Rule 8 for history of philosophy: read the whole text

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Rule 8: Read the whole text

I shouldn't even have to say this! But I do, because in fact it's very common to take individual passages or arguments or claims out of their textual context. Perhaps the best example of all is something I'll be covering soon in the podcast, Anselm's ontological argument, which fits onto a page or two and is nearly always read by itself without going through the rest of the work in which it appears (his Proslogion). In fact that argument is only the first step in a lengthy attempt to grasp God, and it's impossible to understand correctly what Anselm is up to unless you read the whole book. That's an extreme example, but it's not atypical, I think.

Of course, there may be more or less free-standing bits of text that don't need to be read along with the rest of the work in which they appear - some philosophers write aphoristically, for instance. But even in that sort of case, we shouldn't just assume that (say) a collection of aphorisms and short texts by Nietzsche has been put together with no thought regarding structure or thematic arc. At the other end of the spectrum, it amazes me that people often read bits of Platonic dialogues as if they could be understood in isolation - even though it's patently obvious that Plato put immense effort into the unity and structure of each dialogue. (In fact he even talks about the organic unity of a good speech in the Phaedrus.) 

Of course, it's not always easy or even possible to read works as a whole. There are texts that are preserved only as fragments, like with the Presocratics and early Stoics; similar problems arise with, say, anonymous glosses or notes in medieval manuscripts, where we can't be sure what (if any) other material was written by the same annotator. Then there are massive works where reading the whole thing is a major commitment; I wouldn't tell someone it is worthless to read one book of the Republic unless they are also going to be reading the other nine in the near future. As with the other rules, this is therefore more an ideal to shoot for: whenever possible consider textual evidence in light of the rest of the work, for instance by considering what the author may have been trying to do in the work as a whole, and what role this particular part of the text plays in that whole.

This is incidentally another way to avoid anachronism. By being more attentive to the goals and project of the whole work, we are less likely to jump to conclusions about one isolated passage and to import anachronistic philosophical concerns into that passage.

John Leake on 27 September 2014

I wonder what you think on

I wonder what you think on the position of the Pre-Socratics and context then, Peter. What I mean is whether we should be reading them in the context-free setting of Diels-Kranz, Kirk, Raven and Schofield, etc., or whether we should take care to place them within the context in which Aristotle or Proclus used them?

In reply to by John Leake

Peter Adamson on 28 September 2014

Well, as I mention in the

Well, as I mention in the post fragments are a real problem. Even with Heraclitus, it seems to be the case that his book of sayings had some sort of structure which is now mostly invisible to us. The "context" in which Aristotle and Simplicius (I think that's who you're thinking of, not Proclus/) is important for understanding the Presocratics but in a somewhat different way: it helps us tell whether the information might be getting distorted in some way. For instance Aristotle often seems to be phrasing the Presocratic positions using his own distinctive terminology and he puts them into a framework of his own, so we need to bear that in mind when evaluating the evidence he presents.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

John Leake on 29 September 2014

Ah, yes, I did mean

Ah, yes, I did mean Simplicius, Peter. Thanks for the reply!

Otter Bob on 28 September 2014

A suggested rule: Read

A suggested rule:

Read secondary sources to aid your understanding but always return to the primary text.

Perhaps too wordy compared to the others so far, but perhaps, if interested, someone (Peter?)can rephrase it and provide the explanation.

Jeremy Pierce on 3 October 2014

It amazes me how often I

It amazes me how often I encounter people objecting to Aquinas' Five Ways by saying that they don't go very far to establish the kind of God Aquinas believed in. No one could say that with a straight face and think it's a real objection if they'd just read a little bit further.

In reply to by Jeremy Pierce

Peter Adamson on 4 October 2014

Yes, excellent point. I guess

Yes, excellent point. I guess I'll be saying something to that effect in a podcast on him before long!

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