Think with the ancients

Joan Miró, Femme dans la nuit, 1945.


Introduction to the newly released book

think by figures

It may be that one can only think within inherited ways. But that doesn't mean we should be content with just accepting the inheritance. If we think with ancient philosophy, perhaps it is possible to philosophize today. Borrowing from the ancients is taking from them what remains theirs, therefore it is trying to read them faithfully, adapting our historical view of them, but it is also trying to understand them completely, integrating their thinking with ours. Is it to struggle out of the alternative: history or philosophy?

The expression “history of philosophy” is actually a kind of oxymoron. Strictly speaking, how could what is historical be philosophical and vice versa? If we read an ancient text in its philosophical dimension, we find in it ideas that we can admit, theses that we can adopt, arguments with which we can agree, in short, we take seriously the text's intention of truth. If we read an ancient text in its historical dimension, we discover in it concepts that can be explained by their genesis or by their context, a “significant” questioning of a culture or a tradition, a symptomatic way of thinking of a philosopher or a current, in short , we assign meanings that are all the more “interesting” to the text the more they escape our own intention: that of the true.

The more historical significance the text acquires, the less it ceases to be a bearer of truths. And as soon as we take it in its philosophical dimension, all historical distance is annulled. A good illustration of this opposition between two reading intentions, which decomposes the confused idea of ​​the history of philosophy into its two distinct concepts, is, from certain angles, the antagonism between the “continental” hermeneutic readings and the Anglo-Saxon “analytical” readings.

However, we must not oppose, let alone choose, between “historicism” and perennial philosophy. Everything is historical in a specific philosophy, and yet everything philosophical for us cannot escape history. We have always appropriated historically constituted philosophies – and perhaps we should never fail to appropriate them – in a way that cuts them off from their historical soil. But could it be that, deep down, it was not the first our “historical sense” that rooted them there? And does this “historical sense”, to which we have been destined since the XNUMXth century by history itself, also belong, inseparably, to the way of philosophizing that we practice today – if it was not already practiced in the past?

Through the concept of “philosophical figures borrowed from the ancients”, our intention was to leave these alternatives and find a way of doing philosophy without giving up the legitimate demands of history. as if they existed thinking figures to go through history. They seem to exist for us in a purely logical space, even if, famously, they have only been possible by and in history; and we can take them for invariable, even if their form of realization is always historically variable. Better yet: we always take them for ahistorical, the very moment they appear to us as philosophical. Therefore, these “figures” inscribed in ancient thought, it must be possible to take them from their history and make them work philosophically in ours.

The “figures” are neither theses, nor arguments, nor problems, nor concepts hovering above history, in the sky of Ideas. Our intention is not to catalog, as school books do, the doctrinal positions (in “-ism”) on the Great Classic Questions: the question of the existence of God (theism, atheism, agnosticism…), the question of the relationship between the soul and the body (monism, dualism...), the question of being (materialism, idealism), the question of universals (realism, nominalism...), the question of the possibility of knowledge (dogmatism, skepticism, criticism...) etc. Our intention is not to rescue the fundamental questions, as if they were pieces of a puzzle that have always been proposed to the human spirit, or to oppose the doctrines of philosophers, as if they indefinitely interpreted and reinterpreted their gigantomachy on the stage of pure thought.

By the name “figures”, we try to identify in ancient philosophical texts unnoticed and (if possible) necessary forms of opposition, symmetry, complementarity or incompatibility between concepts, problematics, arguments or theses. The figures are ways of thinking inscribed in history as solutions to problems that, from our historical point of view, cross history and, consequently, seem to necessarily escape history. For a historically posed problem, a limited number of solutions – supportive, but incompatible – were presented as possible.

We try to highlight some of these parallel “paths” or crossed “destinations”, analyze them literally and place them in their specific historical context, assuming at the same time that they can be abstracted from their historical context as stable figures. There is no doubt that there are unnoticed figures in certain philosophies, and that they constitute, as it were, the unique style of those philosophies; but there are also concepts that build on each other and surreptitiously cross different philosophies. Sometimes there are intertwining figures between two doctrines or between various philosophical currents. And there are also more fundamental oppositions: historical dilemmas – unformulated and inevitable – that sometimes lead to incompatible “doctrinal” traditions, sometimes to the division of an entire corpus, sometimes even the split between ancients and moderns.

Whatever the case, and whatever the extent of the domain in which we identify its formation, the figure is constituted in competition with other figures, within a stable configuration, governed by the necessary interaction of symmetries and oppositions that define them in relation to each other. . The figure is the effect of its interaction with other figures, and the consequence of a choice that no one made. In summary, by philosophical figures we mean stable and ahistorical schemes of symmetrical, parallel or opposite solutions to philosophical problems inscribed in history.

Before illustrating this approach through the studies that support it, we would like to clarify the notion of “figure” through an example that does not appear in them. This is a very peculiar example, since in it the idea of ​​“figure of thought” is applied to itself, or rather, it is produced by its own application. the very notion philosophical of thought figure can be taken as a figure History of Greek thought.

