Rule 16 for history of philosophy: respect texts about texts

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Rule 16: Respect texts about texts

A whole genre of philosophical writing that traditionally suffers from neglect is the commentary. Actually there is a whole range of texts about other philosophical texts, which would include commentaries but also glosses, paraphrases, epitomes, and the like – I am referring to all this sort of thing, but to simplify I’ll mostly just talk about “commentaries.” A good example, and also an example where prejudice has largely been overcome now, is the massive body of philosophical commentaries on Plato, Aristotle and other philosophical works that was produced in late antiquity. Thanks to Richard Sorabji’s Ancient Commentators Project (which I worked with in London for some years) these commentaries are now mostly available in English and have been pretty well integrated into history of philosophy. There are also many commentaries in Latin medieval philosophy and in the Islamic tradition. In fact, one reason for the widespread myth that philosophy in the Islamic world ended after the 12th century or so is that thereafter, philosophy was often written in the form of glosses and commentaries, which are always in danger of not being taken seriously.

There are at least three reasons why we should take such texts seriously, and include them in the history of philosophy. First, they can still fulfill their original purpose of illuminating the text commented upon. Alexander of Aphrodisias was not only a superb philosopher in his own right, but also had a thorough and intimate knowledge of Aristotle’s works (plus he was a native speaker of ancient Greek!). He is thus a very useful guide to textual and philosophical problems in the source text – that doesn’t mean he’s always right in his interpretations of course, but he is pretty well always worth consulting. Admittedly not all commentators reach his standard; maybe only Averroes can compete with him as an insightful and interesting commentator on Aristotle. But the mere fact that a commentary has survived down to the present day is usually a sign that many generations of readers found it useful.

Second, commentators are themselves philosophers and say interesting and original things in the context of commentating – sometimes this happens as a kind of digression from the commentary, but you can also find fascinating material in the midst of commenting on a passage. It’s often precisely when the commentator has trouble with the source text that he or she is going to be innovative – a Platonist commenting on Aristotle, for instance – and the innovation may show itself in very subtle ways, for instance slightly but significantly different word choice as a source text is paraphrased.

Third, there is something philosophical about the commentary activity itself. Of what these older commentators were doing is much like what we are doing when we read historical philosophical texts today: trying to make sense of them and find what is true in them. The methods and presuppositions a commentator brings to a text can be illuminating for our own practice (for instance, do they use a “principle of charity,” trying to offer readings that will make the source text come out true or at least coherent or plausible, and if so how do they do so?). As you’ll know by now I’m firmly convinced that doing history of philosophy is itself a philosophical enterprise, and we may have no texts that illustrate this point better than texts about texts from earlier time periods.

T. Franke on 15 February 2015

Very true. Comments are the

Very true. Comments are the direct view into the commentator's brain. Unless commentating became a literary genre on its own. Then it's a more elaborate comment.

Comments still exist today, like Taylor's comment on Plato's Timaeus-Critias.

(And I don't see a review when I press the Review button; Mozilla Firefox).

Anne Pollok on 17 February 2015

Another source of interest,

Another source of interest, and I am aware of it for "my" research period, 17-18th Century Philosophy, is the textbook. Take Kant, for example, who lectured out of Baumgarten's Metaphysica for decates. This, and the notes by students (Mitschriften) are also not always the most exact source of a deeper understanding of Kant, but they can tell more often than not where a particular idea came from, how it was developed, and which aspects were cut off from it when Kant integrated them in his published work.

Consult Reinhard Brandt when it comes to how to integrate textbooks and notes into your own account on a philosopher.

In reply to by Anne Pollok

Peter Adamson on 17 February 2015

Great point. Actually of

Great point. Actually of course a lot of these "commentaries" are in fact textbooks, for instance several commentaries from the school of Alexandria are explicitly labeled as presenting what Ammonius said in his lectures on Aristotle.

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