Some Notable RIPs of 2015

Belated Happy New Year to PoT-heads and fellow travellers. I don’t really celebrate New Years as it’s a celebration of a slow countdown to nonexistence, when I’m no longer the value of a bound variable. Likewise, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions as I find the task of plotting out the new year in detail overburdensome and empty. I do, however, reflect on notable passings of the year. To that end, I meant to put up a long list of notable RIPs of 2015 (with some commentary) but never got around to putting one up due to considerable work I had to do in prison over the holidays. Below are a few academics I’d like to say goodbye to.
So long…
Claudia Card, Ethics and Social Philosophy
Oliver Sacks, Neurologist
Mary Ellen Mark, Photographer
William Rowe, Philosophy of Religion, Action Theory. No graduate student in philosophy of religion can say with a straight face s/he wasn’t humbled by Rowe’s article “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”.
John Nash, Mathematician
David Carr, New York Columnist
Jaakko Hintikka, Modal Logic, Philosophy of Language
Aldo Antonelli, Logic
Philip Levin, Poet
John Arras, Bioethics
Peter Menzies, Metaphysics
Patricia Crone, Islamic historian. One of the greatest historical minds to write on the Near East. Some day I’ll write up a post on her work and draw a contrast between her scholarship and the amateurish “wannabe” scholarship of people like Christoph Luxenberg and Robert Spencer.
And farewell…
B.B. King, Sam Simon, Omar Sharif, Wes Craven, Rod Taylor, Leonard Nimoy, Alex Rocco, and Beau Biden.

12 thoughts on “Some Notable RIPs of 2015

  1. Great post. Hard to believe all of those people passed away just this year.

    I lived in Princeton for several years in the 2000s–a great place for intellectual celebrities. John Nash was a common sight around town, but I didn’t realize who he was until Russell Crowe came to town to film “A Beautiful Mind” (i.e., I knew who “John Nash” was, but didn’t realize that that quiet, unassuming guy we’d see around town was John Nash). Patricia Crone was a rare sight, but I saw her a few times.

    I like (love) the idea of a post contrasting Crone (or Cook and Crone) with Luxenberg and Spencer.

    Actually, the larger topic there concerns the epistemic reliability of early textual source materials, which really deserves far more interdisciplinary attention than it gets (at least that I know of, though it’s admittedly distant from my AOS or AOC). Historians make all kinds of inferences from very old texts. Whether the inference is about the author, the text, or the surrounding historical context, such texts are treated in some sense, at some level, as reliable testimony about the distant past. But to what extent is that true, and how do we know? And more specifically: do the same standards apply across fields, e.g., classical studies (meaning Greco-Roman texts), Biblical Studies, Qur’anic Studies, etc.?

    Listening to professional anti-Islamic polemicists, one gets the impression that students of the Qur’an are somehow uniquely credulous about its historical claims. But it seems to me that you can get a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy (in a Philosophy Department, at least) and know absolutely nothing about stylometrics or issues of historical authentication. In cases like that, aren’t we pretty cavalier about our assumptions? When I read the Iliad, I assume that Homer existed and wrote it. When people tell me that the Eudemian Ethics is an authentic Aristotelian text, I have no idea how to prove that, but I assume that it is, and that assumption guides how I read the Nicomachean Ethics. It’s not clear to me how such assumptions are different in kind from the assumption that Muhammad existed and was in some sense the author (or whatever term you want to use) of the Qur’an.

    Here, by the way, is a characteristically polemical (tendentious, fallacy-flaunting) piece on the subject by Ibn Warraq, with a long critical discussion of Cook and Crone. He actually makes some legitimate, important points, but I think the topic deserves a more rigorous discussion than this.


