Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.64

John J. Cleary, Gary M. Gurtler (ed.), Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, Volume XXIII (2007).   Leiden:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. x, 234.  ISBN 9789004166868.  $158.00.  

Reviewed by Alain G. Cogan, University of Toronto (
Word count: 2386 words

Of the eight papers in this volume, the 23rd volume of the series, six studies focus on Plato and two on the concept of preconceptions in Epicureanism and Stoicism. All but one of papers were presented during the 2006-7 academic year. Alisdair MacIntyre's paper on Plato's Republic was delivered the preceding year, but remained unpublished at the request of the author. It is also the only one that appears without a commentary. The volume offers an appealing variety of interpretative and philosophical approaches to ancient philosophy. It is unlikely that anyone in ancient philosophy will not profit from at least some of the essays and commentaries here. The article by Pierre-Marie Morel on Epicurean preconception is perhaps the most original and thought provoking. Since each article includes a commentary, I shall limit myself to the presentation of the salient features of the articles and their commentaries.

"Misology and Truth" Raphael Woolf

In the first colloquium, Raphael Woolf examines Socrates' discussion of misology (the hatred of arguments) in the Phaedo (89d-90d). Woolf contrasts Socrates' statements that the mark of a philosopher is to care above all for the truth and that misology threatens to deprive us of truth and knowledge with his seeming acceptance and defense of certain hypotheses not out of love for truth but because they present attractive pictures of the way things are. Woolf suggests that there are at least two ways in which the dialogue proposes that truth may be valued: for its practical utility, and because its content expresses a state of affairs that we value (1). Socrates, he argues, does not seem to pursue truth in a purely disinterested way (that is not out of love for truth for its own sake) but defends the thesis of the soul's immortality because of the value he places on the state of affairs that would obtain if the thesis were true (91a-c). Though he admits that this may infect the soundness of the argument, Woolf is skeptical that philosophers can care about truths whose content they do not care about. A purely objective search for truth, he concludes, is not only undesirable, but contrary to the way human beings actually behave.

In his commentary, James Wood takes issue with Woolf's assertion that Socrates values the content of his claims about immortality and the Forms above truth itself. Wood argues that Socrates does not always believe the claims he advances and maintains specific hypotheses "as if" they were true, but always assumes the primacy of the "inherent," as opposed to the "ideological" or "practical," value of truth.

"Method and Evidence: On Epicurean Preconception" Pierre-Marie Morel

In the second colloquium, Pierre-Marie Morel addresses the notoriously difficult concept of prolêpsis (preconception) in Epicurean epistemology. Morel's careful analysis shows that preconception must not only be considered as a representation and as a movement of thought (related to its psychological status), but also understood for its methodological function. Among its methodological functions, argues Morel, is as a criterion (prolêpseis are self-evident) that can confirm the validity of our opinions concerning a given past experience. Prolêpseis therefore serve to support the method of evaluating opinions that consist in comparing opinions with the self-evident truth (38). Each of the several functions that prolêpsis has consists in making some particular use of the self-evidence that is specific to it. Morel distinguishes five functions of preconceptions: (1) preconception as recollection: the ' natural' use of preconception as a recollection or retention of previous experiences; (2) linguistic function of preconception: the ' conventional' use of linguistic self-evidence, the self evidence of the connection between the thing and the preconceptions; (3) preconception as an indemonstrable principle: the first principle of discovery or beginning, which avoids a regressus ad infintitum; (4) the regulatory function of preconception: preconception as a principle concerning variation in sensory experiences; (5) preconception as a mean of confirmation: preconception as a criterion a witnessing or attestation of our opinions and inferences, on the basis of sensory experience (45). Preconceptions, he concludes, link states of knowledge together but also correlate thought with direct experience.

David Konstan's commentary takes Morel's analysis as a starting point and seeks to restore a certain unity to the idea of prolêpsis, given the multiple functions that Morel highlights. Konstan engages with Morel's arguments by questioning what the status of prolêpsis can be, given that it finds itself amid sensations and pathê (pleasure and pain) as criteria of truth (cf. Diog. Laert. X. 31).

