Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.03

Jyl Gentzler (ed.), Method in Ancient Philosophy.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  Pp. viii + 398.  ISBN 0-19-823571-2.  $72.00.  



Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson, University of Toronto.
Word count: 2422 words

The editor tells us in the preface that many of the papers in this collection were originally delivered at a conference on ancient method held at Amherst College in 1994. We are not told, however, which ones belong to the conference and which ones were independently commissioned.

The title of this book is tantalizingly ambiguous. Does it refer to the method or methods employed by ancient philosophers in the extant works or does it refer to discussions of method in these works? Notoriously, these are not the same thing. Plato says much about dialectic as a superior method but his principal method of writing philosophy is to employ conversations by real and imaginary characters. Aristotle writes about a rigorous method of scientific demonstration in his Posterior Analytics but it is extremely difficult to find that method actually employed in his other writings. Unfortunately, neither in the editor's preface nor in the papers themselves do we finally get a clear idea of what is meant by "method in ancient philosophy". One gets the impression that the connection between the nominal theme of the book and the themes of some of the papers included is somewhat loose.

Not only is the term "method" left unexplained, the scope of "ancient philosophy" is disappointingly narrow. The book contains one paper on the Pre-Socratics, seven papers on Plato, five papers on Aristotle, one on Epicurus, and one comparative piece on Greek and Chinese mathematics and medicine. This leaves many puzzling omissions. For example, the Skeptics were intensely concerned with a method of doing philosophy. Sextus Empiricus wrote about it at length. Eclecticism as a method, most evident in Middle Platonism, is ignored. The Neoplatonists provide a rich source for a method that purposefully combines literary and analytic genres. The entire tradition of commentary as a method of doing philosophy is omitted as well. Galen and John Philoponus, to name only two major figures, wrote extensively and self-consciously about the methods of doing philosophy employed by their predecessors (the former is mentioned in passing in the two concluding papers). Other examples could be added. What this collection amounts to, in fact, is a series of papers by a number of reputable scholars which together have slightly more coherence than the papers in a typical volume of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. It is a pity that the opportunity was missed to produce a volume that takes into account the rich variety of methods actually employed throughout the thousand or so years of ancient Greek philosophy.

Having made these disparaging remarks about the volume as a whole, I move to the individual articles. They are: "Eleatic Arguments" by Patricia Curd; "Common Sense and Socratic Method" by Terence Irwin; "Platonism and the Study of Nature (Phaedo 95eff)" by Ian Mueller; "Plato's Discovery of Metaphysics: The New Methodos of the Phaedo" by Robert Bolton; "Plato's Apologies and Socrates in the Theaetetus" by A.A. Long; "Relativism and Self-Refutation: Plato, Protagoras, and Burnyeat" by Gail Fine; "Prometheus's Bounds: Peras and Apeiron in Plato's Philebus" by Constance Meinwald; "Innovation and Continuity: The Battle of Gods and Giants, Sophist 245-249" by Lesley Brown; "Aristotle and the Uses of Logic" by Gisela Striker; "Dialectic and Philosophy in Aristotle" by C.D.C. Reeve; "Teleology in Aristotelian Metaphysics" by Charlotte Witt; "Aristotle on Method and Moral Education" by Richard Kraut; "Interpreting Aristotle's Directions" by Sarah Brodie; "Epicurean Inferences: The Evidence of Philodemus's De signis" by James Allen; "Techniques and Dialectic: Method in Greek and Chinese Mathematics and Medicine" by G.E.R. Lloyd.

Curd argues that there are three stages in the development of Pre-Socratic method: (1) the mere assertion of one's own theory; (2) the advancement of arguments for first principles or against one's opponents; (3) the development and application of criteria for acceptable theories, combined with using these criteria to rule out alternatives. Curd argues that "the full-blown philosophical method" of the second and third stages first appears in Parmenides and is later followed by Zeno and Melissus in their defense of Eleaticism against its opponents.

