Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.08

Alfred Dunshirn, Griechisch für das Philosophiestudium. UTB 8403.   Wien:  facultas.wuv, 2008.  Pp. 172.  ISBN 9783825284039.  €14.90 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University (
Word count: 2146 words

[Table of contents at the end of the review.]

Not too many decades ago, teachers of philosophy at European and American universities could safely presume that their students had some familiarity with Greek and Latin and that a number of them had studied those languages for many years at school. That situation changed in the latter half of the twentieth century. Today, an overwhelming majority of those who enter the universities, including philosophy students, have met with hardly any Latin at all and even less Greek in their preparatory schools. The elementary courses in philosophy seem to attract more students than before, and students with diversified backgrounds and with various reasons for studying philosophy. Increasing numbers of students are, of course, welcome to the departments; the diversity of their previous education and plans for the future are often stimulating elements of this present situation. Even teachers of an older generation, who were accustomed to scribbling the blackboard full with quotations in Greek and Latin, mostly adapted themselves easily to the new conditions and would not want to reintroduce those regulations that, at some universities, forbade students to enroll in philosophy without evidence of a classical education. With the present-day liberal access rules their departments attract a considerable number of interested students. Arguably, our times are good for philosophy.

Yet there seems to arise on occasion, both among teachers and among students, a suspicion that a classical education would not be amiss if you want to study philosophy. In particular, some knowledge of Greek is often felt to be a desideratum, and there is a demand for books that could provide an easier access to that language than a full beginner's course of the sort offered by the classics departments. One tool for providing such help is dictionaries or glossaries specializing in Greek philosophical terminology, like those by Peters and Urmson.1 These mainly give explanations only of individual words or phrases, and substantives and adjectives dominate in them. Greek philosophical texts contain much more, and if you aspire to understand how a Greek philosophical text functions as a whole--including its exploitation of the rich Greek verb system--you need a book that treats not only vocabulary but also morphology and syntax, and in addition to that offers some of the practical training that is a prerequisite for being able to interpret a Greek sentence without stumbling around in a jungle of lexicon entries and paragraphs of grammar. The most ambitious attempt to provide such a tool that I know of is Beetham's Learning Greek with Plato.2 This is meant to be not only an introduction to the writings of one of the leading philosophers in their original linguistic form but also to give the students a basic linguistic training that prepares them for the study of other Greek texts as well.

The book under review here, Alfred Dunshirn's Griechisch für das Philosophiestudium, positions itself midway between a mere lexical aid and a full beginner's course in Greek.3 According to his preface, Dunshirn aims "at offering those interested the chance to read a few short quotations from Greek philosophers in their original form and to obtain some information concerning their context" (p. 5). Dunshirn has a degree in classical philology and is active in the Philosophy Department of the University of Vienna. The book is intended for courses in Greek for post-graduate philosophy students; it is based on Dunshirn's experience as a teacher in those courses. The book is written with students in mind who have no previous knowledge of Greek. They are supposed to have a rudimentary knowledge of Latin grammatical terminology but not of the Latin language in itself, for when Latin words, e.g. concordantia, testimonium and fragmentum (p. 25), appear in the text, they are accompanied by German translations. The school grammar of Bornemann and Risch4 is recommended for supplementing the grammatical contents of the book.

The structure of the book appears clearly from Dunshirn's detailed table of contents, which is reproduced below. Chapter B includes the usual preliminaries of a beginner's book in Greek: alphabet, writing and printing conventions, conventional pronunciation, etc. Dunshirn devotes rather more space to historical matters, e.g., the prehistory of the alphabet, than is common in comparable books, but his account of pronunciation and spelling rules, including accents, is less extensive than usual. A short section, with exercises, about conventions of transcription contains information that is not often included in books of this sort but is certainly useful to the inexperienced. Since, at most European universities, the students are expected to use textbooks in languages other than their own, they will come across a number of differing conventions for transcribing Greek words. For that reason it is important that they become aware of the fact that these conventions are simply conventions. This introductory section also includes some basic grammatical information, viz., paradigms of the article, indicative present of λέγω, εἰμί and its participle ὤν, supplemented with a rather lengthy discussion on the meaning of "to be", which reveals Dunshirn's ambition to focus on what is philosophically relevant.

