BMCR 2003.12.27

L’Avenir de la Philosophie est-il Grec?

, , L'avenir de la philosophie est-il grec?. Noêsis. Boucherville: Fides, 2002. 233 p. ; 23 cm.. ISBN 2762123933. $19.95.

The French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas once despaired — “there is nothing to be done, philosophy speaks Greek”. Martin Heidegger, for his part, thought philosophy spoke two languages — Greek and German. It is precisely this Germano-Hellenic tradition celebrated by Heidegger which forms the core of this study of the future of Greece as a model for contemporary philosophy. In this respect, the edited volume shares a great deal with the earlier French collection Barbara Cassin (ed.) Nos Grecs et leurs modernes. Les stratégies contemporaines d’appropriation de l’Antiquité (Paris: Seuil, 1992). Despite some attention to the analytic tradition, the figures of Gadamer and Heidegger dominate the discussion of the relationship between ancient philosophy and its modern counterpart. The emphasis on the Gadamerian tradition of hermeneutics, however, gives a new rigour to the question of “appropriation,” which remained largely unexamined in the previous volume.

Many of the debates about reception studies which have been in currency in classics since the publication of Charles Martindale’s Redeeming the Text (Cambridge, 1993) have their roots in the hermeneutic tradition, but classicists have rarely engaged directly with the questions of history and appropriation that hermeneutics has put on the agenda. The best essays in this volume use the question of the Greek future of philosophy as a springboard for a discussion of the methodological issues involved in studying the past from the perspective of the present. As reception becomes an ever more prominent feature of our discipline, the need for a theoretically informed discussion of the merits and limitations of historicist approaches to the classical tradition increases. The volume is a welcome contribution to a debate which is only beginning to take shape within the discipline. And yet, despite the evident interest of examining the ways in which Greek writings have informed the modern tradition, the election of Greece as the origin of philosophical thinking should also be interrogated. The spirit of the volume is much closer to Heidegger’s triumphalism than to Lévinas’ despair. Although the essays repeatedly return to questions of alterity, the Greekness of the philosophical tradition as an ideological construction is never fully debated. I cannot help thinking that the opportunity for a more politicised discussion of the future of the past has been missed. The book has its origins in a colloquium held at the University of Ottawa in 1999 and is divided into two sections roughly organised around complementary themes. The first, and to my mind, more successful is entitled ‘Interpréter les Grecs: Pourquoi et Comment’. This section uses an essay by Hans-Georg Gadamer as the starting point to the discussion of the interpretative difficulties of understanding Greek philosophy from the perspective of the modern tradition. Where the first section of the book is organised around a dialogue with Gadamer and hermeneutics, the second half uses Heidegger and phenomenology as its principal reference point. Entitled ‘Conjuguer le Futur au Passé: Retours et Détours Grecs’, the essays in this section trace the intersections between the preoccupations of ancient and modern with a view to the future directions of philosophy.

Catherine Collobert’s astute introduction admirably lays out the challenges of the book. Starting from the premise that no philosophy comes into being ex-nihilo, Collobert nevertheless insists that the return to Greece in modern thought is by no means inevitable. There is no historical necessity to the persistence of the Greek model in the history of philosophy, such a necessity can only be established after the fact. And yet, Greek philosophy does have a certain privilege, Collobert maintains, as the starting point of both the analytic and Continental traditions of Western philosophy. Although Continental philosophy with its historicist bent may seem the more obvious contender for a sustained dialogue with the past, the building blocks of the analytic tradition are also seen to be an inheritance of Greek thought. The difference between the two traditions results from competing understandings of the nature of their relationship to Greek history.

The essay by Hans-Georg Gadamer which launches the first section could act as a very good introduction to the hermeneutic approach to the question of reception. Gadamer argues that the question of the “actualité” of Greek philosophy demands a recourse to hermeneutics. The relationship between antiquity and modernity, which has been constructed in the humanist tradition over the past 150 years, cannot avoid confronting the fact that we moderns are not the natural and direct descendents of the Greco-Roman tradition but are rather condemned to look upon this tradition with “un regard étranger”. And yet, it is this tension between the historical situatedness of the modern reader and the inescapable power of the tradition which seems to transcend these historical horizons which Gadamer reveals. This ultimately leads him to argue that “la rencontre répétée avec la philosophie grecque est une rencontre avec nous-mêmes”(13).

In what is one of the most interesting essays in the book, Yvon Lafrance revisits this tension in hermeneutics in an analysis of the concepts of appropriation and disappropriation in Gadamer and Schleiermacher. By returning to Schleiermacher, the founder of hermeneutics, Lafrance sets out to criticise the notion of tradition in the Gadamerian reading of antiquity. For Lafrance the so-called “fusion of horizons” eliminates the crucial temporal dimension of interpretation: “L’herméneutique de Gadamer nous demande d’adopter une stratégie d’appropriation des textes anciens et de chercher en eux la Vérité de la chose exprimée dans un texte classique et intemporel. L’herméneutique de Schleiermacher nous demande, au contraire, d’adopter une stratégie de désappropriation” (61-62) Lafrance thus uses a controversy within hermeneutics to debate the all-important notions of appropriation, tradition and history in our approach to the ancient texts.

In another fascinating essay Jean Grondin turns to the question of “la ‘grécité’ de la philosophie”. Grondin uncovers the retrospective strategies that have privileged the Greek as a mode of thought and argues that a certain translation of the Greek was necessarily always present in modernity’s nostalgic reclaiming of the past: “on peut … se demander s’il est vraiment possible de comprendre les Grecs sans les traduire” (71). François Renaud’s contribution returns to the question of the alterity of the Greeks in an essential discussion of Gadamer and the question of historicism. Renaud examines the paradox of hermeneutics’ dependence on a notion of the continuity of tradition while at the same time stressing the historically determined nature of interpretation. The essay thus analyses the dialectic between sameness and alterity which informs the relationship between antiquity and modernity. Renaud warns against the “autism” of a hermeneutic tradition which follows the Socratic injunction of the “travail sur soi” at the expense of a dialogue with the other. The essay thus goes to the heart of the problem of the ethical/political importance of an historical dimension to our relationship to the past.

