BMCR 1997.06.12

1997.6.12, Taylor, ed., Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy vol. XIV

, Oxford studies in ancient philosophy. Vol. 14. Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1997]. 312 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198236702. US$68.00.

A little over a year ago Oxford Studies vol. XIII was reviewed in this journal, and the general character of the series does not need to be reiterated. This year’s volume is just a bit longer (up from 296 pages) and a bit more expensive (up from $65.00). But there are only ten contributions, rather than twelve, permitting the editor to include three unusually long articles with no loss in the variety or range of periods covered. Alas, there is still nothing on the Presocratics; one can only hope that this is not an indication that the field has gone moribund.

Oxford Studies vol. XIV contains five free-standing articles (on Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics), an exchange between Job van Eck and Christopher Rowe about a key passage in the Phaedo, and three lengthy review articles: Michael Wedin on David Bostock’s Aristotle: Metaphysics Z and H; Gail Fine on R.J. Hankinson’s The Sceptics; and Anne Sheppard on John Dillon’s Alcinous. Only the briefest sketch of the volume is possible.

The volume opens with ‘True Belief in the Meno’ by Panagiotis Dimas. In 32 incisive pages the author challenges several current beliefs about the central argument of the Meno and the way Meno’s paradox and the slave-boy episode should be interpreted. Dimas is particularly strong in close exegesis of the text, not allowing a prior conviction about philosophical likelihood to distort his analysis. Thus he puts considerable weight on the fact that Socrates repeatedly frames the problem which leads to Meno’s paradox in terms of not knowing at all ( to parapan): if one does not know x at all, then one does not know what x is like. This is a simple enough principle, indeed one whose very simplicity helps to explain why it is accepted with so little discussion in the dialogue. Hence Dimas sets aside the common invocation of Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Not only is it not articulated by Socrates, but if it had been then it ought not to have been accepted so readily by Meno. In the central part of his discussion, Dimas challenges what is now a dominant interpretation (shared by Irwin, Fine, Burnyeat, Santas, and others). According to Dimas, Socrates does not proceed by disclaiming knowledge about virtue and nevertheless employing true beliefs about it in the course of an elenctic enquiry (the true beliefs at least sufficing to establish the object of enquiry and so making enquiry conceptually possible). Instead, he concentrates on defending the possibility of a rational enquiry, i.e., one with a reasonable prospect of discovering the answer sought. Hence Socrates (as portrayed here by Plato) goes beyond elenctic methods by using the demonstration of recollection in the slave-boy episode to establish that true belief is possible without knowledge; Dimas is particularly sensitive to the non-inferential character of recollection in that episode. He argues in his conclusion that Plato here moves beyond Socratic epistemological commitments: “Plato took seriously Meno’s challenge because he was intrigued by what motivated it. To answer it, he both rejects Socratic theses [such as the need to know a definition of x if one is to know anything at all about x] and makes exciting and substantive claims of his own” (30). This is not a terribly novel conclusion; but it is supported against a current orthodoxy with an impressive combination of careful reading and philosophical sensitivity.

Platonic themes continue with Thomas Wheaton Bestor’s ‘Plato’s Semantics and Plato’s Cave’. It is a relief that Bestor is a lively writer, since he spins out to fifty pages an anachronistic attempt to construct from the Cave passage in Republic 7 a theory of semantics to accompany its “two-worlds” metaphysics. Not surprisingly, this implicit Platonic semantics is not compatible with a semantic theory derived from Austin and elaborated at considerable length by the author. It takes thirty pages to establish that speech acts are not part of the Prisoners’ world and hence that a non-Austinian semantics is needed. In the rest of the article Bestor advances an unremarkable version of Plato’s middle-period semantics, which gives due prominence to the primacy of ontological dualism and the simple ‘naming-after’ relationship. This is not a particularly generous payoff for so long a discussion, but the prose is engaging. However, the editor might have served his readers better by repressing the author’s frustrating tendency to allude to secondary literature (by himself and by others) without supplying references. Such allusions are either unnecessary (if the reader knows what the author is talking about) or useless (if he doesn’t).

