciceros intention? Would that have been part of what it meant to be a philosopher at the time that Cicero wrote? I do not want to claim definitive answers to these questions, but I do want to suggest that these sorts of questions should be addressed. In order to do this one must pay attention to more than simply the modern arguments that can be extracted from the surviving philosophical texts.
As well as ancient conceptions of philosophy, one must also be sensitive to wider issues relating to ancient culture that are properly the domain of the Classicist. Some teachers of the history of modern philosophy have acknowledged that it is necessary to pay attention to the historical context within which philosophical ideas were formed. This is even more important when teaching ancient philosophy given the greater temporal and cultural distance that exists between the subject matter and modern readers. In particular, Hollibert Phillips has suggested that while it may be legitimate for more advanced courses to focus upon a close reading of a text and a careful analysis of its arguments, in an introductory course it may be equally legitimate to pay due attention to the cultural context in which the philosophical material under discussion was produced.
Beyond such cultural and historical issues, there are also philological matters that should be taken into account. Students needs to be made aware of the nature of the texts with which they are dealing and the processes by which they have come down to modern readers. In an appendix to the volume Philosophie grecque entitled Ce quil faut savoir avant daborder létude de la pensée antique (What it is necessary to know before one begins the study of ancient thought), Monique Canto-Sperber and Luc Brisson outline a whole range of textual issues of which they suggest the student of ancient philosophy should be aware. These include the circulation of texts in antiquity, papyrology, doxography, the medieval transmission of manuscripts, the evaluation of variant readings, and a beginners guide to understanding the typical critical apparatus that one might find in an Oxford, Teubner, or Budé text. Although there is clearly room for debate concerning just how soon such issues should be introduced to students, I take it that it is generally agreed that a familiarity with all of these issues is essential to more advanced study (i.e. at doctoral level). As Étienne Gilson has commented, before one can assess the value of the philosophical arguments of a pre-modern author, one must first determine what that author actually wrote, which are the best manuscripts, which are the most probable textual readings, and what the author is most likely to have meant by what they wrote. Only then can the philosophical conversation begin. While undergraduate students of philosophy are hardly to be expected to undertake such philological work themselves, they should at least be made aware of the necessity and value of such work.
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