Think of the (philosophical) question of the relation of knowledge to its objects. It is accepted as legitimate that a (simplistic) history of ideas allows showing that, faced with this question, there are three possible doctrinal positions, and that these three types of response are clearly distinguished in classical Greek thought. The first “figure” would bear the scholarly name of “Platonism”: “Ideas” are the only true objects of knowledge, because they are the only true realities; they are separate from the sensible, exist in themselves, eternally, etc.

The second figure would be called “nominalism”, and it would not be difficult to associate it with the name of Antisthenes: Ideas do not exist, they are illusions, there are only general names that we use for convenience to talk about singular things, which are the only existing realities, but whose infinite diversity surpasses our limited possibilities of imperfect and general knowledge, etc.

The third figure would be called “Aristotelianism”: Ideas (or “forms”) exist, they are the natural objects of thought and knowledge, but they do not exist apart from the sensible, because what exists is always irremediably a particular “it”, in which thought can distinguish what is sayable, knowable and fixed (the “form”) from what is not (the “matter”).

Let us assume that this example allows us to highlight in the history of Greek thought three figures of thought in the relationship between knowledge (or discourse) and its objects. Well then, to maintain that there are figures of thought in the history of philosophy is, in a way, to be an Aristotelian in the history of philosophy, insofar as Aristotelianism is one of the figures of thought that we have just defined. To maintain that there are figures of thought in history is to maintain that there are “forms” of thought, which are the very objects we have to think about, that is, say and know; but that these forms do not exist apart from their matter, that is, from a historical moment; however, we can only philosophically know them, and say them, as philosophical “forms” separable from their historical matter.

Therefore, in analogical terms, there would be three figures of thought of the relationship of (philosophical) thought with its historical achievements, just as there would be three possible figures of the relationship of knowledge with its objects. On the one hand, something similar to "Platonism": there are eternal "ideas", philosophy is perennial, it exists outside of history, and the task of thought consists in answering questions that are themselves transhistorical through theses or concepts. that are pure product of pure thought. On the other hand, something similar to a “nominalism” or “historicism”: everything is history, there are no “ideas” that escape it, there are only inherited names, doctrines in infinite number or systems of thought that are explained by their historical conditions, and the task of thought consists in freeing itself from all illusion of a pure philosophy and placing each thought again in its time, outside which it is nothing.

Finally, “Aristotelianism” would be the figure of thought through which one thinks through (historical) figures of (philosophical) thought: there is no thought outside of history, which is its condition of existence and its only possible mode of reality and, in that sense, sense, “everything is history”, because what exists are only particular thoughts, always different and always historical; but the only way we have of knowing, of saying, of thinking these thoughts is to think of them as separable from their historical context, in a kind of pure grammar of philosophical forms. These forms are not themselves separate, but they are necessarily thinkable as separable and are only thinkable for us as separable. That is why we can borrow them from ancient thought and offer them as objects to philosophy.

Figures of thought are therefore “forms” first of all: not “ideas” or simple “names”. The proof that they are historical and do not exist outside of history is that we find their concept in ancient thought under the name of Aristotelianism. And the proof that it is philosophical forms that allow us to think outside the history just for which they exist is that, even if it is from a necessarily historical point of view that we think them, it is necessarily separate from our history that we appropriate them. them--precisely as "forms."

Figures are forms in this sense. So why not call them "thought forms"?

Because they are not just that. In a given configuration, there are a small number of figures, but there would be an infinite number of shapes. The particularity of each of these figures is to be a possible path for thought; and the particularity of a configuration is to offer a few alternative and incompatible figures. “Thinking by figures” means, first of all, finding moments, or rather, critical places in history that engendered different figures of its resolution. But “thinking in figures” also means that, at each of these bifurcations, there are only a few possible figures, only a few great paths proposed by history, among which thought must choose today and always.

“Thinking in figures” means, therefore, knowing that the number of solutions is beforehand limited by the rules of geometry that define, in a given configuration, everything that is offered as possible to thought. This does not imply that thought is condemned to revolve around itself and repeat itself, nor that it is no longer capable of inventing concepts, being astonished by the unexpected or trying to experiment with new figures. It is always possible to think differently, because it is always from the top of a new thought and under the pretext of a way of thinking to be created that the discovery of ancient (and transhistorical) figures becomes possible. The figures do not are in history; they are given to us in history only insofar as we think them.

In the nine chapters that make up this book, we try to identify some of the crossroads in the history of Greek thought and the corresponding problematic configurations. In each configuration, we distinguish several historical pathways that we analyze concomitantly as philosophical figures. Making philosophical figures (contemporary or timeless) from ancient ways is what we might call borrowing from the ancients.

We divided these figures into three groups: “figures of the being”, “figures of man” and “figures of the disciple”. Being is the supposed primordial object of all ancient philosophy, man is the object that surreptitiously traverses all these philosophies, the way in which they are transmitted to the disciples clearly reveals the uniqueness of each one. We add to these three types of figures, by way of conclusion, the “figures of rationality”, if it is true that “reason” is the main modern borrowing taken from the Logos ancient, and if it is true above all that it is because of what is “rational” that historical ways can be transformed into philosophical figures. We will see later that these figures, even though they are rational, remain plural and rival.

* Francis Wolff He is professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Author, among other books, of Three contemporary utopias (Unesp).


Francis Wolff. Thinking with the ancients: an everlasting treasure. São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 324 pages.


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