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Philosophy and the Historical Perspective$

Marcel van Ackeren

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266298

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266298.001.0001

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The Liaison between Analytic and Ancient Philosophy and Its Consequences

The Liaison between Analytic and Ancient Philosophy and Its Consequences

(p.120) 8 The Liaison between Analytic and Ancient Philosophy and Its Consequences
Philosophy and the Historical Perspective

Christof Rapp

, Marcel van Ackeren, Lee Klein
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Is it reasonable to expect that the occupation with history of philosophy contributes to our contemporary philosophical debate? The scholarship on ancient philosophy seems to be a paradigm case for the discussion of this kind of question. In the 1950s and 1960s, philosophers and scholars such as John L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, G.E.L. Owen, John Ackrill and Gregory Vlastos initiated a new style of scholarship that was influenced by analytic philosophy. This analytic style of ancient philosophy scholarship encouraged philosophers to take arguments presented by Plato or Aristotle more seriously and to import ancient ideas into contemporary debates. It was objected that analytic scholars tend to be thematically narrow and to neglect the historical context. By sketching the development of the first two generations of analytic scholarship this chapter tries to show that analytic scholarship need not be anachronistic and that the gain of this method outweighs possible excesses.

Keywords:   history of philosophy, ancient philosophy, analytic philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, anachronistic

8.1. The Philosophical Impact of Ancient Philosophy

IS IT REASONABLE TO EXPECT that the occupation with history of philosophy can contribute to solving problems that characterise our contemporary philosophical debates? If not, what use is the history of philosophy at all—apart from the elucidation of some niche or episode in the history of ideas? And what about the historians of philosophy: Should they confine themselves to shedding a little light on the historical context of a particular past philosopher? Or should they also try to critically assess the theses and arguments put forward by the philosophers they study? Should they, perhaps, even dare to make claims about what is a worthwhile philosophical view and what is not? And if the historians of philosophy actually dare to do so and judge previous philosophers, does this not necessarily involve their own modern concerns, perspectives, and standards? Would they not thus make themselves guilty of anachronism, and would it not be better for a historian of philosophy to take a neutral stance, leaving aside philosophical questions, as well as any preferences and fashionable methods that they happen to have adopted?

Scholarship on ancient philosophy seems to be a paradigm case for the discussion of this set of questions—for several reasons. Most notably, many of the questions that were first raised by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle are still puzzling philosophers of our time; for example, questions concerning the nature and the role of universals or the definition of real knowledge, so that it is hard to imagine how philosophers should sensibly discuss these questions without somehow taking notice of the positions put forward by Plato and Aristotle. And vice versa, it is difficult to imagine philosophically minded historians of philosophy taking pains to work through Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments without any interest in the philosophical significance of these positions and arguments. Further, when we try to understand philosophers from later epochs, we often have to disentangle their own views from the traditions by which they were influenced and to identify the thoughts of previous (p.121) philosophers to which they respond. By contrast, the philosophical impact of many problems and questions presented by the classical ancient philosophers seems to be immediately understandable and appealing—even without any hermeneutical operation: when, for example, Plato demonstrates how his interlocutors get stuck in the attempt to define knowledge, we can—without any historical knowledge about Plato’s predecessors, competitors, or biographical situation—understand what the problems amount to and what kinds of challenges they might present for us if we are to define knowledge. Finally, when we take a look at the philosophical debates of our time and attempt to identify historical positions that still have an impact on these debates, we find that, apart from the impact of the history of early analytic philosophy and from references to Kant and Hegel, ancient philosophers, in particular ancient Greek philosophers from the classical and Hellenistic period, are most frequently referred to. Often, ancient philosophy is invoked as a contrast to or remedy for alleged shortcomings of modern debates; this is, for example, how the still vibrant movement of modern virtue ethics originally came into the world. Similarly, the positions of ancient philosophers are used as paradigms for the elaboration of new theories in an Aristotelian or Stoic or whatever ‘spirit’: the different strands of Aristotelian naturalism, for example, are neither readings of a particular Aristotelian text nor independent theories, but are driven by the attempt to work out a particular Aristotelian intuition or to defend a general Aristotelian approach to ethical questions against modern competitors.1

This presence of such theorems of ancient philosophy in several contemporary debates has, or so I am going to argue, certain antecedents in the development of the scholarship on ancient philosophers in the 20th century. During a certain period and at certain places, important representatives of early analytic philosophy were Plato and Aristotle scholars as well. They contributed to the formation of a certain style of engaging with ancient philosophy that made it particularly easy to import ancient philosophical ideas into modern debates. This particular style of scholarship thus encouraged its adherents to do both: try to provide persuasive readings of an ancient text and to suggest how the claims or arguments put forward by ancient authors could enrich or resolve certain ongoing philosophical debates. Some adherents of this tendency of scholarship even started neglecting the interpretative–exegetical side of this combined activity in order to specialise in voicing the supposedly ancient point of view on contemporary debates and problems. This is the peculiar development that I want to label the ‘liaison between analytic and ancient philosophy’—assuming that a ‘liaison’ is always of limited duration. To my mind, this development has had an impact on scholarship on ancient philosophy up to the present day. It is responsible for the aforementioned presence of theorems of ancient philosophy in certain systematic debates (p.122) and it allows us to draw some conclusions regarding whether this analytic style of doing history of philosophy can and should still be upheld, whether it leads to unwelcome consequences such as anachronism or selective perception of the history of philosophy, and so on.