"Rhetoric, Refutation, and What Socrates Believes in Plato's Gorgias" Henry Teloh

In the third colloquium, Teloh discusses Socrates' use of rhetoric in the Gorgias. He seeks to show that Socrates' use of rhetoric is part of his philosophical and educational mission to persuade his interlocutors to care for their souls. Against those who claim that Socrates does not have a method or craft, Teloh argues that Socrates is self-conscious about his use of rhetoric and considers it to be a real art (technê), which finds its purpose by instilling beliefs through methods such as exhortation, harangue, praise, and stories.

In his commentary, David Roochnik's main criticism centers on Teloh's failure to consider that there is more than one line of thought in the Gorgias. Roochnik doubts that Socrates practices the art of rhetoric since he fails in his attempts to persuade any of his interlocutors. The two other criticisms regard the epistemic side of Socrates' claims, namely that he gives no logos of his art, without which it could not be called a technê (465a).

"Plato's Question of Truth (Versus Heidegger's Doctrine)" Francisco J. Gonzalez

The fourth colloquium addresses Heidegger's interpretation of Plato's doctrine of truth. In his Plato's Doctrine of Truth (1942), Heidegger argues the well-known thesis that truth underwent a momentous transformation in Plato, from unconcealment to correctness. In his article Gonzalez attempts to show that Heidegger's interpretations of the Republic 's Cave Analogy in his 1931 course and the interpretation of the Myth of Er in his Parmenides course of 1942, undermine the thesis found in Plato's Doctrine of Truth. What's more, Gonzalez argues that the earlier interpretations offer fertile approaches to the question of truth in Plato. Basing himself on these two earlier interpretations, Gonzalez concludes that Heidegger's later theses, that truth was transformed from unconcealment to correctness and that the Greeks always experienced truth only as correctness, are untenable.

Gary Gurtler's commentary does not address Gonzalez's arguments directly, but offers, rather, an analytic interpretation (Yuri Balashov's) of the divided line. Though Gurtler states that his purpose "is to show that the issue that Heidegger and Gonzalez are addressing is also being raised in other contexts" (113 note 2), one feels that a more direct commentary of Gonzalez's thesis would have served better.

"Plato's Anti-Hedonism" Matthew Evans

In colloquium five, Matthew Evans provides an excellent paper which highlight the philosophical value of Plato's Philebus, which he understands to be a challenge not only to the expressed target of the dialogues arguments, Eudoxan hedonism, but to what he refers to as the modern liberal position (that an agent has a non-derivative reason to perform a certain action if and because that agent's performing that action will be pleasing to that agent (122)). Evans's aim is to show that the often overlooked argument of Philebus 53c4-54d3, which he refers to as "the Aiming Argument," together with a supplementary argument running from 54d4-55a11, is meant to show that no pleasure is ever worth pursuing as an end in itself. Evans contends that Plato understands that pleasures are "for the sake of" (heneka) things other than themselves in two distinct but related ways: pleasures are processes through which animals are restored to their optimal equilibrium states (31b-36c) and pleasures are, like beliefs, attitudes with objective conditions of correctness (36c-41a). Through an interpretation of these, Evans concludes that Plato provides strong objections to the commonly held view that one's pleasures can justify one's actions (125).

Verity Harte's commentary addresses Evans's view that the aiming argument has as its target the view identified as liberalism and that it constitutes a strong argument against this view. Harte questions whether Evans is right to combine the claim that every pleasure is chosen for the sake of something else and the claim that no pleasure is pursued as an end in itself. Harte shows, on the authority of Aristotle (EN I.7, 1097b3-4), that the first claim does not make necessary the second, given that it is possible for something to be chosen both for its own sake and pursued for the sake of something else. So if liberalism does leave open the possibility of something being pursued both for itself and for the sake of something else, then Evans's Aiming Argument does not do the work that he hopes against the modern liberal position.

