Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.06

Thomas A. Szlezák, Karl-Heinz Stanzel, Platonisches Philosophieren. Zehn Vorträge zu Ehren von Hans Joachim Krämer. Spudasmata 82.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms Verlag, 2001.  Pp. viii + 338.  ISBN 3-487-11435-6.  EUR 68,00.  

Contributors: Karl Albert, Michael Erler, Gunther Figal, Jens Halfwassen, Vittorio Hösle, Maurizio Migliori, Klaus Oehler, Giovanni Reale, Wilhelm Schwabe

Reviewed by David J. Murphy, The Nightingale-Bamford School, New York (
Word count: 3079 words

This collection of German essays honors the most influential proponent of the "Tübingen school" of Plato interpretation, Hans Joachim Krämer. Originating in conferences held there to commemorate Krämer's 65th and 70th birthdays in 1994 and 1999, the papers are written by and largely for the converted. The contributions do not treat the same theme, nor do they mount a new defense of Tübingen esotericism.1 Instead, the authors try to do philosophically interesting things with Plato or his Nachleben from within the Tübingen paradigm. In the main, they succeed, giving non-esotericists a chance to see the model in action. The book breaks into two halves. Of the eight contributors of essays, Hösle, Figal and Oehler grapple with forms of communicating philosophical thought, Halfwassen and Migliori offer opposed analyses of Plato's dialectic and metaphysics, Reale finds the doctrine of Principles (cf. next paragraph) in the Symposium, and Erler and Albert trace its effect on later philosophers. The second half comprises a monograph-length expansion of his original conference paper, in which Wilhelm Schwabe tries to prove that Phaedrus 247d-e asserts the intelligence, not just the intelligibility, of the Forms. Each contributor supplies a bibliography for his own paper. At the end of the volume (333-38) follows a bibliography of Krämer's publications into 2001.

Everybody knew that his students ascribed teachings to Plato that do not appear in the dialogues -- at least, not in any clear form. Krämer's fame came from the radical way he sought to account for the discrepancy. From Plato's reservations about writing in Phdr. and Ep. VII and from ancient reports that he discussed things that he did not write (e.g. "unwritten doctrines," Arist. Phys. 209b14-15), Krämer argued that discussion in the Academy was the locus of Plato's genuine philosophy. To reconstruct it we must use the testimony of Aristotle and others, for the dialogues aimed only to attract inquirers, provide exercises for beginners, and provoke insiders to reflect on problems that they knew from face-to-face discussion.2 They help fill out our reconstruction only when understood in light of the indirect tradition. The Plato of Tübingen's reconstruction conceived a derivative system by which all knowable reality is ontologically dependent on two Principles, the One (identified with the Good), and the Indefinite Dyad or Great and Small. By putting limit on the Indefinite, the One generates the Idea-Numbers (alternatively, the Ideal Numbers and the Ideas). From the Indefinite Dyad and the Ideas in turn derive the sensory objects of our world. The mathematicals stand in between. Although some have read the later dialogues through the indirect tradition in a similar way (e.g. Gomperz, Burnet, Robin, Ross, de Vogel, Annas, now Thesleff), Krämer took two further steps: he dated Plato's doctrine of principles back to the Protagoras and Gorgias, making it the abiding core of a unitary system, and he threw into relief the problem of hermeneutical presuppositions, faulting Schleiermacher for autonomizing the dialogues in violation of what they intimate about their own propaedeutic and mnemonic status.

Krämer's foundational studies were published in 1959 and 1964.3 Followers and allies are the most numerous in Germany and Italy.4 In other countries, however, many Platonists view the "Tübingen" school as suspect or irrelevant. The more they work on the dialogues as autonomous texts, and the more they are attracted to the open-ended spirit of Socratic inquiry dramatized in them, the less receptive they are to reconstructions of a Platonic "system" from Aristotle's notes "plus." Beyond disputes over what the texts say, the dividing issues concern presuppositions: how much importance to attach to which texts in pursuit of what scholarly goal (cf. D. Sider, BMCR 02.01.14). Testimonia from Academic sources present their own critical problems, they cannot date earlier than Aristotle's twenties, and they sometimes contradict things Plato wrote.5 Kenneth Sayre has tried to reduce the discrepancy between the dialogues and the testimonia to a terminological one, but his mediating position has not won the day.6 A minimalist camp, in which I number myself, is willing to grant the late Plato a Prinzipienlehre but fails to find evidence for Krämer's claim that it formed the core of Plato's philosophy over the span of his career.7 Krämer and friends do, however, spotlight philosophically interesting questions. Does Plato continue the Pre-Socratic fascination with archai in an elegant, rational theory of everything? Does his dialectic of One-Forms-Unlimited explain goodness and beauty in our world? Does it help us unify our divided psyche? Is reading philosophy better than discussing it? Szlezák has thrown into clear relief how the dialogues point beyond themselves to things that are held back, so that to act as though only writings count as expressions of Plato's thought rests on assumptions that contradict his writings. Players at different scholarly games all benefit -- albeit in different measure -- from knowing what Plato's students declare that he held.

