BMCR 1994.05.12

1994.05.12, Hamlyn (trans.), Aristotle De Anima 2-3

, , , De anima : books II and III with passages from book 1. Clarendon Aristotle series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. xviii, 194 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780198240846. $45.00.

This work is essentially a reprint of the author’s translation of and commentary on portions of Aristotle’s De Anima in the Clarendon Aristotle series. The new edition contains a survey by Christopher Shields of work on some central philosophical issues in De Anima produced during the 25 years since the appearance of the original edition. It also contains an updated bibliography of scholarship, limited almost entirely to works in English.

Hamlyn’s work stands in contrast to other distinguished volumes in this series which have been widely recognized as constituting substantial contributions to the understanding of Aristotle’s thought. One wonders what good reason there is for reprinting this book. In its first incarnation it did not add anything important to the commentaries of Hicks and Ross. And, as Shield’s useful survey unintentionally reveals, it is woefully inadequate in its appreciation of the fascinating and complex philosophical problems raised by Aristotle’s psychology. It is difficult to believe that a scholar would regard having easy access to this book as an important desideratum and it does no credit to a teacher to put it into the hands of students. Oxford might have commissioned a revision, either by Hamlyn or Shields or someone else. Alternatively, they might have let the book just disappear from memory. Alas, they did neither.

Hamlyn’s discussion of De Anima is more a collection of observations and notes than it is a commentary, at least as that term is generally understood. People normally go to a commentary with the expectation that they will be assisted in understanding the author. For this reason, a commentary should be written and read in an instrumental capacity. Hamlyn, however, evidently did not see himself in this role. The author does not make a serious attempt to situate Aristotle’s psychology within the general science of nature. Seldom does he try to do what is most useful, namely, flesh out the intensely elliptical arguments of the text by drawing upon claims made elsewhere in the works. As a scientist, Aristotle does not look upon each of his treatises as totally independent and unconnected to the results elsewhere established. The treatises are contributions or records of contributions to sciences, not self-contained literary works.

Hamlyn is repeatedly quick to dismiss Aristotle as confused or wildly mistaken in his philosophical claims. Of course, it would be a sin of an entirely different sort to pronounce a priori that this is never so. Nevertheless, a commentator should in the first instance expend every effort to assist Aristotle in making his arguments perspicuous to the reader. When and only when he has assured himself that he has done everything he can to make Aristotle’s case as strong as it can legitimately be made, then is he justified in turning to the attack.

There was a fortunately very brief period of time in the English-speaking world of Aristotelian scholarship when the sort of approach taken by Hamlyn was regarded as reasonable or even admirable. It is not now so. One hopes that Oxford’s pecuniary interests will not inadvertently lead to the production of more unhelpful books of this sort.