"The Good is Benefit: On the Stoic Definition of the Good" Katja Maria Vogt

In the sixth colloquium, Katja Maria Vogt explores how the seemingly implausible Stoic thesis that "only virtue is good" is in agreement with preconceptions (those notions that we acquire early in life as part of the natural development of reason). The agreement implies that preconceptions accord with what we have in some way thought all along by the mere fact of having reason, since preconceptions are a criterion of truth. Vogt seeks to show that the Stoic theory of the good aims to meet the criterion of being in agreement with the preconception of the good, and that the content of this preconception is captured in the definition of the good as benefit. The concept 'grows out of' the preconception, which Vogt refers to as a process of "Refinement."

Stephen Menn's commentary challenges Vogt's claim that we acquire the scientific concept of the good by "Refinement." He argues that it is difficult for us to form or refine a concept of the good, since none of the things the unwise or fools are ordinarily familiar with is good. The ideal natural development toward a concept of the good looks more like "Novelty," since we cannot acquire the conception of the good by analogy from things according to nature, such as health, as these things are not strictly good.

"On Names and Concepts: Mythical and Logical Thinking in Plato's Symposium" Günter Figal

In colloquium seven, Figal explores the relation between myth and logos, in their hermeneutical relation as text and interpretation. He makes clear that myth can never be reduced to logos and that the difference between these forms of speech must be maintained. Nevertheless, there must be some common ground that allows for relations in which a transition from myth to logos is possible. For Figal, the complex relation between myth and logos is articulated paradigmatically in Plato's dialogues. To show this Figal's focus is a passage of Plato's Symposium (199d) where Socrates doubles the word eros, which Figal contends is done to indicate both its mythical and logical senses. Though myths for Plato must be rational, they must nevertheless be different from logoi. He concludes that Eros is characterized in the text as the mediation of the beautiful, which itself is not accessible in conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking interprets the subject of investigation by articulating logical thinking about the subject. But in interpreting myth philosophically, the rationality inherent in the myth is made explicit. Logos cannot however replace myth, for this would amount to an interpretation replacing its correlate. Myths, concludes Figal, can only be interpreted.

Dennis Schmidt commentary questions Figal's interpretation of myth. He maintains that Figal's interpretation belongs to the same movement that describes the movement out of myth. This movement is a retreat, not simply an overcoming. He is concerned that Figal might underestimate the force and consequences of this retreat from myth to logos: he fears that in this process something is lost that cannot be recovered.

"Yet Another Way to Read the Republic" Alasdair MacIntyre

In the final colloquium, Alasdair MacIntyre contends that Plato's primary concern in the Republic is to present an aporia and not doctrines about the Forms or anything else. Against such doctrinal views MacIntyre suggests that: 1) Plato's views and arguments are not to be identified with those put into the mouth of Socrates; 2) Plato was well aware of at least some of the incoherences and confusions in the views and arguments in the dialogue; 3) his presentation of the views and arguments is an invitation to his readers to join him in thinking through the aporia with which he is engaged. MacIntyre maintains that the Republic is as strikingly accessible text, but many commentators assume that Plato unintentionally left the Republic unfinished and unclear and that it is now up to them to clarify and complete it. MacIntyre challenges these assumptions and seeks to show that what we confront is not a failure by Plato, but rather a case of Plato raising aporia to his readers: inviting them to think through the issues, to do philosophy themselves. According to MacIntyre, Plato invites us to call into question the very meaning of the Divided Line. What the line seems to demonstrate, argues MacIntyre, is that things cannot be as the line says they are. Through his treatments of the Line, the Sun, and the Cave, Plato puts into question our ability to understand what he is saying. Those who complain of flaws and defects in Plato's statement of Socrates' arguments are missing the point. What MacIntyre is suggesting about Plato's educational proposal in Book 7, as in the similes of the Line, the Sun, and the Cave, is to bring out the apparent impossibility, if the theory of forms is true, of coming to learn that it is true through a series of arguments. We are therefore left in the Republic with a massive aporia: how does one become aware of the Forms. MacIntyre makes the case that one answer comes in Book 10, which is integral to Plato's enterprise. Here Plato presents a philosophical defense of poetry, showing that poetic representations, including myths, can lead us towards the truth. We, like Socrates' interlocutors, remain unable to progress beyond images. We cannot therefore dispense with the Line, the Cave, and the Sun, or the Myth of Er. But the aporia of how we progress from our present beliefs to those beyond purposefully remains at the end of the Republic.

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