Greek philosophy - by John Burnet - PDF book

Greek philosophy - by John Burnet 

Greek philosophy - by John Burnet
Greek philosophy



From the introduction:

No one will ever succeed in writing a history of philosophy; for philosophies, like works of art, are intensely personal things. It was Plato s belief, indeed, that no philosophical truth could be communicated in writing at all; it was only by some sort of immediate contact that one soul could kindle the flame in another. Now in dealing with the philosophy of an earlier age, we are wholly confined to written records, and these are usually fragmentary and often second-hand or of doubtful authority. 

They are written, too, in a language which at best we only half understand, and have been moulded by influences for the most part beyond our ken. It will only, therefore, be in so far as the historian can reproduce the Platonic contact of souls that his work will have value. In some measure this is possible. Religious faith often seems able to break through the barriers of space and time, and so to apprehend its object directly, but such faith is something personal and incommunicable, and in the same way, the historian s reconstruction of the past is primarily valid for himself alone. It is not a thing he can hand over ready-made to others. 

There is nothing mysterious about this aspect either of religious faith or of philological interpretation. On the contrary, all knowledge has the same character. In the present case, it only means that a man who tries to spend his life in sympathy with the ancient philosophers 1 will sometimes find a direct conviction forcing itself upon him, the grounds of which can only be represented very imperfectly by a number of references in a footnote. 

Unless the enumeration of passages is complete and it can never be complete and unless each passage tells exactly in the same way, which depends on its being read in the light of innumerable other passages not consciously present to memory, the so-called proofs will not produce the same effect on any two minds. That is the sense in which philological inquiry, like every other inquiry, requires an act of faith. It is clear, however, that no one whose experience has not been identified can be called on to repeat this act after another, and for this reason professed histories of philosophy are often more of a hindrance than a help. 

They seem only to interpose another obstacle where there are obstacles enough already. But though a history of philosophy is impossible, there are some humbler tasks that can in a measure be performed, and of which the performance may help to prepare the way for a more direct vision. In the first place, there are certain external matters that may be determined with considerable accuracy and which are not without importance. 

We are more likely to understand a philosopher rightly if we know the time he lived at and the surroundings that may have helped to shape his thought, even though these can never wholly explain him. It is particularly useful to know what other philosophers he was acquainted with, either directly or through their writings. In the second place, the development of Greek philosophy depends on the progress of science, and especially mathematical, discovery more than on anything else, and it is possible to ascertain pretty accurately the stage Greek science had reached by a given time. The records are full, and, when critically used, trustworthy. It is for these reasons that this work deals so largely with matters which may appear at first to lie outside the province of philosophy. That is, in fact, its chief justification.

 It is an attempt to lead the reader to the right point of view, from which he may then see for himself. Lastly, there is what may be called the cathartic or purgative function of history. The greatest of all the obstacles we have to surmount is just the mass of scholastic explanation and dogma which so soon overwhelm the teaching of any original genius. 

To clear that away is perhaps the greatest service that can be rendered in this field. We do not wish to see Plato with the eyes of Aristotle, or even of Plotinus, but if possible, face to face and anyone who can help us here deserve our thanks. It may seem a purely negative service, but that lies in the nature of the case. In the long run, the positive construction must be left to the individual student, and no two students will see quite alike. All the historian can do is to point the way, and warn others off tracks which have already been found to lead nowhere.


the book details :
  • Author: John Burnet -  was a Scottish classicist. He was born in Edinburgh and died in St Andrew
  • Publication date: 1914
  • Company: London: Macmillan

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