Not Not To Be

Malcolm Schofield

  • A New History of Western Philosophy. Vol. I: Ancient Philosophy by Anthony Kenny
    Oxford, 341 pp, £17.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 19 875273 3

The hero of this genial and highly accessible book – first of a projected quartet – is Aristotle. What prompts Anthony Kenny’s admiration above all is evidence for the first time in Aristotle of detailed observations of natural phenomena; a sound and pioneering grasp of the roles of observation and theory in scientific method; the invention of the notion of a system of scientific disciplines; the corresponding organisation of student lectures into a syllabus of courses by the first proper professor; the creation of the first research institute and research library in the Western world. In short, with Aristotle philosophy invented the idea of ‘science as we understand it today’. His impact on subsequent human thought has accordingly, in Kenny’s judgment, been unrivalled among ancient philosophers (interestingly, the theologian Augustine is selected as runner-up).

Ancient Philosophy is itself a rather Aristotelian book. After a brisk ‘chronological tour’, it presents and analyses with exemplary clarity the most important ideas and arguments ancient philosophers contributed to the main (modern, but also mostly Aristotelian) fields of philosophical inquiry: logic, epistemology, physics, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, theology. As in Aristotle, and as with philosophers of whatever persuasion ever since, the assumption is that philosophers of previous generations are in dialogue of some sort with us. The conventional position is that they will have been raising questions that one way or another remain with us, and discussing them in terms that can stimulate contemporary philosophising. To be sure, not many philosophers these days write about Plato, Aristotle and the rest unless they are specialists, any more than they publish books on ethics if their main interest is philosophy of science or 18th-century British philosophy. But they still tend to regard Plato or Aristotle as ‘one of us’. Perhaps they wouldn’t use the word ‘hero’ in this connection. On the other hand, Western philosophy has from its beginnings in ancient Greece always encountered scepticism and hostility, whether from other intellectuals or professionals or from the powers that be in the academy or the state. If people express doubts about the continuing credibility or desirability of your subject, it’s no bad thing to be able to point to some towering intellect whose stature nobody dares to impugn, and who if not actually alive still has some sort of living presence.

For these purposes Plato might have made a better hero. Aristotle’s conception of practical reason, and of what it takes for someone to do the right thing, still makes him an attractive alternative to those dissatisfied with both Kantian and utilitarian ethics. But otherwise he probably isn’t cropping up much in philosophers’ conversations these days. Plato often does seem to be a reference point they like to use, from metaphysics to political theory to philosophy of mind. Kenny acknowledges that if we should be more impressed by good questions than correct answers, Plato has ‘an uncontestable claim to pre-eminence’ among the ancients. A few years ago Bernard Williams offered his list of the attributes that might make a great philosopher. He looked for intellectual power and depth; a grasp of the sciences; a sense of the political, and of human destructiveness as well as creativity; range and imagination; unwillingness to settle for the superficially reassuring; and – if really lucky – the gifts of a great writer. ‘If we ask which philosopher has, more than any other, combined all these qualities,’ Williams concluded, ‘to that question there is certainly an answer: Plato.’ And Plato is certainly higher in the contemporary charts than Aristotle: more translations, more conferences, more Plato scholars from South America to Japan, most hits on the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. Some Platos these days are postmodern and polyphonic (though Kenny isn’t letting on about that). Nobody agonises over the authority or absence of Aristotle the author. At the same time, however justified the insistence on his pioneering status as a scientist, Aristotle’s scientific reputation has never recovered from the hammering it took in the century of Galileo and Newton. Plato’s intuition that God is a mathematician – worked out, for example, in a speculative geometrical atomism – looks less remote.

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