Now to the several contributions. The first essay to read for those who want an outline of the Tübingen model is Oehler's "Die Neue Situation der Platonforschung" (31-46). Following Reale 1997, Oehler schematizes four historical models of Platonic interpretation: 1) reliance on unwritten teachings as well as the dialogues among Plato's students in the Academy; 2) Neo-Platonist systematization of the dialogues with allegory as needed, retaining pieces of oral tradition; 3) Schleiermacher shifted the paradigm to the primacy of the dialogues; 4) Krämer shifted to the esoteric paradigm. Some of the resistance to Tübingen traces to the Romantic valorization of "the open question" over system, form over content in philosophy (38). Krämer's theory does not devalue the dialogues but puts them back in their historical context in a way that Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas fail to do.

In 1999 Jens Halfwassen reviewed the metaphysics that Krämer ascribes to Plato, "Der Ursprung des Geistesmetaphysik. Die wiederentdeckte Einheit des antiken Platonismus" (47-65). Krämer distinguished two views about transcendent Nous in the Academy: Plato and Speusippus, picked up by Plotinus, make Nous depend ontologically on the absolute One that is beyond Being, while Xenocrates, followed by Albinus and Numenius, made Nous itself the One that grounds Being and the Ideas (61). Krämer traced two major Neo-Platonist theses about Nous to the early Academy: the foundation of Nous in the Existing One of the second Hypothesis of Prm., of which we say both "One" and "is", and the inclusion of the Ideas in Nous as its thought-content, i.e. the Ideas are intelligent as well as intelligible (54-56; cf. So. 248e ff. and Ti. 30c). The One/Good beyond Being, of which nothing but "one" can be predicated, is the ground of Being by its overflow of dynamis. All Being participates also in the multiple, since if we say "X is," we say two things (51-52).

Halfwassen admits he cannot prove this construction was Plato's, but he joins Krämer and Szlezák in thinking it likely (59). It is representative of a kind of Plotinian approach to Plato that has persisted in Germany (e.g. Matthias Balthes and his students) and is attracting interest elsewhere. I do not believe that Plato constructed an ontology in the Parmenides of a One beyond Being (1st hypothesis) and an existing One (2nd hypothesis), as Proclus, for example, maintains. To say so ignores the aporetic and dialectical structure of the dialogue (Halfwassen does not cite Cornford, Allen and others who make this point). Aristotle never says that Plato distinguished these two Ones, and at Meta. 987b22 he attributes ousia to Plato's One. Halfwassen may be right that Speusippus denied Being to the One (52-53), but he should have acknowledged the controversies that beset the relevant fragments. I can accept the reports of Aristotle, Theophrastus and Aristoxenus that Plato at some point identified the One and the Good, but Rep. VI does not identify the absolute One beyond Being with the Good, as Neo-Platonists say it does; various things are predicated of the Good there, including "what it is," 507b7. It is the megiston mathema, therefore knowable, but the non-existing One is not knowable. Prm. 130b8 speaks of the Form of the Good as though it is not equivalent to the One. Halfwassen at least lays out this case as clearly as one can.

For the 1994 conference Halfwassen composed "Monismus und Dualismus in Platons Prinzipienlehre" (67-85), wherein he also expressed the views outlined above. His aim was to show that Plato's doctrine of principles was reductively monistic because the principle of multiplicity depends on the absolute, not-existing One, which depends on nothing. He finds Plato's system deductively dualistic, on the other hand, insofar as the rest of reality comes into being through the One's limiting the Indefinite Dyad. This is a refinement of Krämer 1964, who called the Prinzipienlehre dualistic.

