Opinion

Did Descartes Relegate Ancient Philosophers to the Dustbin of History? – I

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None of Descartes’s contemporaries would ever have thought that he had done something so revolutionary that it would relegate ancient philosophers to the dustbin of history, especially since most of them were themselves busy studying and reviving arguments from the ancient Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. Prof. Ashoka, in his erudite research paper, dwells on the many arguments of philosophy. Here’s the first part of his three-part paper. A Different Truths exclusive.

“If you want a future, darling, why don’t you get a past?” – Cole Porter

Back in the 1970s, there was a story in circulation about a newly minted ancient  philosopher being introduced to an American philosopher of note, who asked what area of philosophy the younger man was interested in. When he replied, “ancient philosophy,” the response he reputedly received was, “Ancient philosophy. Really? You mean like Frege?” I have heard so many versions of this story with so many different names attached to its protagonists that it is hard not to be skeptical about its veracity. Yet, like the opening confrontations of many a Platonic dialogue, this bit of probable fiction neatly encapsulates a set of deeper questions. I remember that I had readied my own cheeky retort to such barbs, just in case: “Oh God no, nothing so vulnerable to a few simple paradoxes as the Grundgesetze. I am interested in difficult and complex Phil-o-sophers like Aristotle and Chrysippus,” throwing in the latter, instead of the more obvious Plato, because it was unlikely that any non-specialist would know much about ancient Stoicism; and that would afford me the opportunity to toss around a few choice tidbits about the origins of propositional logic. But, of course, both the disingenuous put-down and my own overly defensive imaginary retort spoke to an anxiety then present in our field, as well as to a series of more long-standing questions about the relation of philosophy to its past. 

At the time, our mythical supercilious philosopher, even if a little fuzzy on the precise historical details, hardly would have been alone in his conviction that Frege had set a distinctly new path for philosophy from which there was no looking back–a path, it is probably safe to infer, he would have thought wound through Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore before reaching an early peak in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and then continuing on to such august contemporaries as Quine, Sellars, and Dummett. However quaint this kind of story has come to look in retrospect, both as history and, and however parochial, omitting so-called Continental philosophy and the eclectic nature of most American departments at the time, a general confidence about casting away the chains of history and approaching central philosophical questions in a way that was utterly contemporary was certainly in the air. 

Of course, such insouciance toward the past was by no means entirely new in the history of philosophy, at least in the textbook accounts. A long tradition of teaching a small selection of particular texts (or passages) had gradually led to a corresponding view of Descartes as an earlier founder de novo of so-called modern philosophy: “modern” because of its methodological and metaphysical turn toward the inner self and the primacy it bestowed on epistemology. To be sure, none of Descartes’s contemporaries would ever have thought that he had done something so revolutionary that it would relegate ancient philosophers to the dustbin of history, especially since most of them were themselves busy studying and reviving arguments from the ancient Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. So, too, it often goes unnoticed that in the Discourse on the Method (1637), Descartes himself characterises his now famous autobiographical tale of solitary, original philosophical discovery as a “fable” that can act as a useful paradigm; a fable that was itself not only rather commonplace at the time, but that also had been current since at least the days of Galen. Moreover, the Cartesian turn toward epistemology still carried with it the baggage of a long and complicated philosophical pre-history, however dimly felt or understood, that included, at the very least, the rediscovery of the writings of an ancient Skeptic, Sextus Empiricus, and the influence of that great worshipper of antiquity, Montaigne, with his slogan of Que sais-je? (literally, “what do I know?”).

This time around, however, the threat to the continued relevance of historical philosophers posed by Frege appeared more clear-cut. Not only were many of the proponents of the new “analytic” philosophy more untouched by ancient paradigms than Descartes and his contemporaries, but they also were operating with a philosophical toolbox far more powerful and systematic than the few rather lacunose methodological procedures that Descartes had sketched out. New hard-hitting logical tools were being developed and applied to language in unprecedented ways. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, on the other hand, had never undergone a corresponding “linguistic turn” of the sort that was now so profoundly transforming the nature of philosophical methods and arguments, nor did it ever develop something called “the philosophy of language” as a significant discipline, in its own right. Nor, importantly, did philosophers in antiquity believe that an inquiry into language could serve as the exclusive point of entry into philosophical problems – problems that could find their solutions only by reforming ordinary language or by using tools of logical analysis to clarify its structure. Thus, a radical parting of the ways between the old and new appeared unavoidable.

