Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.59

Alan Kim, Brill's Companion to German Platonism. Brill's companions to philosophy. Ancient philosophy, volume 3.   Leiden:  Brill, 2019.  Pp. xi, 388.  ISBN 9789004250673.  €180,00.  

Reviewed by William H. F. Altman (

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This is a remarkably cohesive collection, and when its editor says at the start that since he could always gain clarity from his contributors’ “patient ‘defenses’” of what they had written—presumably in response to his “challenging comments” (cf. 349 n. 1)— and thus that “the relationship between editor and writer, I have found, may elude Plato’s critique [sc. of writing in Phaedrus; see 187 n. 106],” we should probably take him literally when he cites Theaetetus 143a4-5 in Greek: “so that almost the whole discourse has been written by me.” Alan Kim has already distinguished himself with Plato in Germany: Kant—Natorp—Heidegger (Sankt Augustin: Academia, 2010), an illuminating study of, in particular, the Marburg School’s reading of Plato (with “the Marburg School,” cf. 328 and 217 on the alleged topographical anomaly of “the Tübingen School”) and if this collection’s aim had been only to show the historical roots of its distinctive way of reading the dialogues and not of “German Platonism” generally, its cohesion would be welcome. Unfortunately, the collection aims to be broader than that, and as a direct result, its cohesion ends up becoming its principal weakness, not its strength.

Central to Kim’s editorial conception are three divisions, the first and most important of which is subdivided in two. Ten of the collection’s fourteen essays concern “the philosophical interpretation of Plato,” organized around the distinction between “transcendent” and “transcendental” interpretations (2-3). The former views the Forms as “substances that really exist in a separate, higher, transcendent ‘realm,’” while the latter—which the thinkers considered in six of this division’s essays are espousing—holds, with Marburg, that “the Forms are a priori concepts akin to categorical functions, the transcendental conditions of possible experience.” As if the 6-4 ratio were not revealing enough, two of the “proponents” of the “transcendent” view are Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom famously attacked Plato for holding it. But the collection’s second division shows that Kim’s is no simple brief for Marburg Neo-Kantianism (along with its historical antecedents), for it is the Tübingen School that emerges as the culmination of this division’s attempt “to exhibit ways in which reflection on the activity of interpretation, on the one hand, and the substantive interpretation of Plato’s dialogues, on the other hand, mutually determine each other; this is mainly pursued in the chapters on Schleiermacher, the Tübingen School, and Gadamer” (1). Since one of the chapters on Schleiermacher is Kim’s translation of an essay by Thomas A. Szlezák, now the living lion of Tübingen, the unwritten writing was probably already on the wall when Kim claimed that “Plato criticized writing” in his Acknowledgements; in any case, the only thing that prevents the collection from being completely cohesive is an explicit claim that “the Great and the Small” and “the One” are, if not fully “transcendental” in the operative sense, then at least are not transcendent (more on this at the end).

Finally, the third division is confined to a single footnote in the Introduction, qualifying the editor’s claim that “this volume provides an overview of how the German tradition varies the basic theme of soul knowing Forms.” The note (at 2 n. 3) is to the phrase “provides an overview” and reads: “Unfortunately, one that is not exhaustive. Many other scholars, like Tennemann and Tiedemann, Trendelenburg, Hermann, Fischer, Zeller, and Wilamowitz . . . all deserve further exploration.” What I am calling “the third division” is what is hereby excluded. What makes this exclusion disingenuous as well as unfortunate is that Tiedemann, Tennemann (165-84), Trendelenburg (334-5), and Hermann (187 and 335 n. 19) will be absorbed into the book’s Tübingen-friendly cohesion, while the giants of Germany’s post-Schleiermacher reception of Plato, none of whom would have embraced Natorp’s famously tendentious “transcendental” reading (230; cf. 229 on Cohen), really are excluded. Ast, Socher, Gomperz, Pohlenz, and von Arnim are not even mentioned in this exclusionary footnote, while Zeller, Usener, Wilamowitz, Friedländer, and Jaeger are rarely mentioned outside of it. Were it not for the collection’s programmatic cohesion, this would be understandable given the vast topic under consideration, but here the exclusion is unfortunate.

And all the more unfortunate because the scholarly quality of the individual chapters in the collection is remarkably high, and three of them are magisterial. Of the three chapters translated by Kim, those by Manfred Baum (“Kant and Plato: An Introduction”) and Karl-Heinz Lembeck (“Plato-Reception in the Marburg School”) constitute the collection’s highpoint. Already illuminating on Hermann Cohen, Lembeck reaches an even higher level in discussing the later phase of Paul Natorp’s encounter with Plato and, especially at the nodal point where the collection’s first two divisions might be said to converge (243-45), he sheds light not only on how the transcendental approach of Marburg might have prepared the way for Tübingen—as opposed to the School’s own historical self-fashioning (see 335, especially on Robin and Stenzel)—but also offers a refreshingly candid critique of the transcendental approach (244): “it misconstrues the ontological and metaphysical sense of the highest form in one-sided favor of its epistemological sense.” And especially in the light of the common claim that Kant scarcely knew Plato at first hand (cf. 218 n. 5), Manfred Baum’s essay, with its culminating proof that seminal passages in the first Kritik were inspired by Kant’s reading of Phaedrus (125-30), shows that this brilliant expositor of Hegel is equally sensitive to his no less famous predecessor.