Iakovos Vasiliou (‘Perception, Knowledge, and the Sceptic in Aristotle’) makes better use of his fifty-page allotment. Vasiliou is intrigued by the perennial question, why Aristotle is not very interested in the problems raised by scepticism. He rejects the ‘metaphysical’ approach (adapting Cora Diamond’s term) to such questions in the history of philosophy; that is, he declines to assume in advance that Aristotle ought or must have had a theory which justifies his neglect of sceptical arguments. Jonathan Barnes is Vasiliou’s representative target here (and it is a charming irony to consider the prospect of a “metaphysical” Barnes), but Barnes is hardly alone in his approach and Vasiliou is in fact arguing for a severe limitation on the principle of charity as usually practiced. The particular issue which Vasiliou focusses on is the nature of the contrast between ‘in-itself’ and ‘incidental’ perception, a distinction traditionally associated with the contrast of direct and indirect perception. He argues persuasively that this association should not be made and therefore that there is no reason to suppose that incidental perception is any less reliable than in-itself perception. Vasiliou proposes instead that in-itself perception should be understood teleologically: perception is in-itself when the sense that perceives the object is for perceiving that object (88). This has important implications for the common sensibles and the so-called common sense: motion, for example, is common just because there is no one sense designed exclusively for grasping it. This is clearly an argument of great importance for Aristotle’s psychology and for his epistemology, and if it is right then Aristotle does not need a theory about how perception of ordinary objects can be built up without error from in-itself perceptions, since perception of objects (incidental perception) is no less reliable than in-itself perception. Vasiliou is, however, less compelling in his final argument about Aristotle’s concern with error. For he underestimates the degree to which the Argument from Illusion has roots in ancient epistemology and neglects the fact that Epicurus was the first to deploy the argument that if even one sense perception is false then none can be reliable. The Barnesian reading of Aristotle, which challenges him to justify his naive confidence in the reliability of perception, is somewhat less anachronistic than Vasiliou thinks. Furthermore, Vasiliou seems in his concluding section to make the philosophical respectability of Aristotle’s epistemology depend far too heavily on the plausibility of an epistemology derived from the work of John McDowell. For although McDowell’s epistemology is eminently respectable, it is not at all clear that it can give satisfactory answers to the very challenges brought against Aristotle by his modern-day ‘metaphyical’ antagonists. Perhaps in the end Vasiliou’s laudable resolution to abjure anachronistic frameworks yields to the perennial temptation.

The longest and most substantial article in the volume is Susanne Bobzien’s ‘Stoic Syllogistic’. In sixty pages of lucid but highly technical exposition Bobzien sets out the evidence for Stoic syllogistic and for the indemonstrable arguments and supplementary rules ( themata) which make it work. She argues that Stoic syllogistic should not be assimilated to standard propositional calculus, as it so often is, but rather treated as a distinct system for the reductive analysis of arguments which bears important similarities to several non-truthfunctional systems of logic. Her account minimizes the supplementation of ancient evidence by appeal to the basic truths of propositional logic, and presents a superior account of the Stoics’ rigorous exclusion of redundant and duplicated premisses; moreover, it helps to explain why the Chysippean conditional was stronger than strict implication, resting on what he called a ‘connection’ between the premisses. Bobzien’s succinct discussion of the problem of the completeness of Stoic syllogistic and of the purpose of their system now stands as the most careful and persuasive available. One might have wished, though, for the inclusion of a short discussion of the relationship of Stoic argument theory to their ethics; having made a compelling case for the distinctive nature of Stoic logic, it would be natural to consider their motivation for such an exhaustive method of argumentative analysis.

William O. Stephens tackles another Stoic theme in ‘Epictetus on how the Stoic sage loves’. This is a clear and well argued survey of Epictetus’ views on love of various sorts. Epictetus’ practically oriented version of Stoicism is often neglected in the pursuit of what scholars regard as the more philosophically rewarding technicalities of the early school, but intelligent analysis of later figures is vital, if only because there we can avoid the most serious problems of historical reconstruction from fragmentary sources. Stephens’ picture of Epictetus is not particularly novel, but the pragmatic and pedagogical side of Stoicism needs constant re-emphasis, and these aspects of Epictetus thought come out most clearly. One might expect a Stoic, any Stoic, to reject love in all its forms, as being a passion. But Stephens shows that love has a positive side too. Still, some of the interesting hard edges of the Stoic paradox that only the wise man can truly love seem to be softened here, perhaps because ‘love’ in Stephens’ account includes not just eros but also philostorgia and philia.

