The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

By Bernard Williams; Myles Burnyeat | Go to book overview

ONE
The Legacy of Greek Philosophy

THE GREEKS AND THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY

The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy. Here it is not merely a matter, as in science, of the Greeks having set out on certain paths in which modern developments have left their achievements far behind. Nor is it just a matter, as in the arts, of the Greeks having produced certain forms, and certain works in those forms, which succeeding times would—some more, some very much less—look back to as paradigms of achievement. In philosophy, the Greeks initiated almost all its major fields—metaphysics, logic, the philosophy of language, the theory of knowledge; ethics, political philosophy, and (though to a much more restricted degree) the philosophy of art. Not only did they start these areas of enquiry, but they progressively distinguished what would still be recognized as many of the most basic questions in those areas. In addition, among those who brought about these developments there were two, Plato and Aristotle, who have always, where philosophy has been known and studied in the Western world, been counted as supreme in philosophical genius and breadth of achievement, and whose influence, directly or indirectly, more or less consciously, under widely varying kinds of interpretation, has been a constant presence in the development of the Western philosophical tradition ever since.

Of course philosophy, except at its most scholastic and run down, does not consist of the endless reworking of ancient problems, and the idea that Western philosophy was given almost its entire content by the Greeks is sound only if that content is identified in the most vague and general way—at the level of such questions as 'what is knowledge?' or 'what is time?' or 'does sense-perception tell us about things as they really are?' Philosophical problems are posed not just by earlier philosophy, but by developments in all areas of human life and knowledge; and all aspects of Western history have affected the subject-matter of philosophy—the development of the nation-state as much as the rise and fall of Christianity or the progress of the sciences. Yet even with issues created by such later developments, it is often possible to trace contemporary differences in philosophical view to some general contrast of outlooks which had its first expression in the Greek world.

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