Modes of Philosophizing

[Cogito 06, Athens 2007, p. 34-35]


Myles Burnyeat



On 24 April 1993 I took part in a popular weekly BBC radio programme, entitled ‘Ad Lib.’, chaired by Robert Robinson, in which people in odd professions talked about what they did. Once upon a time, when I was a young don at University College London, the BBC would regularly broadcast interesting philosophical talks by the likes of Gilbert Ryle, David Pears, and Bernard Williams, and publish them subsequently in a wonderful weekly journal (sadly, now defunct) called The Listener, which would appear on the newsstands alongside the (still surviving) Economist, Spectator and New Statesman. Then we were mainstream, not an odd profession. But now the BBC had reclassified us as an oddity, worthy of Robert Robinson’s splendidly acerbic attention alongside two varieties of psychotherapist (broadcast in alternate weeks, lest they fall into a quarrel), lighthouse keepers, and other queer folk. We did not complain. For a moment, queer as we might be, we had the attention of the whole country.

Problem: among that ‘we’, among the ten or so ‘odd’ persons present in the studio, one was different, and different in a way that Robert Robinson persistently failed to understand. R.R. kept assuming that we each had our own philosophy. Most of us knew we had no such thing. We had dedicated our lives to teaching. Teaching the thoughts of the great philosophers of the past and those of the most prominent philosophers of the present. The exception was Michael Dummett. He has (I use the present tense deliberately) his own philosophy in the traditional sense of an original system of thought. But its focus is the philosophy of language, which has everything to do with how we talk, little or nothing to do with what we say when we do talk, still less with how we should live.

This is not because Dummett does not care. Frege: The Philosophy of Language is renowned, not only for its rigorous and highly original exposition of the thought of his philosophical hero, and not only for the author’s independent development of his own philosophy of language in dialogue with Frege, but also for its brief Preface, in which Dummett  reveals his shock on discovering, when he visited the Frege archives, the racism of his respected interlocutor. The reason the book had been late to the Press was the years Dummett had spent practically combating racism at home in Britain. This was a case, a legitimate case, in which practice and theory remained apart.

Returning to the original question, as put above, we should distinguish (a) ‘is of some relevance to non-philosophers’, (b) ‘its relevance can be grasped by non-philosophers’. The first is easier to illustrate than the second. And both depend both on which philosophers you look at and which non-philosophers you canvass. What I can say is that when, many years ago in 1987, I did the opening ‘Plato’ slot for Brian Magee’s highly successful TV series ‘The Great Philosophers’ (the videos are still on sale), my mailbag came from all over the country and all types of person. One has only to look at the Penguin translations of Plato omnipresent in the better British bookshops to appreciate that he at least, of the Greek philosophers, continues to speak to a wide audience in our totally different modern world.

A much more important example for British readers is Elizabeth Anscombe’s famous radio talk ‘Does Modern Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?’ [Date] The controversy that ensued in the pages of The Listener went on for months, involving both ‘professional philosophers’ and ‘non-philosophers’. It was truly a national debate. At a more strenuously intellectual level, think of the lengthy essays in legal philosophy that Ronnie Dworkin used to write regularly in the New York Review of Books.

So I do believe that philosophy has some things to say which are (and can, if appropriately presented, be perceived to be) of relevance to non-philosophers, but it would be ridiculous to think that this is or should be true of everything that philosophers produce. Philosophy did not come into the world to change it, but – before aspiring to change it for the better – to understand it. Which must include understanding those features of the world that no-one can change.


It is desirable that ALL aspects of philosophy are made available to non-philosophers, but it takes a certain kind of talent which it is no fault to lack. And also no fault to possess. I say this because I am sometimes criticised since, on occasion, I deliver my thoughts to popular newsstand magazines rather than to professional journals. My latest venture in this mode [attached for Katerina, not for Cogito], due out very soon in the London Review of Books, is designed to make available to the general reader how much less we specialists  know about Pythagoras than we used to do. It also contains one new idea designed to shock and surprise the specialists. Why should I not communicate in this way?


It is clear already by Plotinus’ day that there is a canonical list, with Thales as the first. Let that list stand, let ancient proto-scientists such as Thales be included, and let Aristotle not be marginalized on the grounds that he wrote much more on (what he and we call) physics than on metaphysics or ethics. And let ostracism be the penalty for anyone who denies that Aristotle’s Rhetoric (one of his greatest, most original treatises) counts as philosophy.


Several great philosophers were not trained in philosophy: Thales, Socrates, Wittgenstein. Descartes would wish (wrongly) to be added to the list. Was Plato trained in philosophy? The only answer to the question is as unhelpful as the question. Was C.S. Pierce so trained, was Spinoza? Who cares?

Are there clear criteria that have to be observed and respected by anyone outside the academic institutions who wants to claim that he/she is engaged in doing philosophy?

Fortunately, not. See Edward Craig on Philosophy and Philosophies. See also the two founders of the Patras philosophy curriculum, trained in altogether disparate traditions, united in founding a coherent philosophical education for their students. Then imagine submitting tomorrow to a contemporary publisher in the English-speaking world either The Critique of Pure Reason or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Rejection guaranteed.


