Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.47

David Sedley (ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. Volume XXXII (Summer 2007).   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. viii, 391.  ISBN 978-0-19-922738-9.  $45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Aronoff, Marymount School (

In a nutshell: this volume lives up to the impressive standards of the OSAP series. Throughout the eleven articles and two reviews, the clarity and rigor of argument are of a very high quality. Given the intensity and complexity of the articles, the primary audience will be graduate students and professors. In this issue "ancient philosophy" means Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The first four articles are on Socrates and Plato; the last seven discuss various topics in Aristotelian studies. This is a shame, but it takes nothing away from the value of these articles themselves. Since OSAP is a journal, I won't try to tie the contents together. Instead, I will briefly summarize the articles.1

Michael N. Forster, "Socrates' Profession of Ignorance"

Foster takes up two well-known problems about Socrates. First, what exactly does Socrates mean when he claims to know nothing (except that he knows nothing)? Second, how do these claims fit with his confident assertions about particular ethical truths (e.g., that the good man cannot be harmed)? Foster argues that Socrates is not insincere, nor does he believe that someday he might reach the knowledge he lacks, nor is he more concerned to disprove other people's false beliefs than to discover knowledge himself. Instead, on Foster's view, Socrates believes (1) that humans can never attain knowledge about ethical matters, (2) that instead they may possess divinely inspired true beliefs, and (3) that his confidence comes from his own possession of such true beliefs. As is often the case, I find Foster's criticisms of rival views compelling, but I'm unsatisfied with his alternative. My primary complaint is that he doesn't seem to acknowledge the importance of argument in the formation of Socrates' beliefs. According to Socrates, Homer was divinely inspired and the poet himself knows nothing about whatever truth is contained in his Iliad, but as Foster shows, Socrates describes this inspiration without any reference to reasoning. Indeed, Socrates seems to exclude reasoning from the process. By contrast, Foster's examples of Socratic true beliefs essentially involve inference and argument on Socrates' part.

Francesco Fronterotta, "Plato's Theory of Ideas"

In this article Fronterotta picks up and expands on an earlier article by W. J. Prior (from OSAP, XXVII, 2004). Fronterotta challenges the dominant view that describes Socrates as primarily or only an ethical thinker. (As Fronterotta states, this view is often associated with Gregory Vlastos, who certainly helped to make this interpretation a standard one.) For Prior and Fronterotta, however, a fully-formed theory of Ideas (with ontologically separate Ideas) is already implicit and explicit in the definitional or early Socratic dialogues. Fronterotta recognizes Prior and R. E. Allen as predecessors, but he takes their view of a metaphysical Socrates even further than they do. In the end, he suggests strongly that any attempt to separate the Socratic and Platonic in Plato's dialogues is bound to fail.

R. F. Stalley, "Persuasion and the Tripartite Soul in Plato's Republic"

Stalley also challenges a "developmental" approach to Plato. In this case, he is arguing against Chris Bobonich, who argues (in Plato's Utopia Recast) that Plato improved his moral psychology over time. According to Bobonich, Plato's Republic suffers from what is often known as the homunculus problem. An individual is motivated by a multi-part soul, but, because each part itself contains both reason and desire, an infinite regress threatens. Stalley, however, contends that such an obviously hopeless view can't be what Plato believed. He prefers to interpret much of Plato's language metaphorically, and he particularly challenges Bobonich's claim that each part of the soul can communicate with the others and use persuasion on them. Rather than see the three parts as proper agents, Stalley argues that the parts are more like forces that pull people in one direction or another. This saves Plato from what many people take to be a gross and obvious error, but it requires us to dismiss a fair amount of what Plato wrote.

Daniel Werner, "Plato's Phaedrus and the Problem of Unity"

Werner's ostensible subject is unity in the Phaedrus, but in a way the essay serves as a meta-consideration of unity itself. Because the dialogue is so varied, it provides an excellent test case for Werner. (This is my way of putting it, not his.) He considers the various places we are accustomed to search for unity: themes, diction, structure, and he argues in the end that Plato's Phaedrus is unified, but not in a unitary way. Quite the opposite: Werner argues for a complex and varied unity, drawing on multiple thematic, non-thematic and strategic elements. Although I suspect that not every suggested unifier will convince everyone, Werner's explicit discussion of pluralistic as opposed to monistic unity should provoke readers to reconsider what they demand of a "unified text".

Richard Tierney, "Aristotle on the Necessity of Opposites in Posterior Analytics 1.4"

Tierney attempts to explicate Aristotle's claim in PA 1.4 that "whatever belongs to something in-itself holds of necessity" (141). Contrary to the standard reading, Tierney argues that Aristotle isn't trying to establish such a necessity in this passage. Instead Aristotle uses the necessity claim in order to argue for a related point about necessity of certain opposites. To borrow Tierney's example, Aristotle gives us reason to believe both that necessarily, every animal is either male or female and that every animal is either necessarily male or necessarily female. It is the second part, however, with its necessity of opposites that Tierney believes is at the center of Aristotle's argument. The article is interesting and persuasive but somewhat hard-going since it relies heavily on a distinction between two senses in which something belongs to something else in-itself, and Tierney refers to this throughout as in-itself-1 and in-itself-2.

