Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

A decent overview of both the content and interpretation of several of the key players and ideas in ancient philosophy (defined as the ideas of the Greeks instead of Eastern thinkers). In some way, every book is an opportunity to realize one’s ignorance; this one even more so as that was Socrates’ claims to fame.
You’ll read about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans and many others, on issues of happiness, epistemology, logic, nature and the scope of inquiry. A cautionary theme was that we should be wary of assuming words meant the same thing to us now as they did to the Greeks then (how could they, being English words?), but more important is that there was disagreement among the Greeks as well. To illustrate, ‘happiness’ was not seen as a temporary experience, but something that could only be evaluated after a life lived. Similarly, ‘physics’ and ‘sceptics’ had different meanings, and 'virtue’ was a general way of being, not a practice to cultivate one thing.  Additionally, and unsurprisingly, the popular perception of the Sophists, Epicurians and Stoics is not entirely accurate.
Annas does a good job discussing how a suggested interpretation of a work biases the reading of it. For example, if you have read Plato’s Republic were you told it was political philosophy or philosophical history or ethics or… ? Further, people and groups project onto texts and there can be interpretative battles over the centuries. Such disagreement is useful, but if one interpretation becomes dominant and then become institutionalized, new readers may end up with unfounded ideas about what a text is. She uses differing views on The Republic to support this point.
Annas knows her stuff, but I didn’t like the less-than-clear-cut structure of the work. Also, I went into this work seeking more historical knowledge than ideas that are currently thought to be valid, but even with that mindset I still found myself thinking, “but this is just a bunch of thoughts- where’s the science?” Granted, many questions and ideas discussed will not be arbitrated by data, but there are still contributions to be made by science. For example, science has much to say regarding what emotions are, how brains function, and our evolutionary past. But I do know that every book can't be all things.
Other tidbits:
-Interesting to hear about how Aristotle couldn’t imagine a Darwinian process as he didn’t have the time scales and thought things immutable, but I’d like to think that, given his brilliance, he would have come around if he had had access to the evidence.
-Epicurus went against teleology, which was a difficult position to hold as it was deemed implausible and the world was thought to be created for man.
-It does seem that Plato systematized things, making philosophy an object of inquiry. Previously, discussion and debate was mainly ad hominem, and refuting and criticizing instead of proposing.
-Propositional logic beyond Aristotle existed long before Frege and Russell (re)discovered it. Such are accidents of history.
-Proposing a dichotomy between Western rationalism and Eastern mysticism creates a false contrast. However, it is common because many Eastern philosopher's emphasized the differences with Western thinking even though there was diversity within Eastern ideas and, as such, a similarity to many Western perspectives.
Recommended for those curious for a decent primer. 


Post a Comment

<< Home