BMCR 2000.03.10

Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

, Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xiii, 499. $75.00.

This book is nothing less than a history of ancient Greek philosophy from the beginnings up to the end of the Academy in CE 520 focussing on causes and explanations. Hankinson does not mean to discuss ancient theories about what a cause or explanation is — “meta-theories” — but rather the actual largely physical doctrines or accounts offered by philosophers. This is a startlingly huge subject since the proposing of causes and explanations pretty much circumscribes constructive philosophy, modern as well as ancient. There is not much here that is left out with the exception of ethics, and even that is touched on in the matter of human responsibility for actions. The thematic unity of the book seems to be more or less under control in the first section on the presocratics, because here the author concentrates on scientific or proto-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. But the scientific focus is inevitably diffused as the author moves through the history of his period and as philosophy emerges as having interests independent of those of science.

The scope of this book is truly impressive. There are chapters on the presocratics, wherein Hankinson takes an unexpected detour through the historical explanations of Herodotus. There are then chapters on Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics, the medical writers, especially Galen, the so-called Middle Platonists, and finally the Neoplatonists. A host of minor figures typically ignored by most scholars of ancient Greek philosophy, such as the successors of Plato in the Academy and Aristotle in the Lyceum, are concisely treated. I am not aware of another contemporary work of scholarship in ancient philosophy that covers such a vast amount of material.

The first two chapters tell the familiar story of the earliest development of ancient Greek philosophy in Ionia and then in Magna Graeca. There is here a welcome and illuminating attempt to integrate the understanding of the theory of ancient medicine, especially that contained in the Hippocratic treatises, with the broader currents of naturalistic speculation. The chapter on Plato focuses principally on Phaedo and Timaeus and provides an account of Plato’s attempts to break away from presocratic speculation based on his conviction that the cosmos is fundamentally intelligible. Two chapters are devoted to Aristotle’s explanations of nature, including an emphasis on what the author calls his “qualitative physics of motion”. The atomists are treated together with Epicurus in another chapter. Here, the consequences of the rejection of teleology, whether that of Aristotle or Plato, are explained in detail. There is a concise and tightly argued chapter on Stoic physics and a treatment of how the Stoics account for moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. The chapter on skepticism focuses mainly on Aenesidemus, the first century BCE founder of a technical version of Pyrrhonism. The next three chapters contain a grab-bag of relatively brief discussions of the largely fragmentary material pertaining to the philosophers and medical writers in the period roughly between the first century BCE and the middle of the third century CE. The last chapter deals with Neoplatonic metaphysical and physical theories, especially those of Plotinus and Proclus with some attention to Iamblichus, Philoponus, and Simplicius.

Hankinson writes vividly and with precision and he is analytically acute, dissecting sometimes with exquisite care the various possible interpretations of philosophical claims before opting in most cases for the obvious. Perhaps understandably, there is a great deal more precise analysis applied to the more familiar territory of 4th century philosophy than to the later period where the amount of material is dauntingly immense. Given the scope of this enterprise, it may seem ungrateful to complain about omissions. Nevertheless, there are several important ones. Hankinson does not discuss Thucydides’ important account of the principles of historical explanation, which is rather more sophisticated than anything in Herodotus. He does not discuss the explanatory role of the Form of the Good in Plato. His treatment of one of the most important texts in Aristotle regarding the methodology of scientific inquiry, Posterior Analytics 2.19, is perfunctory. The Academic skeptics, not to be confused with the later so-called “Pyrrhonian” skeptics, get almost no attention, this despite the fact that philosophers as diverse as Charles Sanders Pierce and Roderick Chisholm (neither scholars of ancient philosophy) have recognized their tremendous importance as forerunners of modern scientific explanation. Surprisingly, not a word is said about Plotinus’ claim that the first principle of all, the one, is “the cause of itself” (VI.8.14.41), probably the first time this claim was ever made and arguably one of the more portentous claims in the later history of this subject. The treatment of one of the most fascinating and philosophically challenging debates in ancient philosophy, namely, that between John Philoponus on one side and Aristotle, Proclus and Simplicius on the other, regarding the eternity of the world, is disappointingly meager. On the other hand, the medical writers, especially Galen, a figure about whom Hankinson has written widely, get extensive and penetrating studies. From this we should conclude that Hankinson concentrates on what interests him and what he knows best and moves gingerly through the less familiar terrain that he is bound to traverse given his self-imposed mandate. In this regard, he is pretty much like the rest of us who write comprehensive books rather than books with the narrowest possible focus. There is certainly room for both types (at least I hope so), but one should be aware that in this case the author has made some regrettable omissions.

I should like to turn now to the actual content or argument of the book. Despite the above mentioned omissions, surely the main question is what the author has accomplished. I wish I could say that there are some controversial and challenging claims made in this book. Alas, as one can determine immediately from the conclusions that end each chapter, there is absolutely nothing original in the interpretations offered. In fact, on the most controversial matters, familiar to scholars in the field, where the expectation of closure would be unreasonable but where an author may be expected at least to take a side and to offer some new arguments for a position, Hankinson backs away, again and again. I hope it is not unfair to quote what is a very typical passage from Hankinson’s conclusion to one of the two chapters on Aristotle:

Aristotle was sympathetic to Plato’s view that mere mindless mechanism could not generate a world; but he rejected both Plato’s metaphysics of hypostasized perfect Forms and his divinely directed teleology, in favor of a notion of immanent form in the essences of natural things, an internal goal-directed principle which drives living things towards maturity by organizing their material elements into the appropriate structure. Matter corresponds to potentiality, and realized form to actuality; things come to be not ex nihilo (in contravention of the Parmenidean strictures), but out of pre-existing matter under the influence of directing, internal form. Aristotle famously distinguishes four ’causes’ (or causal factors in explanation), the matter, the form, the end, and the agent, and discriminates sharply between regular, natural events, and those brought about by chance, which resist full or proper explanation (158-9).

This is part of the conclusion of a 35 page chapter. One may cavil at certain phrases here, especially those which are, I guess, purposefully vague, but in general this is utterly standard fare. Hankinson says nothing that cannot be found in innumerable secondary sources on Aristotle’s philosophy. The conclusions of the other chapters are of a similar level of banality, although it is undoubtedly true that the territory covered in this book is so huge that some parts of it are bound to be new to most readers. But I am quite sure that there is not one original interpretation to be found anywhere in this sea of learning.

For whom is this book intended? The author does not say. I conjecture that those who would profit most from it are graduate students in philosophy, especially of course those in ancient philosophy, who would like an overview from an analytical perspective of how the Greek philosophers tried to solve basic puzzles about nature broadly conceived. It is largely a reliable tool, one which I would not hesitate to put into the hands of my graduate students. I would not be displeased if my students strove to emulate the author’s learning and Herculean effort to express the ideas contained in tortuously difficult texts in the clearest way possible. Nevertheless, this book in no way advances the study of ancient philosophy. It breaks no new ground. It casts no scholarly debate in a new light. Looked at another way, however, the book is a bargain because one would probably have to spend a lot more than 75 dollars to collect the many books that do the same thing as Hankinson does in this one.