Is the History of Philosophy Created or Discovered?

I have been recently reading a few reflections on how the history of philosophy is, or ought to be done.  I will engage with these issues on a specific basis in the near future, but in general they come across as somewhat jaded–– no doubt the wisdom of a realist, in the eyes of these authors.  It so happened that Ancient Philosophy was particularly in view, but the ideas broadly apply to any scholarship in the history of philosophy, or really any scholarship dealing with the interpretation of texts.  I, like many others, have, and have had for a long time, thoughts about what it is to “do” ancient philosophy in an academic setting.  This performance of ancient philosophy scholarship, if I may call it that, has always been in my mind grounded on what ancient philosophers actually believed, even if, as it turns out, e.g., Aristotle was wrong about women having less teeth than men.  Thus, to turn this into an absurd example, no one could write a journal article on the premise that  Aristotle was a proto-feminist because he argued for dental egalitarianism, not because the former claim is laughable and false, although it is, but because the latter claim is baldly untrue.  On this view, history of philosophy, right or wrong, good or bad, must ultimately be dependent on the gold or dross, whatever they be by hap, which we find in the ancient philosophers.

On the other hand, there is a view, perhaps even earnestly practiced–– there need be no suspect design–– that skeptically approaches not a dialogue with the philosophers, but a series of encounters with “texts.”  There is not necessarily a correct view of Plato, only what one can, with adequate footnotes (of course!), persuasively put forth as emanating from the given Platonic texts one has chosen to invoke.  On this view, scholars are free to cobble together a great variety of creative interpretations, not liable to constraint by what the philosophers said, but by what they can be made to say by ingenuity and literary resilience.

One way this division between those who think that the history of philosophy is discovered or created, for this is what I think it amounts to, is to ask this question, “Would you write a paper or book that could be brilliantly sustained (though wrongly, in your honest opinion) by given textual readings?”  This option would be especially tempting if the reading was novel in the good sense, a truly insightful and counter-conventional interpretation of a text.  Yet should one still produce a work advancing a view of a philosopher, even if, by your philosophical compass, you believe it false?   What I worry about is not that too many today think that the history of philosophy is created, as opposed to discovered; rather it is the fear that many have never reflected on the possibility that they are anything but the same.

Why Do Aristotle’s Children Call All Men Fathers and All Women Mothers?

What is at first obvious and clear to us is rather jumbled together.  And later elements and principles come to be knowable from these things when we distinguish them.  Therefore it is necessary to proceed from universals to particulars: for the whole is more knowable in sense perception, and the universal is a certain whole, while the universal embraces many things as parts.  And the same thing occurs in this way also with names in relation to an account (logos).  For a whole signifies a something, i.e. indiscriminately, a circle, for example, but the definition of a circle divides it into particulars.  And small children (ta paidia) at first call all men fathers and all women mothers, and later they distinguish each one of these (Translation mine, Aristotle, Physics 184a21-184b14).      

It is “obvious,” to steal an overused term the all-seeing Aristotle often employs, to many readers that Aristotle’s “universal” and “particular” here must be different than his usage elsewhere.  What exactly is he getting at?  Since he gives two examples at the end of this section, we can probably gain the best interpretation by looking at them.  The first seems rather straightforward, it takes much less conceptually to understand the term “circle,” though it certainly conjures up something in even the most basic minds.  Yet, the definition of a circle will involve many constituent parts, as one of Euclid’s definitions demonstrates: “A circle is (1) a plane figure (2) contained by one line (3) such that all the straight lines (4) falling upon it from one point among those lying within the figure (5) equal one another.”  Alternatively, perhaps, maybe Aristotle’s point is there are many terms in the one: shape, round, etc.

More puzzling is his remark on children calling all men and women fathers and mothers.  In what sense do children “call” men and women fathers and mothers?
Here are some options on what he could mean:

A) Each child thinks that every man and woman is also a father and mother, because in his own case, obviously, his father is a man and a man is his father, and his mother is a woman and a woman is his mother.

B) Each child (a baby?) thinks that any adult it sees is a parent, in the loose, naive way such a mind would think this, possibly because the adult is a potential instrument of wish-granting.

I am also interested in the examples of the circle and the child-calling: are they supposed to be entirely analogous or are different points being made?   There is a difference but it is difficult to express exactly what the relevant distinction each example has for Aristotle’s purposes. It seems that the circle example is showing how a broad term or concept can also be understood as consisting of parts (though interpretation seems susceptible of taking this is many ways).  But the child-calling example, on first take, is about a child who displays only the first step of the circle example, and badly botching it at that, since it perceives men and fathers as “jumbled together.”