The ambiguity is unavoidable, as illustrated above. Let it be. What else can I say I am when asked ‘What do you do?’ Are we sure that absolutely every ancient philosopher had original thoughts of their own? On the contrary, some would have felt insulted by the very suggestion that they were innovators. 


No, because it depends on which aspect of the subject you are concerned with. There is precious little philosophy in Burkert’s revolutionary work on Pythagoreanism, or Kassel’s wonderful edition of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, none at all in Janaček’s pioneering works on Sextus Empiricus, Kayser’s deflationary reviews of Brandwood and Ledger on Platonic stylometry, or Harlfinger’s exemplary studies of the Aristotelian manuscript tradition. Examples could be multiplied, for there are many, many ways in which non-philosophical skills can and do contribute to fruitful studies in the history of philosophy. And history-of-philosophy skills themselves can go badly wrong if they are not disciplined, as appropriate, by pertinent contributions from classical philology, modern symbolic logic, transformational grammar, contemporary literary criticism, etc., etc.

Besides, what is meant by the subject, philosophy, ITSELF?!


Obviously, Yes. It happens every day today, alas, and did (less often) in the distant and nearer past: (a) Wittgenstein, (b) David Lewis, (c) Socrates! Not to mention Augustine’s inability to read, because of his rather feeble knowledge of Greek, most of the important philosophical history that preceded him. (For example, the De Trinitate  shows him aware that in Plato’s Meno Socrates put certain questions to the slave in an experiment designed to prove that knowledge, properly speaking, comes from recollection of what one knew before birth, but unaware of what those questions were. He has read about the Meno, in the lucid Latin of Cicero’s Tusculans , but he didn’t find a translation of the original dialogue. If Barnes replies that he does not count Augustine as one who ‘did anything much in philosophy’, that parochial partiality just reveals the unhelpfulness of a phrase like ‘philosophy ITSELF’.


Many philosophers nowadays work in particular areas of philosophy without taking an active interest, or without being interested at all in others. To make it clearer, philosophers working on ethics or political philosophy often do not concern themselves with, or they even express an aversion to, areas of philosophy like philosophy of logic or language, and the other way around. What do you think about this compartmentalization of philosophy?

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, my first philosophy tutor gave me a single page list of the books and articles I should read during my first year as a student of  philosophy, as opposed to the student of classics, including ancient philosophy, I have previously been,). That was, as I could see in retrospect later, pretty well a complete list of works suitable for my stage as a student coming into philosophy from classics. Had I stayed with him, there would no doubt have been a similar list for my finals year.

When a couple of years later I began teaching at University College London, we all, whatever our specialties, joined in seminars on the latest important book by, e.g. Strawson, Hare or Shoemaker. There was a whole series of central books we had not only read, but much more important, had debated together. Those days, sadly, have gone. We are all impoverished. It is no good asking, ‘What can we do about it?’, because the institutional pressures under which university staff now work impose a scientistic model on which specialisation is the norm. Let us not deceive ourselves, however, that this is a uniquely modern corruption of the academic enterprise.

Under the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius there has been discovered a vast library of Epicurean literature. One typical pattern of this literature is the following: Philodemus, when writing papyrus such and such, answers (or, in some rather interesting cases, he merely drafts his answers) to X’s critique of Y’s criticism of Z’s defence of A’s demolition of B’s attack on ... Epicurus’ claim that ... . No sane person can get to care about how to complete the chain of cross-reference. The fault, needless to say, does not lie in Epicurus’ philosophy, but in the intense academic specialization that genuinely original thought is liable, under certain conditions, to attract to itself.    


During the last decades there has been a debate, sometimes quite polemical, between the so-called ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’ philosophers. Should one say that the representatives of the one or the other tradition are not philosophers at all, or do they represent different modes of philosophizing?

I merely cite Bernard Williams’ comment: ‘the labels involve a cross-classification between the methodological and the geographical: it is like classifying cars as Japanese and front-wheel drive’.


Throughout the history of philosophy philosophers have used different forms of expressing their views such as dialogues, letters, poems, questions and answers, commentaries, aphorisms. It seems that we have long stopped experimenting in this area and most philosophers choose to write articles and books of a standard form. Does this standardization involve a loss?

Yes indeed. All the ponderousness of the academic style weighs down upon the reader unless they are professionally engaged in that very field. Compare my remarks above on writing for non-professional journals that pop up on the newsstand. Yet Wittgenstein’s highly unacademic style is not that long ago, and Quine writes a highly non-standard, mannerist English prose. See also Jane Heal on the role of dialogues with imaginary speakers in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, in Timothy Smiley, ed., Philosophical Dialogues: Plato, Hume, Wittgenstein  (British Academy, c1995). And one exception remains where true originality can appear: the commentary. I have already cited the example of Dummett. But many professional philosophers will be able to think of a commentary on Wittgenstein, or on Spinoza, or on Kant, or on Aristotle’s Ethics, which was crucial for their subsequent, adult development.