This is Peter Adamson's Typepad Profile.
Join Typepad and start following Peter Adamson's activity
Join Now!
Already a member? Sign In
Peter Adamson
Recent Activity
Nice post, thanks. An interesting question that needs further reflection is why the Republic was so far down in the pecking order of dialogues in late antiquity (the only major engagement with it is Proclus' essays on it, note that not even he wrote a proper commentary as with the Timaeus, Parmenides etc). One reason may just be its sheer length. Think about copying this out by hand, or reading the whole Republic in a handwritten copy - no easy feats. Could it be that the Islamic world engaged with it more actively simply because they were presented with a manageable text, i.e. a summary of it, rather than the full ten book version?
Thanks Brian for posting the link, and for the thoughtful responses!
Thanks for the further thoughts Eric! So at the end of my comment on your last blog, I said, "Of course this conception of history of philosophy assumes that there is such a thing as a "correct interpretation," which a lot of people would dispute. But we aren't arguing about that now." And what I was alluding to was the sort of worry you raise here, albeit not with such specificity as you lay it out. You're right to suspect that I was deliberately avoiding talking about figuring out what an author was actually consciously thinking as he/she wrote, since I would like to leave room open for other ways of discerning what is going on in a text (e.g. unintentional betrayals of things the author thinks deep down, or unconscious reminiscences of other texts they know very well). However I think Sam is largely right anyway, since most of the time historians of philosophy can unproblematically imagine themselves trying to understand what the author wishes to say. You pick rather leading examples by mentioning Plato and Nietzsche, who are maybe the two most "literary" authors in the history of philosophy. Which is great, but that's one reason it is insanely complicated and difficult to read and work on them. (I have only published a little on Plato and it always comes very hard, precisely because he seems to anticipate and undercut anything you might want to suggest about the text.) A lot of the time though you are reading texts that much more straightforwardly lay out arguments for theses - not always with the Euclidean relentlessness of Proclus' "Elements" or Spinoza, but still one usually feels one is trying to follow an explicit chain of argument. As for the broader issue that texts may simply have no fixed meaning we can get at, I realize one doesn't need to be steeped in Derrida to think this. It may indeed seem rather simplistic and naive to say to oneself, "ok, there is one right answer to the question 'what does this text mean?' and I'm out to find it." But one doesn't, I think, go too far wrong if one thinks of a text as having a range of possible interpretations, some of which are at least much more satisfying and convincing than others. And that is pretty close to just trying to get the text "right", for all practical purposes. Once you get down to the nitty gritty of interpreting a text in a reading group, say, you are going to hold yourself and others to the standard of offering interpretations that "make sense" of the text. To take an extreme example, if you have been arguing that you can take a philosopher to be holding position P, and then someone points out to you that on a nearby page the philosopher says not-P, it would be ridiculous to say "oh, but P is such an interesting claim, so I don't particularly care." Maybe what this boils down to is that history of philosophy, while it is very philosophical, is genuinely a kind of history too. We are not just trying to jog loose insights of our own, we are trying to understand historical documents. I would have no objection to people reading Aristotle, or whoever, to get inspiration for their own ideas -- even reading him very closely for this purpose. This could be a fun, worthwhile, philosophically satisfying and useful thing to do, for sure. But if they ultimately aren't that bothered about offering an interpretation of the text that is supposed to help us understand that text (which is what my rules are intended to help us do), I'm not so sure that they are really doing history of philosophy. By the way a lot of what you're describing here (like, following the way that Plato was read by later Platonists), or thinking of a philosopher as writing for posterity (a great point by the way) fits dead center in my conception of the history of philosophy, as far as I can see. It just means you are looking at a wider range of texts and thinking about their joint meaning and interpretation because you are taking into account their interrelation. Actually that's probably the sort of history of philosophy I am most interested in, I'm not much for focusing on one text to the exclusion of thinking about what influenced it and was influenced by it.
Hi, Peter Adamson here! Just want to say firstly, that my main goal with the blog posts was to generate a discussion so I'm now inclined to think, mission accomplished. Thanks to Eric for his reflections. Second, I agree with a lot of what Sam Rickless says above - in particular it doesn't look to me like point 1 is so much using anachronism usefully as realizing that something which seemed anachronistic wasn't after all. (But maybe you mean, it's something that one would only figure out if one were pretty relaxed about thinking anachronistically?) Anyway this discussion in general is helpful, because I was in the blog posts helping myself to the thought that anachronism is clearly a bad thing, and having assumed that for the sake of argument was moving on to the question of how to avoid it. I guess that, even if there are sometimes "good" uses of anachronism, one would still want to know how to avoid unintentional anachronisms and I think my "rules" are helpful towards that aim. However, I also tend to think that if history of philosophy is about anything, it is about understanding historical texts accurately. This, it seems to me, is a prerequisite for then going on to do other things that have been mentioned here, like imagining what a philosopher might say to objections that s/he doesn't explicitly discuss - something I indeed do all the time in my own research. Sure, if you get a philosopher wrong by ascribing to him/her an anachronistic line of thought, then of course that might wind up being useful philosophically in other ways. This is the point made above about it being "accidentally" useful, with the text just serving as an occasion to prompt (possibly unwittingly) original thought. But to me that isn't and shouldn't be the primary goal of history of philosophy. The first goal is to understand the texts, which might be an end in itself (as it is for me) or might be a step towards doing something else afterward, like playing around with the ideas on one's own, comparing them to other ideas from history, etc. Of course this conception of history of philosophy assumes that there is such a thing as a "correct interpretation," which a lot of people would dispute. But we aren't arguing about that now.
Peter Adamson is now following The Typepad Team
Oct 1, 2014