[1] ἔστι δ’ ἡμῖν τὸ πρῶτον δῆλα καὶ σαφῆ τὰ
συγκεχυμένα μᾶλλον· ὕστερον δ’ ἐκ τούτων γίγνεται γνώριμα
τὰ στοιχεῖα καὶ αἱ ἀρχαὶ διαιροῦσι ταῦτα. διὸ ἐκ τῶν κα-
θόλου ἐπὶ τὰ καθ’ ἕκαστα δεῖ προϊέναι· τὸ γὰρ ὅλον κατὰ
τὴν αἴσθησιν γνωριμώτερον, τὸ δὲ καθόλου ὅλον τί ἐστι· (25)
πολλὰ γὰρ περιλαμβάνει ὡς μέρη τὸ καθόλου. πέπονθε δὲ
(184b) ταὐτὸ τοῦτο τρόπον τινὰ καὶ τὰ ὀνόματα πρὸς τὸν λόγον· (10)
ὅλον γάρ τι καὶ ἀδιορίστως σημαίνει, οἷον ὁ κύκλος, ὁ δὲ
ὁρισμὸς αὐτοῦ διαιρεῖ εἰς τὰ καθ’ ἕκαστα. καὶ τὰ παιδία τὸ μὲν πρῶτον προσαγορεύει πάντας τοὺς ἄνδρας πατέρας καὶ
μητέρας τὰς γυναῖκας, ὕστερον δὲ διορίζει τούτων ἑκάτερον.

Bodily Reverence in the Hippocratic Oath

More recently the study of ancient medicine has gained attention, not from merely antiquarian curiosity about the developmental history of the healing arts, but from its illumination on kindred concepts arising in and influenced especially by philosophy and science, yet also inclusive of the wider Mediterranean culture.  Of particular interest to me today is the Hippocratic Oath, which many believe to apply to a small group of practicing medics due to the parochial constraints it imposes on its adherents, thus necessarily limiting the scope of its practice.  However, let’s take a look at this document in full:

I swear by Apollo the healer, by Asclepius, by Health (Hygeia), and Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, making them witnesses, to bring to completion this oath and written contract in accordance with my ability and judgment:

To revere the man who taught me this art as equally as my ancestors, and to share my living with him, and to share with him when he lacks money, and to esteem his progeny equally as my brothers, and to teach this art, if they wish to learn it, without a wage or written contract, and to share the precepts and lectures and all other instructions both with my own sons and those of the one who taught me, and to no one else.

And I shall make use of a regimen for the help of patients in accordance with my ability and judgment, but not to act for injury or a wrongful act.  And I shall not give a deadly drug to anyone, though he ask for it, nor will I offer up such counsel.  In a like manner, I shall not give any abortifacent (lit. destructive pessary) to a woman.  But I shall observe my life and my art in a holy and reverent manner.  I shall not cut even one suffering from the stone, but I shall give way to the practitioners of this deed (i.e. surgeons). As many houses as I enter into I shall proceed for the benefit of the patients, standing afar from every willing and destructive harm, and especially from sexual acts with both female bodies and male, free and slave alike.  Whichever things I hear or see in my practice or outside my practice in the course of daily life, things which are unnecessary to ever blurt out, I shall consider such things unspeakable.  If I complete this oath, and do not violate it, may there be a gain of reputation because of my life and art from all men forever.  But if I transgress and forswear, may there be the opposite (Translation mine, Hippocratic Oath). [1]

I want to draw out a plausible interpretation as to the theoretical guidance of this oath, sworn to not only the four physician gods, but of such gravity that all the gods and goddesses are invoked as witness.  My idea is that a reverence for the body guided this guild (for this seems an apt description for this dedicated association) in all its interactions with patients.  There may have been some religious motivation for this precept or more likely, it was merely a central, refining filter through which medical practices could be easily guided instead of the alternative of detailed and cumbersome rules, such as the nitpicking “best practices” I imagine hinders modern day medical ethics.

