SAAP 2008 Panel Proposal


American Philosophy and the Legacies of Greek Thinking



Panel Abstract

Greek thinking has historically been engaged by American philosophers in at least three (not always mutually exclusive) ways. Roughly speaking, the first involves the discussion and interpretation of specific Greek texts. The second involves the development, often in new contexts, of ideas inspired by or rooted in Greek ideas, but not necessarily identical to them. The third way is the apparently independent development of ideas and ways of thinking that parallel those found in Greek thought, where there is no evidence of direct influence.  The papers in this panel illustrates all three modes by which Greek thinking has been engaged by American philosophers.


The first paper, entitled The Natural History of the Soul, takes up the first and second modes by focusing on a set of lectures Fredrick Woodbridge gave in 1930 on Aristotle's De Anima in which he reads Aristotle as concerned primarily with the being and meaning of nature.  The paper is divided into three sections.  The first considers Woodbridge's innovative account of Aristotle's method, which is guided by Aristotle's own theoretical practice of attempting to put the natural phenomena he encounters into words.  This methodological commitment to the articulation of things suggests the importance of Aristotle's own ontological orientation toward language, which is the focus of the second section of the paper.  Finally, drawing on Woodbridge's account of how, for Aristotle, it is natural for things to go into language the paper will conclude with a discussion of Aristotle's understanding of the intelligibility of things that links Aristotle's naturalism to both Woodbridge's conception of cooperation and Dewey's understanding of transaction.


Illustrating the first and third modes, Peirce’s Account of Pythagoras explores the speculative biography of Pythagoras written by Peirce on multiple occasions.  Primarily, Peirce offers it as a methodological example of abduction based upon meager evidence, and which offers few predictions regarding possible future experience.  Peirce considers his method both distinctive and superior to others because it demands an explanation of all the evidence, even, or especially, known falsehoods.  That is, one should explain why a false testimony would be asserted as true, and why in one way rather than another.  More broadly, Peirce implicitly argues that we should engage with the ancients seriously, rather than assigning them to the “infancy” of thought.  In fact, Peirce’s account concludes with an intriguing hypothesis as to the secret behind Pythagorean "mysticism," based largely on a supposition regarding Pythagoras' travels outside the Greek world.


The final paper of the panel, Inquiry, Truth, and Normativity in Parmenides and Peirce, addresses the second and third modes of the American engagement with Greek thinking by drawing Peirce's conception of philosophical inquiry into dialogue with that of Parmenides. In his search for alternatives to aspects of modern philosophy he found to be misguided, Peirce often independently took up Greek notions also used by Parmenides. The thematic study of inquiry was central to Peirce’s conception of philosophy. In this his closest philosophical precursor was Parmenides.  Both investigated what it is that inquiry might enjoin and require, and what its success might consist in and imply. Both also explored the normative or evaluative dimensions of the search for truth.  This paper looks at these two areas of common interest.  The paper examines the convergences and divergences between Peirce and Parmenides on the theme of inquiry, with the aim that the reflection of each on the other might illuminate both and further our understanding of the questions they addressed.


First Paper

The Natural History of the Soul: Woodbridge on Aristotle’s De Anima


In November 1930, Fredrick J. E. Woodbridge gave a remarkable series of lectures at Union College on “The Philosophy of Aristotle.”  John Herman Randall provocatively called these lectures, which he edited and had published under the title Aristotle’s Vision of Nature, “the most important writing on Aristotle’s thought since the revolutionary study of Werner Jaeger in 1923.”[1]  Despite Randall’s conviction, Woodbridge’s engagement with Aristotle has received little attention from Aristotle scholars.  Indeed, with the notable exception of Randall’s own book on Aristotle, the novel and insightful reading of Aristotle Woodbridge offers in these lectures seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears.  Even Dewey, who learned so much from Woodbridge’s appropriation of Aristotle’s naturalism, was only willing to go so far, arguing that Aristotle “came nearest to a start” in the direction of a naturalistic metaphysics, “[b]ut his thought did not go far on the road, though it may be used to suggest the road which he failed to take.  Aristotle acknowledges contingency, but he never surrenders his bias in favor of the fixed, certain and finished.”[2]


Yet, Dewey’s judgment here reinforces the neo-Platonic caricature of Aristotle as the great metaphysical architect, categorizing all he encounters and situating each thing categorized into a grand systematic hierarchy.  Woodbridge resists this caricature by taking seriously the manner in which Aristotle’s thinking goes to work on the matter with which it is concerned.


