Monday, April 16, 2007

The art of fishing

Here's an interesting claim from Sextus Empiricus M 9.3:
Hence, as it shows more art to be able to catch a great number with a single onset than to hunt after the game laboriously one by one, so too it is much more artistic to bring one's counter-argument against all in common rather than to develop it against the particular tenets. (trans. R. Bury)

ὅθεν ὡς πολλῷ τεχνικώτερόν ἐστι τοῦ καθ’ ἕκαστον θήραμα πονεῖσθαι τὸ διὰ μιᾶς ἐφόδου πολλὰ δύνασθαι ἀγρεύειν, οὕτω πολλῷ χαριέστερον τὸ κοινῇ κατὰ πάντων κομίζειν ἀντίρρησιν τοῦ προσειλεῖσθαι τοῖς κατὰ μέρος.

He is contrasting his own, skillful, approach, which tackles all dogmatic natural philosophers' assumptions together, with the Academic approach which takes on each one by one and tries to find flaws in them severally.

Clearly, there is something appealing about the metaphor of hunting to describe the philosophical pursuit of some difficulty. Aristotle is certainly referring to a related image when he writes that if truth is as claimed by some of the misguided souls he tries to set right in Metaphysics gamma, then we would be left with the depressing thought that the philosophical quest for truth would be like 'chasing birds' (i.e. trying to catch on foot something that can at any moment simply take to the air and evade your grasp): 1009b33-1010a1.

But I was struck by the assumption on Sextus' part that we will agree that, for example, trawling for fish with a large net that will catch everything in its path is more artful (τεχνικώτερόν) and much more elegant (χαριέστερον) than fly-fishing for one fish at a time. It is, arguably, more efficient and I suppose Sextus' point is that in doing so it is necessary to have identified a common error in all the various philosophers one is criticising. He certainly can't mean that the process is more complicated. Certainly, his description of hunting birds with bird-lime on a cane (M 9.3; for an explanation see here) sounds like a pretty complicated business that needed rather a lot of invention. More than it would take to use a big net and simply ensnare anything too big to get out of its way, in any case. Rather, the skill involved is precisely that needed to recognise the affinity between a variety of quarries and design a method which can take them all on in one fell swoop.

I rather like that as an evaluation of the relative merits of philosophical criticisms. Prefer the one which identifies a more general difficulty to the Academic (academic?) dissection of a particular difficulty in one philosopher's treatment of a single question.

No comments: