Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.10

Ulrike Bruchmüller​ (ed.), Platons Hermeneutik und Prinzipiendenken im Licht der Dialoge und der antiken Tradition: Festschrift für Thomas Alexander Szlezák zum 70. Gebburtstag. Spudasmata, Bd 148​.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms Verlag, 2012.  Pp. 429.  ISBN 9783487148946.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Hans-Christian Günther​, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg​ (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

To compile a useful and coherent miscellany in honor of Thomas Alexander Szlezák is not a particularly difficult task. The honorand is not only one of the few grand old men of classics left today, above all he is one of the leading Plato scholars of the century, so that it is inevitable that a good part of the leading Platonists of the day are among his friends and pupils and keen to pay tribute to Szlezák’s unique achievements. Thus an editor will certainly not even be tempted to produce one of the trite bric-à-brac miscellanies whose only common denominator is the dedicatee, but a coherent volume of high scholarly standards on Platonic questions. Still, the present volume does much more than this: it is not only exceedingly clearly structured and balanced, it is likely to advance our understanding of Plato’s thought substantially through several contributions which either sum up older theories in a particularly concise and helpful manner, or dare to go forward in breaking new ground, or provide ample food for thought away from the well-trodden path. Thus the young scholar who edited this volume, Ulrike Bruchmüller, deserves the warmest thanks of the scholarly community.

It is easy to get an overview of the content and structure of the whole volume from Bruchmüller’s introduction (pp. 11-26), where the editor gives a most informative summary of each contribution. This introduction relieves the reviewer from the task of summarizing every contribution and allows him to just present a table of contents. The volume is divided as follows. Bruchmüller’s introduction is followed by two articles which are dedicated to highlighting Szlezák’s ground-breaking contribution to Platonic studies:

Hans Krämer: Die Arbeiten von Thomas Szlezàk vor dem derzeitigen Stand der Forschung, 27-40
Marie-Dominique Richard: Un débat toujours d’actualité dans le domaine de l’histoire de la philosophie: le débat autour de l’enseignement oral de Platon, 41-80

1. Hermeneutik in den Platonischen Dialogen
Giovanni Reale: Il Fedro di Platone come manifesto dell’antica ermeneutica, 83-98
Michael Erler: “Vieles weiß der Fuchs, aber eine große Sache der Igel”: Zum Verhältnis von philosophischer Einheit und literarischer Poikilia bei Platon, 99-120
Maurizio Migliori: Il Filebo ed il Timeo come esempio del progetto “educativo” di Platone, scrittore di filosofia, 121-182

2. Fortführung der platonischen Prinzipienlehre in der griechischen Antike
John Dillon: Reconstructing the Philosophy of Speusippus: a Hermeneutical Challenge, 185-202
Enrico Berti: La genesi della dottrina aristotelica dei principi, 203-222
Jens Halfwassen: Plotins Interpretation der Prinzipientheorie Platons, 223-244

3. Rekonstruktionsansätze zu Platons Prinzipiendenken
a) Platons ungeschriebene Lehre im Ausgang von den Testimonien
Marian Wesoly: Plato’s “Analytic System of Principles” in Aristotle’s Critical Account, 247-276
Bruno Centrone: Maristotele, Metafisica 1036 b13-17: Platone e / o Seoncrate? 277-290
Dmitri Nikulin: Indivisible Lines and Plato’s Mathematical Ontology, 291-326
b) Dialektische Vorüberlegungen zur Schau der Prinzipien
Raúl Gutiérrez: Die Stufen der Selbsterkenntnis in Platons Politeia, 329-344
Anton Koch: Prädikate von und Relationen zwischen Ideen in Platons Parmenides und Sophistes, 345-362
Salvatore Lavecchia: Agathologie und Henologie? Platons Prinzipienphilosophie jenseits von Monismus und Dualismus, 363-382

At the end we find an “Ausblick” by the editor: “Platons Hermeneutik und Prinzipiendenken als Paradigma für eine moderne Philosophie in Verantwortung,” a bibliography of Szlezák’s writings, and an index locorum. Several photos from the conference in Szlezák’s honor conclude the volume of over 400 pages.

