Friday, August 31, 2007

A companion to guidebooks to the handbook of...

I'm hard at work editing a steady flow of contributions to what will eventually be the Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. (By the way, if anyone has any bright ideas about a nice cover for the volume, then I'm open to suggestions.) And I'm currently thinking over a more ambitious editing project to cover ancient philosophy more generally. But I can't help having a certain sinking feeling about the never-ending and ever-growing set of companions, handbooks, guidebooks, and the like. What are they for? [1] Different things, I suppose. Some are clearly intended as monumental statements of the state of the art. Others are more introductory and aimed at students or scholars in related but distinct areas who want a handy way in to a different field. And they also differ according to the scope and ambition of the subject area they propose to accompany or guide you through. ('Companion' is, I now come to think, a much less authoritarian sort of thing to call a volume. A guidebook is a bit more dictatorial: 'this is what you should think.' 'Now look here.' etc. Companions are, perhaps, supposed to be something you have with you as you make your own way. A study-buddy...) Also, what is the intended relationship between a companion to a subject and a first-order piece of scholarly work on the same subject?

So I started off thinking about companions with this question: What would I want the ideal one of these to be like? I reckon, it ought to have a number of virtues, certainly including these four:
  1. It should offer a reliable account of the subject area. For a historical subject, this would mean saying what the evidence is, what is generally made of it, and so on.
  2. It should give a good idea of why the subject area is interesting.
  3. It should give a sense of what at present are the major scholarly debates or schools of thought on the given subject.
  4. It should guide the reader to more specialised discussions, related areas and the like.
So this should be a point of entry and an invitation to a field of thought. It should not be thought to replace the first-order research. But it should show what the research is like, why it matters, and what sort of things it talks about. It is not a textbook which will replace or subsitute for the already-existing literature.

But there is something else I think they ought to do. For companions (or whatever) to philosophy, I would think they ought to give an impression of the practice of philosophy. So a companion to metaphysics ought not to be a list of positions or a survey of what conclusions might be reached; instead it would also have to show what it is like to be engaged in philosophical inquiry. It would therefore have to exemplify what it is about.

For my line of work, a companion to some historical period or school of philosophy, a good companion would introduce the reader to the practice of thinking philosophically and to the practice of interpreting and contextualising the particular subject matter. So it would have, for example, to show how to read a bit of Aristotle both by engaging with the argument and also, perhaps even initially, by showing how to get from a bit of Aristotle's writings to a relatively clear view of what it means. Of course, these two practices are not easy (or desirable) to keep apart; that, it seems to me, is what working on historical philosophy is all about: it is both history and philosophy.

I think I am coming to the view that a good companion will have two, perhaps very different, functions. It will (i) lay out the state of play, explain where to go to find various texts, say what they are generally thought to be about and so on; but also (ii) it will function as a protreptic to further deeper work and offer a set of examples of what is involved in working 'unaccompanied' with this material. This second might take the form of more specific or specialised bits of research. The authors can feel liberated from the need to 'cover' an area because their job here is to offer up an example of what the next stage of work would look like, exposing the difficulties and wondering explicitly about methodological questions.

[1] There are some interesting thoughts in G. R. F. Ferrari's introduction to the new Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic (2007, Cambridge), xv. Ferrari also stresses the idea of 'accompaniment': 'This Companion, by contrast [sc. with a scout striking a new path], seeks to walk with those who are already on the road...'

1 comment:

DEM said...

On the whole, I completely agree with you. With regard to your claim that one should practice philosophy when doing research on the history of philosophy, it seems to me that doing so is certainly difficult for most of us. I mean: don't you think that quite a few historians of philosophy forget that they're supposed to think philosophically? We usually limit ourselves to analyzing how many times an author A uses a word W in his book B, but we don't usually try to think carefully about the problems the author is addressing. Well, that's just my point of view at the moment.

By the way, I think that last year Blackwell published a Companion to Ancient Philosophy, edited by Pellegrin and Gill. Have you taken a look at it?