    • I’d go so far as to say Islamic studies deserves interdisciplinary attention from philosophy of science (or at least Islamists with some degree of understanding of the issues in philosophy of science). Islamic history as it is taught and trotted out in the popular press in the West is overly preoccupied with the question of early source authenticity and the question of “what really happened”, no doubt a spillover over from Christian-Muslim interfaith debates and polemics. Rarely is it ever asked if “what really happened” can be assured by the sources or whether truth is a worthy aim of history. For one thing, it’s not an a priori truth that science is governed by the norms of truth rather than, say, epistemic norms. So I don’t see why Islamic history should be governed by it either. Furthermore, Islamic history qua history is an experience-transcending discipline like all sciences are. As such, it its methods and experimental gains (where experiment is relevant, i.e. palaeography) will always be subject to the riddle of induction and incapable of delivering the goods of truth. That’s not to say in agreement with anti-realists that we can’t talk coherently about truth, or for that matter unobservables. Rather, it’s to acknowledge the embedded methodological and epistemological limitations of the enterprise. If you follow the scholarly discussion on Muhammad or the Qur’an you’d think the norm of truth was built into the enterprise governing all scholarly output.

      It’s for that reason Patricia Crone was ahead of her time. Some time in the mid 80s she recognised the futility of trying to answer the question of what really happened between 570 C.E. and 800 C.E. and shifted focus from concerns of authenticity and truth and zeroed in on weaving the sources (warts and all) into a wider explanatory framework. For example, whether Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina really happened is beyond the reach of the historian. What’s of importance as far as the historian is concerned is the religio-political significance the event had to later Muslims. Perhaps it did happen. However, for the historian who must sift through the theologically and politically embellished sources it’s pointless to frame one’s work around the demands for source authenticity. She didn’t put the issue the way I’m wording it, but she was well aware of the limitations of history and moved the field away from dogmatic assumptions with respect to the early sources.

      With regard to the Qur’an, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’ve become so disappointed with Qur’anic studies that I’ve stopped reading journal produced articles on it. They’re either tediously focused on historical context or devote considerable attention to etymology. The trend is due in part to Qur’anic studies trying to “catch up” to biblical studies. The quote from Andrew Rippin in Ibn Warraq’s essay underlies that point. Why Qur’anic studies ought to mirror or trail biblical studies (as opposed to, say, Vedic studies) is beyond me. There was one paper I read a few years ago that attempted to draw a parallel between the Qur’an and Greek oracular poetry, but I have to search my hard drive for it. My level of disappointment reach a new low when I read Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? last year. I wrote up a review and intended to publish it. I decided against publishing it because I no longer believe the book deserves to be reviewed; in fact, the more I read it the more I’m inclined to believe writing a review diverted me from more fruitful write-ups. I might post a few shots at the book here under a future post I have on the description-evaluative distinction embedded within the concept “Muslim” that we discussed in another comment section, though I’d only post it on the condition Spencer responds in kind.


      • I don’t think I’d go as far as your first paragraph, but I also don’t know the literature very well.

        On this point, I’m not sure what inference you want to draw:

        For example, whether Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina really happened is beyond the reach of the historian.

        If the historicity of the hijra (to Medina, or any of them) is beyond the reach of the historian–of historians as such–it seems to me that the inference we all have to draw is a skeptical one: none of us know whether it took place. But if none of us do, then no Muslim does, and the historicity of the hijra can only be an object of non-evidentially-based faith. That seems to imply a rather fideistic (or very revisionary) reading of the Qur’an. The Qur’an presupposes the (real) historicity of the hijra (either that, or it would have to be re-interpreted in a way that’s drastically at variance with every existing interpretation, excising all references to Medina, Badr, Uhud, the Mecca/Medina distinction, etc.). So would you want to say that Muslims should just treat the historicity of the hijra as a pure object of faith, or do you think a Muslim can remain a Muslim while remaining agnostic on the historical issue?

        I do basically agree with your third paragraph (or, I guess you’re agreeing with me, but the point is, we agree). I really ought to know this literature better, but I wonder if you know a good comparative study of the Bible and the Qur’an. It seems obvious that there are complex similarities and differences between the two texts, and that both the similarities and the differences ought to be reflected in the approaches of Biblical Studies and Qur’anic Studies to their respective texts.

        I guess I’d encourage you to publish (or “bloglish”) your review of Spencer. I had to laugh when you said you’d only post on Spencer if “Spencer responds in kind.” That’s almost a guarantee that your stuff will never see the light of day. And I’m not sure you want to assert qualitative identity with Robert Spencer. But if you’ve already written it, why light your candle and put it under a bushel? You could put it on a candlestick and bring light to all in the blogosphere.

        Spencer makes this promise on his website:

        I would, of course, be happy to debate any scholar about Islam and jihad; this is a standing invitation.

        Don’t you believe in promoting happiness?

        Of course, on the same page, he manages to characterize Hussein Ibish and Asad AbuKhalil–an avowed agnostic and an avowed atheist, respectively–as “Islamic scholars and spokesmen,” so Rossian fidelity may not be his strong suit.

        Another option would be to publish it in Reason Papers. I’m still officially the book review editor (am thinking of stepping down soon) and I’d love to have it here, there, or both places. But I don’t think it should go to waste by being written and not having an audience, and I think a full review is preferable to breaking it up. Spencer is much more likely to respond to a full review of his book than to shots at him in a post on a more general topic.


      • Derrick,

        Here’s an interesting “coda” to this discussion (not that discussion literally has to end with this comment).

        I just finished watching three documentaries on DVD relevant to our discussion here. They’re PBS documentaries, but they may also be BBC, so you might be able to get access to them in England. The first is “The Story of the Jews,” with Simon Schama; the second is “Ancient Roads: From Christ to Constantine,” with Jonathan Phillips; and the third is “The Life of Muhammad,” written by Ziauddin Sardar but narrated by Rageh Omaar. Though they’re all well done and worth watching, I thought the “Christ to Constantine” one was the best of the lot.

        Anyway, what I found interesting were the asymmetries in the treatment of each subject.

        First, a relatively superficial one: “The Story of the Jews” is about five hours long. “Christ to Constantine” is six hours long. “Life of Muhammad” is three hours long. In my view, there was a direct relationship between length and detail, hence length and quality.

        But what I found really remarkable was this. In both the Schama and the Phillips videos, the focus is on each faith as a relatively self-enclosed, and so to speak, “first personal” phenomenon. For the most part, Schama has Jews speaking about Judaism, on topics internal to Judaism, explicating the Jewish experience of, and interpretations of, Judaism. Phillips does roughly the same for Christianity. Meanwhile, in “Life of Muhammad,” there’s a mix: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and secular academics discuss Islam. But only in the Islam video are people actively hostile to (or skeptical of) the faith invited to present their case against it, or views about it. I was surprised by how much air time Robert Spencer got in the video. Even Nonie Darwish makes a cameo appearance that I remember. The result is that the Islam video spends a remarkable amount of time in a defensive, apologetic crouch, covering a bit of ancient history, and then fast-forwarding to the present to deal with applications of ancient history to twenty-first century politics.

        To be fair, Schama does a bit of this as well. He devotes at least one segment to Zionism, and in consequence discusses post-1967 Israel (unsatisfactorily, in my opinion). But it’s a more natural procedure in his case, because his topic is the story of the Jews, i.e., the history of the Jewish people from their beginnings to the present day.

        The more obvious analogue would be Phillips’s treatment, and as it turns out, Phillips stays squarely within ancient history. Taking the New Testament as his text, he takes viewers from the birth of Christ until John’s authorship of Revelation at Patmos, then proceeds into pretty standard Roman/Byzantine history, taking us up to (and through) Constantine’s conversion and eventual death. There’s no polemical backing and forthing between the first century and the twenty-first. Moreover, Phillips feels no need to wring his hands about the reliability of the sources; he takes a pretty relaxed, conventional approach: they’re reliable, give or take some. What exactly did Constantine’s armies put on their standards? Well, they put more or less whatever Eusebius said they put there in his history of the Church. (Schama takes the same basic attitude toward Josephus Flavius and many of the other ancient sources he cites.)

        Phillips makes plenty of references to the Jews’ hostility to Jesus, and their role in the Crucifixion. But he doesn’t stop for a digression on the doleful history of Christian anti-Semitism. That’s just another documentary, as far as he’s concerned, not his. When the topic is women in the Church, he manages to put the best light on things, side-stepping the more anti-feminist aspects of Paul’s letters, etc. The focus is on female martyrs and saints, e.g., Perpetua, St. Helena, and so on.

        Meanwhile, the Islam video is pretty much consumed in apologetic anxiety about Islamic anti-Semitism, 9/11, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the like. It certainly hits all the highlights of the life of Muhammad, but in doing so, it doesn’t advance very far over the sort of Islamic Studies lessons I got as a grade schooler back in the day. I don’t mean to be overly critical. It does a very good job of covering what it covers (with the usual apologetic smoothings of some rough edges). It just covers a lot less than Phillips. Whereas Phillips covers Christ, Paul, and Constantine, Omaar just covers Muhammad.

        If you were doing a study of the three videos, you’d want to compare and contrast Schama’s treatment of the historicity of Josephus Flavius’s The Jewish War with Phillips’s treatment of the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles with Omaar’s treatment of Dustur al Medina, the Medinian Constitution. Josephus and the New Testament come across as essentially unproblematic historical sources; meanwhile, Omaar spends a good chunk of episode 2 of his series debating whether Dustur al Medina ever existed. (And there are vehement debates about the details of Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews of Medina that presuppose that we have reliable access to contested events that took place in the vicinity of South Medina in the year 627 AD.) It could be that Josephus and the New Testament are just more reliable sources than, say, Ibn Ishaq. But I wonder. Who has ever addressed that issue? The a priori assumption just seems to be that Muslim sources deserve more scrutiny and skepticism than Jewish or Christian (or Greek or Roman) ones. I’m not sure why they would. I guess we could ask Robert Spencer. But I’m not entirely sure about his reliability, either.


        • Some more thoughts on the film, while they’re fresh in my mind: Actually, Nonie Darwish makes at least three appearances, not one. And I forgot to mention that Serge Trifkovic makes an appearance (to discuss the implications of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha).

          In fairness, I think the film’s last segment does a good job of dealing with the issue of the hijab. It canvasses a fairly wide spectrum of Muslim opinion–from the defenders of Full London Niqab to those of the Princess Badiya Pantsuit and sartorial points in between–and lets people (mostly Muslim women) have their say. I think the Princess Badiya crowd wins this one.

          But the handling of jihad is ultimately unsuccessful (whether as apologetics or as a straight documentary). For one thing, the movie farms out the task of discussing jihad to non-Muslims like Karen Armstrong and John Esposito. The Muslim who does the most talking is Tariq Ramadan (not a plus, in my view). The film cuts briefly to an interview with some young British jihadis (just let out of prison), but granting their premises, their arguments are not obviously inferior to anything that Armstrong, Esposito, or Ramadan say. Irritatingly, Armstrong manages to confabulate details of Muhammad’s life that give the impression that the two of them were great friends at Oxford.

          And then there’s the handling of the marriage with Aisha. Here’s another one of those cases where “facts” from the deep past are thrown around by both sides as though they were reported in last week’s Times.

          It just makes me wonder–if we can’t get straight on whether there was a 9/11 celebration in Jersey City fourteen years ago, how does anyone know what happened in some off-the-beaten-track Arabian city fourteen hundred years ago? But they certainly speak as though they do.


  2. I can say something about this question of textual authenticity, though not as much as I’d like and almost certainly not enough to answer the main questions you’re asking. I’m trained as a classical philologist, write on the history of philosophy, and have considerable amateur exposure to biblical studies. The first two thoughts that leap immediately to mind are that arguments about authenticity almost always depend on highly subjective judgments and that the standards of judgment in (mainstream) biblical studies are considerably more skeptical than the standards in Greek and Latin philology.

    On the latter point, I suspect one important thing that accounts for the difference is that Biblical texts were produced in a culture that placed greater authority on who the author of a text was, and hence accumulated a tradition of authorial attribution that is in many cases considerably less plausible, given some sensible assumptions. That Moses wrote Genesis, David the Psalms, or Solomon the Proverbs (let alone Wisdom) is believed by almost no scholars; only a minority defends the traditional attribution of all the Pauline letters to Paul. In Greek culture, certain authors did come to have a kind of authority that encouraged people to attribute works to them; the ancients attribute more to Homer than the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a number of dialogues (and most of the letters) in the Platonic corpus are widely deemed spurious, for example. But that sort of thing is considerably less common, because serious pseudepigraphy was not so common among Greeks, at least in the classical period. Attributing a letter to Paul makes a kind of claim for the authority of its contents over the lives of people that virtually no pagan Greek text ever had over anyone, with the possible exception of Plato for certain kinds of neo-Platonists who really did attribute infallibility to Plato. So in one way I think greater skepticism is warranted for biblical texts because there was more to be gained from interpolation or pseudepigraphic attribution, and one needn’t be antecedently committed to a strong skepticism to doubt that Moses, David, and Solomon are the authors of some of our texts.

    That said, things get trickier when we begin to consider authors that did write, and argue about whether a given text should be attributed to that author. Unsurprisingly, plausible arguments can be made against authenticity in many cases, but my limited exposure to arguments by biblical scholars about the authenticity of the Pauline letters suggests to me that with the possible exception of the letter to the Hebrews, there is nothing close to a conclusive argument to be had here. In classical Greek texts, too, only rarely can we point to measurable linguistic features of a work that cannot be plausibly accounted for as stylistic variation. Consequently, the arguments almost always end up depending on claims about how the content of the work relates to the content of the author’s undisputed text. It’s sometimes possible to make a pretty strong case — nobody really thinks that Plato wrote the Erastai, for example — but frequently judgments on these questions are no more grounded in evidence than the kinds of interpretive judgments that we all recognize can’t be settled “objectively” once and for all — because judgments about authenticity depend on those kinds of interpretive judgments. Cases like Lorenzo Valla’s exposure that the Donation of Constantine was spurious are extremely rare; at least, when we consider the texts that haven’t been more or less unanimously deemed spurious for the last century, there are no cases like that.

    But there are disputed texts of some significance. The Eudemian Ethics is one, and the history of scholarship on that text — which somebody should actually write as a test-case to examine the sorts of questions that arise in these debates — is fascinating precisely because at the turn of the 20th century almost nobody thought it was by Aristotle (they attributed it to Eudemus of Rhodes), whereas now virtually everyone working on it believes it to be by Aristotle, and the disputes are about (i) whether the books it shares in common with the Nicomachean Ethics were originally written for the NE or for the EE and (ii) whether the EE is earlier or later than the NE. To some extent, quantifiable stylistic analysis has something to say about this; Anthony Kenny’s stylometric work does point to a number of factors that make the style of the so-called “common books” much closer to the style of the EE books than to the NE books. But even these factors can’t decisively determine the relation of the books, and even if they did we’d be no closer to knowing which work was written first or whether the EE is Aristotle’s or someone else’s. The standard view today, at least in English language scholarship, is that the EE is earlier and the common books originally belonged to it. But as we speak there is a mighty fine dissertation being written by Jerry Green at the University of Texas at Austin arguing that, in fact, the EE is later than the NE. Crucially, though, that dissertation’s arguments — and the arguments of its opponents — revolve primarily around philosophical interpretations and judgments. Even Green would happily admit that he will never be able to establish his conclusion in anything like the way that Lorenzo Valla established that the Donation of Constantine had to have been written in the 8th century at the earliest.

    In Platonic studies, the authenticity of the Seventh Letter continues to be disputed, with some believing that it offers us some non-trivial insights into the interpretation of Plato. But for a sample of how the argument plays out, see Charles Kahn’s review of Frede and Burnyeat’s recent book on the topic: I’m extremely skeptical of its authenticity myself, but, as one of my colleagues put it, “Learning that Myles Burnyeat thinks that something is philosophically incompetent does not tell me whether it is philosophically incompetent.”

    In sum, I don’t think questions of authenticity are never worth addressing, but I also don’t see how, aside from cases where we can point to clear linguistic features, anyone could believe that a decisive case for or against a text’s authenticity could be made. I’ve only scratched the surface of the problems here (a friend of mine once asked Anthony Kenny what it could even mean to say that a text was by Aristotle, given the nature of the corpus as we have it, and by report the best answer he got boiled down to something like: it’s either one of the central texts that have been attributed to Aristotle or it sufficiently resembles those texts in style or content). When we get to Homer, everything is a mess; leading scholars take just about every conceivable view about the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey, complicated by disagreements about which parts of each poem are “authentic” (among the conceivable views here is the denial that notions of authenticity derived from written literature properly apply to the product of a tradition of oral composition). So I’ll just stop now.


    • That’s really helpful, thanks. See? You don’t just free ride on others people’s posts by commenting on them. You write comments that could have been posts of their own.

      This is both embarrassing and funny, but I had no idea that the authenticity of Plato’s Seventh Letter was in dispute. I did a Plato seminar with Ken Sayre at Notre Dame, and if I remember correctly (and Zeus strike me down if I don’t) he treated it not only as 100% authentic, but as crucial to understanding Plato. I don’t ever recall a discussion about the possibility of its being inauthentic. And all this time….To think that so much of what I learned in graduate school could be wrong. I guess it could be worse: I could have been a scientist (see Potts’s latest post).

      My very casual acquaintance with the literature confirms what you’ve said here–there’s more skepticism in biblical studies than in classics. The reason you give seems plausible enough.

      I have a further hunch, and I’m curious what you think about it. I get the sense that biblical studies is more historicist in its assumptions than, say, ancient philosophy–at least, more historicist than ancient philosophy as studied by philosophers. (I know much less about how things are in Classics.) When people trained in philosophy approach an ancient (philosophical) text–Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Cicero–they often do so on the assumption that the arguments in the text could be true on a realist-correspondence conception of truth, or at least approximately true, or could (ideally) be reconstructed in a sound argument whose premises are true in the relevant sense. Questions about the historical authenticity or inauthenticity of the text take a back seat to the arguments; it ceases to matter who wrote the text and under what circumstances. What matters is just what the says. Perhaps this reflects the assumption that stylometric arguments are typically (though not invariably) futile, because they’re driven by subjective background beliefs that are brought to the inquiry, and are (therefore) never decisive. Whereas the text itself is the arbiter of whether a given interpretive thesis is true or false, important or trivial.

      I am a real tyro about biblical studies, but I get the sense that many scholars of the Bible regard the philosophers’ realist approach to a text as naive, anachronistic, or pointless on essentially historicist grounds. They regard it as essentially impossible to believe that there are truths to be discovered in the text, in the way that someone might think that Aristotle’s theory of civic friendship was, in some sense (however general or abstract), true. Of course, the NE is a treatise, and the Bible isn’t, but the Bible is full of doctrinal pronouncements and prescriptions, which believing/practicing Jews and Christians regard as true. I get the sense, though, that biblical scholars don’t read the Bible that way–as containing truths. To read it that way in a scholarly context would (from their perspective) turn objective scholarship into apologetics, and that’s a no-no. So a Jewish or Christian scholar can do biblical scholarship that’s very historicist in its assumptions, then turn around in church or synagogue and read or recite the very same texts in a liturgical context as though they were divinely inspired, dropping the historicist assumptions for that context.

      My hunch is that (believing) Muslim scholars of the Qur’an approach the Qur’an in a way that’s closer to the ancient philosopher’s approach to Plato and Aristotle than it is to contemporary biblical scholarship. If stylometric analyses are indecisive, the default assumption among such scholars becomes one of the following: (a) you can make whatever assumptions you want about the author’s identity, since one assumption is as good as another, (b) ex hypothesi, you just assume that there is a single author unless there’s decisive evidence to the contrary, or (c) you just forget about questions of authenticity as an irrelevant distraction and focus on the face value claims of the text.

      Here is the less charitable way of reading the preceding approach (this is Andrew Rippin, quoted in the Ibn Warraq piece I cited above; from Muslims. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Vol. 1:The Formative Period [London, 1991], p. ix.):

      . . . I have often encountered individuals who come to the study of Islam with a background in the historical study of the Hebrew Bible or early Christianity, and who express surprise at the lack of critical thought that appears in introductory textbooks on Islam. The notion that “Islam was born in the clear light of history” still seems to be assumed by a great many writers of such texts. While the need to reconcile varying historical traditions is generally recognized, usually this seems to pose no greater problem to the authors than having to determine “what makes sense” in given situation. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naive historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candour.

      I’ve certainly encountered the fideism among Muslims that he’s criticizing–and it deserves criticism. (And the critic ought not to be shot, crucified, or beheaded for making the criticism.) But I also wonder what Rippin derides as “naive historical study” and “less than academic candour” has a more innocent, and more theoretically interesting explanation.