Against so high a standard, it is difficult to decide how to treat the other contributions, but after remarking that all of them are interesting and will be of value to those interested in their titular topics, I will note only that Richard Bett’s “Nietzsche and Plato” is required reading for revisionists who try to find a Platonist in Nietzsche (or worse, a Nietzschean in Plato); that Bruce Rosenstock, the creator of “the revenant reading” of Plato’s Menexenus , remains as original as ever (although for referring to Socrates in Phaedo as “a body-hating Pythagorean mystagogue,” 89, he cannot be praised); that Claudia D’Amico’s work is once again distinguished by her amazing capacity to create the most impressive bibliographies in the business; and that it is regrettable—but only in the context of the collection as a whole, for both essays are valuable in their own right—that the temporal appendix (or the third division, if you prefer) of the second part of the Parmenides figures so prominently in two of the four chapters, those of Robert Wicks, on Schopenhauer, and Francisco J. Gonzalez, on Heidegger (309-315). As for André Laks’s essay on “Schleiermacher on Plato,” I will remark only that it needs to have been considerably more sympathetic to the literary elements of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato than it is to serve as anodyne to what follows it, and that one of its several merits is the inclusion of Gunter Scholtz’s “Schleiermacher und die Platonische Ideenlehre” in its bibliography (164). Kim would have done better to invite this unparalleled authority on Schleiermacher to contribute a chapter in place of Szlezák’s tendentious contribution (see especially 179, 185, and 187 n. 106). Speaking as one who came late to Scholtz with “the vain repetitions” of Tübingen on Schleiermacher ringing in my ears as the unchallenged truth, his careful analysis of the Introduction to Sophist in particular (for its salutary influence on Laks, see 153-55, including 154 n. 40) was a revelation, and casts the school’s programmatic enmity to Schleiermacher in an entirely new light.

Having made the dubious decision to invite Szlezák to write about Schleiermacher—anybody who has read anything by the scholars of Tübingen already knows full well what he will say about both Phaedrus and Schleiermacher, for they say the same things about both ad nauseam —Kim needed to be very careful in deciding who should write the chapter about the Tübingen School. In truth there is no shortage of German Plato scholars—Michael Erler springs to mind at their head—who could have done so in an informed and even-handed way. Despite his own adherence to the School (341-2), there are clearly excellent and disinterested aspects of Vittorio Hösle’s essay on this topic. Among those that stand out are: a useful observation about “Plato’s Use of Fallacy” at 337 n. 29, the just appraisals of the unique importance of H. J. Krämer’s Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles (Heidelberg, 1959) (336-9), along with the equally unique but very different strengths of K. Gaiser (339-40), and especially his triadic typology of Socratic, Parmenidean, and Pythagorean influences on Plato as embodied in the characters Socrates, the Eleatic Stranger, and Timaeus (339-40). But another triad, borrowed from G. Reale, outweighs these excellences: the party-line division between Ancient Platonists, Schleiermacher’s Romanticism, and the Tübingen School (331-2; cf. Szlezák’s reference to “the temporary victory of the anti-esoteric Plato-picture” at 185). As indicated by Hösle’s best insight, one of the great contributions of German Platonism is the post-Schleiermacher attention to Plato’s use of characters, and a chapter on this development would not only have been very useful, but necessary. Unfortunately, it is its absence that becomes necessary in the light of an ongoing valorization of Tübingen. Hösle begins his last paragraph (345; emphasis mine): “These are the strongest arguments against the Tübingen School and their rebuttal.” (And worse is still to come, when “incapacity,” “mistrust,” “dislike,” and “lack” are used to show that “resistance against the Tübingen School is not exclusively rational.”) Here, the special pleading embodied in the collection as an integrated whole becomes obvious. As a result, its final essay—a splendid and path- breaking analysis of Gadamer’s tergiversations on Plato in historical context by François Renaud, which for originality and insight equals the contributions of Baum and Lembeck—although magisterial in itself, is turned by its position into an inadequate response to the apparently irrefutable claims of Tübingen.

What Kim has offered us is best understood in the context of Hösle’s party-line triad. By helping us to see the historical roots of the transcendental reading (this is the collection’s indisputable merit as a collection) while surrendering half of the much smaller space allotted to its transcendent alternative to two of its avowed enemies, he has suggested that it is Tübingen, despite its metaphysical trappings, that is the culmination and marks the triumph of the transcendental reading.1 In response to Szlezák, Hösle, and Kim, then, I will close by drawing attention to the most significant frame-breaking moment in the book, where the editor—in his otherwise excellent essay “Phenomenological Platonism: Husserl and Plato”—steps out of mere “reception” and tries to make the case that Husserl and Plato see things the same way (284-8). Of the two texts from Plato that Kim uses to make his “transcendental” case, the passage from the arithmetic lesson of Republic 7 is especially important in relation to the Prinzipienlehre and thus to Hösle’s alleged “rebuttal” of “the strongest arguments” against Tübingen. Much stronger than the claim that “τιμιώτερα at Phaedrus 278” refers to “the One and the Great and the Small” (338) is the fact that the words ἀχώριστά γε δύο, ἀλλ’ ἕν at Republic 524c1 do so much more plausibly, for what Kim (see 285 nn. 93 and 94) and Tübingen miss is that “the Great and the Small” is the dyadic indistinctiveness of the un-synthesized manifold of sense perception—and once having been made objective, the direct ancestor of Aristotle’s material principle (339 n. 35)—while “the One” is not a transcendent Form, but rather the humble monad of arithmetic, which, however useful it may be for cultivating in the student a transcendental awareness , is merely a springboard toward the transcendent Idea of the Good. ​


1.   In Hösle’s essay, note “quasi-transcendental” (342) and “renders the world intelligible” there and on 344. On the other hand, compare Szlezák’s rejection of “infinite progression” (also the comment on C. J. Rowe at 187 n. 196, and on “Italian scholarship” at 187 n. 107) with the last sentence of Hösle (345). ​

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