GREEK PHILOSOPHY

Last Updated 22/07/05

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  1. The Paper
  2. Reading

1. The Paper

This course is designed to make you familiar with the thought and the ways of thinking of the major classical philosophers: the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle. It is focused on metaphysics and epistemology; ancient ethics, politics and aesthetics are covered in the Ethics or Politics or Aesthetics courses. You will be encouraged to analyse and criticise the arguments of the ancients and to think both constructively and critically about ancient theories. To this end, there is no substitute for reading the texts themselves (in translation, or even in Greek! Courses are available to help you to learn Greek).

The Lectures

The intercollegiate lectures in this course are divided into two levels:

Level 1: two survey courses, one on Plato and the other on Aristotle: these lectures include material on the pre-Socratics.

Level 2: sets of lectures on Plato and Aristotle, and sometimes also on the pre-Socratics. sometimes organized around particular works; sometimes around particular topics; sometimes comparative between the two philosophers.

Lectures at Birkbeck offer the same mixture of survey, text and topic.

The Exam

The examination paper requires you to answer three questions, at least two of which must be on Plato and/or Aristotle; a third question may be on the pre-Socratics. However, you are not required to answer a question on the pre-Socratics. All three of your answers may be on Plato and/or Aristotle. Credit is given both for careful and critical analysis of the ancient arguments and for wider scrutiny of the topics in question.

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2. Reading

The reading lists below offer some general books and collections of papers on ancient philosophy; detailed advice on reading on texts and topics for Plato; then likewise for Aristotle; and lastly for the pre-Socratics.

General Books Covering a Wide Scope

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Plato

Texts

The dialogues are translated in

You should buy one of these collections.

Dialogues of importance for this course include Euthyphro, Laches, Charmides, Lysis, Meno, Protagoras, Gorgias, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, Parmenides, Phaedrus, Cratylus, Timaeus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Philebus. (Remember that ethical and political topics are dealt with elsewhere; see the Ethics and Political Philosophy sections of the study guide.)

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Collections

Single Authored Collections

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Individual Platonic Dialogues

One of the best ways of tackling Plato is to think hard and long about individual dialogues. To understand Plato's epistemology and metaphysics, the following are central.

Euthyphro

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Meno

This dialogue considers virtue and knowledge, and contains Plato's first extended epistemology.

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Phaedo

Socrates' death and the conversation about the immortality of the soul that preceded it.

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Republic

This is usually considered Plato's masterpiece; it repays careful study.

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Parmenides

This dialogue falls into two parts; the first (126-136) is an extended critique of the theory of Forms, the second (137-end) an intricate dialectical exercise. Most modern attention has been paid to the first part, and therein to the notorious Third Man Argument. Try to consider all the arguments of the first part, even if you find the second part uncongenial.

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Theaetetus

Here Plato reconsiders the problems of epistemology in a manner which is readily accessible to modern readers.

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Sophist

Here Plato tackles the problems of not-being and falsehood, and offers his own philosophical logic.

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Topics

You should cross refer to the suggested reading for individual dialogues above.

Socratic Method, Socratic Ignorance

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Recollection

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The Theory of Forms

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The Soul

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Plato's Epistemology

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Falsehood

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Aristotle

Texts

The following are central works of Aristotle, as examined under this paper, i.e. excluding ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics.

There are very useful summaries, in the commentaries by W. D. Ross, of the Physics, Metaphysics, Posterior Analytics and de Anima.

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Translations

The best translations are in The Complete Works of Aristotle: the revised Oxford translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes, 2 Vols., (Princeton N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1984). J. L. Ackrill, A New Aristotle Reader, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) covers some, but unfortunately not all, of what you need. The Clarendon Aristotle translations from the Oxford University Press of particular works are designed for Philosophy students: you will find many of these interesting and challenging.

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General books and Collections

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On Individual Works

Physics

  Metaphysics

De Anima

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On Individual Topics

The Four Causes

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Matter and Form; Nature

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Chance and Teleology

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Sea Battle

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The Infinite

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Change

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Time

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Soul, Mind and Body

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Perception

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Imagination and Thinking

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Epistemology

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Categories

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The Problem of a Science of Being

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Substance

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God

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The Presocratics

General

The work of the Presocratics survives in fragments. This means that their work needs considerable interpretation; it also means that everything they said is easily accessible to you. There is a full account of the evidence for the Presocratics, with a Greek text and translations in G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers: a Critical History with a Selection of Texts, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). In translation, there is R. McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates. You can find translations of the fragments in J. Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy, and with a large and vigorous philosophical commentary in J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, (rev. ed., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982). All of these are available in paperback; you should own at least one of them if you are planning to work on these philosophers.

Books and collections of articles

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Individual philosophers

Heraclitus

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Parmenides

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Zeno

When you think about Zeno, consider both the paradoxes described and criticised by Aristotle and the fragments quoted in Simplicius.

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Empedocles

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Anaxagoras

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The Atomists

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