8.2. The ‘Heroic’ Period

The development I wish to unfold originates from the philosophy that was practised most notably in Oxford in the 1950s and 1960s.2 Hence, I will take up the thread of my story where it all started, in the Oxford of these decades. Oxford has a long-standing tradition of philosophers who undertook substantial work on Plato or Aristotle or, vice versa, Plato and Aristotle scholars who were at the same time renowned for their own philosophical theses.3 John Cook Wilson (1849–1915), to begin with, was an influential Oxford philosopher who took a stance on many philosophical debates of his time, but also contributed to classics journals on a regular basis.4 His studies on Plato and Aristotle are still mentioned, for example, in the scholarly work on Plato’s Timaeus5 and on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.6 William David Ross (1877–1971), to mention another example, is equally famous for his editions of Aristotle’s works for the Oxford Classical Text series (he edited, for example, Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, De Anima, Parva Naturalia, Politics, Prior and Posterior Analytics, and Rhetoric), and for his contributions to intuitionist ethics. Another famous ethical intuitionist from Oxford, Harold Arthur Prichard (1871–1947), also became involved in the interpretation of Aristotle’s ethics.7 Practising the history of philosophy as well as philosophy is, however, not yet the same as practising the history of philosophy philosophically.8 This latter development was initiated by some of the most eminent philosophers from Oxford in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) and John Langshaw Austin (1911–1960), who were not only influenced by Greek philosophy, but also had a substantial scholarly interest in the interpretation of such philosophers’ work. At Saturday Mornings, a philosophical discussion group run by Austin, (p.123) Austin displayed a perfect familiarity with the work of Aristotle.9 Indeed, some of the main philosophical ideas Austin is famous for seem to be either inspired by, or at least congenial to, Aristotle’s writings.10 It is tempting, for example, to draw a parallel between Austin’s ordinary language approach to philosophy and Aristotle’s method of first looking at the different senses in which a term is commonly used.11 In his essay ‘The Meaning of a Word’,12 for example, Austin draws on Aristotle’s notion of homonymy and paronymy. Similarly, some of his ideas about the voluntariness of actions seem to be close to those found in the third book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, he says that it was Aristotle who elicited his interest in excuses.13

Austin also initiated the Clarendon Aristotle series, a series of translations of Aristotle’s works; the commentaries in this series, especially the early ones, clearly deviate from the traditional style of scholarly commentary in that they were meant to make the ideas and arguments of Aristotle accessible to beginners and philosophers without any knowledge of ancient Greek. Despite Austin’s untimely passing before the first volume of the series was published the blurbs on some of the earlier published volumes explicitly refer to his original idea that ‘Aristotle’s philosophical writings were not sufficiently exploited by contemporary philosophers and that a new series … would help to remedy this.’14 This purpose of the series seems to conform to what a close friend described as Austin’s own attitude to the history of philosophy: ‘His primary aim was not to impart detailed knowledge about a text, but straightforwardly to expound its philosophical argument in the hope of extracting illumination from it.’15

The initial aim of the Clarendon Aristotle series, together with the previous quotation, indicate an attitude to ancient philosophers that is not primarily interested in their historical context, but rather takes it to be worthwhile to engage with their theses and arguments just as one would with the arguments of important contemporary colleagues. This kind of engagement with ancient texts need not be driven by the expectation that the ideas of ancient thinkers can immediately be adopted by modern theories; it suffices to think that the questions raised and the problems posed by ancient philosophers are, in principle, such that philosophers of today can still see the challenges contained in these thoughts and will be provoked to deal with them.

(p.124) A similar attitude to ancient texts is displayed in one of Gilbert Ryle’s remarks from the end of his long and detailed paper on Plato’s Parmenides (Ryle 1939: 325). He concludes by saying:

Thus I may be wrong in believing that there are affinities between Plato’s enquiries in these dialogues and Hume’s and Kant’s account of assertions of existence, Kant’s account of forms of judgement and categories, Russell’s doctrine of propositional functions and theory of types, and, perhaps, more than any other, nearly the whole of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I may be wrong in construing these dialogues as, so to speak, forecasting most of the logical embarrassments into which the infinitely courageous and pertinacious Meinong was to fall. But at least my error, if it is one, does not imply that Plato’s puzzles were so factitious or ephemeral that no other serious philosopher has ever experienced any perplexity about them.

Ryle, just like Austin, seems to be a philosopher who was influenced by ancient ideas in many respects. In his influential The Concept of Mind he explicitly refers to Plato and Aristotle in order to show that one can have an account of human conduct without using the ‘operations of will’ from the Cartesian tradition.16 Ryle’s views on dispositions and on the ‘category mistake’ seem to have a noticeably Aristotelian flavour; and his enquiry into Aristotle’s categories has the clear purpose of clarifying the notion of types and the origin of type puzzles.17 At the same time, Ryle showed a substantial scholarly interest in ancient philosophy, for example, in the history of dialectic in Plato’s Academy.18 In the quoted passage from his article on Plato’s Parmenides, Ryle indicates that in this article he was not ultimately interested in a historically adequate reconstruction of the Platonic dialogue. He concedes that his attempt to read Plato’s efforts in the light of later thinkers, such as Hume, Kant, Russell, and Meinong, might have been, to some extent, mistaken, but he seems to insist that his peculiar approach to Plato has revealed that the latter’s puzzles are apt to perplex philosophers of later generations. The implication of this seems to be that he prefers a method that tends to be anachronistic in the sense of confronting Plato with Russell and Meinong, to a method that tries to be more faithful to historical circumstances, but finally renders the ancient puzzles either factitious or ephemeral.

