Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.07.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.07.31

Hans Krämer, Gesammelte Aufsätze zu Platon. Herausgegeben von Dagmar Mirbach. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd 321.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2014.  Pp. xiii, 592.  ISBN 9783110267181.  €149.95.  

Reviewed by Hans-Christian Günther, University of Freiburg (

Table of Contents

Hans Krämer died on 24 April of this year. With him the scholarly community lost a grand old man of ancient philosophy, one of the finest scholar in the field of this and the last centuries. I shall not convert this review into an obituary, but in view of this coincidence, a review of the "Kleine Schriften" of a scholar of Krämer's standing cannot but be a tribute, however small, to work that has accompanied me since the beginning of my studies and that I have admired more and more, the deeper my acquaintance with it has become. Hans Krämer was a unique blend of almost superhuman learning, enormously broad knowledge of both primary texts and scholarship, philological acumen and genuine philosophical thought. His lifelong devotion as a scholar centred on Plato and Platonism and he succeeded in presenting his interpretation of Plato's thought in such an eminently rigorous and philosophically deep and coherent way that he might easily be taken for a convinced Platonist and metaphysician. It deserves more than the footnote in the introduction to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Hans Krämer was an original philosopher in his own right: his original works on ethics (Integrative Ethik, Frankfurt 1995) and hermeneutics (Kritik der Hermeneutik, Munich 2007) rank him among the few truly important thinkers of the present. Paradoxically, however, his unique ability to philosophically penetrate Plato's thought obscured the fact that his research on Plato was aimed at historical and philological correctness, not at promoting Platonic philosophy, let alone an outdated metaphysical system as a philosophy for our times. That would be nothing but utterly wasted effort: it suffices, I think to refer the reader here most emphatically to what Krämer says on p. XII n. 1 of this book, as it clearly shows that one only need reflect for a moment on one’s methodological principles to see what the quarrel between the supporters and enemies of the esoteric Plato is about. The statement contains in nuce all that is needed to refute the critics of the esoteric Plato, as well as its false prophets.

When Konrad Gaiser and Hans Krämer initiated the so-called "Tübingen School" of Platonic studies, they remained for a long time almost untouchable, not only in the Anglophone but even in the German-speaking world. There can be no better indicator of the sterility of German academic life after WWII than that Hans Krämer's general book on Plato was first published exclusively in Italian (1982); it was later translated into English (1990); but, as Krämer states in his preface (XIII), it will only now be published at long last in German, in the same series as these papers. So the scholarly world should be grateful to the editors of the "Beiträge zur Altertumskunde" for this splendid collection, which is particularly important because it contains several unpublished but nevertheless polished lectures, and must eagerly await the Plato book in its original language. Moreover, everyone who knew Hans Krämer will feel great satisfaction that at least his papers on Plato were published in his lifetime.

A survey of the table of contents alone shows the relevance and breadth of Krämer's work on Plato's philosophy (see url above). It is impossible even to go briefly through this extremely rich material; so I choose for discussion chapters with the broadest application, although the more specialized ones show best Krämer’s acumen in penetrating a text with an inimitable eye for the philosophically relevant.

The volume begins with three contributions that treat problems of basic importance for Plato’s philosophy and the relevance of the approach of the Tübingen school. I regard the first contribution, "Die platonische Akademie und das Problem einer systematischen Interpretation der Philosophie Platons," as one of the highlights of the volume. In just 30 pages, Krämer combines with exemplary clarity and brevity various tasks. (1) He traces the merits and deficits of older and contemporary approaches to Plato's philosophy and writings; he places them into the context of their historic presuppositions and a priori principles, and then justifies his own approach to Plato's esoteric philosophy. This alone is enough to show that other approaches lack a sound grasp of the historical background of Plato's philosophy and simply ignore the whole ancient Platonic tradition in favour of modern prejudice. (2) He then sets the bipartite character of Plato's philosophic output (oral vs. written) in the context of teaching in the Academy and demonstrates beyond doubt how Plato's systematic oral philosophy relates to his writings and their dialogic nature, and by the way solves convincingly controversial problems such as the date and nature of Plato's lecture "About the Good." (3) He describes with extraordinary precision, in comparison, the systematic philosophy that can be reconstructed from the testimony about Plato's oral teaching, and he does so with constant reference to the dialogues and to what we know about the philosophy of Plato's direct pupils. (4) (This I regard as a particularly important part:) he explains (Sections IV and V) Plato's concept of philosophy as a science: the basic role of the knowledge of principles and how different levels of knowledge as understood by Plato relate to each other, in particular what the highest level, "sophia", implies; what the approximation of human knowledge means for Plato; and what the function of the many aporetic dialogues is. Here he already implicitly refutes the arguments of the most serious adversary of the oral Plato, Wolfgang Wieland (cf. also Krämer’s separate article). I would recommend everyone approaching Plato’s philosophy to consult this brief, crystal-clear article as being the best introduction to Platonic philosophy.

