Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.21
Gail Fine (ed.), Plato 1. Metaphysics and Epistemology. Plato 2. Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul. Oxford Readings in Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. viii, 514; viii, 481. ISBN 0-19-875206-7; 0-19-875204-0. $19.95 each vol.
Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson, University of Toronto
Word count: 1309 words
These two volumes, edited by the distinguished Cornell University Plato scholar Gail Fine, contain some 37 articles on various aspects of Plato's philosophy. Most of the articles have been previously published, although some have been revised for these volumes. None dates from before 1970 and almost all are by scholars from the English-speaking world. These volumes will be widely understood to be doing for Plato scholarship in the last thirty years what the three well-known volumes edited by Gregory Vlastos (two on Plato, one on Socrates) did for Plato scholarship in the period between the end of World War II and 1970. Just as Vlastos attempted to assemble the best of Anglo-American scholarship to provide a snapshot of the contemporary 'state-of-the-art,' so Fine's volumes will no doubt be taken to have done the same. Remarkably, most of the essays in Fine's volumes cover a range of topics and employ a method strikingly similar to those in Vlastos' volumes. Strikingly different inferences about the nature of Plato scholarship generally will be drawn from this fact. Each volume contains a lengthy and lucid introduction by Fine in which the appropriate context for each essay is set forth. The 70 or so pages of introduction are to be recommended especially to students of ancient philosophy as a highly economical orientation to Plato scholarship today as that is practiced in one tradition. Each volume also contains extensive bibliographical material.
I will list the contents of the volumes and then make some general remarks.
Volume 1. Gregory Vlastos, "The Socratic Elenchus"; Gregory Vlastos, "Socrates' Disavowal of Knowledge"; Dominic Scott, "Platonic Recollection"; J.L. Ackrill, "Language and Reality in Plato's Cratylus"; T.H. Irwin, "The Theory of Forms"; Alexander Nehemas, "Plato on the Imperfections of the Sensible World"; Daniel Devereaux, "Separation and Immanence in Plato's Theory of Forms"; Gail Fine, "Knowledge and Belief in Republic 5-7"; Gerasimos Santas, "The Form of the Good in Plato's Republic"; S. Marc Cohen, "The Logic of the Third Man"; G.E.L. Owen, "Notes on Ryle's Plato"; M.F. Burnyeat, "Knowledge is Perception: Theaetetus 151D-184A"; John Cooper, "Plato on Sense-Perception and Knowledge (Theaetetus 184-186)"; Michael Frede, "Observations on Perception in Plato's Later Dialogues"; John McDowell, "Identity Mistakes: Plato and the Logical Atomists"; Steven Strange, "The Double Explanation in the Timaeus"; G.E.L. Owen, "Plato on Not-Being"; Lesley Brown, "Being in the Sophist: A Syntactical Enquiry".
Volume 2. Richard Kraut, "Socrates and Democracy"; Gregory Vlastos, "Socratic Piety"; Terry Penner, "The Unity of Virtue"; Gregory Vlastos, "Happiness and Virtue in Socrates' Moral Theory"; Gregory Vlastos, "The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato"; T.H. Irwin, "Republic 2: Questions About Justice"; John Cooper, "Plato's Theory of Human Motivation"; Norman Dahl, "Plato's Defense of Justice"; Richard Kraut, "Return to the Cave: Republic 519-521"; Bernard Williams, "The Analogy of the City and Soul in Plato's Republic"; Julia Annas, "Plato's Republic and Feminism"; C.C.W. Taylor, "Plato's Totalitarianism"; M.F. Burnyeat, "Utopia and Fantasy: The Practicability of Plato's Ideally Just City"; David Sedley, "The Ideal of Godliness"; John Cooper, "Plato's Theory of Human Good in the Philebus"; Dorothea Frede, "Rumpelstiltskin's Pleasures: True and False Pleasures in Plato's Philebus"; Christopher Bobonich, "Persuasion, Compulsion, and Freedom in Plato's Laws"; David Bostock, "The Soul and Immortality in Plato's Phaedo"; Richard Bett, "Immortality and the Nature of the Soul in the Phaedrus".
Fine, reasonably, disavows any effort to cover all possible or worthy topics in her selection of essays. Certainly, she was also working within constraints of size set by her publisher. So, criticisms along these lines make little sense. The quality of the essays is uniformly very high. A number of them will become or already have become standard starting-points for further discussion of a topic. A re-reading of the essays in the Vlastos volumes after reading these would no doubt be illuminating.
Having said this much, it is truly remarkable that in roughly 1000 pages of material there is hardly even a mention of approaches to Plato in the last generation other than that of what can best be termed the Anglo-American analytic tradition. Although someone reading these volumes will learn a great deal about Plato and a great deal about a well-defined set of interpretative issues, he will also leave the volumes more or less innocent of the knowledge that many scholars, just as reputable as those appearing in these books, have questioned the assumptions evidently shared by the editor and the authors themselves.
For example, Fine assumes without argument that it is correct or at least useful to divide Plato's dialogues into 'early,' 'middle,' and 'late' with 'transitional' thrown in between the first two. 'Transitional' is a nice term, like 'epicycle,' employed to deal with an embarrassing blemish in a theory of development. The implied linear division is not of course a neutral way of ordering the dialogues. Underlying it is the assumption that Plato's thought developed in certain ways that can be known, where the word 'development' has various philosophical connotations depending on who is using it. Criticisms regarding developmental assumptions and the apparent circularity of some chronological arguments based on what Plato's development must be like have been appearing for a long time, recently even from some of the authors in these volumes. It would have been very useful if Fine had included some of these or at least set out in some detail in her introduction the assumptions of the developmentalist approach and the current criticisms of it. By contrast, John Cooper in his edition of Plato. Complete Works had the happy notion of ordering the dialogues according to the traditional tetralogies rather than according to some theory of their development. Of course, the ordering by tetralogies is not neutral either, but at least it is not tendentious in the same way that the 'developmentalist' ordering is. It will be interesting to see how this new standard edition of Plato's works in English will effect the perceptions of scholars in the next generation.
A perennial problem in writing about Plato is that few if any of the issues with which he is concerned are treated in only one dialogue. Therefore, if one wants to write about Plato's view of, for example, love or knowledge or the soul, one must consider evidence from several dialogues. In some cases many years probably separated the writing of these dialogues. In addition, the very fact that whatever Plato has to say is said in a dialogue, not in a treatise means that it is not always clear, much less certain what view Plato is advocating, if any. Even though a substantial number of the articles in these volumes concentrate on one or two passages in one dialogue, virtually none of them supposes that evidence from other dialogues need not be brought forth to support one interpretation or another. All of this is standard operating procedure at least in the milieu in which most of the readers of these volumes will have been trained. Nevertheless, the procedure is laden with assumptions that at least before 1970 were more or less unchallenged. It should, I believe, be the editor's task to make these assumptions explicit.
An equally serious omission is of articles or mention by Fine of works that challenge the analytic approach to Plato. Not surprisingly, most though by no means all of these are European. I am myself sympathetic to Fine's view that Plato is above all else a philosopher, with arguments that can be most profitably approached with the tools of philosophical analysis. Nevertheless, I would not want to give my pupils the impression that there are not challenges to this view that deserve to be seriously addressed. Perhaps in volumes that belong to the series Oxford Readings in Philosophy the most reasonable thing would have been to include in the introduction at least a cursory treatment of the range of alternatives to the analytic view and some rationale for rejecting these.