Woodbridge reads Aristotle with Santayana, who insisted that the secret of Aristotle is that he “was the greatest of naturalists himself.”[3]  For Woodbridge this means taking one of Santayana’s typically poetic formulations seriously: “In Aristotle the conception of human nature is perfectly sound; everything ideal has a natural basis and everything natural an ideal development.”[4]  The Woodbridge lectures of 1930 are animated by Santayana’s formulation; they perform a reading of the De Anima animated by the conviction that human-being is itself an expression of nature.  Randall puts it this way: “For Aristotle, as Woodbridge sees him, was a naturalist just because he was a humanist, interested not in nature as man writ large, but in man as nature writ clearly and in perfected form.”[5]


This vision of human-being as belonging to and bound up with nature has been eclipsed by a long tradition of modern philosophy that segregates the mind from the body and seeks to set human-being apart from and above the world of nature.  The disastrous effects of such a philosophical position are being felt in ever more distressful ways as the natural world increasingly reminds us that we belong to her as much as she to us.  At such moments, the tradition of American naturalism takes on an urgent poignancy.


Returning, then, to the 1930 Woodbridge lectures, it is possible to discern an Aristotle alive to the dynamic at work between human-being and the being of nature.  By attending carefully, as Woodbridge does, to the manner in which Aristotle himself engages the beings he encounters in the natural world, we may ourselves learn something of our own symbiotic relationship with nature. 


The structure of the paper proposed here is informed by an attempt to educe the lessons this more naturalistic Aristotle has to teach.  It begins by tracing Woodbridge’s innovative account of Aristotle’s method.  By focusing on the manner in which Aristotle himself works, Woodbridge draws our attention to a deeper understanding of Aristotle’s “logic” as an attempt to attend to the manner in which the things of nature go into language.  The second section of the paper will develop Aristotle’s account of human logos as a natural and co-operative response to the logos that operates in things.  This co-operation between human logos and the logos of things is itself the condition for the possibility of the intelligibility of nature.  Thus, in the final section of the paper, the question of the intelligibility of things will be addressed in order to suggest how, although nature always also remains provocatively elusive, it does, nevertheless, lend itself to human articulation and intelligibility. 


The intelligibility of things reveals itself only to those intent on following the naturalistic method Aristotle himself performs: the willingness to go down to the things of nature, to live in intimate association with them, and to engage them such that they are permitted to articulate their various ways of being.  Such a methodology is no mere theoretical posturing, but, when undertaken with seriousness, humility and integrity, it becomes potentially transformative of the relationship between human-being and the being of nature.  A vital legacy of Aristotelian thinking lives in Woodbridge’s own conception of the co-operation between human-being and nature, which in Dewey is thematized in terms of our transactions with things.[6]  To apprehend human life in terms of its cooperation with the natural world and to recognize ourselves as determined by our transactions with things is to begin to transform the manner in which we relate to the natural world in and with which we live.  Despite Dewey’s polemics, in his theoretical practice, Aristotle refused to surrender to the fixed, but brought his thinking to life and allowed life to animate his thinking.


Second Paper

Peirce’s Account of Pythagoras


Peirce concludes his 1901 monograph, “The Logic of Drawing History from Ancient Documents, Especially Testimonies,” with his preferred example of abduction done “under difficulties” – the life of Pythagoras.  In fact, Peirce inquired into the life of Pythagoras, with some variations, at least four times in the last two decades of his life.  Beginning with these biographies of Pythagoras, the purpose of this paper is three-fold.  The first is to explicate the methodology Peirce presents through the example of Pythagoras; e.g., the interrelationships between explanation, hypothesis, and prediction.  The second is to explore Peirce’s implied ethics of interpretation; that is, how one should approach the testimony of another, especially one distant in space and time.  Finally, this paper will conclude with Peirce’s assessment of Pythagoreanism, and highlight some resonances between these thinkers.


The life of Pythagoras is a perfect limit case for illustrating the logic of abduction because both the evidence is limited to a few, somewhat unreliable, sources and the possibility of testing any predictions on the issue is low.  As such, Peirce’s abduction can do little more than to explain and unify the extant evidence.  Peirce considered his methodology distinct, and superior, to that of the German “higher critics” because it demands an explanation of all the evidence, perhaps especially that which we know to be false.  In other words, if we know some testimony is mistaken, through either external or internal evidence, we should not simply dismiss that testimony, let alone all the testimony of that author.  Rather, Peirce insists that we must account for the particularity of the error – why this one rather than another.  It is this methodological point that will provide the key for Peirce’s novel, and self-admittedly highly tenuous, hypothesis regarding Pythagoras and his teaching. 


Peirce begins from the well-supported claim that Pythagoras moved to Crotona in 532 B.C.  How, then, are we to account for the Iamblichus’ assertion that the Persian Cambyses captured Pythagoras and enslaved him for 12 years?  This claim is inconsistent with others made by Iamblichus, and the fact that Cambyses invaded Egypt in 527 B.C., five years after Pythagoras had settled in Crotona (note that in general Peirce’s dates are two years earlier than contemporary ones).  Rather than dismissing Iamblichus for his unreliability, Peirce hypothesizes that this contradiction from a confusion between the tradition that the Persians had enslaved Pythagoras with the famous invasion of Egypt by Cambyses.  Working from a plausible opportunity for Pythagoras’ capture, Peirce offers a series of conjectures that argue Pythagoras returned to Greece via Central Asia and perhaps India.  For example, Peirce cites the Brahminical aspects of Pythagoras’ philosophy, such as a doctrine of reincarnation.


On this basis, Peirce attempts to understand the mysticism attributed to Pythagoras, especially in light of his rule of Crotona, a decidedly un-mystical pursuit.  Peirce offers three interrelated explanations.  The first is that presenting oneself as semi-divine to support your rule was common in the areas of Pythagoras’ travels.  Secondly, Peirce suggests that the mystical element of Pythagoras’ doctrine of number originates, in part, from the translation of teachings in an Indo-Iranian language or perhaps Sanskrit into Greek.  Thirdly, Peirce suggests that Pythagoras learned a computational method and notation precursor to our modern Arabic notation, which likely originated in Chorasmia (the area of modern day Uzbekistan).  Thus, Peirce argues that part of the secretiveness of the Pythagoreans lay in the protection of this accounting technique, and that on one level the Pythagorean cult was likely a trade guild.


While focusing on the arguments and evidence for Peirce’s surprising account of Pythagoras, I also want to address Peirce’s ethics of interpretation more generally.  For example, Peirce argues that Eduard Zeller’s rejection of the multiple testimonies that Pythagoras displayed as improbable is uncharitable.  First, it implies that such august figures as Aristotle and Plutarch are fools for either believing or simply passing on such an “improbability.”  Moreover, it likely presumes an anachronistic conception of the term “golden.”  That is, interpreting this testimony as Pythagoras having a thigh made of solid gold, gold being a metallic element with an atomic mass of 197, etc., is both uncharitable and insensitive to the context of the testifiers.  This critique ties into Peirce’s general conviction that philosophers and scientists should take history seriously, rather than regarding ancient thinkers as obsolete or at the “infancy” of thought.  Even if this is true, we should understand historical thinkers by being sensitive to their particular context rather than ignoring them.


By way of a demi-conclusion, I will broaden Peirce’s account of Pythagoras by sketching his assessment of Pythagorean doctrines and their influence on other thinkers, such a Plato.  Moreover, I will explore some of the resonances (influence is likely too strong) between Peirce’s philosophy and that of Pythagoras, such as their mutual reverence for numbers.


Third Paper

Inquiry, Truth, and Normativity in Parmenides and Peirce


The theme of inquiry was central to Peirce’s conception of philosophy. He explored what inquiry might require or enjoin - in terms of assumptions, axioms, and ways of thinking - and what its success might consist in, imply, or not imply. In this orientation his closest philosophical precursor was Parmenides. No evidence indicates that Peirce’s account of inquiry and its objects was influenced by a reading of Parmenides. Instead, I suggest, Peirce found in Greek thought hints of a promising alternative to those modern approaches to epistemology and metaphysics that he found misguided. His development of these hints paralleled Parmenides’ own in several important respects. This paper examines some convergences and divergences between the two, with the aim that the reflection of each on the other will illuminate both and further our understanding of the questions they addressed. It looks at two areas of common interest: the normative or evaluative dimension of the search for truth; and the question of the requisites and implications of inquiry.


The focus of the goddess’s speech in Parmenides’ poem is inquiry. Within the context of her discussion of “roads of inquiry,” particularly the road associated with aletheia (roughly, truth), the goddess presents the earliest surviving ancient Greek examples of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. Parmenides’ association of deductive reasoning with aletheia was new in ancient Greek thought. (The association was present in the philosophy of Peirce’s day, but he still found it necessary to argue that philosophy ought not to rely as well on introspection and personal insight.)