Other linguistic matters are treated in chapter C "Texte". This is of course the weightiest part of the book. It is divided into three sections, each of them devoted to a particular philosopher or group of philosophers (pre-Socratics, Socrates/Plato, Aristotle). The only later text appearing in the book is a passage from Plotinus (Enneads 5.1), quoted with its German translation in section C.I.1, Exkurs b (pp. 26-27) in order to illustrate how the fragments of the pre-Socratics have been preserved by citations in later texts. Information of that technical character is also provided in the introduction to the sub-sections of ch. C. This is a considerable merit of the book, since students not previously acquainted with the conventions that classical philologists follow when quoting the ancient writers will be confused by references to "Parmenides (or even "Parm.") 28 B3 D.-K.", "Pl. R. 515a4", or the like. These introductory sections also list, with comments, standard editions of the Greek texts and recommended translations. On pp. 28-32 you find a similarly informative account of how the entries are structured in Passow's and Liddell and Scott's lexica (and warnings not to put too much confidence in dictionaries). This is also useful help to inexperienced students. The same applies to the complete lists of the preserved writings of Plato and Aristotle; they serve as handy introductions to these two important text corpora.

The texts appearing in the book are chosen for their philosophical content, but the principles of selection are not clear. All the passages quoted in the book have the merit of being original texts; none of them has been reconstituted by the author, e.g., for the purpose of illustrating a certain grammatical phenomenon. On the other hand, many of the texts seem to me to be too complicated for beginners. Section C.I, e.g., starts with the Parmenides' saying τὸ γὰρ αὐτὸ νοεῖν ἐστίν τε καὶ εἶναι, which allows several different interpretations (as Dunshirn makes clear in his commentary). Then follows the Plotinus passage mentioned above, which would not be commonly recommended to beginners as easy reading. The third specimen is Heraclitus frg. 1 D.-K., with a genitive absolute that is left unexplained in the commentary (the syntax is treated only on p. 134 in a totally different context). Evidently, the Greek passages were chosen not to illustrate linguistic phenomena but for their philosophical content; thus the Parmenides fragment that appears at the beginning of the first text chapter gives Dunshirn reason to continue the discussion on the meaning of "to be" that he had started in the last section of the preceding, introductory chapter.

Further, the texts quoted decide what grammatical phenomena are to be treated and in what order. Normally, an elementary course book of Greek is structured as a step-by-step introduction to Greek grammar. You start with the most common or simplest paradigms--say, λόγος and the present tense of λέγω--and for each chapter you chose texts that illustrate the grammatical phenomena introduced in it. Dunshirn works the opposite way. The primary purpose of each section of his book is to introduce his students to a particular philosopher or one of his writings. He first chooses a short passage serving that purpose, and on the basis of the selected text he then decides what paragraphs of grammar are to be treated together with it. His section on the Euthyphro may serve as an illustration of his method. The text chosen for discussion is the introductory dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, divided into two portions (2a1-6 + b1-9). In the accompanying commentary the following grammatical phenomena are presented (and in this order): the interrogative pronoun τίς, comparison of adjectives, active perfect (exemplified with the paradigm of γέγονα), declension of φημί (indicative present), middle-passive perfect (paradigm: γέγραμμαι), middle future (γνώσομαι). This grammatical information occurs in short paragraphs interspersed in Dunshirn's commentary on the contents of the text. In fact, only a small portion of the book consists of Greek text. For instance, in the forty-seven pages of the Socrates/Plato section you find only about 90 full lines of original Greek.

Dunshirn's book is intended for classroom teaching. Although translations of all the Greek texts and solutions to the exercises are provided in appendices (ch. D-E), it can hardly be used by an autodidact since too many linguistic complexities are left unexplained in the commentaries. After following a course based on the book, the students will not be fully prepared for reading Greek texts on their own. But that is not Dunshirn's intention. He is quite aware that more training is needed. As an aid to further studies he offers an extended bibliography of course books, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries and diverse manuals in German, English, French, Italian, and Latin,5 and much relevant literature is referred to in the copious footnotes, too.

Succinct as they are, the commentaries on grammatical matters are correct and up-to-date. Dunshirn wisely follows Bornemann and Risch's grammar, which is now widely used in German-speaking parts of Europe and which surpasses many similar handbooks current elsewhere. For instance, Dunshirn's account of verbal aspect, a mystery to speakers of German, English or the Scandinavian languages, is decidedly more in accordance with both contemporary linguistic theory and with actual Greek usage than the corresponding paragraphs in the recently published Oxford Grammar of Classical Greek.6 The proof-reading was done with great care. The book is practically free from those misspellings and misplaced accents, all too frequent in comparable manuals, that mislead the beginner and annoy the expert.7 The layout is spacious and designed in a way that makes it easy for the reader to follow the argument with its frequent transitions from one subject to another.

