The Beginnings of the History of Philosophy in Ancient Greece

  • Ignacija J. Fridl
Keywords: ancient philosophy, Greek philosophy, history of philosophy


Like many contemporary researchers into the ancient history of philosophy and into encyclopedic Hellenistic works (Mejer, Schoefield, Runia, Maasfeld ...), the author observes that a great deal of research into ancient doxography and Diogenes Laertius has focused on evaluation. Her own paper, on the other hand, turns to the question: What can Laertius’ attention to philosophers’ biographies in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers tell us about the Ancient Greek view of the philosophical thought from the past? 
As noted by the author, the term ‘doxography’ itself, which bears the connotation of a less reliable source and is applied today to almost every ancient explanation of any philosophical doctrine, was established by Hermann Diels as late as the 19th century. Yet this view of earlier thought was in fact already developed by Aristotle. His treatise On the Soul defines the philosophical tenets of his precursors as ‘opinions’, which are then critically examined and rejected. This attitude to earlier philosophy informs all Aristotle’s writings and his methodology of philosophy in general, for his prima philosophia as a ‘science which considers the truth’ is founded precisely on the critique of earlier thought. He critically evaluates even the tenets of his teacher Plato, in order to surpass him with his own philosophy. Thus he lays the foundations of evolutionary historiography, which perceives history as a spiritual progress and has lasted through Hegel, Marx, and – with a negative historical connotation – Heidegger – to this day.
Plato, by contrast, envisages, through the very form of the dialogue, the relation to earlier philosophy as a conversation, a constant interweaving and fertilisation of one’s own thought with the wisdom of one’s precursors. This perception is further reinforced by his doctrine of knowledge as a process of remembering, that is, of philosophy as a road to wisdom leading back to the original experience (not merely thinking) of the truth. Moreover, Plato seeks to free philosophy from the tyranny of authorship, from the rule of an ego limited to a narrow space and time. The talking in his writings is wholly left to Socrates and numerous other interlocutors, while he himself is – most tellingly – referred to as the absent one. 
The view of earlier wisdom, grounded by Aristotle on the principle of a spiritual struggle and difference, is thus still conceived by Plato as a continuity. The two key points of Plato’s attitude to philosophical heritage as traced in this paper – the experience of the past as a golden age of wisdom and the perception of philosophy as a sequence of thought, a kind of spiritual genealogy – are already present in early Greek epic poetry and Herodotus’ historiography. As demonstrated in the paper, they similarly predominate in the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. Therefore his text cannot be read as a typical Hellenistic phenomenon, but rather as a work prompting us, now as then, to reconsider the philosophical heritage of Ancient Greece.
The present study is designed retrospectively. Running from an analysis of the state of the art and a definition of Aristotle’s concept of philosophical history back to Plato, Herodotus, and early Greek epic poetry, it seeks to reach the original source of the Greek view of the past, and to place Diogenes Laertius’ work in the field of Greek philosophical thought by the principle of continuity. In the same way, the inquiry into the subject shifts, time and again, to a methodological inquiry into what and how the history of philosophy can tell us today.


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How to Cite
J. FridlIgnacija. 2010. “The Beginnings of the History of Philosophy in Ancient Greece”. Keria: Studia Latina Et Graeca 12 (2-3), 95-107.