Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Moore, Christopher. Review of William Wians, ed. LOGOS AND MUTHOS. BMCR (March 2010).
Wians, William, ed. Logos and Muthos: Philosophical Essays in Greek Literature. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. This book's cover wonders whether literature and philosophy "are in fact two rival forms of discourse mutually opposed to one another." But really its dozen essays take on less programmatic issues. Each submits an early Greek text--frequently the Homeric epics or the Agamemnon, but also archaic poetry and classical tragedy--to the sort of careful reading such texts, by themselves, occasion. As a loosely coordinated collection of readings, a couple of which I would recommend to others, this collection proves satisfactory. As an argument about the position of philosophy in works outside the philosophical canon, it proves less so. The book, according to its editor, means to "explore philosophical dimensions of literary authors." This goal gets haphazardly glossed across the first several pages as, e.g., (i) to "consider philosophical issues and ideas as they arise from or can be applied to literary... texts"; (ii) to "challenge [the] assumption ... that literary texts are somehow lacking when measured against standards of philosophical reasoning and argument"; or (iii) to "demonstrate that the poets... exhibit a high degree of critical self-awareness and reflection on issues more typically associated with ancient philosophers" (1-2). The last of these glosses best reflects the success of the book: the poets come out looking highly well-worth reading by people concerned about their own self-knowledge and all those topics such a concern could entail. The second gloss, about the relative rigor of argument, is never addressed, and struck me as almost by definition impossible (if a philosophical text is called so just because of its preponderance of explicit argument). The first gloss, with no attention to what would make an "issue" philosophical, as opposed simply to what reasonable people would think about, struck me as vacuous. By leaving "philosophy" undefined, or, at best, by treating it as claiming things about knowledge, or identity, or the soul, or the four elements, the book forewent a chance, I think, to ask as seriously as possible what role the appreciation of literature could have played in a classical Greek philosophical life. Assume, for instance, that philosophy is an activity that involves bringing ourselves to have only those commitments (i.e., about truth and value) for which we can find good reasons to maintain. Or assume that it's a practice meant to achieve self-knowledge, whatever self-knowledge might be. From either of those perspectives, the question about the philosophicality of a text would be a question about how that text could contribute to living rationally or to developing self-recognition. Homer's or Aeschylus's occupation with problems of ignorance or fate or virtue could then be judged perspicuous or not, mature or not, persuasive or not, rigorous or not, from some common viewpoint. The analysis of will this text give me a productive site for philosophizing? seems to me often more fruitful (as, in part, the question is answered mainly by trying) than does this text have a high philosophical quotient? In most of the cases developed in this book, the answer to the first question is "yes," and to the second question, so it seems to me, is "I'm still not quite sure what's being asked." . . . Read the whole review here: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2010/2010-03-38.html. (Thanks for the tip to Ed Brandon.)