Job van Eck (‘Resailing Socrates’deuteros plous‘ and Christopher Rowe (‘A reply to van Eck’) debate in close detail the proper interpretation of Phaedo 99-102. Van Eck’s challenge to the conventional reading of the Phaedo is rooted in his 1994 article in Ancient Philosophy (‘Skopein in logois; on Phaedo 99d-103c’), and Rowe’s ‘Explanation in Plato’s Phaedo 99c6-102a8′ ( Oxford Studies XI, 1993). Rowe’s interpretation also lies behind his edition of the Phaedo (Cambridge 1993), and to this extent the debate will interest anyone teaching the dialogue in Greek. In brief, the controversy is over what Socrates means by hypothesizing the existence of Forms and the relation of this hypothesis to other elements in his account of explanation at Phd. 100-101. All parties to the controversy agree that the existence of Forms is an hypothesis, but there is no agreement about the meaning of the back-reference at 101d6-7 to a set of earlier or prior hypotheses. Rowe supposes that the set referred to at 101d6-7 are different versions of the participation relationship, whereas van Eck argues vigorously (and largely convincingly) that Socrates does not include the modalities of participation among the things hypothesized; the referent of ton anothen at 101d7 must (if I followed van Eck’s exposition correctly) be a broader set of possibilities not exhausted by the various modalities of the Form hypothesis. Our understanding of Socrates’ ‘safe’ method is certainly affected by how we interpret this rather narrow question, so the issue is not in the least trivial. Rowe’s reply to van Eck is a model of cautious, polite, and constructive argument. Indeed, the entire exchange, as bitty as it might seem to the casual reader, is well worth the time it takes to sort it through.

Oxford Studies XIV concludes with three review articles. Michael Wedin tackles David Bostock’s recent translation and commentary of Metaphysics Z and H in the Clarendon Aristotle series. Wedin is highly critical of the argument of Bostock’s commentary, and presents a long and closely argued alternative. While regarding the translation as a considerable success, Wedin finds Bostock’s commentary both unconvincing and less clear in its presentation than it should be. On Wedin’s view, Bostock is prone to adopting implausible basic assumptions which require ever more complex argument to sustain them. Wedin’s competing interpretation will soon be available (he refers to three forthcoming articles in which his own approach is worked out), and it would be in the spirit of Oxford Studies exchanges to await their appearance and Bostock’s rejoinder (should there be one) before forming a judgement. Gail Fine takes a comparably critical view of R.J. Hankinson’s The Sceptics. The principal burden of her discussion is that Hankinson tends to be careless where precision of expression would be most desirable, both in translation and in argument. She takes particular exception to his handling of the issue of the extent and general character of Pyrrhonian scepticism. One key question is whether a given sceptic is sceptical about the very existence of external objects or only about claims to know their essence. With her characteristic exactness, Fine argues that Hankinson has understated the strength of Existential Scepticism in the ancient world; hence, if Fine is right, the now standard contrast between ancient and modern scepticism is less extreme than Hankinson (and others) have maintained. Similarly, she presses hard on the question of whether ancient sceptics renounced all beliefs or only theoretical beliefs about obscure matters. Debate on this has been steady for the last two decades, and apparently Fine is disappointed that Hankinson is not more incisive in sorting the issue out. I am not so sure there is a decisive view to be reached by anyone.

The volume concludes with a sympathetic, but not uncritical assessment of John Dillon’s Alcinous: the Handbook of Platonism. Detailed work on Middle Platonism is still in its infancy in the English-speaking world, and John Dillon has been a key figure in the development of the field. Sheppard opens her review by noting that “even [my emphasis] in Oxford the study of ancient philosophy is no longer limited to Plato and Aristotle”, and the Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophers series (in which Dillon’s book appeared in 1993) certainly confirms that. It is perhaps appropriate to conclude this review by noting with appreciation that the Oxford which was once synonymous with narrow adherence to the canon of Plato and Aristotle has for many years now been at the forefront of the movement to extend analytically oriented history of philosophy into later antiquity. In this volume one might lament the silence of the Presocratics and the Epicureans, but there is no doubt that Oxford Studies is doing its part to recognize the fact that good and interesting philosophy was done throughout antiquity, while at the same time confirming that the central authors are still and always will be Plato and Aristotle.