Maurizio Migliori takes an opposing approach in "Dialektik und Prinzipientheorie in Platons 'Parmenides' und 'Philebos'" (109-54), translated from Italian by Stanzel. Migliori's essay needed a thesis statement early on, for often it is not clear what problem he is trying to solve, and many of his remarks on particular passages repeat his previously published commentaries. His core argument eventually becomes clear (144-54): the task of any dialectic is to maintain the identity of the opposites without negating the law of non-contradiction. Plato's scheme of limit--unlimited--mixture enables us to say how a thing is a hen polla, a one-many. Unlike Halfwassen, Migliori will not subordinate the Many to the One. Plato really has one principle, a dialectical polarity. Migliori notices that Plato undermines his polarity on the axiological plane when he puts the One as cause of good above multiplicity, the cause of evil. When he acknowledges that perhaps this is an aporia that prevented Plato's Prinzipienlehre from outliving their founder, we see Migliori refusing to neo-Platonize Plato. He emphasizes instead how Plato's dialectic allows him to remain open in the face of the infinite in the material we confront (154 n. 197).

Now from the beginning of the volume. Vittorio Hösle begins "Die Philosophie und ihre Medien" (1-17) by comparing Plato and Marshall McLuhan as theorists of "media." McLuhan was right to insist that the medium through which we receive a message shapes our conception of reality, but Plato was already more dialectical in understanding that the message also structures the participant's contribution -- more personal initiative is required to understand a Platonic dialogue than most conversations (8). Living between the ages of orality and writing (cf. Havelock), Plato could appreciate how conversation works better than writing upon the soul of the recipient (Phdr. 275a5 f.). Plato holds back the "more precious things" (Phdr. 278d-e), i.e. teaching about Principles, until one is prepared to understand them. Attitudes persisting from the age of writing are part of the reason why our age resists the Tübingen paradigm. Unfortunately, electronic mass media train viewers to think in pictures and not concepts (15). Writing in 1994, Hösle did not yet appreciate how computer technology may further philosophical interchanges.

Günter Figal, "Platonforschung und hermeneutische Philosophie" (19-29), evaluates Krämer's critique of Gadamer. Hermeneutical philosophy developed from Schleiermacher's conviction that we can move inside an author's thought by piecing together his writings. But if, as Plato himself tells us, he held back his deepest philosophical reflections from his writings, we cannot move inside Plato's mind via the dialogues. Krämer charged the hermeneutical approach with absolutizing the text, subordinating the interpretive tradition to the principle of perspicacity, and perpetuating Romanticism's belief that infinity makes truth unreachable -- thus doing away with ontology (21-22). In Figal's view, which I think is correct, Gadamer cannot be attacked for the naïveté that Krämer finds in Schleiermacher. Krämer's criticism fits what Gadamer calls Vorverständnis, the understanding of an author from the reader's historical perspective only. We can never view the past objectively, but if we confront the historical gap that separates us, we can remain chary of saying, "I understand this," and thereby remain open to possible meanings in the text (26). Gadamer thus ironically makes room for Tübingen as proponents of a possible meaning.

In "Alles, was tief ist, liebt die Maske," Giovanni Reale puts the esotericist paradigm to work on the Symposium (87-108). Only Plato's doctrine of Principles makes possible a philosophical explanation of the prominence of one-duality in the dialogue. We see that dichotomy most clearly in Aristophanes' myth of the cloven humans, but also in Eryximachus' appeal to the One and in Diotima's myth of Eros' birth from Poros (One) and Penia (multiple) (98). Informed readers recognize the spirituality of the Prinzipienlehre when Diotima connects Aristophanes' "other half" image to the Good (205e-206a), for she makes eros the soul's way home to the One (104). Reale does not pretend to find the Principles by objective exegesis. We all stand in hermeneutical circles, but the esotericist circle best accounts for the phenomena the Plato scholar must face (100). If Aristophanes' speech recalls his satire in Birds 693-703 of "Orphic" primal division and search for oneness, however, as Reale acknowledges (104), we need not invoke the Principles to explain those features. Aristophanes' deeply human understanding of falling in love gets lost among Reale's preoccupations. I also wish Reale had developed his claim that Pausanias makes heavenly eros other-regarding (91), for love in Smp. is often branded as ultimately egoistic. That however would have been another paper.