One can take this as a programmatic sketch of a non-historical, non-scholarly, but philosophical method of dealing with ancient philosophical texts. According to this method, the ultimate goal of our occupation with ancient philosophy is to bring to light those arguments and puzzles concealed in ancient texts whose philosophical significance is immediately appealing either to philosophers of all times or, at least, is apt to bring contemporary philosophers into dialogue with these texts. One might admit that, in order to make one’s way through these ancient texts, one must have a certain amount of historical knowledge and scholarly skills, but according to the philosophical approach to ancient texts, all these exegetical (p.125) efforts and pains should be endured for the sake of expounding, in particular, those ideas, puzzles, questions, and solutions that are apt to deepen our own philosophical understanding. Obviously, this method did not simply aim to advocate or defend positions held by ancient philosophers; the idea is rather that philosophers let themselves be inspired by certain ancient puzzles or arguments—even if it turns out that the solutions envisaged by Plato or Aristotle themselves are not satisfying. Also, within the history of philosophy there were many episodes in which post-ancient philosophers became Platonists, Aristotelians, or Epicureans by accepting, as far as possible, a Platonic, Aristotelian, or Epicurean world view as a whole, whereas here we are speaking of the reassessment of particular, some-times even marginal, puzzles and arguments. Finally, the philosophical method, as articulated and practised by the aforementioned philosophers, is not meant to renounce the insights and results of the historical–critical scholarship on ancient philosophy and to return to an uncritical appropriation of ideas of the past. As I see it, this method rather, on the one side, presupposes the results of previous scholars, their historical insights, the critical editions they provided, and so on, while, on the other side, focusing on the philosophically salient implications of the ancient texts.

8.3. Philosophically Oriented Scholarship

If one considers the list of philosophers who worked with Austin and Ryle at this time, either as peers or as their students, one can find a significant number of people who became famous as systematic philosophers, but always retained a vital interest in the discussion of Plato and Aristotle, or even took important inspirations for their own philosophical theories from readings of past philosophers. This is true, though in quite different ways, of, among others, Paul Grice, Peter F. Strawson, David Pears, and Bernard Williams. In a similar way, Elizabeth Anscombe clearly continued the Wittgensteinian approach to philosophy, but at the same time often drew on Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, for example in her main work Intention (1957). Interestingly, Austin’s and Ryle’s general attitude to ancient philosophy was also adopted by the scholarly side of the liaison between analytic and ancient philosophy. Most notably, G. E. L. (Gwilym Ellis Lane) Owen (1922–1982) and John Lloyd Ackrill (1921–2007), slightly younger than Austin and Ryle, but teaching ancient philosophy at Oxford around the same time, helped introduce an analytically minded style into the scholarship on ancient philosophy.

Owen taught at Oxford from 1953 to 1966, first as Lecturer, then as Reader, and finally as Professor of Ancient Philosophy. In 1966 he moved to Harvard University and finally returned to Europe in 1973, when he became Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Classics at Cambridge.19 He thus taught students on two different continents, among them people who afterwards became (p.126) most distinguished scholars and philosophers, such as Julia Annas, Jonathan Barnes, Myles Burnyeat, John M. Cooper, Terence Irwin, Gail Fine, Michael Frede, Martha C. Nussbaum, Malcolm Schofield, and Richard Sorabji. In the Festschrift delivered in honour of his sixtieth birthday in 1982, the editors wrote that his ‘influence on the development of the study of Greek philosophy in the last 30 years is second to none’.20 And they characterise this recent development of scholarly study of ancient texts as having become ‘much more a first-order philosophical activity than it was in the first half of the century’, without, however, ‘losing in historical scrupulousness or historical imagination’.21 Taken together, Owen’s papers22 ‘established a new way of writing about ancient philosophy, and a demonstration for a new era in contemporary philosophy of the power of Plato and Aristotle as thinkers’.23 Indeed, many of Owen’s articles focused on topics and defended theses that, although triggered by exegetical problems, had a somehow contemporary flavour. In general, Owen was influenced by John L. Austin’s and Bertrand Russell’s philosophy. His interest in Russell’s paradox, for example, apparently manifests itself in his enthusiasm for problems concerning Plato’s theory of Forms and the third man argument. In his seminal article ‘Tithenai ta phainomena’, to mention another example, he argued that the phainomena mentioned in a famous methodological passage from Nicomachean Ethics 7.2 include things that are said (legomena) and reputable views (endoxa).24 Now if, as Owen argues, Aristotle’s philosophical method often concerns this non-perceptual sort of phainomenon, many of the questions posed, for example, in his Physics turn out to be ‘conceptual puzzles’,25 which—in the ears of the (ordinary language) philosophers of the 1960s—may have sounded quite familiar. Similarly influential were Owen’s ideas about how Aristotle developed a conceptual tool for dealing with the various meanings of ‘being’; Owen characterises a relation that Aristotle used to call pros hen (‘with a view to one’) as a case of ‘focal meaning’, thus rendering Aristotle’s theorem as a rather semantic manoeuvre.

Although there was some professional rivalry between Owen and Ackrill, and although their students describe them as exemplifying quite different types of personality, the latter essentially contributed to the same development with which Owen is associated. In 1953, Ackrill became a Tutorial Fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford,26 and in 1966 he accepted the Oxford Professorship of the History of Philosophy, which he held until his retirement in 1989.27 Among his students were David Bostock, David Charles, Lindsay Judson, Richard Sorabji, C. C. W. Taylor, David Wiggins, Michael Woods, and others. Ackrill ‘did not attempt to (p.127) advance any large theses or to construct synoptic surveys of past philosophers, preferring to proceed by scrupulously exact and detailed dissection of specific questions, which not infrequently threw light on major issues’.28 This is, indeed, the method displayed in Ackrill’s righteously famous, brief and snappy articles on Plato and Aristotle.29 Lindsay Judson characterises the style of scholarship that he helped to introduce as a ‘careful and sensitive exegesis of philosophical texts’ that must go ‘hand in hand with rigorous and sophisticated philosophical analysis’.30 Judson also contrasts Ackrill’s style with the practice, more common at the time, of approaching the ancient thinkers with ‘kid gloves’:31 Ackrill practised a gloves-off approach to Plato and Aristotle, often exposing difficulties and problems within their texts. This is true, most notably, of his text on Plato’s Sophist, ‘Sumplokê Eidōn’, where he shows that the Eleatic Stranger’s remark that ‘it is because of the interweaving of Forms with one another that we come to have discourse’ (259e) is actually refuted by the examples that the Stranger uses a little later. And it is true of ‘Aristotle’s Definition of Psyche’, in which Ackrill argues that Aristotle’s claim that the soul is the form of a natural organic body leads to an inconsistency with some other theorems about the relation between matter and form. In ‘Aristotle’s Distinction between Energeia and Kinēsis’, he actually says: ‘This essay is primarily aporetic and destructive. Some of the relevant passages are examined, and some difficulties are raised. The aim is to stimulate not to close discussion of the problems.’32 When he took over the editorship of the Clarendon Aristotle series from Austin, he himself contributed the volume on Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione (first published in 1963). Both treatises were of special interest at this time, the latter because of its logical–semantical theme, the former for its exposure of an ontology that essentially rests on the subject–predicate structure of declarative sentences—an idea quite congenial to Peter F. Strawson’s Individuals (1959). Owen’s rejoinder to Ackrill’s interpretation of inherence, the peculiar relation through which accidental properties are related to their bearer or substrate, initiated an almost epic scholarly debate, which indicates a confidence at this time that traditional readings of ancient texts could now be overcome by more and more rigorous analysis of the pertinent arguments.