Since philosophy is not my specialty, I do not comment on that part of the book, but I find no reason to doubt that Dunshirn is as good at Greek philosophy as at Greek grammar. All in all, the book seems to fulfill the promise that Dunshirn gives in his preface. Also, since it provides so much information of a technical character, it will be helpful to students who are to use such tools for text analysis in their future studies. Used with discretion by a committed teacher it is likely to inspire students to take their studies of Greek to a higher level.


A. Abkürzungen
B. Vorbemerkungen
1. Der Begriff "Grammatik"
2. Das griechische Einheitsalphabet
3. Aussprache des Altgriechischen
4. Lese- und Transkriptionsübungen
5. εἶναι - Sein
C. Texte
I. Philosophie vor Sokrates
1. Parmenides
Exkurs: Die Textausgaben der Fragmente der Vorsokratiker
a) Die Ausgabe von Diels und Kranz
b) Der Zitatkontext der Vorsokratikerfragmente
Exkurs: Wörterbücher
a) Der Wörterbucheintrag νοεῖν im "Passow"
b) Der "Liddell-Scott"
c) Etymologische Wörterbücher
2. Heraklit - Logos
Exkurs: Dialekte des Griechischen
3. Anaximander
4. Xenophanes
Exkurs: Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa. . .
5. Anaxagoras
Übungen - Teil l
II. Sokrates - Platon
a) Quellen zu Leben und Wirken des Sokrates
b) Zitierweise. Hilfsmittel
c) Die Tetralogieneinteilung der Dialoge
1. Die erste Tetralogie
Exkurs: Die sogenannte "Rahmenhandlung" der Dialoge
a) Euthyphron
b) Apologie
c) Phaidon
2. Die zweite Tetralogie
a) Kratylos
b) Theaitetos
c) Sophistes
3. Die dritte Tetralogie
a) Parmenides
b) Phaidros
4. Politeia
5. Timaios
6. Der Mythos von den Kugelmenschen
Übungen-Teil 2
III. Aristoteles
a) Zitierweise
b) Hilfsmittel, Übersetzungen, Kommentare
c) Übersicht über die Schriften des Aristoteles
1. Kategorien
2. Hermeneutik
3. Physik
4. Über die Seele
5. Metaphysik
a) Der erste Satz der Metaphysik
b) Eine Bestimmung des Philosophen
c) Der Satz vom Widerspruch 3, 1005bl9-20)
d) Die mannigfache Bedeutung des Seienden
e) δύναμις - ἐνέργεια - ἐντελέχεια
6. Nikomachische Ethik
7. Politik
8. Rhetorik
9. Poetik
Übungen - Teil 3
D. Übersetzungen
E. Lösungen zu den Übungen
F. Glossar
G. Literaturverzeichnis
H. Indices
1. Grammatikalischer Index
2. Vokabel


1.   F.E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms. A Historical Lexicon. New York University Press, 1967; J.O. Urmson, The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary. London: Duckworth, 1990. Both have been reprinted repeatedly and are still available.
2.   Frank Beetham, Learning Greek with Plato: A Beginner's Course in Classical Greek. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007. ISBN 987-1-904675-56-3 (review: BMCR 2007.09.50).
3.   Francis H. Fobes, Philosophical Greek. An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957 is the only Anglophone predecessor of Dunshirn known to me. I am aware of two comparable books from Scandinavia, one of them written by myself and both aiming at providing more general knowledge of Greek than Dunshirn's but less ambitious than Fobes' (Sten Ebbesen, Filosofgraesk. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 1982; Jerker Blomqvist, Grekiska för filosofer. Lund: Department of Classics, 1997), and there may exist others elsewhere.
4.   Eduard Bornemann, Griechische Grammatik. Unter Mitwirkung von Ernst Risch. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main: Diesterweg, 1978 (reprinted repeatedly).
5.   The only things I miss there are the TLG and Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Paris, 1968-1980.
6.   James Morwood, Oxford Grammar of Classical Greek. Oxford University Press 2001.
7.   I have spotted only three incorrect accents, p. 131, n. 124 (read σῶφρον), p. 154 (ἄν τις), and p. 169 (νέος). On p. 124 the phrase from which the term ἐντελέχεια is supposed to have been derived must be written ἐντελῶς ἔχειν.

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