The Parts of Philosophy (in Alexandrian Platonism, and beyond)

Partly in preparation for an online workshop I’m leading this Saturday, I’ve been continuing to think about the ways that philosophers have conceived of, and divided, the parts of our discipline. I’ve written about this question from the perspective of the Stoics and other Hellenistic schools, and considered the ways that philosophers in India have conceived of the parts of a philosophical system (darśana).

In this post, I’ll turn to the Platonists of Alexandria, and specifically, to two texts entitled “Introduction to Philosophy.”

The Texts

The texts come down to us under the names Elias and David. Both authors seem to have been students of Olympiodorus in the late 6th century, but otherwise, we know almost nothing about them. In the introduction to his recent English translations of the texts, Sebastian Gertz even suggests that despite their vaguely Christian-sounding names, the authors could well have been pagans (their names being changed by later copyists). Gertz’ evidence for that suggestion is, quite simply, the abundance of favorable and approving citations to Homer and other pagan authorities, and the corresponding absence of similar citations of Christian texts and anecdotes.

Be that as it may, the texts offer us an interesting glimpse into the Alexandrian school, as the Platonic teachers take stock of a millennium’s worth of Greek philosophical history. Both texts have roughly the same structure:

  • a brief exhortation to philosophy,
  • exposition of a theory of definition (in general),
  • presentation of, and commentary on, six canonical definitions of philosophy (from Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle),
  • some Pythagorean number theory (used to explain why it’s so fitting that there be exactly six definitions), and
  • a listing and analysis of the various parts of philosophy.

It’s the last of these that is directly relevant to the present post.

The Platonic Divisions of Philosophy

At the most general level, our authors divide philosophy into two parts: the theoretical, and the practical. These correspond (albeit with some qualifications) to the Stoic/Hellenistic branches of physics and ethics. What about logic, you ask? For the Alexandrians, logic is a tool of philosophy, rather than a part in any strict sense.

While this is not spelled out quite as explicitly as one might like, this two-fold division seems to correspond with the familiar definition of the human being as “a rational animal.” Theoretical philosophy, whose goal is Truth, addresses the human being qua rational being, while practical philosophy, whose goal is the Good, addresses the human being qua animal (since even the non-rational animals pursue the good appropriate to their particular nature).

Theoretical philosophy, in turn, can be subdivided into three parts: physics (or “natural science,” as Gertz renders “to physikon”), mathematics, and theology. This division is based on the objects of study: physics studies completely material beings, theology studies completely immaterial beings, and mathematics occupies an intermediate place, studying beings which are material in one way but immaterial in another.

The Platonists’ subdivision of theoretical philosophy invites an interesting comparision with the Stoic scheme, since we find the Stoics’ term, “physics,” applied to only one of the three Platonic subcategories. What of Stoic theology (or of Stoic mathematics)? To be sure, the Stoics have a good deal to say about Zeus, and about the Gods in general, and the ancient Stoics were deeply pious. Yet it’s also the case that within Stoic physics, everything that exists (or, more strictly, everything that interacts causally) must be a body. When Stoic philosophers talk about the Gods, it’s always a kind of materialist immanentism. The Stoics have a theological discourse of a kind, but it’s not a domain of discourse which satisfies Elias and David’s account of theology as dealing with immaterial beings. The same considerations will apply to any Stoic discussion of numbers or other apparently mathematical objects: given the basic axioms of Stoic physical theory, these objects, too, must be wholly material (even if, like the Gods, they are material in a very subtle way).

And so, the Platonists’ domain of theoretical philosophy is in one sense analogous to the Stoics’ domain of physics, insofar as each deals with all the beings in the cosmos. But in another sense, the Platonists’ theoretical philosophy is much more expansive, with Stoic physics corresponding only to that portion of theoretical philosophy that studies material beings, while the Stoics leave out the other two varieties of beings: the mathematical and theological domains, as the Platonist uses those terms.

Finally, what of practical philosophy? Here, the Platonists consider two approaches to making the division. Following Aristotle, we might subdivide practical philosophy (which aims at the good) into ethics, economics, and politics, insofar as we are considering the good of the individual person, of the household, or of the polis. Yet on technical grounds, David and Elias find this unsatisfactory. In a proper division, we should not find any one branch of the division containing another branch as a part. So while Aristotle’s approach may have some heuristic utility, our authors prefer another method, dividing practical philosophy into two parts: legislation and jurisdiction, each of which can apply across all three Aristotelian levels of individual, household, and polis.

In passing, it’s worth noting where we’re to look in the Platonic corpus to find each part: legislation unsurprisingly is discussed in the Laws (and not, contrary to modern interpreters, the Republic), while jurisdiction is addressed in the three Platonic underworld journeys: we encounter the judges in the Gorgias, the places of judgement in the Phaedo, and the souls who are being judged in the tenth book of the Republic.

Some General Reflections

Stepping back, it’s interesting to reflect on what each of these divisions of philosophy—Platonic, Stoic, and Indian—has to offer. All of them are able, in one way or another, to address all the same areas of the cosmos, and of human life and experience within that cosmos. Yet different things come to the foreground in each.

For the Platonist, logic and reasoning, though quite necessary to the philosophical project, take a kind of back seat to theoretical and practical philosophy proper, in ways that (I suggest) are illuminating for a Platonic anthropology.

In the Indian schools, meanwhile, we see the division of labor shifting in something of the opposite direction, where the study of human cognition and the processes by which knowledge is generated—that is, the study and classification of pramāṇa—becomes the defining metric by which different philosophical schools (darśana-s) are distinguished from one another. That is, the first way in which the Indian doxographers standardly identify each darśana, is by how many epistemic instruments that school accepts, and which instruments those are. And this will go hand-in-hand with the classification of the objects of knowledge by each school. With certain important exceptions, though, the practical ways of working with (or responding to) this knowledge are left to other specialists.

Finally, we find the Stoics giving roughly equal place to all three pillars of philosophy—an approach taken up by the Hellenistic schools more generally, as evidenced, inter alia, by Sextus Empiricus, who in the Outlines of Pyrrhonism structures his critique of the entire Hellenistic philosophical project around these three divisions.

In each case, the choice of sequence, priority, and emphasis will have much to say about how these different philosophers—all of them deeply systematic thinkers—understand philosophy, the human being, and the world, and the interconnections between all of these.

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