Irwin offers a lengthy treatment of the assumptions used by Plato's Socrates in the early dialogues regarding the virtues. He argues that these assumptions -- principally, that each virtue is a unity and that all the virtues are in harmony with each other and with happiness -- can fairly be taken as plausible both by Plato's and Socrates' own contemporaries. Socrates, claims Irwin, provides arguments to show that his claims about these assumptions can solve certain puzzles arising from ordinary beliefs. Alternatives can be excluded owing to their implausibility. Plato comes to recognize as unsatisfactory this approach and takes a more direct argumentative approach to proving his claims beginning in the Gorgias.

Mueller's penetrating study actually has a wider scope than the title suggests. Mueller argues against a common view held by scholars that the sort of explanation offered by Socrates in the final argument for the immortality of the soul are logical or conceptual and not physical. By contrast, Mueller wants to argue that the Phaedo, with the Republic, offer an account of physical explanation that takes the sensible world as really explained by the ideal world, an ultimately the Form of the Good. The Timaeus represents a development in Plato's thought, in effect substituting a divine mind or nous for the Form of the Good as the ultimate source of cosmological explanation.

Bolton's article interestingly covers much of the same territory as does Mueller's and arrives at quite different conclusions. Bolton argues that in the Phaedo Plato is not interested in physical explanations at all and hence is not offering bad ones. Rather, he rejects the possibility of a coherent science of nature in favor of something else, namely, metaphysics. Plato's metaphysics or his theory of Forms as expressed in the Phaedo should be compared in its methodos or manner of understanding not with Aristotle's Generation and Corruption or Generation of Animals but rather with his Categories and Metaphysics.

In a lively and original piece, Long argues that the Theaetetus represents a sort of culminating version of Plato's apology for the life of Socrates. In that work, Plato bids farewell to Socratic philosophy or at least the conception of philosophy in the works between the Apology and the Theaetetus and takes up a profoundly different conception. This different conception of philosophy is evident first in the Parmenides and then in the Sophist and the Statesman. The Theaetetus both constitutes Plato's final farewell to Socrates and the recognition that philosophy has to include more than what the Socratic paradigm would allow.

In a detailed technical discussion, Fine confronts Myles Burnyeat's interpretation of the Theaetetus. In two influential articles, Burnyeat argued that Plato portrays Protagoras as a relativist, one who maintains that every judgment is true for the person who makes it and that this relativism is the view that is, against many scholars, successfully refuted in that dialogue. Fine argues that Protagoras' position is not relativistic if it includes, as Burnyeat claims it does, the view that Protagoras' own position is itself absolutely, not relatively, true. Fine holds that 'true for X' is synonymous with 'believed by X' whereas Burnyeat holds that they are not synonymous. Fine then argues that denying synonymy leads to an inconsistent position (relativism plus absolutism). Thus, its refutation so conceived begs the question against it.

Meinwald raises a precise exegetical question regarding the Philebus: how do the Pythagorean concepts of peras and apeiron add to the method of collection and division? Her answer, against one frequently held interpretation, is that apeiron does not refer to an indefinite number of particulars falling outside the division of kinds. They are in fact types, but types that are indistinguishable from each other by real differentiae. Accordingly, a peras in a division is a joint or natural articulation. What makes division Pythagorean is that peras includes ratios which are constitutive of the kinds. Since the division of kinds is a division of Forms, the Forms themselves must be understood to contain apeiron and peras in this manner.

Brown's article focuses on Sophist 245-249 to show innovations in Plato's methods. In particular, Brown identifies two innovations, labeled "new dialectic" and "formal approach". The first consists in the examination of views other than those of the interlocutors. The second consists in attention to linguistic items, not for their own sake, but for what they reveal about reality. Much of the paper is devoted to an interpretation of the supposedly ironic proposal made by the Eleatic Stranger to the gods and giants, or materialists and idealists, namely, that being belongs to whatever has the dunamis of affecting or being affected by anything. Various attempts to show how Forms themselves can be included under this criterion are canvassed and rejected. Brown opts for an interpretation mentioned by Cornford and developed in detail by Eric Ostenfeld, namely, that Forms affect knowers when they are known.

