A desire to put pen to papyrus

Rationality in Greek Thought
October 10, 1997

This volume is dedicated "with gratitude and affection" to Gunther Patzig, who recently retired as professor of philosophy in the University of Gottingen. The editors were both pupils of his in the early 1960s. Michael Frede is professor of the history of philosophy at Oxford, Gisela Striker has recently come from Harvard to be professor of ancient philosophy at Cambridge. A remarkable turn of affairs. This country's two most senior positions in ancient philosophy are to be occupied by pupils of Patzig. What effect will that have on the development of a subject in which for many years Britain led the world? Six of the contributors to this book are British, three are German, one French, one Italian, one American. What does Patzig stand for? Why has his influence reached so far beyond Gottingen?

A few years ago Patzig was lecturing at University College London. About halfway through he paused to say that, in his view, the greatest sin a philosopher could commit was the sin of unclarity. The implication was transparent: never mind profundity, originality, relevance to "the human condition", etc. The first duty of a philosopher is to be clear.

The joke (and Patzig clearly enjoyed it) was that this was said to a British audience. Here was a German philosopher confounding our Eurosceptic caricature of the German philosopher as obscure, "profound", and relevant to ill-defined problems of the human condition. But the joke was true to what he stands for. Clarity goes with reasonableness, fairness and other liberal values - values that are always in need of defence. The best defence is to embody them in your own person, as Patzig has.

But hard-working scholarship is important too. Frede and Striker were sent to the library to consolidate the basis for their ideas at an age when I, studying ancient philosophy at King's College, Cambridge, was told not to bother with the solidities of German scholarship. Patzig's most important contribution to ancient philosophy, translated into English as Aristotle's Theory of the Syllogism, carries the subtitle "A Logico-Philological Study of Book A of the Prior Analytics". The highest standards both of logic and of philology are observed throughout. The fruitful collaboration of logic and philology is the reason why the book marked a turning point in the understanding of Aristotle's logic, and why it has remained the starting point for subsequent scholarship.

Besides his work on Aristotle, Patzig has written on ethics and on his other two philosophical heroes, Kant and Frege; at the time when Frege was first being translated into English, Patzig was independently promoting interest in his work in Germany. So much the worse for the lazy habit of dividing Anglophone analytic philosophy from "Continental philosophy". The divisions are not geographical.

The editors have assembled a powerful team to explore the ancient philosophers' understanding of rationality. Fittingly, Aristotle gets most attention. Essays by Jonathan Barnes, Jacques Brunschwig, John Cooper, Michael Frede, David Furley and Gisela Striker range over his logic, physics and ethics. Dorothea Frede writes on Plato's Timaeus, and later Greek philosophy is studied by Julia Annas, G. E. R. Lloyd, Mario Mignucci, Malcolm Schofield and Richard Sorabji. All the essays are uniformly of high standard and together make a satisfying volume. It becomes even more satisfying and interesting when the close analyses of particular topics are read as test cases for an almost visionary claim advanced in Frede's lengthy introduction.

The issue at stake in this original and challenging essay is whether, when the ancients discuss rationality, they are content simply to describe and analyse the same sorts of phenomena as a modern philosopher would do: thought and inference, concept formation, reasons for belief, reasons for wanting something, reasons for feeling a certain way about things. These things are no doubt universal, hence operative in the Greeks long before any of them put pen to papyrus. But that cannot determine the way a particular society will conceptualise the phenomena of rationality. And it is a further question again how the philosophers of a society will choose to theorise those same phenomena. The story of ancient philosophy's dealings with rationality, as Frede tells it, is the story of the rise and fall of a quite special, philosophical concept of reason: reason as that which explains our cognitive abilities and their exercise, and the role of thought in action.

The story begins with Socrates and ends with Augustine, Christianity, and the triumphant entry of the concept of the will. From Socrates onwards, reason is seen by philosophers as much more than a merely cognitive function, a formal ability to calculate and make inferences by processing data independently acquired. The Epicureans may be a partial exception, but in the mainstream two key points are agreed. First, reason has desires of its own. Second, it is somehow oriented towards a fixed conceptual content.

Let me start from desire. There are desires that any human being acknowledges, for such things as food and comfort; these desires, whatever their origin, reflective reason will often approve. There are other desires which are formed as a result of independent reflection about what it is good to do or have. But for Socrates and his successors there is more. We also have, whether we acknowledge it or not, a desire to know the truth about things and a desire to obtain what we conceive to be good. According to the ancient conception of reason, the latter are neither desires we happen to have, which our thinking then approves, nor desires we have because on reflection we decide that knowledge and happiness are good. They stem from reason itself.

This is a hard thought for us today. So is reason's orientation towards a fixed conceptual content. I put it vaguely because the relevant philosophers disagree about the details. Plato's theory of recollection locates the conceptual content in the original nature of the soul. For Aristotle and the Stoics, the original nature of the soul involves no more than a capacity to develop the correct concepts through one's cognitive dealings with the world. But they disagree about when that development is displayed. The Stoics have lots of correct concepts in place fairly early in our upbringing. Aristotle requires a lifelong dedication to science before any are achieved. None of these thinkers means simply that humans, unlike animals, have concepts. They mean that our minds are naturally such as to arrive at correct concepts of things, where the standard of correctness is not the norms of our linguistic community but the nature of the world itself. They also believe that in arriving at these concepts we fulfil reason's desire.

Such ideas are not easy to explain to a present-day audience, educated as it is to a more calculative, formal conception of rationality. Desire sets the ends, reason works out how the ends may be harmonised and achieved. Perhaps it was only with Hume that this instrumental conception of reason became firmly established in the curriculum. But for many philosophers today, Hume is already the distant past. All the more reason to go back further to late Platonism and ancient Christian philosophy.

"It is standard Christian doctrine that human beings are born with a newly created rational soul." This was explosive. For in what does the soul's rationality consist? Not in latent knowledge from before birth, as Plato held, and not in knowledge acquired developmentally in the manner proposed by Aristotle or the Stoics. It is a rationality unrelated to a fixed conceptual content.

The Christian rational soul is also endowed with free will, in the strong sense that its beliefs and desires are not sufficient to determine how a person will act. I am always free to will to do better - or worse - than I choose to do on the basis of my beliefs and desires. Consequently, how I act is not entirely determined by my present reasons for acting thus and so. The decisive factor is my will. When I go wrong, it is because the will is weak rather than because my reason is weak and ineffective. The desiderative aspect of the ancient conception of reason is transferred to the will. Reason, bereft of its conceptual content and of its power to determine action, was doomed to become, as Hume said, "the slave of the passions". It would be a fine tribute to Patzig if this book inspired other scholars to continue the debate about whether ancient rationality was the same as ours.

M. F. Burnyeat is senior research fellow in philosophy, All Souls College, Oxford.

Rationality in Greek Thought

Editor - Michael Frede and Gisela Striker
ISBN - 0 19 824044 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 353

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