In his commentary on the Timaeus, Proclus attacks the Epicurean Hermarchus for arguing that we need not pray to the gods for help before each activity, because praying is itself an activity, which would land us in an infinite regress of prayers. Proclus denied the regress by replying that the benefit from what you propose to do comes because of the prayer, but the benefit of the prayer lies in the very practice of praying. Proclus practices prayer as a meditative, interior conversation that helps our soul turn toward the One. Michael Erler in "Selbstfindung im Gebet. Integration eines Elementes Epikureischer Theologie in den Platonismus der Spätantike" (155-71) traces back to the Epicureans and Stoics the notion that prayer is good for its own sake because it helps further a right disposition of soul. Proclus thus slays the Epicureans with their own weapons (159-60). But he remains genuinely Neo-Platonic, for prayer as a practice that elevates the soul toward its transcendent origin is a conception derived from Plato.

Karl Albert, "Platonisches bei Louis Lavelle" (173-80), introduces the "French Heidegger" to readers who may know little about him. Lavelle (1883-1951) tried to unite the spirit of Plato, Descartes and Christianity, where God is the measure, against the spirit of Protagoras. For him, to experience Being is fundamental to philosophy. Unlike Neo-Platonists, Lavelle understands the Idea of the Good as an identity of Being and Value, so that it stands over reality but not over Being (Sein). This scheme depends on his distinction between Realität, the multiplicity of things, Existenz, the being-present that is experienced in consciousness, and Sein, which gives sense to the other two. Following Festugière, he likened the three stages of cult (purification--exposition--initiation/union) to the stages of Socrates' speech in Smp.: we go from elenxis to discursive reasoning about the Ideas to noetic vision of Beauty, absolute Sein, where subject-object separation is overcome. Lavelle already understood Plato from the "unwritten doctrines." His substantial anticipation of Krämer illustrates how the latter only made clearer the consequences of what had long been recognized.

Wilhelm Schwabe ruefully thanks the other contributors (185) for the patience they showed when he delayed publication of their papers by expanding his own into a full-length monograph, "Die Geistcharakter des 'überhimmlischen Raumes'" (181-331). This exhaustive study is dedicated to proving that the "knowledge (episteme) that souls behold in the Hyperouranios Topos of Phdr. 247d-e is not the Form of Knowledge, as most commentators have believed, but the intelligence that is "in" the intelligible world taken as an aggregate. Schwabe conceives of the realm of the intelligible as Plotinus' second hypostasis, Nous. That view is not unique to the Tübingen school (cf. e.g. de Vogel). The case for it is usually made from So. 248e ff., Ti. 30c ff., and Arist. DA 404b18 ff. Schwabe's attempt to bring in Phdr. 247d-e as another proof text stands or falls on the meaning of the preposition en at 247e1-2. Here Socrates contrasts the knowledge to which becoming is added, "which is somehow different being in different (ones) of the things we now call entities (onta)," to "the knowledge being in that which is truly existing." Schwabe is right, I think, to argue that en does not denote an object relation, for which in Greek we would expect the genitive ("knowledge of") or peri or epi, so that our passage is not an instance of LSJ's A I 7, as de Vries thought. From this Schwab concludes that its sense must be local, i.e., in minds: the knowledge that is not in earthly or heavenly ensouled entities but in the entire realm of Being, i.e., in Nous. He thinks that Plato refers to ensouled creatures, who alone have knowledge, as onta to stop us from thinking only of animals; stars etc. have soul, too. Most of Schwabe's exposition is beside the point, because he does not consider that en can show a thing, in the causal power of which a state of affairs takes its configuration (cf. Kühner-Gerth II.1 pp. 464-65). This falls under LSJ A I 6. A parallel is Chrm. 171b1-2: one who wants to examine medical knowledge (iatrike) must examine it in the healthy and the diseased, a9, "in which it is," not in external things, "in which it is not." Episteme is understanding of systems of things, and its structure in particular cases maps more or less comprehensively the structure of its field of objects. In Phdr. 247 Socrates means that structures of pieces of knowledge rest on configurations of realities, which are less real in our world than in the intelligible realm. The reference of en is to object relations, but not so its sense. For en as here cf. also Tht. 194b2-3, Phdr. 263b4-5, Arist. Rhet. 1360a19. This rendering gives back their usual field of reference to onta, which in Plato include all subjects of predication. This passage, then, is not a proof that the Forms constitute a big mind.

