Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.5.9


Terence Irwin and Gail Fine, Aristotle: Introductory Readings. Hackett, 1996. Pp. 359. $9.95 (pb); 34.95 (hb). ISBN 0-87220-339-5 (pb).


Reviewed by Peter Vernezze, Weber State University.

The chance to review this work came at a time when I was deciding what books to order for my Survey of Ancient Philosophy class. So I thought that perhaps my musings on whether to adopt this as a text might be of help to professors similarly situated. In any case, this procedure seems particularly appropriate since the audience for this work is so clearly such a class.

As the authors note in the preface, this volume is a scaled down version of their work Aristotle: Selections (Hackett: 1995), selling for about half the price. The choice of selections parallels to a large degree those found in Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy from Thales to Aristotle ed. by Cohen, Curd and Reeve (Hackett: 1995), and most of the selections in the Cohen anthology are translated by Irwin and Fine as well. Identical or nearly identical selections of Categories, Topics, Parts of Animals and De Anima are found in each work. The Cohen book has slightly more of De Interpertatione, Posterior Analytics, Physics, Generation and Corruption, and Politics as well as brief excerpts from two works that Irwin and Fine fail to include, De Caelo and Meteorologica. Irwin and Fine present more from the Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics and include selections from the Poetics, a work which the Cohen anthology neglects.

In addition this volume contains an introduction, notes and glossary. The introduction is a brief survey of Aristotle's life and works, and includes a nice account of the relation among the various treatises. The glossary is quite good, and may even warrant Hackett's claim that it is "most detailed glossary in any student edition." A little less accurate is Hackett's reference in their catalogue to the "editors' extensive notes." For the Categories, for example, this amounts to two lines: a note on 'beings' in chapter two, which merely says that this term may be translated as 'things that are' or 'existing things', and a note on 'poion ti' in chapter five which declares that the term refers both to secondary substance and to the category of quality. This is about the average frequency of the notes and their average usefulness. Rare and not very. The back cover of the volume is more accurate when it speaks of "brief clarifying and explanatory notes."

Explaining my decision in the matter of whether to adopt this volume for my class requires taking up an issue in pedagogy; namely whether, when complete texts are available, one should adopt instead anthologies which present selections of a thinker's work?

One of the problems with any volume of selections is that they often present a distorted picture of a thinker which invariably reflects the editor's own biases. The editors of both anthologies are fine analytic philosophers, a fact that seems to result in their leaving out what they perceive to be the non-argumentative parts of the text. For example, both Cohen and Irwin include only the first chapter of Book I of De Anima. What is left off, of course, is a most informative discussion about the development of Greek thought, a tour de force of Aristotelian critique of his predecessors. Invaluable from a history of ideas viewpoint, this section is excluded, doubtless, because of its minimal argumentative content. The notion that 'if it doesn't contain an argument, it is not important' is well-illustrated by the choice of selections made in the Cohen anthology for the Phaedo, where everything before Socrates begins arguing for the pre-existence of the soul is abandoned.

In addition to concerns that selection anthologies present a less than accurate depiction of a thinker, I have qualms about the way an anthology of selections exacerbates the all too prevalent fragmentation of knowledge. The reading of a complete work, to utilize a Platonic distinction, is both good in itself and good for its consequences. It is good for itself because there is something intrinsically satisfying about completing an entire work that one is deprived of by merely perusing a series of selections. It is good for its consequences because it requires patience, endurance and extended intellectual effort to follow a thinker's line of thought through an entire volume -- qualities we should be attempting to instill in our students. There is something about reading a broken up text that, while it might be distinctly postmodern, is not quite the approach I think we should take to works of the ancient world.

True, if any thinker invites anthologizing in this manner it is Aristotle, from whom it is not clear we receive traditional texts in any ordinary sense of the term. But even here it seems that more harm than good is done by slicing up a treatise such as the Nichomachean Ethics. And the trend toward the anthologizing seems to be growing just as the attention spans of our students shrink. Also up for consideration for the professor teaching a survey of ancient philosophy is Hellenistic Philosophy and The Essential Augustine, both published by Hackett and both continuing the trend towards selection-type introductions to philosophers of the ancient world.

Let me suggest that rather than reading selections from the Republic, Phaedo, and Symposium for views on Platonic metaphysics (as I once had my students do) you choose one of the works and read it in its entirety (it is probably more viable with the latter two). The Theory of Forms becomes much more attractive and comprehensible to students when it is seen as a guiding principle of life -- as it is when read in the context of any of these works -- then when viewed as an isolated intellectual doctrine. And rather than sampling Aristotle from six different works why not choose one and read it in its entirety? It doesn't matter which. The method and true genius of Aristotle is revealed when you follow him as he works his way deliberately through a topic in a way it is not when you see him nipping at a variety of subjects. In addition to developing a better feel about each of these thinkers, your students will come away with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from having read a work from start to finish.

If you are fan of the selection anthologies you will enjoy this one. It is well-edited, reasonably priced and relatively informative. As I have tried to explain, I am skeptical of the value of such works, and so will not be adopting it for my class.