Finding oneself in greek philosophy

Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 54 (2):255 - 279 (1992)
This paper addresses two interrelated questions. The first question is our relation, as the modern westerners that we are, to Greek philosophy in its historical context. The second question is the relation between Greek philosophical conceptions of the self and what we moderns take ourselves to be when we try to think about the world objectively. My inquiry is motivated by the belief that what a philosopher of the distant past can say to us is influenced by our own independent viewpoint, a viewpoint which may enable us to use that philosopher as a contributor to debates of which he himself had no inkling. Greek philosophers were innocent of the Cartesian tradition and the problems it has generated concerning the connection, if any, between an individual subject of consciousness and the so-called 'external world'. However, I argue that early Greek speculation about the physical world was inward as well as outward looking. Their attempts to think about the world objectively raised issues about the nature of the self — the inquiring (or non-inquiring) subject — issues that, in the case of Heraclitus, are quite explicit. Following up my earlier point about linking modern viewpoints to ancient insights, I make a comparison beween parts of Thomas Nagel's book, The View from Nowhere, and the philosophy of Heraclitus. In particular, I argue that Heraclitus adumbrates a concept analogous to Nagel's 'objective self and shares some of Nagel's interests in integrating that perspective with the practice of being a person in the everyday world. In the final part of the paper I comment briefly on Plato's and Aristotle's criticism of Heraclitus, a criticism that, from a modern perspective, seems to me misconceived. I also offer the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was influenced by Heraclitus, as an excellent example of what it could mean to combine an objective viewpoint with one's ordinary humanity. More generally, the paper may be read as a defence of objectivity — not in the sense that we can hope to understand the world independently of our own concepts or culture (I sidestep any questions about objective truth), but in the sense, rather, that trying to get beyond an irreducibly personal view of things is a basic human propensity (property of the self) even though our use of it seems bound to be (and perhaps should be) selective
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