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Method in Ancient Philosophy (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000) 111-113

Jyl Gentzler, editor. Method in Ancient Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 398. Cloth, $72.00.

The fifteen papers in this collection constitute revisions of conference proceedings and reflect the varied interests of participants. The ensemble exhibits a thoroughly modern methodology. Whatever and however various ancient methods of philosophy may have been, in Anglo-American scholarship it is standard practice to first address established scholarly interpretations as the primary entry point to critical discussionóoften displacing antiquity with a critical vocabulary of philosophical modernity. Scholars may come to understand each other better, but at the risk of asking the wrong questions or sacrificing ancient texts themselves as mere means of producing papers.

Most scholars are progressives. They believe philosophy has advanced past the comparatively primitive wisdom of antiquity, and so such scholars feel perfectly entitled to make better sense of ancient texts, by patiently explaining what the ancients would have meant had they only been able to get it right. There are, of course, exceptions. And some papers in this collection suggest deeper faith in our philosophic fathers. So, the battle between the ancients and the moderns is joined once more, between those who would adorn their papers with footnotes for their peers and those who would attempt more anthropological an inquiry into ancient philosophic practices.

Ian Mueller and Robert Bolton each address the same passage in Plato's Phaedo, both beginning with an article from Vlastos, first published in 1969. Mueller thoughtfully explores three different yet related accounts of what we might call scientific method in explaining Plato's views on natural change. Bolton wonders whether scholars are asking the wrong questions. Patricia Curd attempts a progressivist account of Eleatic thought, notwithstanding her recognition of the paucity of ancient sources. Complete with elaborately numbered sentences, Gail Fine focuses primarily on Burnyeat (1976) on Plato on Protagoras. Constance Meinwald presents a rather near-sighted account of two passages in the Philebus that employ the peras-apeiron distinction, with a view toward Plato's allegedly modernist mathematization of understanding. Lesley Brown revisits five pages of the Sophist that were hotly debated in the 1960s. With charity and elegance, she offers several plausible solutions to puzzles posed by previous scholars. Sometimes time smoothes over differences.

A. A. Long's essay on Plato's presentation of Socrates in the Theaetetus might appear more philosophically anthropological. Yet Long reveals progressive sympathies, suggesting that Plato dispatches Socrates in the Theaetetus, so as to prepare the way for a more rigorously academic form of philosophizing, such as that exhibited in the Sophist. In this way, Long speculates, Plato abandoned practical ethics for the academic life of research, so familiar to university professors and conference participants. It might be hard to square such speculation with Plato's Laws and the reception of Plato's writings among his own contemporaries. Still, Socrates' shifting role in Plato's dialogues is well worth pondering.

By comparison, T. H. Irwin's contribution is wonderfully old-fashioned. His paper addresses the background knowledge to be presumed by ancient readers of Plato's dialogues and how that knowledge is artfully put to use in Plato's depiction of Socrates' reflections on the unity of virtue. By speculating on Plato's relation to his ancient readers, Irwin displaces many modernist preoccupations, though not without himself falling victim to that peculiar scholarly obsession of dating Plato's dialogues by their doctrines.

With characteristic conservatism, Gisela Striker cautions scholars not to over-read Aristotle's Prior Analytics. While that extraordinary work may have deep implications for the history of formal logic, it probably was instead intended to be part of a general account of argument. In a similar vein, Charlotte Witt attempts to rescue Aristotle from scholars who would delimit Aristotle's multifarious uses of the "for the sake of" explanation, which altogether pervade his metaphysics, physics, biology and ethics. Yet, Witt soon finds herself competing in a contest over interpretive distinctions, a sport that will certainly never capture Aristotle's own authorial intentions.

Facing another mass of scholarship, in this case on Aristotle's dialectic, C. D. C. Reeve sensibly attempts to start...



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