Not surprisingly, one consequence of these larger developments is that, over decades, it led to much hand-wringing in our field and professional camps were duly formed, some of them rather extreme. One influential group held that ancient philosophers should just crawl back into their scholarly shells, accept the reality that contemporary and ancient philosophy were indeed separate enterprises, and be content to approach Plato and Aristotle in much the same way one might an ancient medical text. We might all agree, for instance, that On the Sacred Disease is a text eminently worthy of historical study, but surely we would not go to Hippocrates for technical advice on how to treat a lymphoma of the spleen. Why then should anyone interested in mind and brain relations be expected to turn to, say, Plato’s Phaedo?

At Oxford, by way of contrast, philosophy had never been a field of study separate from classics, and some prominent philosophers, like Gilbert Ryle, duly took note of earlier versions of current concerns that could be found in the ancients. Accordingly, despite the fact that the study of philosophy at Oxford, as it now proudly proclaims on its website, progressively freed itself institutionally from its “clerical and classical” roots, some scholars of ancient philosophy managed to continue Ryle’s tack of isolating ancient arguments that adumbrated modern positions, thereby hoping to retain a voice, however muted, in current discussions. Here the argument was that if one looks carefully enough at, say, Aristotle’s De Anima, one might just make out how he, too, was a functionalist in the philosophy of mind; indeed, perhaps, the very first functionalist– well, kind of. 

Perhaps the most visible, articulate, and flattering position for the role of ancient philosophy, however, was staked out by Bernard Williams. This granted ancient philosophy the considerable advantage of being defended by someone who in his own right was among the most respected and influential of contemporary philosophers. Williams argued that philosophy not only is not like science, but that it is inescapably historical, and that practicing historical philosophy properly is very much an instance of doing philosophy, often of the best sort. The last thing that philosophy needs is to recruit more specialized white-coat wannabes unequipped to do real science, while losing touch with the rest of their discipline, and with their culture and history generally. So, for instance, in the face of what he took to be the boring and empty moral theorizing of the day, Williams went about mining deeply relevant philosophical views, even in figures like Homer. This is because, under the influence of Nietzsche, he found in the Greeks a repository of moral views that reflect the way we are likely to think about morality before falling prey to the mutual theoretical distortions of consequentialism and Kant. What was refreshingly new about old philosophers was their ability to take on real moral dilemmas and the kinds of fraught questions about friendship, love, death, and moral luck that had fallen out of contemporary moral theorizing. As he trenchantly put it, contemporary moral philosophy had found “an original way of being boring…by not discussing moral issues at all.”

Regrettably, however, there was one problem that upon his death Williams bequeathed to those wishing to do the history of philosophy philosophically, at least by his lights. Imagine that Mozart, after telling you how boring he finds the music of von Dittersdorf and Mysliveček, hears some Bach and exclaims: “Now there is music from which a man can learn something.” He then sits down and pens what comes to be known as the Adagio and Fugue K. 546 and urges you to study the music of Bach because it can be a fruitful and inspirational source for your own compositions. Fine advice, perhaps, if you, too, are another composer like Mozart. Fine, too, in the case of ancient philosophy, if you are another philosopher of Williams’s calibre. At the moment, however, it still remains to be seen whether some future Bernard Williams will be able to take up the mantle of doing the kind of history of ancient philosophy that can be regarded by all, in the first instance, as old philosophy that is new.

As we bide our time, what are some of the rest of us von Dittersdorfs doing? At a general level, the current study of ancient philosophy has moved beyond many of those earlier worries about being intellectually shelved with Hippocrates. Williams’s influence has played a role, but there also has been a gradual waning of the dominance of linguistic paradigms along with a growing movement toward the primacy of philosophy of mind and other philosophically productive notions of mental representation. Many of these are more hospitable to ancient arguments. For what it is worth, a recent poll conducted by Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog– the main blog for philosophers–charted attitudes toward various specialties. More than twelve hundred voters rated the history of philosophy as more central to the study of philosophy than the philosophy of language. Of course, the history of philosophy is rather broad, and it does not mean that all those voting were thinking of ancient philosophers. But in another Leiter poll ranking the most important philosophers of all time, Plato edged out Aristotle for the top spot, and even Socrates, who wrote next to nothing, trounced Wittgenstein and Frege. So, I think today’s young ancient philosophers, when introduced to a supercilious colleague, are in the enviable position of responding: “Frege? No, I am afraid I have to limit myself to top-five philosophers. Maybe someday if I have time to work my way down the list, I’ll give another look at my notes on the historical influence of the Begriffsschrift.” 

(To be continued)

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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