      I’m blathering on now, but I was at a Liberty Fund conference this past September on the Qur’an (Derrick, you shoulda been there). As a non-believer, I found myself disagreeing more vehemently with the historicists (religious and secular) than with the orthodox believers. The historicists were so mired in historical minutiae about context and authenticity that they just seemed to me to have lost any sense of what the text was about. Give them any text, and they could “contextualize” it to the exact circumstances of its authorship (and if you weren’t a historian, you could hardly dispute them). The invariable conclusion they reached was that narrowness in the circumstances of authorship entails narrowness in the scope of the intended audience. In other words, if a text was authored or revealed at Medina in the early part of 626 AD, well then, the audience for that text consisted of Medinans in the early part of 626 AD, full stop. But apart from skepticism about how reliably we can pin texts down to times and places, the whole approach seems to miss the point of the face value claims of the text: if the text is intended as guidance for mankind, it makes no sense to say that each verse has an intended audience of a few thousand people, now deceased for 1,400 years. Meanwhile, the orthodox believers had some pretty ingenious apologetics for the claims of the text, abstracting quite a bit from the historical issues, which they dismissed (often with justification) as undecidable distractions.


      • Everything you say here makes sense, but there’s an interesting wrinkle. My impressions of the differences between classicists and biblical scholars apply across the board, including classicists who aren’t philosophers in any sense and who tend to be mystified (which, in turn, mystifies me) with the way we approach philosophical texts. Classicists these days are by and large just as historicist as the biblical scholars you describe, but still seem less likely to be skeptical by default. To some extent, the factors I mentioned before still account for why classicists are less skeptical, but there’s a history that also helps, I think. It wasn’t always so; for a long while classical philologists were chomping at their bits to reject certain texts as spurious, to identify certain passages in an authentic text as interpolations, or even to identify authentic passages that had been misplaced. The excesses of an earlier generation have yielded to a much more conservative approach in the latter part of the 20th century.

        Another wrinkle is that attitudes might differ considerably among classicists at large and the small minority that are sufficiently competent to do serious textual criticism. Those who still know Greek or Latin well enough to do the real thing tend to be more old-fashioned and less historicist in the sense that they still believe that it might be possible to discover what an ancient author really wrote or whether a text was written by the author to whom it is attributed. Many classicists, however, have become so historicist that they are skeptical of whether we can gain any serious traction on those questions, and they’ve simply ceased to be interested in the truth on those matters rather than understanding the status that texts had among readers in antiquity. But here as always generalizations are only very roughly accurate; it still matters to most people working on Greek tragedy, for example, whether or not the Prometheus Bound is by Aeschylus, some other roughly contemporary tragedian, or a late 5th/early 4th century poet — but this matters because it affects who we suppose its original audience was, how they might have received it, etc. (I think it’s now the prevailing view that the Prometheus was not written by Aeschylus, though it remains controversial, and the case against authenticity is very strong and grounded in a variety of philological considerations; though it’s sometimes presented as though Aeschylus couldn’t have written it simply because its portrayal of Zeus is inconsistent with the portrayal in the Oresteia, the issue really centers on quantifiable linguistic features of the play as compared with the undisputed works of Aeschylus).

        So I don’t think historicism alone really accounts for it. I suspect the theologically (in the broad sense in which atheism is a theological position) contentious nature of biblical texts has more to do with it; there’s just a lot less at stake in whether Aeschylus wrote the Prometheus.

        But my impressions could be less accurate than they seem to me. I’m certainly no biblical scholar, and my awareness of recent discussions of authenticity in classical scholarship is fairly selective.


    • What’s your take on the Magna Moralia? I’ve never thought deeply about its authenticity despite being fully aware that its authenticity has been in question for some time. In ancient philosophy and virtue ethics graduate seminars I never thought to question using it as a reliable source as it’s cited with frequency by Aristotelian specialists and philosophers with training in classical Greek. As of late, however, I’ve come to second guess citing it or at least considered placing a moratorium on citing it until I can clear my head of worries about its authenticity. What say you?


      • Yep, Rowe and Cooper’s articles are the loci classici on that topic. I think most Anglophone scholars follow Cooper in maintaining that the text isn’t by Aristotle, but is closely enough related – and probably produced by someone close enough in time, maybe even a student – to be useful for understanding Aristotle’s other ethical works, at least when used critically. The best thing I’ve read on it recently is the short treatment in Brad Inwood’s Ethics After Aristotle, which makes the unusual move of treating it as the work of a first-generation Peripatetic willing to think on his own and not simply transcribing or epitomizing Aristotle. I reviewed Inwood’s book ( but don’t say much about the MM bits there. The book is well worth reading for anyone with Aristotelian inclinations.


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