Oxford of the 1950s and 1960s certainly provided an ideal background for the development of a new style of dealing with ancient philosophy (the inclusion of Plato and Aristotle in the mandatory readings, the influence of Wittgenstein’s students, etc.), but there were similar developments elsewhere. Most notably, Gregory Vlastos (1907–1992), born into the Greek community in Istanbul who emigrated to the United States and took a PhD in philosophy from Harvard under the supervision of Alfred North Whitehead, had a similar impact on the North (p.128) American scene.33 Before he became a professor at Princeton University, he spent some years (from 1948 to 1955) at Cornell, where he was a colleague of Max Black and Norman Malcom, the American spearhead of Wittgensteinian philosophy. He became famous for his sober reconstruction of what he took to be the Socratic method, as well as for his rigid treatment of Plato’s third man argument. Also, Vlastos was one of the first to engage with the argumentative structure in the fragments of Eleatic philosophy, thus reading, for example, Zeno of Elea in the light of modern mathematical accounts of infinity. Dealing with some arguments in Plato that he found problematic he once wrote: ‘Great stylist though he was, Plato could still produce a composition whose thought is so muddy. The measure of its unclarity can be taken from the variety of interpretations that have been put on it over the years by skilled and erudite scholars.’34 For more traditionally minded interpreters of Plato, such remarks, as well as the very idea of accusing Plato of fallacies, were, of course, quite provocative.35

8.4. Concerns, Competing Developments, and Interim Conclusions

The development I have sketched so far was facilitated by certain factors in this particular period of time; however, this development was not just an articulation of a general spirit of the time. On the European continent, by contrast, there were other scholarly traditions prevailing,36 and the new analytic development coming from Great Britain was often met with suspicion and, at times, a lack of understanding. Candidates for professorships who presented themselves as adherents of this recent development were sometimes rejected simply on the grounds that they were ‘too analytic’ or ‘too logical’. Some left their home countries for good and made their careers elsewhere. And there is no need to go as far as the European continent: a few hours by train from Oxford, at the University of Cambridge, the style of ancient philosophy scholarship in these decades was at least as different from that of the new Oxford Aristotelians as it was on the European continent—although Cambridge, due to the presence of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and their students, did become one of the centres of the early analytic movement. In Cambridge, ancient philosophy was accommodated not in the Philosophy Department, but in Classics. And the style in which Cambridge (p.129) classicists dealt with ancient philosophy was essentially influenced by Francis Macdonald Cornford, the Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy between 1930 and 1939, and by the successor of his successor, William Keith Chambers Guthrie, Laurence Professor from 1952 until 1973.37 In his inaugural lecture, Cornford (1931: 7–8) defended the institutional division between philosophy (‘Moral Science’) and classics as follows:

The justification for keeping the ancient and modern departments distinct lies in the different orientation of their respective interests. The students of Moral Science are partly engaged in learning the history of philosophy since Descartes; but it is their privilege to work under men who are themselves philosophers, bent on the advance of thought.

After a brief characterisation of the ‘modern department’, he continues:

Our own department, on the other hand, turns not to the future, but to the past; our study is purely historical … Our whole task is to reconstruct what went on in the minds of men whose very bones were dust when Descartes was born. It must be hard to understand Kant without reading Plato, whom Kant had read; but in certain ways it is easier to understand Plato without reading Kant, whom Plato had not read. (Ibid.: 9)

For an adequate reading of Plato, he seems to suggest, it is an advantage not to have read Kant, apparently because this lack of knowledge of the later tradition relieves us from the burden of abstracting from later ideas when approaching ancient philosophers. And Kant, in this argument, seems to be replaceable by any post-ancient thinker, including contemporary thinkers. In a similar vein, Guthrie, the Cambridge counterpart, as it were, to Owen and Ackrill, wrote:

In Cambridge we generally choose the classical way, seeking to see Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as Greeks … Our efforts are directed rather to reading the authors they had read and mastering the nuances of the language they wrote, and for us the contemporary historical background inevitably occupies the primary place. (1953: 3–4)

Without further discussion of this passage, it seems to be clear that the analytic approach to ancient philosophy did not go unchallenged—not even in the 1950s and 1960s and not even at the major English universities.38 The analytic approach was one option among many at this time and it was met, as already indicated, (p.130) with some amount of repugnance by representatives of the more traditional style of scholarship.