This table of contents should make it abundantly clear that in view of the enormous range of this volume a reviewer can only focus on a few contributions that he deems to be particularly significant. However, I feel bound to begin with a brief remark on the introductory essays of Krämer and Richard. Krämer’s survey of Szlezák’s achievement as a Platonic scholar (which is, as Krämer points out himself, only a part of Szlezàk’s wide ranging scholarly achievement) is by no means only a kind tribute to the dedicatee of the volume, it is also a substantial and necessary contribution in itself, because Krämer states in a concise, yet well informed essay that Szlezák with his ground-breaking work Platon und die Schriftlichkeit der Philosophie has, by employing strict philological standards, indeed put in place the last stone of the theory of the so-called “Tübingen school” about the relevance of Plato’s unwritten doctrine. The “scandal” of this approach was precisely that it showed that the fragments of Plato’s oral teaching, far from being irrelevant information about matters not related to our appreciation of the dialogues, form the backbone of our understanding of the dialogues themselves; Szlezák with his book has shown that the dialogues refer to Plato’s oral philosophy. With his book the attacks on the Tübingen school are nothing but the “Rückzugsgefechte” of a lost cause. They start from the absurd assumption that if we do not like metaphysics, Plato cannot have been a metaphysical philosopher. But such an approach inevitably lacks a sound philological basis, a basis which Szlezàk supplied for the work of the Tübingen school. The fact that there are still those who fairly and squarely contest demonstrable facts can only be understood against the background of the bitter battles fought when Krämer’s and Gaiser’s work appeared: to be an adherent of the Tübingen school in the German and Anglo-Saxon scholarly community meant to be treated as an untouchable (it is a shame for German scholarship that Krämer’s fundamental book on Plato was for a long time only available in Giovanni Reale’s Italian translation, whose energetic support for the Tübingen school cannot be appreciated highly enough), and indeed it is a monument to the personal stamina of Thomas Alexander Szlezák that he had the courage to stand for his scholarly convictions against all the disadvantages that a young scholar had to endure if he would ally himself with the “wrong” side.

Beside Krämer, Richard’s essay does a similar job by concentrating on the situation of Platonic scholarship in France in particular. As a little aside, I cannot but add here, that if Krämer rightly stresses that you need not to be a believer in the value of metaphysics today (I certainly am not nor is Krämer, a noted original philosopher himself), the “Ausblick” of the editor at the end of the volume is counterproductive. Apart from rather too simplistic and deficient statements about the basics of Greek and European philosophy, it ends on p. 396 with a rather adventurous comparison of the external circumstances of Plato’s philosophy and our current situation, which I find hard to take seriously. This is, of course, not to say that Plato’s philosophy has no relevance for us today – not at all! However, I must add this remark because reasoning like Bruchmüller’s is characteristic of a mainstream tendency of western philosophy until the present day, which simply ignores the fact that in the present global situation a nostalgic concentration on Europe’s roots is sadly inadequate. If the European tradition of thought has still to make a substantial contribution to the problems of the day it can only do so in a dialogue with the traditions of thought of other cultures.

As I pointed out above, I must focus on a small number of contributions and in the space allotted to me I cannot even do justice to these few. From the interpretations of Platonic dialogues in Part 1 I would like to single out the contribution of Maurizio Migliori as the one which offers most in terms of new insights into this already over-researched field. It is the main merit of his contribution that the author points to the inner programmatic connection of Plato’s late dialogues, an inner connection to be understood only against the background of Plato’s systematic philosophy as exposed in his oral teaching. Migliori’s contribution offers a completely convincing interpretation of the Philebus with its surprising “open” end, recalling almost the aporetic dialogues of Plato’s early philosophy, but which can, as Migliori shows, be properly understood if Plato’s overarching “program” is taken into account.

