The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophyby Bernard Williams
Before his death in 2003, Bernard Williams planned to publish a collection of historical essays, focusing primarily on the ancient world. This posthumous volume brings together a much wider selection, written over some forty years. His legacy lives on in this masterful work, the first collection ever published of Williams's essays on the history of philosophy. The
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Before his death in 2003, Bernard Williams planned to publish a collection of historical essays, focusing primarily on the ancient world. This posthumous volume brings together a much wider selection, written over some forty years. His legacy lives on in this masterful work, the first collection ever published of Williams's essays on the history of philosophy. The subjects range from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth A.D., from Homer to Wittgenstein by way of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Sidgwick, Collingwood, and Nietzsche. Often one would be hard put to say which part is history, which philosophy. Both are involved throughout, because this is the history of philosophy written philosophically. Historical exposition goes hand in hand with philosophical scrutiny. Insights into the past counteract blind acceptance of present assumptions.
In his touching and illuminating introduction, Myles Burnyeat writes of these essays: "They show a depth of commitment to the history of philosophy seldom to be found nowadays in a thinker so prominent on the contemporary philosophical scene."
The result celebrates the interest and importance to philosophy today of its near and distant past.
The Sense of the Past is one of three collections of essays by Bernard Williams published by Princeton University Press since his death. In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, selected, edited, and with an introduction by Geoffrey Hawthorn, and Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, selected, edited, and with an introduction by A. W. Moore, make up the trio.
"Bernard Williams' contribution to philosophy is timeless. He has a voice that is both distinctively of our time and a reminder that the past can still be brought alive philosophically. Williams' belief in the importance of history to philosophy is readily apparent in this collection. If for no other reason, readers of philosophy should value this book highly."Peter Johnson, European Legacy
"Williams attempts to make strange what is familiar in our assumptions, and he admirably succeeds in this task. . . . The Sense the of the Past is an excellent contribution to the field, and deserves a wide audience."Basil Smith, Review of Metaphysics
"The sheer variety of Williams's historical interests and the spontaneity with which he displays them give this collection a sense of vigor and dialectical fun that are characteristic of its author."Nicholas White, Ethics
"It is pleasing to have many of Williams' previously published meditations on Plato's thoughtincluding those dealing with Plato's construction of intrinsic goodness, the analogy of city and soul in the Republic, and an introduction to the Theaetetus dialoguegathered together in one place. . . . [T]his book represents an appropriate tribute to a philosopher of rare talents."Jonathan Wright, Heythrop Journal
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The Sense of the PastEssays in the History of Philosophy
By Bernard Williams
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE LEGACY OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY
THE GREEKS AND THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY
The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy. Here it is not merely a matter, as in science, of the Greeks having set out on certain paths in which modern developments have left their achievements far behind. Nor is it just a matter, as in the arts, of the Greeks having produced certain forms, and certain works in those forms, which succeeding times would-some more, some very much less-look back to as paradigms of achievement. In philosophy, the Greeks initiated almost all its major fields-metaphysics, logic, the philosophy of language, the theory of knowledge; ethics, political philosophy, and (though to a much more restricted degree) the philosophy of art. Not only did they start these areas of enquiry, but they progressively distinguished what would still be recognized as many of the most basic questions in those areas. In addition, among those who brought about these developments there were two, Plato and Aristotle, who have always, where philosophy has been known and studied in the Western world, been counted as supreme in philosophical genius and breadth of achievement, andwhose influence, directly or indirectly, more or less consciously, under widely varying kinds of interpretation, has been a constant presence in the development of the Western philosophical tradition ever since.
Of course philosophy, except at its most scholastic and run down, does not consist of the endless reworking of ancient problems, and the idea that Western philosophy was given almost its entire content by the Greeks is sound only if that content is identified in the most vague and general way-at the level of such questions as 'what is knowledge?' or 'what is time?' or 'does sense-perception tell us about things as they really are?' Philosophical problems are posed not just by earlier philosophy, but by developments in all areas of human life and knowledge; and all aspects of Western history have affected the subject-matter of philosophy-the development of the nation-state as much as the rise and fall of Christianity or the progress of the sciences. Yet even with issues created by such later developments, it is often possible to trace contemporary differences in philosophical view to some general contrast of outlooks which had its first expression in the Greek world.
Granted the size of the Greek achievement in philosophy, and the depth of its influence, it would be quite impossible to attempt anything except a drastically selective account of either. Some very important and influential aspects of Greek philosophy I shall leave out entirely: these include political philosophy (which is the concern of another chapter), and also Greek contributions to the science of logic, which were very important but demand separate, and moderately technical, treatment. Moreover, in the matter of influences, I shall not attempt to say anything about what is certainly the most evident and concentratedly important influence of Greek philosophy on subsequent thought, the influence of Aristotle on the thought of the Middle Ages. Aristotle, who was for Thomas Aquinas 'The Philosopher', for Dante il maestro di color che sanno, 'the master of those who know', did much to form, through his various and diverse interpreters, the philosophical, scientific, and cosmological outlook of an entire culture, and the subject of Aristotelianism would inevitably be too much for any essay which wanted to discuss anything else as well. Aristotle's representation in what follows has suffered from his own importance.