The anti-analytic scholars had a number of considerable objections to make against their analytic colleagues.39 To begin with, it is noteworthy that out of all the schools and periods of ancient philosophy, the early practitioners of the analytic approach focused almost exclusively on the classical period, in particular on Plato and Aristotle.40 Vlastos opened up new perspectives for Socrates as a subject of scholarship, and both Owen and Vlastos discovered Eleatic philosophy as a field for the application of new analytical tools to arguments put forward by Parmenides and Zeno. The early representatives of analytic scholarship were not only selective with regard to ancient authors, but also with regard to themes. The themes they privileged were those that seem to bear some resemblance to topics of contemporary philosophy, or are, at least, approachable using the tools of language analysis or logic: issues of predication, the semantics of ‘beings’, Platonic Forms as types, and the third man problem as an instance of type puzzles, inherence, and the other aforementioned topics. Accordingly, in the first ten or fifteen years of the journal Phronesis, which was founded in the heyday of this new movement, there is barely an issue that did not include at least one article about one of these ‘hot topics’ of the new analytically minded scholarship. Indeed, the obsession with which fallacies and ambiguities encapsulated in the third man problem were discussed became almost emblematic of the thematic restriction of the early years. And the third man problem is telling also with respect to the kind of texts, passages, and problems analytic scholars tended to select, being eager to select particularly challenging arguments above all, while inclined to neglect, for example, the scenic embedding of these arguments in a Platonic dialogue and the myths, similes, and other manoeuvres we often encounter in the texts of ancient philosophers. In the case of Parmenides’ poem for example, which consists of a literary proem, a middle section with the characterisation of to eon, ‘being’, and, finally, a fragmentary section on the views of mortals on cosmic phenomena, the analytic scholar would typically pick the arguments from the middle part, while a classically trained scholar would compare the poem to other texts of the archaic period and try to identify the motifs included in the final part on mortal opinions. More generally, the analytic method was objected to for being ahistorical and neglecting the historical context in which the arguments were put forward. And when scholars from the analytic camp tried to nail down the position of an ancient philosopher by rephrasing their claims in modern terminology, even at times using symbols and formalisations, they were criticised as recklessly anachronistic.

(p.131) Another aspect of the analytic approach’s anti-traditionalist stance has been a source of friction. For an historian of ideas, it goes without saying that the possible range of interpretations of an ancient text or theory is somehow restricted and structured by the milieu, the predecessors, and the readings of commentators and interpreters immediately following that period, whereas an analytic interpreter typically works under the assumption that a close reading of a particular argument is, in principle, sufficient to bring out its flaws or philosophical interest. From a traditionalist point of view, this latter attitude may seem historically uninformed—an objection that probably would not worry the analytic interpreter unduly—and, what is more, extremely immoderate, as a certain degree of humbleness—especially when it comes to the achievements of former thinkers—should be seen as a philosophical virtue.

Finally, we already touched upon the sensible point that analytic philosophers, when rigorously dissecting an argument from an ancient source, usually do not shy away from assessing the argument as ‘obscure’, ‘poorly justified’, or simply ‘fallacious’. This raises the question of whether the arguments of ancient thinkers should be assessed by our standards or, rather, by their own. And one can, indeed, make a point to the effect that our understanding of ancient thinkers would be better enhanced by considering what presuppositions they made when they found a seemingly weak or implausible argument sufficiently convincing. To this, the adherent of the analytical style could reply that only if the historical philosopher comes up with arguments and reasons that are, to a certain extent, appealing to contemporary thinkers, can there be a dialogue between the ancient texts and contemporary philosophy. Similarly, it may be doubted whether it is possible for historically minded interpreters to put aside their own reasons and standards.

In light of both the success of the early analytic approach to ancient philosophy and the possible reasons for suspicion about it, we can formulate the following arbitrary interim conclusion. The analytic approach to ancient philosophy made it easy or easier to see why many of the thoughts of ancient philosophers are still significant and challenging for us. More than that, students of Austin, Ryle, Owen, Ackrill, Vlastos, Anscombe, and so on, started to develop their own philosophical theories; some of these were obviously the result of the rigorous analysis of particular arguments of ancient thinkers and of the attempt to reconstruct a seemingly pointless or even disappointing argument in a way that makes it seem attractive even in the context of contemporary debates.41 One might object, however, that this alleged success came at a significant cost: the cost of making scholarship on ancient philosophy vulnerable to all the kinds of criticism we have considered. The (p.132) analytic approach, one might then argue, literally spoiled the history of ancient philosophy, turned scholars into would-be philosophers and deprived them of genuinely scholarly virtues. Do we need, then, a sort of countermovement? Some sort of rehistoricisation and recontextualisation? I want to address this question by exploring the actual development and fate of the analytic reform of scholarship a little further. It will turn out, or so I am going to argue, that the most severe excesses of the analytic spirit were healed by the community itself or by the dynamics of scholarly research, so that, in turn, the positive consequences of the analytic movement could be retained without unwelcome costs or side effects.

8.5. The Next Generation

If one considers the actual development of ancient philosophy scholarship in the work of the next generation of scholars, that is, the students of Owen, Ackrill, and Vlastos, one gets the impression that many of them were fairly faithful to the legacy of the ‘heroic’ period, rather than performing a methodological turn. Nevertheless, these scholars tried to explore more and new fields of application for the new method, with different scholars interpreting the legacy of their analytic predecessors in quite different ways, leading to a methodological plurality even within the analytic camp. These are the two tendencies I want to focus on: the broadening of the scope of analytic scholarship and the diversification of methods within the analytic camp. As for the first tendency, I confine myself to a few remarks, which, however, are apt to suggest that the self-imposed restriction to a few topics in Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno as described was mostly a phenomenon of the early steps towards a new style of scholarship and not at all intrinsic to the analytic approach as such.