Julius Moravcsik’s essay, translated from an earlier English version, addresses some of the same questions from the perspective of analytic philosophy. Adopting a more Anglo-Saxon stance, Moravcsik raises the question of why one should study the history of philosophy. For Moravcsik philosophy sets itself the task of building a bridge between two banks — the first is occupied by the Greeks and is static, the second is ever receding and represents the future of philosophy. The second half of the essay is taken up by a survey of Anglo-American readings of Plato and Aristotle in the twentieth century. Moravcsik reveals how an engagement with Greek philosophy brought a new dimension to traditional analytic debates such as the mind/body problem and the relationship between epistemology and ontology. Collobert rounds off this section with an essay about the difficulties of establishing a meaningful dialogue with the Greeks. How to negotiate between the poles of an illusive proximity and a radical alterity? Collobert argues that we should internalise the otherness of the Greeks in order to produce a critique of the present: “les Grecs comme un autre nous mêmes” (129).

The next section is launched with two insightful essays that examine different aspects of the relationship between phenomenology and Greek thought. Françoise Dastur examines phenomenology’s debt to the Greeks and argues that the resurfacing of Greek philosophy is not just a return but rather a necessary completion of an unfinished journey: “le projet de Heidegger, … demeure, comme pour Husserl, celui d’un accomplissement de l’essence grecque de la philosophie, et non pas encore celui de son dépassement”(140). Thus, for the phenomenological tradition, the Greek beginning of philosophy contained within it the script for the future. As Heidegger memorably phrased it : “il s’agit de penser ‘de façon encore plus grecque ce qui été pensé de façon grecque'” (146). In the next essay Gérard Guest returns to this Heideggerian injunction to be more Greek than the Greeks. Guest examines how the end of metaphysics came to coincide with a desire to resuscitate Greek thought. This conception of Greeks in the anti-enlightenment philosophy is contrasted by Heidegger with the Hegelian position of the “pas encore” of Greek philosophy. Where for Hegel Greek philosophy was destined to fall short of the Absolute Knowledge of the Spirit, for Heidegger it is our philosophy which will be found lacking in its encounter with the Greeks: “pour notre pensée aussi, la philosophie des Grecs se montre sous le jour d’un ‘pas encore’…: non point le ‘pas encore’ qui ne nous satisfait pas, mais bien un ‘pas encore’ auquel nous ne suffisons pas et sommes loin de pouvoir satisfaire” (165). Following this train of thought, Guest ends his contribution with the justifiably famous quotation from Nietzsche which could act as the epigraph to this volume: “car je ne sache point quel sens la philologie classique pourrait bien encore avoir en notre temps, si ce n’est celui d’agir sur lui de manière intempestive — c’est-à-dire aussi d’agir contre ce temps et par là même sur ce temps et, il faut l’espérer, en faveur d’un temps à venir” (168).

The last three essays examine different ways in which thinking with the Greeks could revivify the contemporary philosophical scene. Lambros Couloubaritsis focuses on the fields of metaphysics and the pre-Socratic analysis of “hénologie” — the question of the one and the many. He argues that at a time when much philosophical debate has polarised between the opponents and the defenders of metaphysics, the Greek interrogation of the relationship between metaphysics and ontology could offer a way out of an increasingly sterile debate. Jean-François Mattéi argues that it is precisely the anti-humanist critique of metaphysics which makes the revisiting of Greek philosophy a necessity in our time of intellectual disorientation. For Mattéi the Greek example was most importantly an example of a universalist conception of the human condition: “Le monde grec offrait … son universalité à tous les hommes, même aux Barbares”(197). In the wake of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, philosophy has turned to a dangerous discourse of cultural relativism which only a re-embracing of Greek universalism can save us from. The maintenance of an explicitly Western tradition of philosophical thought is also the focus of the final contribution by Marcel Conche. For Conche, “si la philosophie, comme telle, a un avenir, cet avenir ne peut être que Grec” (218). Conche praises the secular tradition of thought inaugurated by the Greeks and argues that it is the Greek practice of thinking unencumbered by the post-Cartesian obsession with “watching ourselves think” which makes the Greek past the only future worth fighting for.

The idea of this book is an excellent one, and many of the contributions will make indispensable reading to those interested in the questions of continuity and rupture, sameness and difference and history and tradition which structure modernity’s encounter with antiquity. It is a shame that such a debate has yet to be conducted by a more mainstream cast of classicists (most of the contributors to this volume work in philosophy departments) particularly within the Anglo-American academy — for this reason alone it might be worth translating this collection. And yet, a project such as this has to be treated with care. As the final two contributions show, an analysis of the Western tradition can all too easily spill over into an unquestioning celebration of the superiority of the Greeks. The implicit chauvinism of such appeals reveals the ideological violence which so often hides behind the uncontested notion of the Greekness of philosophy. “The name of Greece strikes home to the hearts of men of education in Europe, and more particularly is this so with us Germans,”1 so wrote Hegel. Perhaps it is no surprise that a book so heavily focused on the German obsession with the Greeks inaugurated by Hegel should not stop to question the problems of this genealogy. And yet, this reader can’t help wishing that Lévinas’ sighs of despair could have been heard through the clamour of the Germano-Hellenic celebration.


1. Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, E.S. Haldane and Fraces H. Simpson trans. (London and New York, 1974), p. 149.