After saying something in general about the Greeks and the history of philosophy, and about the special positions of Plato and Aristotle, I shall try to convey some idea of the variety of Greek philosophical interests; but, more particularly, I shall pursue two or three subjects in greater detail than any attempt at a general survey would have allowed, in the belief that no catalogue of persons and doctrines is of much interest in philosophy, and that a feel for what certain thinkers were about can be conveyed only through some enactment of the type of reasons and arguments that weighed with them: of not just what, but how, they thought. In this spirit, if still very sketchily, I shall take up some arguments of Greek philosophers about two groups of questions-on the one hand, about being, appearance, and reality, on the other about knowledge and scepticism. In both, the depth of the Greek achievement is matched by the persistence of similar questions in later philosophy. In another matter, ethical enquiry, I shall lay the emphasis rather more on the contrasts between Greek thought and most modern outlooks, contrasts which seem to me very important to an understanding of our own outlooks and of how problematical they are.
I have said that the Greeks initiated most fields of enquiry in philosophy, and many of its major questions. It may be, by contrast, that there are just two important kinds of speculation in the later history of philosophy which are so radically different in spirit from anything in Greek thought as to escape from this generalization. Greek philosophy was deeply concerned, and particularly at its beginnings, with issues involved in the contrast between monism and pluralism. It is not always easy to capture what was at issue in these discussions: in some of the earlier Greek disputes, the question seems to be whether there is in reality only one thing or more than one thing, but-as we shall see later-it is not easy to make clear what exactly was believed by someone who believed that there was, literally, only one thing. In later philosophy, and already in some Greek philosophy, questions of monism and pluralism are questions rather of whether the world contains one or more than one fundamental or irreducible kind of thing. One sort of monism in this sense which has been known both to the ancient and to the modern world is materialism, the view that everything that exists is material, and that other things, in particular mental experiences, are in some sense reducible to this material basis. Besides dualism, the outlook that accepts that there are both matter and mind, not reducible to one another, philosophy since the Renaissance has also found room for another kind of monism, idealism, the monism of mind, which holds that nothing ultimately exists except minds and their experiences. It is this kind of view, with its numerous variations, descendants, and modifications, which we do not find in the ancient world. Largely speculative though Greek philosophy could be, and interested as it was in many of the same kinds of issues as those which generated idealism, it did not form that particular set of ideas, so important in much modern philosophy, according to which the entire world consists of the contents of mind: as opposed, of course, to the idea of a material world formed and governed by mind, a theistic conception which the Greeks most certainly had.
The other principal element in modern philosophy which is independent of the Greeks is something that first established itself at the beginning of the nineteenth century-that type of philosophical thought (of which Marxism is now the leading example) which places fundamental emphasis on historical categories and on explanation in terms of the historical process. The Greeks had, or rather, gradually developed, a sense of historical time and the place of one's own period in it; and their thought also made use of various structures, more mythological than genuinely tied to any historical time, of the successive ages of mankind, which standardly pictured man as in a state of decline from a golden age (though an opposing view, in terms of progress, is also to be found). Some of the more radical thinkers, moreover, regarded standards of conduct and the value of political arrangements as relative to particular societies, and that conception had an application to societies distant in time. But the Greeks did not evolve any theoretical conception of men's categories of thought being conditioned by the material or social circumstances of their time, nor did they look for systematic explanations of them in terms of history. This type of historical consciousness is indeed not present in all philosophical thought of the present day, but its absence from Greek philosophy is certainly one thing that marks off that philosophy from much modern thought.
It may be that these two, idealism and the historical consciousness, are the only two really substantial respects in which later philosophy is quite removed from Greek philosophy, as opposed to its pursuing what are recognizably the same types of preoccupation as Greek philosophy pursued, but pursuing them, of course, in the context of a vastly changed, extended, and enriched subject-matter compared with that available to the Greeks.
This is not to say that the Greeks possessed our concept of 'philosophy': or, rather, that they possessed any one of the various concepts of philosophy which are used in different philosophical circles in the modern world. Classical Greek applies the word philosophia to a wide range of enquiries; wider certainly than the range of enquiries called 'philosophy' now, which are distinguished from scientific, mathematical, and historical enquiries. But we should bear in mind that it is not only Greek practice that differs from modern practice in this way: for centuries 'philosophy' covered a wide range of enquiries, including those into nature, as is witnessed by the old use of the phrase 'natural philosophy' to mean natural science-The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy is what Newton, at the end of the seventeenth century, called his great work on the foundations of mechanics. It does not follow, however, that these ages did not have some distinction between scientific and what would now be called philosophical enquiries-enquiries which, however they are precisely to be delimited, are concerned with the general presuppositions of knowledge, action, and values, and proceed by way of reflection on our concepts and ideas, not by way of observation and experiment. Earlier ages often did make, in one way or another, distinctions between such enquiries and others-it is merely that until comparatively recently the word 'philosophy' was not reserved to marking them.
It is important to bear this point in mind when dealing with the philosophy of the past, in particular ancient philosophy. It defines, so to speak, two grades of anachronism. The more superficial and fairly harmless grade of anachronism is displayed when we use some contemporary term to identify a class of enquiries which the past writers did themselves separate from other enquiries, though not by quite the same criteria or on the same principles as are suggested by the modern term. An example of this is offered by the branch of philosophy now called 'metaphysics'. This covers a range of very basic philosophical issues, including reality, existence, what it is for things to have qualities, and (in the more abstract and less religious aspects of the matter) God. There is a set of writings devoted to such subjects in the canon of Aristotle's works, and it is called the Metaphysics; and it is indeed from that title that the subject got its name. But the work was probably so called only from its position in the edition of Aristotle's works prepared by Andronicus of Rhodes in the first century B.C.-these treatises were ta meta ta phusika, the books that came 'after the books on nature'. Aristotle's own name for most of these metaphysical enquiries was 'first philosophy'. Nor is it just the name that was different, but so were the principles of classification, both in the rationale given of them and hence in what is included and excluded. Thus Aristotle has an account of his enquiries into 'being in general' which relates the themes of 'first philosophy' in a distinctively Aristotelian way to the rest of knowledge (roughly, he supposed that it was distinguished by having a subject-matter which was much more general than that of other enquiries); and it excludes some enquiries which might now be included in metaphysics, such as a priori reflections on the nature of space and time. These latter Aristotle takes up in the books now called the Physics, which were included among the books 'about nature'; the name Physics itself being misleading, since what their contents mostly resemble is parts of metaphysics, and also what we would now call the philosophy of science, rather than what we now call physics.
These various differences do not stop us identifying Aristotle's enquiries as belonging to various branches of philosophy as we now understand them: this level of anachronism can, with scholarship and a sense of what is philosophically relevant, be handled-as it must be, if we are going to be able to reconstitute from our present point of view something which it would not be too arbitrary to call the history of philosophy. But there is a second and deeper level of anachronism which we touch when we deal with writings to which modern conceptions of what is and what is not philosophy scarcely apply at all. With those writers who did not themselves possess some such distinctions, to insist on claiming them for the history of philosophy as opposed to, say, the history of science, constitutes an unhelpful and distorting form of anachronism. So it is with the earliest of Greek 'philosophers', the earlier Presocratics (a label which as a matter of fact is used not only for thinkers earlier than Socrates, but for some late-fifth-century contemporaries of his as well).
With regard to the earliest of Greek speculative thinkers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, who lived in Miletus on the Greek seaboard of Asia Minor in the first seventy years of the sixth century B.C., it is impossible to give in any straightforward modern terms a classification of the kinds of question they were asking. This is not just because virtually nothing remains of their work (Thales, the oldest, in any case wrote nothing) and we have to rely on disputable reports; even if we had all their writings we could not assign them, in modern terms, to philosophy or to science. They are usually represented as asking questions such as 'what is the world made of?', but it is one achievement of intellectual progress that that question now has no determinate meaning; if a child asks it, we do not give him one or many answers to it, but rather lead him to the point where he sees why it should be replaced with a range of different questions. Of course, there is a sense in which modern particle theory is a descendant of enquiries started by the Milesians, but that descent has so modified the questions that it would be wrong to say that there is one unambiguous question to which we give the answer 'electrons, protons, etc.' and Thales (perhaps) gave the answer 'water'.
We can say something-and we shall touch on this later-about the features of these speculations which make them more like rational enquiries than were the religious and mythological cosmologies of the East, which may have influenced them. And this is in fact a more important and interesting question than any about their classification as 'philosophy', something which in the case of these earliest thinkers is largely an empty issue.
CLASSICAL PHILOSOPHY AND THE PHILOSOPHICAL CLASSIC
The involvement of Greek philosophy in the Western philosophical tradition is not measured merely by the fact that ancient philosophy originated so many fields of enquiry which continue to the present day. It emerges also in the fact that in each age philosophers have looked back to ancient philosophy-overwhelmingly, of course, to Plato and Aristotle-in order to give authority to their own work, or to contrast it, or by reinterpretation of the classical philosophers to come to understand them, and themselves, in different ways. The Greek philosophers have been not just the fathers, but the companions, of Western philosophy. Different motives for this concern have predominated in different ages: the aim of legitimating one's own opinions was more prominent in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (which, contrary to popular belief, did not so much lose the need for intellectual authority, as choose different authorities), while the aim of historical understanding and self-understanding is more important in the present day. But from whatever motive, these relations to the Greek past are a particularly important expression of that involvement in its own history which is characteristic of philosophy and not of the sciences.
Excerpted from The Sense of the Past by Bernard Williams Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Bernard Williams was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge (1967-1979) and Provost of King’s College. He held the Monroe Deutsch Professorship of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (1998-2000) and was White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford (1990-2003). He was Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford until his death in 2003. Myles Burnyeat is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, All Souls College, Oxford. His books include The 'Theaetetus' of Plato (Hackett, 1990) and A Map of Metaphysics Zeta (Mathesis Publications, 2001).
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