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Bernard Knox’s 1994 Backing into the Future Reviewed

The ancient Greeks thought that the future was behind them

I picked up a copy of Bernard Knox’s 1994 Backing into the Future because somewhere I saw it referenced about the weird fact that the ancient Greeks thought that the future was behind them. Knox presents evidence from The Odyssey and Oedipus the King to back this up, so to speak. But that’s literally on the first page of the book. The rest of it consists of brilliant and brilliantly written essays about ancient life and scholarship. Totally enjoyable.

True, he undoes one of my favorite factoids: that Greeks in Homer’s time did not have a concept of the body as an overall unity, but rather only had words for particular parts of the body. This notion comes most forcefully from Bruno Snell in The Discovery of Mind, although I first read about it — and was convinced — by a Paul Feyerabend essay. In his essay “What Did Achilles Look Like?,” Knox convincingly argues that the Greeks had both and a word and concept for the body as a unity. In fact, they may have had three. Knox then points to Homeric uses that seem to indicate, yeah, Homer was talking about a unitary body. E.g., “from the bath he [Oydsseus] stepped, in body [demas] like the immortals,” and Poseidon “takes on the likeness of Calchas, in bodily form,” etc. [p. 52] I don’t read Greek, so I’ll believe whatever the last expert tells me, and Knox is the last expert I’ve read on this topic.

In a later chapter, Knox comes back to Bernard William’s criticism, in Shame and Necessity, of the “Homeric Greeks had no concept of a unitary body” idea, and also discusses another wrong thing that I had been taught. It turns out that the Greeks did have a concept of intention, decision-making, and will. Williams argues that they may not have had distinct words for these things, but Homer “and his characters make distinctions that can only be understood in terms of” those concepts. Further, Williams writes that Homer has

no word that means, simply, “decide.” But he has the notion…All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed necessarily to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it: and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.” [p. 228]

Wow. Seems pretty right to me. What does the act of “making a decision” add to the description of how we move from conclusion to action?

Knox also has a long appreciation of Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986) which makes me want to go out and get that book immediately, although I suspect that Knox is making it considerably more accessible than the original. But it sounds breath-takingly brilliant.

Knox’s essay on Nussbaum, “How Should We Live,” is itself rich with ideas, but one piece particularly struck me. In Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle dismisses one of Socrates’ claims (that no one knowingly does evil) by saying that such a belief is “manifestly in contradiction with the phainomena.” I’ve always heard the word “phainomena” translated in (as Knox says) Baconian terms, as if Aristotle were anticipating modern science’s focus on the facts and careful observation. We generally translate phainomena as “appearances” and contrast it with reality. The task of the scientist and the philosopher is to let us see past our assumptions to reveal the thing as it shows itself (appears) free of our anticipations and interpretations, so we can then use those unprejudiced appearances as a guide to truths about reality.

But Nussbaum takes the word differently, and Knox is convinced. Phainomena, are “the ordinary beliefs and sayings” and the sayings of the wise about things. Aristotle’s method consisted of straightening out whatever confusions and contradictions are in this body of beliefs and sayings, but then to show that at least the majority of those beliefs are true. This is a complete inversion of what I’d always thought. Rather than “attending to appearances” meaning dropping one’s assumptions to reveal the thing in its untouched state, it actually means taking those assumptions — of the many and of the wise — as containing truth. It is a confirming activity, not a penetrating and an overturning. Nussbaum says for Aristotle (and in contrast to Plato), “Theory must remain committed to the ways human beings live, act, see.” (Note that it’s entirely possible I’m getting Aristotle, Nussbaum, and Knox wrong. A trifecta of misunderstanding!)

Nussbaum’s book sounds amazing, and I know I should have read it, oh, 20 years ago, but it came out the year I left the philosophy biz. And Knox’s book is just wonderful. If you ever doubted why we need scholars and experts — why would you think such a thing? — this book is a completely enjoyable reminder.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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