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Conference celebrates ancient philosophy, Fine and Irwin

Gail Fine
Terence Irwin

Ancient philosophy is thriving at Cornell, with a new visiting professor – Rachana Kamtekar – just arrived and a conference planned to honor distinguished faculty members Gail Fine and Professor Emeritus Terence Irwin, now professor of ancient philosophy at Oxford University.

Five of the eight speakers and four of the session chairs at “Ethics & Epistemology in the History of Philosophy,” Sept. 20-21 at Cornell Plantations’ Brian C. Nevin Center, are former students of Fine and Irwin. Organizer Scott MacDonald, professor of philosophy, says many of the talks will be accessible to those with limited familiarity with the subjects, and the public is welcome.

Cornell has had a world-class program in ancient philosophy since the 1940s. Important figures in the field such as Gregory Vlastos, David Sachs, Richard Sorabji and Malcolm Schofield have taught at Cornell. “It’s a great tradition,” says Charles Brittain, Irwin’s successor as the Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy and Humane Letters, “and one that Tad Brennan [professor of philosophy and classics] and I strive to uphold.”

Irwin and Fine arrived at Cornell in 1975 and brought a new level of philosophical and scholarly rigor to the field. “They have set the research agenda for the rest of the discipline, and raised the standards for scholarly precision and philosophical sophistication,” Brennan says, noting that their works have been used as standard texts in classrooms since the 1980s.

The two have also contributed to a renewed interest in understanding the contemporary relevance of ancient philosophy, and they’ve had a significant impact on the use of contemporary philosophical tools and methods in ancient philosophy.

Irwin’s first book, “Plato’s Moral Theory,” introduced a new approach to Plato’s dialogues, showing that an ethical theory could be reconstructed underlying them. Nick Sturgeon, the Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus, calls Irwin’s three-volume history of Western philosophical ethics “a monumental work. … No serious writer working on these figures or on their arguments could possibly avoid engaging Terry’s work.”

Fine’s work has focused on epistemology and metaphysics, and her papers constitute the state of the art for many of the issues in Platonic studies. Her book “On Ideas: Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms” is the first full-length monograph in English on Aristotle’s work “On Ideas,” a work that survives only in fragments preserved in Alexander's commentary on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics.” “She managed to reconstruct the details of a complex ancient controversy from a few fragments of evidence,” Brennan says.

Cornell’s Ancient Philosophy Program has expanded its activities over the last five years thanks to the Joseph and Eva Karp Fund in Ancient Philosophy. The fund, which in addition to providing support for the Ethics & Epistemology conference, supports an annual student-organized conference on Aristotle, student travel to conferences, and events such as the one organized by Logos, the undergraduate philosophy club, where students from all over the country presented papers on ancient philosophy.

The ancient philosophy program has nine graduate students intending to write dissertations in a joint classics/philosophy program. One or two new graduate students are typically accepted each year.

“This kind of happy collaboration between philosophy and classics is unusual and a real strength of the program,” Brennan says. Cornell’s ancient philosophy scholars also enjoy a close collaboration with medieval Latin philosophy colleagues, and actively seek to expand their reach into Arabic Islamic philosophy.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer and publicist for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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