The well-known discussion of what is (to eon) appears within the goddess’s discussion of roads of inquiry. Her focus is on the exigencies and requisites of inquiry, on how one is to conceive of what is in order for inquiry to be possible given the conceptions - the everyday delineations of the world - with which the discourse of the poem begins. For a road of inquiry to be oriented toward aletheia, she argues, it cannot characterize what is as contradictory, non-eternal, or otherwise incomplete or discontinuous. A conception at odds with that would make inference and inquiry  impossible. Parmenides’ goddess expresses this by saying that in or for the road of inquiry associated with aletheia, Dike, Ananke, and Moira (Justice, Necessity, and Portion) are in place. At least the first and third are explicitly normative.


Peirce did not use the Parmenidean expression ‘road of inquiry,’ but in “The Fixation of Belief” he used the similar ‘method of inquiry.’ Parmenides’ word for ‘road’ is hodos, and Peirce’s ‘method’ transliterates the Greek methodos, which signifies being on or going according to (meta) a hodos. Only one of Peirce’s “methods” is oriented by truth above other goals, namely the “scientific” method he recommended for philosophy. That Peirce understood the pursuit of truth as one choice among several available and valuable in discourse and in the conduct of life indicates an affinity with Greek thought. His attempts to provide an alternative to transcendental arguments about our access to truth also resonate with Parmenides’ approach, but have significantly different results.


Where Peirce diverged most from Parmenides was in his treatment of the place of chance in explanation. Parmenides’ arguments suggest that chance implies discontinuity and so vitiates explanation; Peirce’s suggest that allowing for chance opens the way to deeper and more comprehensive explanation. I will argue that this difference points up crucial questions about the relationship between cosmic order, human good, and the possibility of gaining knowledge by inquiry.


[1]  ADDIN EN.CITE  ADDIN EN.CITE.DATA Frederick Woodbridge, Aristotle's Vision of Nature, ed. John Herman Randall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), xvi.

[2]  ADDIN EN.CITE  ADDIN EN.CITE.DATA John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover Publications, 1958), 48.

[3]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite ExcludeYear="1"><Author>Santayana</Author><Year>1957</Year><RecNum>676</RecNum><Pages> 244</Pages><record><rec-number>676</rec-number><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Santayana, George</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>Dialogues in limbo : with three new dialogues</title></titles><pages>248</pages><dates><year>1957</year></dates><pub-location>Ann Arbor, Michigan</pub-location><publisher>Univ. of Michigan Press</publisher><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>George Santayana, Dialogues in Limbo : With Three New Dialogues (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1957), 244.

[4]  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite ExcludeYear="1"><Author>Santayana</Author><Year>1905</Year><RecNum>3789</RecNum><Pages> 21</Pages><record><rec-number>3789</rec-number><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Santayana, George</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>The life of reason, or the Phases of Human Progress</title></titles><pages>5 v.</pages><volume>1</volume><keywords><keyword>Reason.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>1905</year></dates><pub-location>New York</pub-location><publisher>Scribner</publisher><urls></urls><research-notes>This is the edition with the introduction that appealed to Woodbridge.</research-notes></record></Cite></EndNote>George Santayana, The Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1905), 21.

[5]  ADDIN EN.CITE  ADDIN EN.CITE.DATA Woodbridge, Aristotle's Vision of Nature, xx.

[6] For Woodbridge’s discussion of “coöperation,” see  ADDIN EN.CITE  ADDIN EN.CITE.DATA Frederick James Eugene Woodbridge, An Essay on Nature (New York: Columbia university press, 1940), 209ff.  For Dewey’s account of transaction, see  ADDIN EN.CITE <EndNote><Cite ExcludeYear="1"><Author>Dewey</Author><Year>1949</Year><RecNum>3714</RecNum><Pages> 104</Pages><record><rec-number>3714</rec-number><ref-type name="Book">6</ref-type><contributors><authors><author>Dewey, John</author><author>Bentley, Arthur Fisher</author></authors></contributors><titles><title>Knowing and the known</title></titles><pages>xiii, 334 p.</pages><keywords><keyword>Knowledge, Theory of.</keyword></keywords><dates><year>1949</year></dates><pub-location>Boston</pub-location><publisher>Beacon Press</publisher><call-num>ABINGTON STACKS-AB BD161.D38 BOOK&#xD;BERKS STACKS-BK BD161.D38 BOOK&#xD;GREATVLY STACKS-GV BD161.D38 BOOK&#xD;HARRISBURG STACKS-HB2 BD161.D38 BOOK&#xD;UP-PAT CHECKEDOUT BD161.D38 BOOK</call-num><urls></urls></record></Cite></EndNote>John Dewey and Arthur Fisher Bentley, Knowing and the Known (Boston: Beacon Press, 1949), 104.