Christopher Frey, "Organic Unity and the Matter of Man"

Frey starts from a standard problem: in the case of a bronze statue, the matter of the statue -- the bronze -- exists and can be identified "before, during and after it has the form of a statue" (167). However, Aristotle explicitly states that the matter of a person -- the body -- is not the same as the body of a living person, "except homonymously" (168). This appears to mean that hylomorphism means something different for artifacts than it does for people. Many commentators try to preserve a reading of hylomorphism that treats statues and people the same, but Frey argues that it is a strength and not a flaw that Aristotle treats these very differently. In the case of people, there is nothing parallel to the bronze that is the same before, during and after a person's life.

Anna Mormodoro, "The Union of Cause and Effect in Aristotle: Physics 3.3"

Mormodoro believes that Aristotle's explanation of causation has not received due consideration and that "it might even provide a promising new starting-point for us in tackling this elusive metaphysical notion" (205). She argues that Aristotle's analysis of causation involves two natures (her example is "building and being built") that are connected in one process of cause and effect that binds them together. Her essay strives both to explicate Aristotle and to make clear the importance of his views for any analysis of the metaphysics of causation.

John Bowin, "Aristotelian Infinity"

Bowin begins with an apparent paradox about Aristotelian infinity: Aristotle clearly says that infinity exists only potentially and not actually. However, Aristotle appears to say two different things about the nature of that potential existence. On the one hand, he seems to say that the potentiality is like that of a process that might occur but isn't right now. Aristotle uses the Olympics as an example: they might be occurring, but they aren't just now. On the other hand, Aristotle says that infinity "exists in actuality as a process that is now occurring" (234). Bowin makes clear that Aristotle doesn't explicitly solve this problem, so we are left to work out the best reading we can. His proposed solution is that "infinity must be...a per se accident...of number and magnitude" (250).

Gösta Grönroos, "Listening to Reason in Aristotle's Moral Psychology"

Grönroos attempts to explain a metaphor that lies at the heart of Aristotle's ethics. According to Aristotle, a person of complete virtue must possess the right desires and also reason correctly. This is the familiar distinction between virtues of character (the right desires part) and intellectual virtue (the reasoning correctly part). In explicating the relationship between the two elements, Aristotle likes to say that the desires must "listen to" or "obey" reason. In order to explicate this metaphor, Grönroos starts from what he calls "an entirely intuitive distinction" between two cases (253). In the one, a person reasons towards a choice of action, but in the other, a person simply acts on the advice of someone else. In the second case, Grönroos argues, "we need not have even the slightest understanding of why...; it is sufficient that we understand what we are to do" (253). On the basis of this distinction, Grönroos argues against John Cooper and others that the non-rational part of the soul need not understand the reasons for or against an action. Grönroos stresses the importance of habituation but denies that the formation of the right habits of feeling rely only on pleasure and pain. Instead, Grönroos proposes for Aristotle a view where there is a natural inclination in the non-rational part of the soul towards the fine.

Giles Pearson, "Phronesis as a Mean in the Eudemian Ethics"

Pearson considers whether Aristotle might have believed, at least at some point, that phronesis might have been a mean, just like the virtues of character. This seems, weirdly, to imply that you could have too much practical wisdom. In addition, Aristotle generally goes out of his way to distinguish the virtues of character, which are means, and the intellectual virtues. Although he is at pains to admit how speculative his exploration is, Pearson takes seriously a few key passages from the Eudemian Ethics where Aristotle apparently considers the idea that phronesis at least might be a mean. He imagines that Aristotle may have been tempted by this idea -- even if he later rejected it -- because of the extremely close relationship between phronesis and the virtues of character. The article is suggestive rather than conclusive, but, to quote Pearson's own last line, that's "no bad thing" (293).

Marco Zingano, "Aristotle and Method in Ethics"

Zingano investigates the role of dialectic in Aristotle's ethical philosophy and his philosophy more generally. He argues that the role of dialectic diminishes between the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics and that this change is in accord with a broader change. In his view, Aristotle moved away from dialectic in his later philosophy. However, Zingano does not believe that Aristotle gave up on dialectic entirely, but rather that he moved away from the use of dialectic to prove or establish conclusions. Zingano believes that dialectic continued to play an important rhetorical and heuristic purpose for Aristotle. One odd upshot of Zingano's argument is that it forces him to end with an admission that he cannot say what method replaces dialectic in Aristotle's ethical works.

The volume concludes with two reviews: Gail Fine on Dominic Scott's Plato's Meno and G. E. R. Lloyd on Bernard Williams' The Sense of the Past. The two books -- and the two reviewers -- are very different in style. Plato's Meno is a focused monograph on one Platonic dialogue, but The Sense of the Past is a posthumous collection of essays in the history of philosophy which cover the familiar (Plato and Aristotle, of course; Hume, Descartes and Nietzsche) to the less so (an essay on Collingwood and one on Sophocles' Women of Trachis). So, given authors and subjects, it should come as no surprise that Fine's review is a meticulous, detailed, point-by-point consideration of a few key arguments, but on the other side, Lloyd's review is far more thematic, discursive and big picture. Although I could imagine reversing the two styles of review, these fit their subjects quite well, and both give an excellent sense of the books under consideration.


1.   Some of the summaries are more summary than others. In fairness to all the authors, I should say that I am much more familiar and comfortable with the articles on ethics and epistemology than with the metaphysical essays. So if I am sometimes briefer in my discussion, that is no judgment on the quality or importance of those pieces.

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