Here are some examples that make me suspect a cult of the body.  Now of course, just as today, the physician is sworn not to give any poison to a man, and “in a like manner” (ὁμοίως) he is also not to give an abortifacent to any woman.  The “in a like manner” is intriguing because, if we are to draw an analogy, in the first instance it is the man’s body that is injured by being drugged.  Thus, in the second instance, we may infer that the woman’s body is injured by being drugged by the abortifacent. [2]  Also of note then, is that the preservation of the child is not primarily in view.  More intriguing is the proscription on surgery, telling physicians that they cannot “cut” even if the patient is suffering from stones, one of the most painful maladies. [3]  The patient must be given a referral instead.  It is tempting to think that a ban on cutting is due to an overzealous adherence to preserve or improve not the state of the patient’s health, but rather to have the physician impose even a temporary harm for a greater long-term good.  Alternatively, though, given the last line of the oath, perhaps we can consider that the physician has his good reputation in mind, and that if word gets around that he “cuts” people, even for the better, patients will be hesitant to visit him.  One need only reflect on how skittish moderns are towards doctor visits, even with drugs, anesthesia and centuries of knowledge.  Lastly consider the strange wording of the prohibition on sleeping with patients: abstain “especially from sexual acts with both female bodies and male, free and slave alike.”  This is the literal translation, it is does not say abstain from females and males, but female and male bodies  (γυναικείων σωμάτων καὶ ἀνδρῴων).  The relationship of patient and doctor requires and must respect the solemn vulnerability of the nude body, and what better way to further this than with a principled, philosophical reverence for the body?



[1] Ὄμνυμι Ἀπόλλωνα ἰητρὸν καὶ Ἀσκληπιὸν καὶ Ὑγείαν καὶ Πανάκειαν καὶ θεοὺς πάντας τε καὶ πάσας, ἵστορας ποιεύμενος, ἐπιτελέα ποιήσειν κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν ὅρκον τόνδε καὶ συγγραφὴν τήνδε· ἡγήσεσθαι μὲν τὸν διδάξαντά με τὴν τέχνην ταύτην ἴσα γενέτῃσιν ἐμοῖς, καὶ βίου κοινώσεσθαι, καὶ χρεῶν χρηΐζοντι μετάδοσιν ποιήσεσθαι, καὶ γένος τὸ ἐξ αὐτοῦ ἀδελφοῖς ἴσον ἐπικρινεῖν ἄρρεσι, καὶ διδάξειν
10 τὴν τέχνην ταύτην, ἢν χρηΐζωσι μανθάνειν, ἄνευ μισθοῦ καὶ συγγραφῆς, παραγγελίης τε καὶ ἀκροήσιος καὶ τῆς λοίπης ἁπάσης μαθήσιος μετάδοσιν ποιήσεσθαι υἱοῖς τε ἐμοῖς καὶ τοῖς τοῦ ἐμὲ διδάξαντος, καὶ μαθητῇσι συγγεγραμμένοις τε καὶ ὡρκισμένοις νόμῳ ἰητρικῷ, ἄλλῳ δὲ οὐδενί. διαιτήμασί τε χρήσομαι ἐπ᾿ ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμήν, ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν. οὐ δώσω δὲ οὐδὲ φάρμακον οὐδενὶ αἰτηθεὶς θανάσιμον, οὐδὲ ὑφηγήσομαι συμβουλίην
20 τοιήνδε· ὁμοίως δὲ οὐδὲ γυναικὶ πεσσὸν φθόριον δώσω. ἁγνῶς δὲ καὶ ὁσίως διατηρήσω βίον τὸν ἐμὸν καὶ τέχνην τὴν ἐμήν. οὐ τεμέω δὲ οὐδὲ μὴν λιθιῶντας, ἐκχωρήσω δὲ ἐργάτῃσιν ἀνδράσι πρήξιος τῆσδε. ἐς οἰκίας δὲ ὁκόσας ἂν ἐσίω, ἐσελεύσομαι ἐπ᾿ ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων, ἐκτὸς ἐὼν πάσης ἀδικίης ἑκουσίης καὶ φθορίης, τῆς τε ἄλλης καὶ ἀφροδισίων ἔργων ἐπί τε γυναικείων σωμάτων καὶ ἀνδρῴων, ἐλευθέρων τε καὶ δούλων. ἃ δ᾿ ἂν ἐν θεραπείῃ ἢ ἴδω ἢ ἀκούσω, ἢ καὶ ἄνευ
30 θεραπείης κατὰ βίον ἀνθρώπων, ἃ μὴ χρή ποτε ἐκλαλεῖσθαι ἔξω, σιγήσομαι, ἄρρητα ἡγεύμενος εἶναι τὰ τοιαῦτα. ὅρκον μὲν οὖν μοι τόνδε ἐπιτελέα ποιέοντι, καὶ μὴ συγχέοντι, εἴη ἐπαύρασθαι καὶ βίου καὶ τέχνης δοξαζομένῳ παρὰ πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ἐς τὸν αἰεὶ χρόνον· παραβαίνοντι δὲ
36 καὶ ἐπιορκέοντι, τἀναντία τούτων.

[2] One source (definitely Oxford University Press) I read, though I can not find it now, claimed that only 1 in 10 women survived an abortion.

[3] Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 BC – c. 50 AD) divided medicine into precisely three areas: dietetic, pharmacology and surgery.  This division is believed to extend much further back into antiquity however.