I skip the long but extremely dense second and fourth contributions, despite their wide-ranging importance, and focus rather on the even more important one, "ΕΠΕΚΕΙΝΑ ΤΗΣ ΟΥΣΙΑΣ." Plato’s description of the highest principle of all that is, all being, the Good, as "beyond being" in the sense of "higher than being in dignity and power," after the sun parable and in analogy with the sun itself as the cause of all being, is one of Plato’s most influential and most important claims. One may even see it in a way as the central, most eminently important statement of his written philosophy. That Plato obviously assumes that there is a cause of being (though not being in the sense of the being, i.e. that which is) sets his philosophy and its subsequent tradition apart from the Aristotelian one. This aspect of his thought has a history that reaches from Neoplatonism via its difficult reception in the Middle Ages to German idealism (Schelling) and Heidegger (see also below). But what precisely does Plato’s statement mean? How is it to be understood in the context of previous and contemporary philosophical thought? Krämer starts with a very brief examination of prior attempts to interpret Plato’s statement, which he convincingly dismisses as unsatisfactory or not explaining the systematic place of the statement in the context of the history of ancient thought. He convincingly argues that this statement – made in the Politeia about the agathon – can only be properly understood in the context of the reception of Eleatic thought, namely Zeno’s refutation of the existence of plurality. In the context of his theory of ideas, Plato rehabilitates plurality as being in a qualified sense. Krämer shows how Plato thus shifts Zeno’s contraposition of hen / on vs. polla / ouk onta to a contraposition hen vs. polla / onta. Krämer thus places Plato’s statement firmly in its historic context. He underpins this further by referring to Speusippus’ dualistic theory as derived from this and, above all, places it firmly in its historical context in the history of thought.

The second section of the collection contains mainly contributions important for understanding of the place of Aristotle’s thought as seen from its roots in the Platonic Academy and especially Plato’s oral teaching. Here again, as with the paper discussed above, Krämer firmly places the basic problems that Aristotle addresses in his philosophy in the frame of the questions discussed in the Academy by Plato`s immediate successor on the basis of his oral philosophy, i.e. the theory of principles. Krämer here outlines the foundations on which the fundamental contributions of Enrico Berti are built. Berti showed that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is his theory of principles, of which ontology is just a part. Especially in "Das Verhältnis vom Platon und Aristoteles in neuer Sicht," Krämer shows how Aristotle developed out of Plato’s oral teachings his new concepts of the syllogism; the ontological priority of the individual substance in the treatise Categories; the "pròs-hén-relation"; and his view on eidos as the key principle of being. Of course, Aristotle offers just one possible solution – I may add, a very convincing and coherent solution, but not the only possible one! – to genuine Platonic problems. Thus, Krämer again places an important and lasting contribution to European thought in its proper historic context and shows where Aristotle relies on Academic thought and where his original contribution lies.

In the third section Krämer sketches in a short, dense contribution ("Das neue Platonbild") the consequences of recuperating Plato’s unwritten teachings and their application to the study of the dialogues for the history of European thought. I want to highlight Krämer’s description of Plato’s thought as "offene Systematik." This highly poignant description of Plato's thought – apart from excluding from his philosophy every element of totalitarianism, of which Plato has often been accused by a misguided approach to his thought – opens up Platonic theory to being disaggregated into a coherent sum of various concepts that, even in isolation, can be identified as fruitful elements of various philosophies that might well start from quite different foundations. I limit myself to the remark that Krämer rightly points out that even the emphasis of Heidegger, Adorno, and French phenomenology on variety, non-identity, and becoming reflects an element of genuine Platonic teaching, with its two dialectic principles. In fact, to Krämer's remarks on Heidegger, I would fairly and squarely add that Heidegger’s reception of Plato’s is wholly inadequate in view of the new "Platonbild." Had Heidegger known it, his whole approach to Plato would have been different. It remains a major task of research to combine in a fruitful way Heidegger’s "Seinsdenken" with the genuine, not the distorted Plato he was confronted with.

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