I want, however, to concentrate on four particularly weighty contributions on Plato’s “Prinzipienlehre” and its reception, i.e. the contributions of Berti, Halfwassen, Koch and Lavecchia. They are mutually complementary and contribute, each from a different angle, very much to our understanding of the fundamental questions of Plato’s metaphysics and its reception. In fact read together they almost make up a kind of extremely enlightening monograph on Platonic “Prinzipienlehre”.

Enrico Berti firmly roots Aristotle’s philosophy in the tradition of the Platonic Academy and shows at the same time the latter’s originality: Aristotle starts from the problems posed by Plato’s “Prinzipienlehre” and imposes on them his own solution. Thus Berti rightly stresses that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is not an ontology, even less a theology, but a “Prinzipienlehre”: ontology and theology are an eminent part of it, but precisely Aristotle’s “ontotheology”, as I still would call it with Heidegger, can only be properly understood in the frame of Aristotle’s solution of the problems posed in Plato’s mature thought. Berti exposes with inimitable clarity the basis of Aristotle’s radical and, in itself, extremely coherent and convincing answer to Platonic questions: Aristotle starts from privileging what one may call the principle of “substantiality” as the key quality which constitutes “reality”. On this basis both Aristotle’s metaphysics (in the modern sense) and his logic can be properly understood – and, I may add, also the legitimate use Thomas Aquinas made of it in his concept of the Christian God.

Halfwassen’s and Koch’s (as in fact also Dillon’s) contributions are strictly complementary to Berti’s. If Dillon used Plato’s “Prinzipienlehre” to solve some of the riddles of Plato’s most original and important direct pupil (apart from Aristotle), Speusippus (a philosopher of much greater stature than is commonly acknowledged), Halfwassen dedicates himself to the question of how Plotinus tried to solve the intricate problem of the seeming dualism inherent in Plato’s “Prinzipienlehre” by exploring the relationship between the two terms for the highest principle: hen and agathon. It may be a matter of dissent how much Plotinus knew about Plato’s oral teaching from an unbroken line of tradition; however, I think this is a problem of secondary importance. However this may be, Plotinus’ thought is a genuine continuation of Plato’s metaphysics, whether by use of hard evidence for what Plato actually said or by a genuine and particularly profound understanding of Plato’s thought. Plotinus answers the basic problems of Plato’s “Prinzipienlehre” in line with Plato’s own “solution”, because probably nobody has ever come closer to Plato in both spirit and stature than him. Thus, if I may jump here directly to the final contribution, by Lavecchia, I think that Plotinus privileging the hen as the all-exceeding principle beyond any dualism, in tune with the documentary evidence, is genuinely Platonic. However, for me the two contributions of Koch and Lavecchia are the most exciting and stimulating ones of the volume, as they both go most evidently beyond a purely ‘historical’ interpretation of Plato’s philosophy. If Lavecchia tries to establish the agathon as the all-embracing principle beyond any dualism, as the pure donation of itself, he identifies an important line of thought, which dominates a good part of the reception and, as I would contend, genuine continuation of Plato’s though in the Platonic tradition, in particular in Scotus Eriugena and Schelling, a continuation which, systematically, is as genuine a continuation of Plato’s thought as the strictly Plotinian one.

I find Koch’s new interpretation of the notoriously difficult second part of Plato’s Parmenides perhaps even more exciting as an exposition of Plato’s solution to the problems of the koinōnia of the ideas and their relationship to “reality”. In my view he shows convincingly how the relationship between ideas can be thought of in a meaningful way by applying Hegel’s categories “Bestimmungen” and “Beschaffenheiten”, and thus sidestepping the problems of the principle of contradiction. He thus shows that, convincing and consistent though the Aristotelian solution as expounded by Berti is, if taken by itself, there is an alternative approach to the problems posed by Plato’s doctrine of ideas which elevates the dispute between Platonic and Aristotelian thought to a higher level.

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