BMCR 2006.08.35

Language and Learning

Dorothea Frede, Brad Inwood, Language and learning : philosophy of language in the Hellenistic age : proceedings of the ninth Symposium Hellenisticum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xi, 353 pages). ISBN 0511113447 $90.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Language and Learning is the latest volume to emerge from the Symposium Hellenisticum conference series. Like its predecessors, this book’s alliterative title is a guide to its contents, which in this case examine a range of issues involving the philosophical treatment of language by Hellenistic philosophers (or, in a couple of cases, those preceding or following them), a topic that has been strangely neglected by specialists. And as with other volumes in the series, Language and Learning features a healthy blend of relatively junior scholars and the most senior scholars in the field, all of whom were given expert guidance by the editors. Given the interest of the topic and the high quality of the contributions, it is a welcome addition to the literature on ancient philosophy.

In their helpful introduction, Frede and Inwood write that philosophers’ interest in language increased greatly during the Hellenistic era. In part, they attribute this to cosmogony: both Stoics and Epicureans held that the cosmos was created, a view that ‘naturally led to the question of the origin of humankind, its culture and its language’ (p. 2). In part, they trace it to dialectic: given the conditions of intense competition that existed among the schools, ‘vigilance and care … concerning the linguistic precision and formal accuracy of their arguments’ became imperative (ibid.). At the same time that language became a locus of philosophical analysis and argumentation, the actual analyses and arguments advanced by the various schools were quite distinct and sometimes incommensurable, because each school approached linguistic problems ‘on the basis of its own philosophical presuppositions’ and ‘with different ends in view’ (p. 3). For such reasons, the editors resist distilling a single core set of issues involving language that all Hellenistic philosophers addressed. Instead, they identify three questions that served as ‘main centres of interest’ to the schools and their successors (p. 4). They are: (1) ‘the question of the origin of language or languages’; (2) ‘the question of the interdependence between language and thought in general’; and (3) ‘the question in what sense “language” can be treated as a technical subject with rules of its own’ (ibid.). Language and Learning is structured around these three questions, which are taken up in Chapters One-Four, Five-Six and Seven-Ten, respectively. Rather than plough through each chapter individually, I follow the editors’ lead in taking them by group.

The chapters in the first group are neatly divisible into pairs along school lines: James Allen and A.A. Long write about the Stoics, while Alexander Verlinsky and Catherine Atherton discuss the Epicureans. In addition to the problem of the origin of language, Allen and Long also grapple with etymology (Stoics believed that important information could be obtained through analysis of some words’ histories) and whether there is a standard of ‘correctness’ governing the formation and use of words. In my opinion, however, the most interesting issue raised in these chapters concerns the validity of deploying the Cratylus to illuminate an important Stoic argument: namely, that because a select sub-set of words imitate the things in the world that they are about, these words can, in Allen’s words, serve as a ‘natural standard of correctness’ (p. 18). Given that the Cratylus is the earliest work in the history of philosophy to address both the premise and conclusion of this Stoic argument — it considers whether words are natural or the product of human conventions and also whether it makes sense to say that language can have a standard of correctness — it is tempting to find doctrinal affinities between Stoicism and Platonism. Allen and Long cannot, however, agree on the wisdom of acquiescing to this temptation: Allen thinks we should not, because of several substantive differences he finds in the Stoic versus Platonic positions; Long thinks we should, even going so far as to argue that ‘parts of [the Stoics’] linguistic theory can be interpreted as a revisionary reading of the Cratylus‘ (p. 37). Because they clash on this point while simultaneously engaging other issues either unrelated to, or complements of, what is discussed in the other’s paper, Allen and Long are a marvellous pairing.

There is less interaction between Verlinsky and Atherton’s papers. True, both are addressing the Epicurean idea that language evolved in stages from a primitive state to its present sophisticated form. Yet their styles are very different — Verlinsky is more philological and descriptive where Atherton is philosophical and evaluative — and their specific foci are largely non-overlapping. Verlinsky connects Epicurus to his likely predecessors, drawing on a range of texts to do so, while Atherton concentrates solely on the merits of Epicurean evolutionism, using Lucretius as her primary source. While some might be drawn to the meticulous detail of Verlinsky’s work, I found the vigorous argumentation of Atherton’s piece more appealing. Her critique of Lucretius is not textual, though in various places she does highlight problematic lacunae in our sources (see, e.g., p. 121). Instead, she wants to show how the Epicurean theory itself is wanting. And she adumbrates a number of deep problems. Since the Epicurean theory is an instance of naturalistic accounts of language, the objections she poses to it are also ones that contemporary linguistic naturalists need to rebut. Moving on, the two papers in the second group approach the subject of the relationship between language and thought from very different directions. Ineke Sluiter explicitly bases her paper ‘on the assumption that, since so much of what we know of the Cynics’ performance is through the literary shaping of their lives in the form of telling anecdotes and narratives, we should be paying special attention to the essentially literary nature of the representation of Cynicism’ (p. 140). Taking Diogenes the Dog as her exemplar, she carefully maps his and the Cynics’ deliberately ‘transgressive’ behaviour, in both non-verbal and verbal communication. I ought to note that her discussion does wander far from the ostensible topics of both her group and the book as a whole, though this is not an objection to it.

