Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.01


Catherine Atherton, The Stoics on Ambiguity. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. xix + 563. $89.95. ISBN 0-521-44139-0.


Reviewed by John Bussanich, University of New Mexico.

Chrysippus' famous dictum "every word is by nature ambiguous" serves well as an appropriately open-ended motto for this excellent book. One could frame an inquiry about ambiguity much more narrowly than Atherton has done, but scholars with any reason to consult the book will be grateful, I think, that she has chosen to exclude little that has a bearing on the topic. Atherton explores in exhaustive detail the role of ambiguity in virtually every domain of Stoic thought: moral psychology, epistemology, grammar, semantics, logic, stylistics and rhetoric, philosophical method, and the principles of classification. The systematic character of Stoic philosophy itself justifies this thorough search for interconnections and cross-currents, though Atherton is careful to raise tough questions about the coherence of the Stoic use and application of the concept in each area. A second factor broadens the scope of this investigation beyond these already wide boundaries. Because the roots of the Stoic theory reach deeply into earlier philosophers, especially Aristotle, Atherton's project amounts almost to a history of the subject in ancient thought.

Atherton boldly aims this study at an amazingly wide variety of scholars: classicists, Hellenistic philosophers, philosophers of language, theoretical and comparative linguists, and historians of logic. Besides the ancient authors and the classicists who study them readers should be prepared to encounter contemporary figures like Chomsky, Frege, Lyons, Scheffler, and Saussure for detailed comparisons with Stoic and ancient theories generally. Classicists will be relieved that Atherton never allows her extensive knowledge of contemporary linguistics or philosophy of language to tempt her into making tendentious or anachronistic judgments. But given that comparisons between ancient and modern theories are inevitable and even desirable, Atherton succeeds brilliantly in employing contemporary thought to reveal both "the uniquely Stoic motivation behind the classifications" of ambiguity as well as to point out the limitations of Stoic conceptions, e.g., the extreme narrowness of their grammatical concepts and categories.

Noting the fuzziness and vagueness of the concept of ambiguity, as well as disagreements between ancients and moderns about whether ambiguity is a good thing or not, Atherton observes that ambiguity is "very much what you make it." The Stoics did make a great deal of ambiguity because "seeing or missing an ambiguity could make a difference to one's general success as a human being." The substantial third chapter (91 pages, adroitly titled "Morality Talks: The Origins and Limits of Stoic Interest in Ambiguity") properly emphasizes the practical, ethical focus of Stoic philosophizing; provides a detailed summary of the central aspects of Stoic philosophy from the perspective of Stoic logical and linguistic theory; and shows precisely how making the wrong decisions, viz., assenting incorrectly to the impressions one receives, can ruin one's life and make one unhappy. A case where ambiguity plays a crucially important role in moral reasoning is the category of the preferred indifferents, objects of choice that are morally neutral, e.g., health and wealth. If a person does not disambiguate goods into moral goods and non-moral preferences, the Stoics argue, one inevitably will end up miserable. This splendid chapter is too vast in scope and rich in detail to be summarized, but I call special attention to the nuanced comparisons of Stoic ideas with the linguistic and dialectical theories of Aristotle and Epicurus; incisive analyses of Stoic views on literary style and on the concept of clarity; and convincing explanations of their relative lack of interest in semantic multivalence. One shortcoming is a rather brief and somewhat vague account of why the Stoics did not even notice Aristotle's pervasive use of homonymy, particularly in his concept of "focal meaning" or pros hen equivocity.

Chapters 4 and 5 provide detailed commentaries on three short but highly significant texts. Chapter 4 examines the only explicit definition of ambiguity attributed to the Stoics, a brief passage in D.L. 7.62. Atherton skilfully tracks the possible meanings of amphibolia among the notions of ambiguity, vagueness, non-specificity, and metaphor. Considerable assistance in the search for definitions comes from Diodorus Cronus who made the striking claim that there is no such thing as ambiguity. Chapter 5 compares two classifications of ambiguities, one explicitly ascribed to the Stoics, the other an eclectic blend of Stoic and non-Stoic elements. Atherton presents freshly edited versions of these important texts along with precise, readable translations. The first comprises the final chapter of Galen's short On Linguistic Sophisms. Galen reports Stoic views on ambiguity merely to supplement what he considers the more comprehensive classification of linguistic fallacies in Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations. Atherton shows how Galen's notorious hostility against the Stoics blows up in his face: Stoic semantic and syntactic theory is more innovative and sophisticated than Aristotle's, but Galen seems to be unaware of the fact. A somewhat longer classificatory scheme is preserved in Aelius Theon's teaching rhetorical handbook the progymnasmata (Preliminary Rhetorical Exercises).

These two taxonomies comprise the superstructure for the 200-page chapter 6, the heart of the book. A substantial section is devoted to each of six species of ambiguity: common ambiguities, homonymies, elleipsis and pleonasm, significant/non-significant part, hyperbaton and interpolation, and reference. This part of the book will most profitably be consulted as a reference work. Each section begins with the relevant passages from Galen and Theon, usually accompanied by pertinent Aristotelian texts. In addition to the linguistic topics other major topics discussed include Stoic criticism of the Platonic theory of forms; Stoic views on Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic; the Stoic theory of autonymy discussed and reworked in Augustine's de dialectica; and a general Stoic theory of signs that is prominent in Augustine's de magistro, a work that, interestingly, also contains a version of the "use/mention" distinction.

Chapter 7 takes up one of the major roles assigned to ambiguity by the Stoics: the creation of fallacies or deceptively persuasive arguments. Discerning and removing ambiguities is crucial for the Stoic project of attaining rational and moral consistency. The Stoic treatment is rooted in Aristotle's more comprehensive discussions, but Atherton properly emphasizes the importance of paradoxes (e.g., the Sorites or "heaping" argument) and puzzles as additional motivating factors. Of particular interest here is the contrast between Stoic commitment to the effectiveness of logic and dialectic and sceptical attacks on its value, especially that of Sextus Empiricus.

In the final, eighth chapter Atherton discusses how Stoic ideas fit into the larger world of ancient rhetorical and grammatical theory. Her conclusions are necessarily tentative since most of the Stoic texts were already rare in antiquity and most that was distinctive in Stoic grammatical theory lived on only in epitomes and commentaries. Atherton's study is a significant contribution to our understanding of ancient literary theory in large part because it is so successful in retrieving and interpreting carefully the limited amount of textual material that survives. Philological rigour and sensitivity are combined with an enviable command of contemporary linguistic theory and philosophy of language.

Two editorial features of this volume warrant comment. No need to highlight the production values: as always Cambridge University Press offers an admirable, flawlessly printed book. Atherton is to be commended, first, for exceptionally thorough documentation of the countless textual references that are inevitable in a large study of Hellenistic philosophy. She provides the standard von Arnim SVF references, of course, but even more helpful to non-specialists -- but, regrettably, uncommon -- is the inclusion of references to the appropriate sections of The Hellenistic Philosophers by A. A. Long and D.N. Sedley (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Second, and more important, the volume is endowed with a whopping 35 pages of indexes, an absolute necessity in a work of this kind, but, nevertheless, an essential tool that is too often absent.