Hellenistic authors were not among the first philosophers to whom the analytic method was applied, and this was partly due to the fragmentary transmission of their ideas. To some extent, the negligence of these philosophers in modern scholarship was also due to the widespread conviction that this was a period ‘of epigoni and post-Aristotelian depression’.42 In the editorial of the first volume of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Julia Annas expressed the hope contributors would continue, in this newly founded yearbook, Owens’ and Vlastos’ ‘scholarly and sensitive analysis of ancient texts’ and ‘support the recent tendency in ancient philosophy to venture into less familiar, particularly post-Aristotelian territory’ (1983: ix). In his introductory remarks on the study of ancient philosophy, Michael Frede remarked, in a similar vein, that we will not arrive at a full understanding of the history of ancient philosophy, ‘by looking at just a few parts of it’ (1987: xx); he went on to refer to the recent progress in the realm of the—long neglected—period of Hellenistic thinkers, and expressed his hope that scholarship on late ancient philosophy would be subject to a similar development. (p.133) In fact, the renewed approach to Hellenistic philosophy started from the topics that seemed most accessible to analytically trained philosophers, such as logic and semantics,43 thus undermining the stereotype that, for example, Stoic philosophy consists primarily of an art of living without real theoretical ambitions. Also, the new appraisal of the Hellenistic epoch was connected with a better understanding of the argumentation theory and epistemology of the sceptical movement, to which many representatives of this ‘second generation’ (such as Jonathan Barnes, Myles Burnyeat, and Michael Frede) contributed. Summarily, one can certainly say that the unparalleled progress that the scholarship on Hellenistic philosophy experienced, especially through the 1980s and 1990s, was to a considerable extent due to scholars with roots in the analytic camp.44

A similar story could be told about late ancient philosophy, including Neo-Platonic and Christian philosophy. Early analytic scholars were apparently reluctant to approach these philosophers, presumably because Plotinus seems to have selected from Plato in particular those aspects of his philosophy that seem most suspicious to modern philosophers.45 But even those who are not convinced by the intrinsic value of late ancient philosophy must acknowledge that ‘the philosophy of late antiquity sheds a great deal of light on the history of Hellenistic philosophy and classical philosophy’ (Frede 1987: xxi). In this sense, for example, most of the great ancient Aristotle commentators are influenced by Neo-Platonism, so that the analytic approach to this was partly mediated by scholarly interest in the work of the commentators.46 An indication that scholarship on late ancient philosophy is nowadays integrated into or adapted to the broadly conceived analytic camp, is that journals that were primarily reserved, first, for articles on Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno, and then for the whole range of pre-Socratic and Hellenistic philosophy, nowadays include an equal share of papers on late ancient philosophy.

The second general tendency concerns the methodological plurality among the representatives of the ‘second generation’. As indicated, some of them started to occupy themselves with Hellenistic philosophy rather than with Plato and Aristotle, others investigated the work of the commentators, and some started working on late antiquity. Moreover, there are, apparently, various ways of interpreting the legacy of the early adherents of the analytic approach. There are some who, though originally active as historical scholars of ancient philosophy, eventually gave up the interpretative engagement with ancient philosophers—at least in their written work—and started to develop independent philosophical theories.47 (p.134) Others have sought to popularise ancient philosophy or have mined the ancient texts for ideas that might help formulate new standpoints within ongoing contemporary debates.48 This latter tendency is one of the starting points for what we call ‘Neo-Aristotelian’ or ‘Neo-Stoic’ theories, for example. Such theories can be more or less connected with the ancient texts and with the exegetical engagement with these texts. In a way, they may be regarded as the offspring of the analytic approach to ancient philosophy in that their proponents raised the expectation that a philosophical reading of ancient texts should bring ideas to light that are of immediate contemporary relevance. On the other hand, some Neo-Aristotelian positions, for example, have since come to have a life of their own, that is, independent from the actual engagement with ancient texts. Nowadays, it is entirely possible for authors to publish on questions related to such Neo-Aristotelian theories without any first-hand experience with ancient texts.

Let me illustrate the range of methodological preferences in the second generation by a few examples. In the preface to his work on pre-Socratic philosophy, Jonathan Barnes (1982: xi) writes:

By and large, scholars have asked what the Presocratics said, and what external circumstances may have prompted their sayings; they have not asked whether the Presocratics spoke truly, or whether their saying rested on sound arguments.

This seems to comply with the gloves-off approach to ancient philosophy that we encountered among representatives of the first generation. This kind of approach, however, is logically independent from the expectation that an unbiased study of ancient philosophers will lead to important philosophical discoveries. Even when it comes to Aristotle, Barnes objects to the purely philosophical reason for studying his texts. Although he does not want to exclude the possibility that reading Aristotle may provide philosophical inspiration, he insists that gazing into space or doodling on a piece of paper could have the same effect.49 In a similar vein, he warns the reader of his book on ancient logic that ‘no logician has anything to learn from a study of Aristotle; and the pages of this book make no contribution to logic or to philosophy’.50

In the preface to his monograph on Aristotle’s philosophy of action, David Charles (1984: ix) sketches an approach that he calls ‘philosophical scholarship’; it is distinguished both from philosophical theorising that is merely inspired by ancient ideas and from classical scholarship:

(p.135) This [approach] aims to represent Aristotle’s discussion as focused, where appropriate, on questions which also interest contemporary theorists, and to assess the philosophical significance of his answers by comparing them with solutions put forward today. Philosophical scholarship is inseparable from contemporary philosophy, and differs from it only in taking as its starting point the examination of a previous philosopher’s picture and in not developing in detail answers which are distinct from those which he himself put forward or presupposed.

What Charles describes in this passage is no less than a way of doing philosophy historically, that is, to philosophise and to make philosophical statements starting from the examination of ancient texts. The relation to contemporary philosophy is essential to this approach, so that the question of whether history of philosophy can or should be significant for contemporary debates does not even arise.

Another way to emphasise the philosophical purpose of scholarly studies is to search not for contemporary, but for permanent and recurring questions and principles. Such an idea might be associated with a philosophia perennis approach that naively neglects the historical embeddedness of historical theories. However, there is a way of undertaking genuine historical research with a view to recurring principles. Such a view is advocated and practised, for example, by Terence Irwin, in his monumental study on the development of ethics (2007: 7):

On this view, deeper examination of the apparently various and conflicting tendencies in ethical theory will reveal some considerable degree of agreement on the main principles … The historian’s task is to discover the relatively permanent principles expressed in different intellectual and cultural embodiments.

The idea behind such an approach seems to be that, although the expression of philosophical positions and convictions is historically embedded, the identity of a philosophical theorem is not necessarily dependent on these circumstances. That historians of philosophy have to pay attention to such historical factors does not yet imply strong historical contextualism, for the result of such a consideration could also be that certain historical circumstances turn out not to be pertinent for the philosophical issues at hand. The critical assessment of philosophical theses of the past requires that scholars are able to abstract, to some extent, from historical circumstances. How much abstraction is legitimate might vary from case to case, and the appropriate degree of abstraction might become the subject of scholarly and methodological debate. However, there is a defensible method of reading past philosophers with a view to what is common and comparable, without being oblivious to the historical dimension.

Michael Frede, to close our selective survey on the ‘second generation’, started his career with two topics (Plato’s Sophist and Stoic logic) that were quite akin to the preferences of the ‘heroic’ period. He nevertheless came to adopt a view that emphasises the need to understand the reasons that ancient philosophers may have had for defending a certain position. This is important, first, because the consideration of reasons why a certain philosophical view was held to be true by certain ancient thinkers characterises the specifically philosophical approach (p.136) to history of philosophy. Second, it is important because the reasons historical thinkers had for accepting certain philosophical views might be crucially different from the reasons that we happen to deem to be good ones: ‘a good deal of ancient philosophical thought cannot be understood in terms of reasons we might avail ourselves of’ (Frede 1987: xx).

It seems necessary, then, for historians of ancient philosophy not to measure ancient views by their own standards. Moreover, in order to understand a particular ancient philosopher’s reasons for certain views, Frede argues, one has to understand the history of ancient philosophy in general and not only parts of it, which seems to amount to an almost ‘holistic’ picture of doing ancient philosophy. On a spectrum, with the alleged anti-historicism and thematic narrowness of the analytic approach at one extreme, Frede’s methodological remarks would probably represent the opposite end.

8.6. Consequences and Conclusions

The analytic approach to ancient philosophy scholarship was successful in many respects. From a philosophical point of view, it actually encouraged people to ‘exploit’ the philosophical content of ancient texts. It brought historians of ancient philosophy and contemporary philosophers into a fruitful dialogue with one another; many results of this dialogue are still visible in the philosophical agenda of today. Most notably, it encouraged readers of ancient texts to intellectually engage with the arguments included in such works, and to take their authors seriously as philosophers who claim to have good reasons for holding the views for which they argue. The liaison between analytic and ancient philosophy was also successful from a scholarly point of view, in that it made the consideration of arguments the most central concern. Scholars trained in the analytic tradition tend to look more closely into the particular arguments of ancient philosophers and to think through the presuppositions and implications of these arguments for themselves. The analytic impetus thus fostered close readings of passages of texts rather than broad-brush presentations of ancient philosophers. In innumerable cases, this scrupulous attitude allowed analytic scholars to challenge traditional readings of ancient texts. Also, the tendency to dwell on fine-grained reconstructions of particular passages revived an interest in the continuous improvement of critical editions. Institutionally, this movement was successful in that it contributed to the establishment and retention of positions for ancient philosophy scholars in philosophy departments—even in philosophical communities with anti-historical attitudes. It is perhaps owing to this institutional success that other fields in the history of philosophy entered into similar liaisons.

The shortcomings and excesses that were observed with respect to the early stage of the analytic approach were eventually addressed and compensated for. In the analytic movement’s second generation, the thematic narrowness had already been overcome and the ahistorical attitude mitigated. Some scholars of (p.137) this generation trimmed back the more extravagant expectations raised during the ‘heroic’ period, but they did not give up the ideas that ancient philosophers deserve to be treated philosophically and that, for each and every individual ancient philosopher, the scholarly discussion should start with a rigorous scrutiny of their core arguments. Against this background, no methodological turn and no rehistoricisation of ancient philosophy scholarship are needed; to the contrary, the development I have sketched in Section 8.5 proved the self-healing powers of an active scholarly community.

In recent and current scholarship, the difference between analytic and non-analytic scholars has become less important—especially in areas where the peculiarly analytic tools are not applicable or not sufficient for an exhaustive treatment of a particular author. However, representatives of non-analytic approaches are often not in a position to participate in cutting-edge scholarly discussions if they are not able to engage with particular passages and arguments in the way that was initiated by the early heroes of analytic scholarship. Nowadays, increasingly important competitors to the analytic style come from fields that do not even attempt to treat ancient philosophers philosophically, but confine themselves to sketching a history of ideas or approach the activities of philosophers as broadly conceived social–cultural phenomena.

The current situation is characterised by a division of labour. The methodological plurality we observed in the second generation has led to an even more greatly diversified tableau of approaches in subsequent generations. There are people engaging in debates with Neo-Aristotelians, philosophers who philosophise historically, philosophically oriented scholars of ancient texts, historically oriented scholars of those texts, editors of ancient texts who take into account their philosophical arguments, and historians who specialise in the afterlife of ancient philosophers. There are scholars who specialise in the ‘greatest hits’ of ancient philosophy, that is, the philosophically most promising philosophers and themes, while others are happy to shed light on rather marginal fields of ancient philosophical thought. These different groups can learn a good deal from each other. Each of them can make a significant contribution to the understanding of ancient philosophy, and it would be pointless to require that each and every ancient philosophy scholar should relate her or his research to contemporary philosophical debates. Still, if, and only if, the community of all these different types of scholars as a whole does not lose track of the attempt to assess the possible impact of ancient philosophical theorems—in a way similar to the early analytic interpreters—the occupation with ancient philosophy will continue to enrich our current philosophical debates.


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(1) Many more examples could be mentioned. In the Aristoteles Handbuch (see Rapp & Corcilius 2011), the reception only of Aristotle by 20th- and 21st-century philosophers fills over sixty densely printed two-column pages.