I have learned much about Plato and his followers from working through this dense collection. Its first nine contributions will reward the investment of time and effort. Readers interested in Schwabe's treatise should follow his hint to start from p. 265 and see how it goes. I must commend the volume's preparers, for I detected no typo.


1.   To the novice inquirer I recommend M.-D. Richard, L'enseignement oral de Platon. Une nouvelle interprétation du platonisme (Paris 1986).
2.   For an extensive collection of the testimonia see now M. Isnardi Parente, Testimonianza platonica : per una raccolta dei principali passi della tradizione indiretta riguardante i legomena angrapha dogmata I-II (Rome 1997-1998).
3.   Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles. Zum Wesen und zur Geschichte der platonischen Ontologie (Heidelberg 1959, repr. Amsterdam 1967) and Der Ursprung der Geistmetaphysik. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Platonismus zwischen Platon und Plotin (Amsterdam 1964, 2nd ed. 1967). See also Plato and the Foundations of Metaphysics: A Work on the Theory of the Principles and Unwritten Doctrines of Plato with a Collection of the Fundamental Documents (Eng. tr. by J.R. Catan, Albany 1990).
4.   Also renowned was the late Konrad Gaiser, whose most important works are Protreptik und Paränese bei Platon. Untersuchungen zur Form des platonischen Dialogs (Tübingen 1959) and Platons ungeschriebene Lehre. Studien zur systematischen und geschichtlichen Begründung der Wissenschaft in der platonischen Schule (Stuttgart 1963, 2nd ed. 1968). Of collaborators of the present volume, cf. esp. Th. A. Szlezák, Platon und die Schriftlichkeit der Philosophie. Interpretationen zur den frühen und mittleren Dialogen (Berlin 1985), and Reading Plato (Eng. tr. by G. Zanker, New York 1999); M. Erler, Der Sinn der Aporien in den Dialogen Platons. Übungsstücke zur Anleitung im philosophischen Denken (Berlin and New York 1987); G. Reale, Toward a New Interpretation of Plato (Eng. tr. from 10th ed. by J. R. Catan and R. Davies, Washington, D.C. 1997). J.N. Findlay had reached similar conclusions independently in his Plato. The Written and Unwritten Doctrines (London and New York 1974).
5.   Critics of the Tübingen school point out these and other problems. Cf. G. Vlastos, rev. of Krämer 1959, Gnomon 41 (1963) 641-55, repr. with appendix in Platonic Studies (Princeton 1973, 2nd ed. 1981) 378-403; E. de Strycker, rev. of Gaiser 1963, Rev. Belge 45 (1967), 116-23; W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. V. The Later Plato and the Academy (Cambridge 1978) 418-42; E. Berti, "Strategie di interpretazione dei filosofi antichi Platone e Aristotele," Elenchos 10 (1989) 289-315, esp. 290-300; L. Brisson, rev. of Richard 1986 (cf. note 1 above), Etudes philos. 1 (1990) 95-105, and "Premises, Consequences, and Legacy of an Esotericist Interpretation of Plato," AncPhilos 15 (1995) 117-34. The classic attack on Aristotle's testimony was H. Cherniss' Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy I (Baltimore 1944).
6.   Cf. K. Sayre, Plato's Late Ontology: A Riddle Resolved (Princeton 1983) and his rev. of Krämer 1990, AncPhilos 13 (1993) 167-84. Mitchell Miller has followed Sayre's approach; cf. "The Choice between the Dialogues and the 'Unwritten Teachings': A Scylla and Charybdis for the Interpreter?" in F. Gonzalez, ed. The Third Way: A New Direction in Platonic Studies (Savage, MD 1995) 225-44. I share many of W. Prior's reservations about Sayre 1983; cf. Prior's rev. in AGP 68 (1986) 292-96.
7.   A good example is H. Thesleff, Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model. Comm. Hum. Litt. 113 (Helsinki 1999), 91-107; more generous, R. Ferber, Die Unwissenheit des Philosophen oder Warum hat Platon die 'ungeschriebene Lehre' nicht geschrieben? (Sankt Augustin 1991).

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