Hermeneutical Principles

(for interpretation of ancient Greek philosophy)

Questions, comments?

Contact me at rcherubi(at)gmu(dot)edu.


(This image comes to us from the Perseus vase collection.)

1. The fact that someone is older than you or comes from an older country than you do does not necessarily imply that he or she is right.

It doesn't imply that he or she is wrong, either. The point is that even people who come from places that are known for a certain type of scholarship may not be good at that kind of scholarship. Even some of those people who are good at it can make mistakes.

a. Corollary. The fact that someone is older than your instructor and from an older country doesn't by itself imply that this someone is right, and doesn't imply that he or she is wrong.
b. Corollary. If you want to know what an ancient philosopher said, read what he or she wrote.


2. Papyrus was expensive.

Never assume that something in an ancient text is meant to be extraneous, or "window-dressing", or not important. If it's on the page, the author thought it was worth conveying. If Plato had thought that the only thing worth considering was the statements he puts in the mouth of the Socrates character, he would not have included all of that scene-setting and all of those speeches by other characters. If Parmenides had thought that the only important things to convey were the statements his goddess character makes, he would not have included the extremely detailed account of the journey. If Aristotle (or his students) had thought that all that stuff he puts into the first Book of many of his works (that business about his predecessors, those discussions about "science" and whether there can be kowledge about something, that worrying over whether or in what sense the things studied in a particular field exist) was irrelevant or extraneous, there is a very good chance that these things would have been left out.

a. Corollary. Since when are you smarter than {Aristotle, Plato, any pre-Socratic}?

That is, don't assume that you know better than the author what in the text is important. People who look only at the parts of a text that they feel comfortable with are like people who take apart your car, then put it back together and say, "It's fixed--what do you want me to do with all these parts that were left over?"

3. If it's clear, it isn't Aristotle.

4. Aliens are watching "I Love Lucy".

Radio and television signals routinely escape the Earth's atmosphere and travel on into space. If modern physics is correct, these waves should in principle be able to travel on indefinitely, unless of course something blocks their paths. Thus if there are alien life forms that have the sensory apparatus and technology to pick up such waves, and if these beings are situated in the paths of unobstructed transmissions, the aliens should be able to detect our radio and television signals. If they are very far from Earth, it may take years for the signals to reach them. Now, since it first appeared in the early 1950's, "I Love Lucy" has never been off the air: there has always been at least one station broadcasting it, and usually quite a few. It has been dubbed into many languages, and broadcast from stations in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Therefore, statistically speaking, there is a higher probability that a given television signal broadcast during the past fifty years is of an episode of "I Love Lucy" than that it is of a program from almost (or maybe not almost, but actually) any other single series.

Aliens whose only or main source of information about Earth is "I Love Lucy" would be likely to form a conception of life on Earth that is somewhat incomplete and distorted, though not necessarily entirely inaccurate. For example, if they developed an understanding of the English language, they might conclude that the chief goal of humans is "appearing at the Club"; that there is a 600 block of East 68th St. in Manhattan, N.Y.; and that the primary (and essentially benign) motivations for human action are revenge, envy, desire for attention, and desire to meet film stars. (Somewhat incomplete, but not entirely inaccurate.)
The point is that we must ask whether our view of ancient Greek ideas may also be based on very incomplete information, especially if we limit ourselves to only one kind of evidence (only philosophical writers, or only historical writers, or only myths and vase-paintings, etc.)

5. A lack of cars, electricity, or running water does not necessarily imply a lack of intelligence, learning, creativity, or sophistication in a society or in a person.

The fact that someone lived a long time ago or in a place whose level or type of technological development is different from our own does not imply that the person was stupid, simple, intellectually or spiritually unsophisticated, or unable to appreciate irony or ideas that appear to us to be complex. In fact, a relative lack of emphasis on technological development can reflect a correspondingly greater emphasis on other kinds of development.

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Hermeneutical Principles (for interpretation of ancient Greek philosophy) by Rose Cherubin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.