Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review of Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

Oxford's Very Short Introductions series has always been rather hit-and-miss. A large part of this, I think, has to do with the wide latitude individual authors are given regarding their individual topics. As a general rule, I'm in favor of this, but I'm not so sure when it comes to treatments of a subject that are only 100-150 pages long. My gut tells me that there are some things that ought to be done and ought to be avoided when handling material so briefly. For example, I think that one ought to cover the cannon, while avoiding the standard Great Men version of history. One might mention a bit about a field's methodology, but certainly shouldn't devote a great deal of space to it when there are other pressing concerns.

As it happens, then, I think that the British classics scholar Catherine Osbourne's Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2004, Oxford UP, 143pp) is closer to a miss than to a hit. It does some things fairly well, such as deconstructing the linear narrative of cumulative metaphysics leading up to Plato and Aristotle, but in unraveling the conventional story, Osborne leaves nothing in its place. The reader is left at the end wondering just what it is he's been introduced to, and why it was terribly important in the first place.

Osborne begins by telling us that "[t]his book is not a history" and that "we shall not focus on historical relationships." Perhaps, I suppose, that's just a more honest representation of the field than is usually presented: we don't have any original texts from, say, Empedocles or Heraclitus, and the few snippets that survive in quotation through other, later writers don't really provide anything resembling comprehensive works of philosophy on the scale of the later Athenians. In part, their historical importance is implicit as much as evident from the texts themselves: we have to suppose their importance based upon the fact that they were considered important by those that did the recording, rather than the overwhelming majority of what must have at one time been written that is now lost completely. It could be that all we have are a pile of isolated fragments, and that an attempt to put them in historical conversation with one another, as the traditional account has done, is pure revisionism.

But if that's the case, why write a book about it at all? If no real connections can be drawn between these diverse thinkers, then including them as a unit in philosophy of science, history of science, and intro to Western philosophy courses seems like a waste of time. But generations of writers and scholars, including Osborne herself, most emphatically think otherwise. So the tactic that she employs in the book of deliberately presenting the individual thinkers out of order and geographically all over the place seems designed to undermine the fact that their ideas did influence one another, directly or (more probably) indirectly, even if in ways less neat than we would like or that historians have portrayed. If this is not the case, if there were no common currents of regional thought among the Greeks that allowed thinkers from modern Turkey to modern Italy to attempt to systematize ideas in ways that were increasingly less dependent on traditional myth and theology, then there is simply no point to studying these people as a group.

That may, in fact, be Osborne's point: that we should look at these texts principally as individual documents, "diving in where the evidence is rich," as she puts it. But if that's the case, then she simply should have declined the publisher's invitation to write an introduction to what is normally considered a topic with identifiable boundaries and enough cohesion to teach it as a unit. What we are left with following her haphazard presentation of various figures ranging from Thales through the Sophists (although not presented in that order) and their poems (a frequent medium for the philosophy of the period) and arguments concerning the nature of matter, causation and ethics is a disorganized jumble that leaves the reader nothing to take away and no particular ground for reflection or impetus for further study. That's all fine if one is arguing against the idea of the topic in the first place. But one does that with people already assumed to be familiar with the material, not a group of novices looking to be walked through what is most generally agreed upon. Her book may succeed as an argument. It certainly does not succeed as an introduction.