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  • Language and Learning: Philosophy of Language in the Hellenistic Age
  • Phillip Mitsis (bio)
Dorothea Frede and Brad Inwood, editors. Language and Learning: Philosophy of Language in the Hellenistic Age Cambridge University Press. xi, 354. $105.95

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy never underwent the so-called linguistic turn that so profoundly affects contemporary philosophical methods and arguments. This does not mean, of course, that philosophers in antiquity failed to reflect on the origin and structure of language or its role in thought and relation to objects. But they never came to view something called 'the philosophy of language' as a significant discipline in its own right. Nor did they believe that an inquiry into language could serve as the crucial point of entry into philosophical problems. As a consequence, their views about language are rarely elaborated with anything like the sophistication and power of, say, their views in ethics or epistemology.

Dorothea Frede and Brad Inwood offer a crisp and stimulating introduction to the volume, outlining the origins and subsequent development [End Page 369] of ancient philosophical reflections on language, and they offer some plausible suggestions about why so little came so late. They also claim that philosophers of the Hellenistic age should be credited with forging important new philosophical links between technical linguistico-grammatical studies and wider philosophical analyses of human communication. One problem, of course, is that any traces of what has come to be the reigning philosophical synthesis are extremely faint in the Hellenistic period because of the sorry state of the evidence. If one looks hard enough, one can perhaps see adumbrations of such crucial items as Fregean propositions, conceptions of ordinary and meta-languages, and sciences of grammar and linguistics. But the general picture is so consistently blurry that it is probably better just to take individual arguments and doctrines on their own without expecting much clarity about what these important new links actually amount to.

The ten essays on offer are what one might expect from those faced with the task of being learned guides in the museum of philosophy. The first four essays focus on Epicurean and Stoic puzzles about the origins of language. Major protagonists are introduced and scanty fragments examined in a counterpoint of paired papers. There is precious little here for the non-specialist, however. Indeed, the evidence is brought out in tones so hushed and reticent, and every claim is so variously qualified, that Tony Long, that most judicious of scholars, is made to seem like a stevedore at a ladies' tea by making the entirely reasonable assumption that the Stoics were influenced by Plato's Cratylus and the proto-formalist account of semantic items found there.

Ineke Sluiter, with the help of modern theories of non-verbal communication and 'impression management,' examines the Cynics in 'Communicating Cynicism: Diogenes' gangsta rap.' She plausibly claims that the Cynics made conscious use of their body for philosophical purposes, but then argues that these purposes can best be understood within the transgressive literary traditions of invective and comedy. This is unlikely. When the Cynics masturbate in public, they do so not as creatures of low comedy unable to control their desires; they masturbate in the name of nature, reason, and God. Nor is Diogenes interested in pimping his barrel. Rather than being the theatrical prop of a comedian, the barrel Diogenes lived in aids, as does his rolling around in snow and hot sand, his ascetic askesis. Accordingly, a better anthropological parallel would be provided, perhaps, by Indian holy men living in barrels as part of a heat purification ritual. Viewing the Cynics as gangstas, moreover, fails to explain how they could have been such an important influence on the high-minded and theologically driven Stoics.

Charles Brittain offers a spotty but important possible reconstruction of the theoretical underpinnings of what arguably passes for a conception of ordinary thought and language in Cicero. After a superbly informative [End Page 370] paper on ancient analogist and anomalist linguistic theories by David Blank, there follow two specialist papers on Stoic logic and a final paper by Sten Ebbensen detailing Hellenistic influence in the medieval period. As he himself notices, it is impossible...


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