In a way, the same can be said of Charles Brittain’s ambitious piece. He is interested in how and when a genuine ‘theory of “common sense”‘ arrived on the scene (p. 165). My intuitions about ‘common sense’ tell me that while it may incorporate issues pertinent to the philosophy of language, it also and importantly extends far beyond that discipline, to matters of acculturation, epistemology, and psychology. This is why Brittain’s piece strikes me as akin to Sluiter’s in being anomalous in a volume otherwise dedicated to philosophy of language. In another way, however, Brittain’s work is very much at home in Language and Learning, for the actual issues he spends most of his time discussing — meaning, innate ideas, the nature of definition, etc. — are integral to philosophy of language. Recognising that his topic is far too large for a single paper, he focuses on a single ‘mechanism of translation’ (ibid.), a step that he sees occurring when Cicero takes over the Stoic idea of ‘preconception’ ( prolepsis) and renders it first into ‘common mind’ ( communis mens) and finally ‘common sense’ ( communis sensus) (see especially pp. 206-7). To make his claim that there was no ‘theory’ of common sense before Cicero (p. 164), Brittain must lean heavily on the notion of ‘theory’. It is to be hoped that he will unpack this in the larger study to which this paper seems a precursor.

The final group of papers is the most varied, since they are united only by being about (in the editors’ words) ‘technical issues concerning the function of language, its structure, properties and anomalies, and its relation to the world’ (p. 9).

Susanne Bobzien and Jonathan Barnes both pursue logical problems. In Bobzien’s case, she is primarily interested in a very specific question: namely, determining the extent of the difficulties facing the so-called ‘lexical’ interpretation of the Stoic treatment of sophismata of homonymy (p. 239). Though Stoic views on fallacies of homonymy have received significant scholarly attention in recent years (see especially C. Atherton’s The Stoics on Ambiguity (Cambridge, 1993)), the details are still opaque. Apart from the intrinsic appeal such puzzles hold for formally-inclined scholars and philosophers, the other impulse behind the quest for clarity has to do with the importance of this kind of fallacy in Stoicism. Summoning up issues of both communication and meaning, it is natural to think that we might strengthen our grasp of the connection posited by Stoics between language and thought through studying what they wrote about homonyms. If Bobzien’s sights are narrowed by her choice of target, Barnes’ are wide by virtue of his, for he wants to know whether Stoics ‘attended to words rather than things’ (p. 274). This question is of enormous interest to historians of logic, who credit the Stoics with having recognised that the logical properties of arguments have nothing to do with what they’re about — to use the jargon, form is independent of content — an insight foundational to modern logic. Barnes shows that Stoics may not have been the heroes they have been made out to be, if only because they did not formulate word/thing dichotomy as neatly as required for them to be true formalists. His avenue into this is the disjunction (i.e. “either…or”) as discussed in Apollonius Dyscolus’ On Connectors and Galen’s Institutio logica; he provides his versions of the relevant extracts from these texts in two valuable appendices to his paper.

David Blank and Sten Ebbesen round out the fourth group. The key questions before Blank concern the nature of the arguments in and the sources of Varro’s De lingua latina 8.1. The prevailing view sees it as derived from Crates of Mallos. Since, as Blank puts it, LL 8 argues ‘against the existence and advisability of analogies in flexion’ (p. 211), the standard view implies that Crates is also anti-analogist. Blank wants to correct this reading of the text. On his account, Varro’s ‘source is an empiricist work, possibly that of an Epicurean’, and Crates appears as ‘an advocate of grammatical science’ (p. 238). Given the rarefied knowledge that he presupposes of both the conceptual and the textual issues, I suspect that many readers will find Blank occasionally daunting. Ebbesen applies his encyclopaedic knowledge of medieval philosophy to draw comparisons between some twelfth- and thirteenth-century philosophers and the ancient Stoics. There are three basic issues on which he focuses: imposition, or ‘the assignment of a certain meaning to a certain sound’ (p. 300); the ‘so-called modistic theory of grammar’ (p. 307), which took the ‘modes’ of signifying to be based on modes of thought and, eventually, being; and the linguistic dynamism of Roger Bacon (p. 317). Ebbesen’s piece has the feel of a survey, repeating some of his earlier work (such as his paper in Strange and Zupko’s Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations (Cambridge, 2004)). Those of us who are impressed by his knowledge of both Hellenistic and medieval philosophy hope that he will soon complement these occasional pieces with a more sustained discussion in a monograph.

In sum, then, Language and Learning is a fine collection. While some papers (e.g., Atherton and Barnes) are weightier than others (Sluiter and Ebbesen), the exacting nature of the forum in which they were initially presented ensures that the standard is high throughout. Besides the aforementioned introduction, internal cross-references, a bibliography and two indices bind the volume together and increase its user-friendliness.


Dorothea Frede and Brad Inwood, untitled introduction (pp. 1-13);

James Allen, ‘The Stoics on the origin of language and the foundations of etymology’ (pp. 14-35);

A.A. Long, ‘Stoic linguistics, Plato’s Cratylus, and Augustine’s De dialectica‘ (pp. 36-55);

Alexander Verlinsky, ‘Epicurus and his predecessors on the origin of language’ (pp. 56-100);

Catherine Atherton, ‘Lucretius on what language is not’ (pp. 101-138);

Ineke Sluiter, ‘Communicating Cynicism: Diogenes’ gangsta rap’ (pp. 139-163);

Charles Brittain, ‘Common sense: concepts, definition and meaning in and out of the Stoa’ (pp. 164-209);

David Blank, ‘Varro’s anti-analogist’ (pp. 210-238);

Susanne Bobzien, ‘The Stoics on the fallacies of equivocation’ (pp. 239-273);

Jonathan Barnes, ‘What is a disjunction?’ (pp. 274-298);

Sten Ebbesen, ‘Theories of language in the Hellenistic age and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’ (pp. 299-319);

Plus bibliography and indices.