Striker provides a study of syllogistic in Aristotle's Prior Analytics and addresses the question of whether or not syllogism expresses the essential logical form of scientific demonstration. Striker shows that Aristotle thought of syllogisms as forms of argument, not just valid deductions. She argues that Aristotle wishes to hold that every valid deductive argument must contain a syllogistic deduction. The reason Aristotle held that scientific demonstration must contain syllogisms is that syllogisms contain the fundamental form of scientific explanation. That is, to answer an Aristotelian "why" question is, formally, to provide a syllogism. For this reason, Aristotle was not so much interested in an axiomatized system as in the logical structure of scientific argument.

Reeve offers a fundamental rethinking of Aristotle's account of dialectic and a thorough examination of the texts. His rather conservative conclusion is that dialectic for Aristotle includes both intellectual training and a means for enabling a philosopher to defend his views against a variety of critics. In addition, dialectic has a constructive role to play, namely, enabling the philosopher to do a cost-benefit analysis that usefully precedes the determination of where the truth lies. According to Reeve, where many modern philosophers part company with Aristotle is not in disvaluing dialectic's power to help us see the possibilities but in their denying that among the possibilities there may be a correct one.

Witt argues that Aristotle has two different sorts of teleology, natural and metaphysical. The latter differs from the former in three ways: in what it is meant to explain, in its relata, and in its priority relations that hold between the relata. The relata of metaphysical teleology are the principles of composite substances, actuality and potentiality. Natural teleology explains the generation and parts of substances, whereas metaphysical teleology explains what it is to be a substance. Thus, final cause as a category of explanation in metaphysics is distinct from final cause as a category of explanation in the physical treatises. Whereas priority in time and definition belong to explanations in natural teleology, priority in being belongs to metaphysical teleology alone.

Kraut's paper deals with an apparent disharmony between two claims Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. In the first, he says that in order to make progress in the study of ethics one must have been brought up properly with good moral habits. In the second, he says that many people do many things contrary to their habits and their nature, owing to reason if they are persuaded that it is better to do so. Kraut understands the first passage to show that students of ethics need to have grasped "moral facts" in order to understand ethical arguments. He interprets the second passage in an asymmetrical way: those who have been badly raised cannot understand good ethical arguments whereas those well brought up can be corrupted by bad ethical arguments. This is possible because they have been raised to value reason in itself, independent of the perception of moral facts.

Broadie's essay raises the question of whether Aristotle's theory of practical reasoning matches his practice. In particular, Broadie argues against the "grand end" interpretation of phronesis. According to this interpretation, the telos of wise deliberation is a "grand end" or an overarching view about happiness. It follows on this view that phronesis has as its goal what leads to the grand end. Broadie holds that in fact phronesis is a form of cognition directed to the particular course of action that will lead to any ordinary goal and that the phronimos does not have to be a philosopher.

Allen's paper focuses on the difficult evidence for understanding how Epicurus held we can argue from self-evident premises to non-evident conclusions. Epicureans generally argued for the method of similarity, a sort of empiricism, according to which we are able to project features of things in our experience onto similar things not in our experience. The main part of the essay is a study of the rich source of evidence contained in the mutilated papyrus of the work De signis by the first-century BC Epicurean Philodemus. Allen examines how Philodemus and his contemporaries understood the Epicurean method in opposition to a competing (possibly Stoic) method, called "elimination" (anaskeue) by Allen, that may or may not be independent of the Epicurean's own. Allen concludes that much more work needs to be done on the context of later Epicureanism (and perhaps more texts need to be discovered) before we can have even a minimally clear picture of how that school interacted with its opponents.

Lloyd's wide-ranging comparative study seeks to show that methodology in Chinese and Greek mathematics and medicine need to be understood in a more than narrowly technical manner. That is, its polemical or dialectical purposes needs to be included in a full picture of that methodology. The periods treated by Lloyd are those before the influence of Christianity was dominant in the Graeco-Roman world and before Buddhism began to influence China (i.e., around the 3rd century AD). Lloyd argues that in both the Greek and Chinese texts, explicit and implicit methodological assumptions can be better grasped if they are seen as dialectical tools used by various groups for the sake of influence and acclaim. This is especially so for the claims that a methodology guarantees truth or high plausibility.

Critical engagement with any of these fifteen essays is of course entirely out of place here. All of them are respectable but few in my opinion break new ground. The collection does not possess the unity that would make the book indispensable for professionals. Most will be satisfied to make very selective use of their library's copy.

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