(2) Since this is a period before my own time, I am very grateful to colleagues who had first-hand knowledge of the protagonists of this development. Throughout the last few years, Lesley Brown, Myles Burnyeat, David Charles, John M. Cooper, Terry Irwin, and Malcom Schofield have generously taken the time to answer my questions about this period.

(3) A philosophical–historical survey of the role of Aristotle in this period of Oxford philosophy is given by Berti (2008: 112–84). In some instances, Berti’s survey relies on Barnes (1977). To both Barnes and Berti I owe some of the references that I give in this section.

(4) His posthumously published Statement and Inference (1926) had a significant impact on the following generation (not only) of Oxford philosophers. For more details see the entry on John Cook Wilson in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Marion (2016).

(8) This is Myles Burnyeat’s formulation in his introduction to Williams (2006: xiii).

(10) See the comment by Warnock (1969: 4): ‘It cannot be doubted that the study of Aristotle, to which his training naturally attracted him, was an important particular influence on his later thought.’ I owe this reference to Barnes (1977).

(12) Posthumously published, see Austin (1970).

(13) See Austin (1956). The quotation is taken from page 6 of the original publication. For Austin’s and Ryle’s impact on the interpretation of Aristotle’s ideas on voluntariness, see Rapp (2017).

(14) I am grateful to Lindsay Judson, who provided me with this information. The text as quoted occurred first on the back of John Ackrill’s volume on Aristotle’s Categories and was printed on the back of subsequent volumes until the early 1970s (Ackrill 1966).

(15) Warnock (1969: 6). I owe this reference to Barnes (1977).

(18) See Ryle (1968).

(19) For biographical details also see Schofield (2004) and Kahn (1983: 113–14).

(22) Collected in a posthumous volume, see Owen (1986).

(24) For a full discussion of the significance of this paper see King (2014).

(26) Thus teaching a wide range of contemporary philosophy—not only history of philosophy.

(27) For the biographical details, see Taylor (2011) and Judson (2009).

(29) Collected in Ackrill (1997).

(33) For the biographical details see ‘The Great and the Good’ on the webpage of the Princeton Philosophy Department (https://philosophy.princeton.edu/about/history (accessed 10 October 2017)). On his influence on students and his peculiar style of teaching, see Nehamas (1996).

(35) Many years later, e.g., the German scholar Gustav A. Seeck wrote an entire monograph rebutting the habit of assigning fallacies to Plato; see Seeck (1997).

(36) Indeed, there was no one single tradition that could be identified as the ‘continental’ counterpart to analytic style, which could justify a plain opposition between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ approaches, but many different approaches, partly differing in accordance with the different traditions in, e.g., France, Italy, and Germany. Even within German scholarship of these years, we find many different and competing strands, but this is a different story.

(37) I owe the following quotations from Cornford and Guthrie to Terry Irwin, who generously gave me access to an unpublished paper of his (see Irwin (unpublished)). In the same paper, Irwin also gives a very persuasive and readable rejoinder to Cornford’s arguments.

(38) Concerning the contrast between the Oxford and the Cambridge style, I hasten to add that this difference was soon alleviated by students who attended seminars at both places. Myles Burnyeat told me in private conversation that as a student of Guthrie’s in Cambridge he was quite fascinated by the news coming over from Oxford about Owen’s seminar, so that he started attending Owen’s seminars without telling his Cambridge tutors about his renegade behaviour. In 1973, the appointment of Owen to the Laurence Chair was perceived as a certain turning point in Cambridge and made ancient philosophy scholarship more analytically focused, although the Cambridge scholars retained, broadly speaking, an interest in a wider range of ancient philosophy than was usually the case in Oxford.

(39) In his 1979 monograph on pre-Socratic philosophers, J. Barnes carried some characteristics of the analytic approach to ancient philosophy to an extreme and, hence, became the target of many anti-analytic interpreters of pre-Socratic philosophy. In the preface to the second edition of the same book (1982: xv–xxi), he responded to his critics; the dispute between Barnes and his critics is telling with regard to the objections that I am going to discuss in the following paragraphs.

(40) This is true, at least, for the paradigmatic topics and debates of this time, although individual scholars had broader scholarly interests.

(41) Assessing the impact of the analytic approach to ancient philosophy, one should, in principle, distinguish between the methodological innovation that it brought about (e.g. focus on particular arguments, assessing ancient ideas in light of contemporary philosophy, reconstructing what ancient philosophers wanted to say, even if they did not command the tools to say it in an appropriate way, etc.) on the one hand, from more accidental preferences that were triggered by the discussions in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g. tenets held by ordinary language philosophers) on the other. Clearly, the impact of the latter sort was more ephemeral.

(43) Michael Frede’s own interest in Hellenistic philosophy was elicited by Stoic logic, see Frede (1974).

(44) Important figures in modern scholarship on Hellenistic philosophy, though, would probably not describe themselves as ‘analytic scholars’. The limits between analytic and non-analytic became quite permeable in this field.

(45) On this point, see Opsomer (2016).

(46) See the impact of the ‘Ancient Commentators on Aristotle Project’ run by Richard Sorabji, which, starting from 1987, has published English translations of the Greek Aristotle commentators.

(47) David Wiggins might be seen as instantiating this type of development. As a student of Ackrill’s he wrote a few remarkably subtle articles on Aristotle, but became famous, inter alia, for his thesis about the sortal dependence of identity, which was not directly driven by a reading of ancient texts. John McDowell’s now famous writings originally derive from a similarly intimate study of ancient texts.

(48) Martha C. Nussbaum, most notably, started her career with a PhD thesis under the supervision of Owen that admirably combined editorial, scholarly, and philosophical aspects. Afterwards, she became increasingly engaged in a style of writing that uses ancient ideas as inspiration for one’s own theories.

(50) Barnes (2007: vii). I leave it to the reader to detect ingredients of irony and understatement in Barnes’ words.