Monday, May 28, 2007

Who was Diogenes Laertius?

We've just begun our annual Cambridge 'Mayweek' seminar (at least most of it is in May, this time), this year reading Diogenes Laertius 9. It is already evident that it is going to be a very interesting exercise, and for me one of the interesting things is the ease with which it is possible to imagine looking 'through' Diogenes and instead begin to think about his sources and the subjects of his biography. It is certainly possible to separate questions about, for example, what Heraclitus thought, from questions about what Hellenistic writers -- Diogenes' usual sources -- thought Heraclitus thought, from questions about what Diogenes himself thought Heraclitus thought. But in cases like Heraclitus, in which we have lots of other evidence, it quickly turns into a case of wondering how much Diogenes 'got right' and the extent to which we could use him as a source for these earlier philosophers.

But what did Diogenes think he was doing when he was writing this odd work? And to what extent was he interested in writing something we might be happy to call a history of philosophy with the same sorts of concerns about accuracy, charity of interpretation, thoughts about the history of ideas and the influence between one position and another? It seems to me that it is not at all clear what we should say. I've tried to say something about these questions in a piece to be published later this year, but it strikes me as I think about it more that Diogenes himself is a very elusive figure. It is not easy to date him securely, or to place his own intellectual allegiances with much confidence. And, in part, it is his care to name so many sources that encourages us to look through him to a period of Hellenistic and classical scholarship.

Who knows? Perhaps over this week more of Diogenes will emerge as we read through the book carefully. Certainly, this would seem to be the only way to make any headway. It's time to read Diogenes for himself and not simply as a source for reconstructing others' philosophies.

2 comments:

RJR said...

Do you mean charity of interpretation, or clarity? The former is a pleasant idea but it doesn't sound like the sort of thing I imagine philosophers doing.

JIW said...

Oh no, I mean *charity*. Philosophers do it all the time, you know:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity