BMCR 1996.06.06

1996.6.6, Taylor, ed., Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy XIII

, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy.. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy ; v. 8. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 1 online resource (308 pages).. ISBN 9780198250005. $65.00.

This is the current issue of the annual collection which has become standard reading among specialists in ancient philosophy. Founded by Julia Annas and now edited by Christopher Taylor, the series has maintained a consistently high level of editorial good judgement and continues to attract important, scholarly, and well-argued discussions on most aspects of Greco-Roman philosophy, inevitably focussing principally on the fourth century B.C. (Regrettably, there is nothing on the Presocratics this year.) The present volume is no exception, and the reviewer must be content with a rapid indication of the contents of the collection, which consists of five separate articles, two trios each consisting of a critical discussion, a reply, and a rejoinder from the author, and an appreciative discussion by Christopher Shields of Gail Fine’s On Ideas: Aristotle’s Criticisms of Plato’s Theory of Forms (reviewed in BMCR [4-5-25] by L.P. Gerson).

The volume begins with a discussion between Scott Warren Calef and Mark McPherran on the relation of piety and justice in Plato’s Euthyphro. Calef opens (‘Piety and the Unity of Virtue in Euthyphro 11E-14C’) with a critique of McPherran’s 1985 article ‘Socratic Piety in the Euthyphro‘ ( Journal of the History of Philosophy 23, 283-209), arguing that one ought not to think that Socrates holds that piety is a mere part of justice. Instead, Calef proposes a reading of the dialogue which supports a strong Unity of Virtues thesis and urges a view of Socrates’ philosophical mission as an expression of practical piety, being the kind of care for families and cities which might plausibly be taken to be identical with justice. This is a fruitful suggestion, which connects the Euthyphro to other dialogues which might independently be thought relevant, Crito and Apology.

Calef’s case is not compelling, though his critique of McPherran is perhaps more telling than McPherran realizes in his response, a response weakened somewhat by his invocation of Xenophon’s un-Platonic conception of Socratic theology (p. 33 and n. 14); his brief remarks suggest a failure to distinguish between the issue of Xenophon’s reliability as a source for the historical Socrates and his usefulness as confirmation of the best reading of Plato. Calef’s rejoinder to McPherran is well argued, but the whole debate is mired in inconclusiveness, and the exchange tends to undermine confidence in constructivist readings of Euthyphro and other Socratic dialogues.

Hugh Benson’s essay ‘The Dissolution of the Problem of the Elenchus’ presents a more balanced and convincing picture of Socratic philosophical activity. Benson allows that the Socrates of early Platonic dialogues does have some positive moral doctrines and so eschews the picture of Socrates as a purely negative critic. But unlike many interpreters, most notably the late Gregory Vlastos, Benson does not think that the elenchus as practiced in the early dialogues is thought by Socrates to establish those doctrines. This has become a hotly debated issue, made more intriguing by the recollection that Vlastos himself once regarded the elenchus of the early dialogues as a purely negative tool (in his 1956 introduction to Martin Ostwald’s translation of the Protagoras).

In order to appreciate the debate one has to set aside some natural worries about the presuppositions which underlie it (e.g., that there is a coherent set of beliefs ascertainable for the early Platonic Socrates). But if one accepts the terms of debate (which owe much to Vlastos’ direct and indirect influence over the years), then the issue is clearly of the greatest importance. Benson advances a powerful argument for the view that Socrates does not think that his positive moral doctrines are supported by the standard elenchus. He argues that one ought to begin from Socrates’ self-description of the elenctic method in the Apology, and he uses those features to establish non-arbitrarily which dialogues should be taken to represent standard elenchus. Unsurprisingly, Euthyphro, Laches, and Charmides emerge as the paradigms. Lengthy analysis of the seventeen elenchi in those dialogues, Benson claims, yields no conclusive evidence that Socrates thinks that the elenchus can establish the truth or falsehood of a positive moral doctrine.

Benson goes on to lay bare the foundation of Vlastos’ belief in the positive power of the elenchus: his interpretation of the Gorgias. Benson demonstrates, what ought to have been obvious to any reader of Plato, that the Gorgias is not a typical Socratic dialogue and in particular that it is not paradigmatic for the elenctic dialogues. His analysis shows that, though the Gorgias is much more hospitable to the positive moral teaching, even there the positive views which Socrates professes should not be thought of as supported by the elenctic argumentation. Throughout Benson’s analysis is careful and his overall argument well structured and ought to force the ongoing debate to a higher level of sophistication. For now the burden of proof has been shifted back onto the shoulders of the ‘positive elenchus’ school of thought.

William Charlton tackles logic and metaphysics in the later Plato (‘Plato’s Later Platonism’) the central thrust of which is an analysis of predication and negation in the Sophist. This is territory into which non-philosophers seldom venture, and Charlton signals this by beginning and ending his discussion with allusion to Quine’s understanding of Platonism and by the liberal use of symbolic logic. Despite its technical character, this is a subject which matters to non-specialists. Appreciation of later developments in Greek philosophy requires a clear grasp of Plato’s later thought, even if for many purposes the Forms of the Republic and Phaedo give a reasonable general outline of what most people regard as ‘Platonism’. If the author of the Phaedo later came to doubt whether only abstract entities ought to count as fully real, then that changes our view of many philosophers who reacted to what they took to be Platonism. Further, the analysis of negation and of the five ‘greatest kinds’ in the Sophist plays an important role in the development of Greek grammatical theory. Charlton argues that the Sophist does not justify the opinion that Plato abandoned his belief that abstract entities are real. On his view Plato retains a form of Platonism, despite the critical sophistication of the Sophist, because of his deep conviction that the way things really are (being and not-being) is independent of the state of human minds. The realism to which this commits him is, in Charlton’s view (and my own) excessive, in that it grants too robust a form of reality to mere negations; but that excessiveness is not a reason to deny, as many have done, that Plato maintained some form of Platonism until the end.

Aristotelian metaphysics comes to the fore in the exchange between Herbert Granger and Christopher Shields. It is fair to say that one of the most contested issues in Aristotelian studies is the question of the change in his conception of substance between the Categories and his later works, such as the central books of the Metaphysics and On the Soul. Being a substance was linked to concepts such as separability (in some sense) and “thisness” (being a tode ti, in some sense), but also to “subjecthood”, i.e., being a hupokeimenon (in some sense). Granger (‘Aristotle on the Subjecthood of Form’) argues forcefully against a recent approach to these problems advanced by Michael Frede and Gunther Patzig, but developed further by Christopher Shields (‘Soul as Subject in Aristotle’s De Anima‘, Classical Quarterly 38 [1988] 140-9). Though Shields focusses on Aristotle’s psychology, the general thrust of all three is to claim that being a subject remained of considerable importance in Aristotle’s later metaphysics, despite what other scholars have taken to be its decline after the Categories (where its role is unmistakably central). The issue is crucial since Aristotle struggles in both Metaphysics and On the Soul to reconcile the view that form is a substance with the ontological primacy of composite individual objects. The notions that form is a cause of something’s being a substance and that the form of the organic body of a living thing is the soul become prominent, and seem to push to one side Aristotle’s earlier criterion of subjecthood. Granger argues that this is indeed what happened and that neither Frede and Patzig nor Shields have made a strong enough case for believing otherwise. In his reply Shields refines his own position and attempts to shift the burden of proof back onto Granger (offering “reasons for wondering whether Granger’s treatment of the hupokeimenon is compelling” (175)).

At its sharpest the disagreement between Shields and Granger turns on the interpretation of a set of remarks which Aristotle makes about the soul in On the Soul 1.4 (408b1-18). This dialectical passage has suggested to many that Aristotle shared the view of Gilbert Ryle that the soul or mind is not a distinct thing comparable to the body, but simply some set of properties or dispositions of that body. Ryle’s anti-Cartesianism seems to many to have been anticipated by Aristotle’s suggestion that “perhaps it is better not to say that the soul feels pity or learns or thinks, but rather that the person does so with the soul” (408b13-15). On the ‘Rylean’ reading, Aristotle here denies that soul can properly be a subject to such predicates as “thinks”. Rather, an individual like Socrates should be said to think by means of, because of or with regard to his soul (the dative) tei psuchei being ambiguous). Lurking in the background of this discussion is the debate about Aristotle’s views on the soul-body relation, the subject of an entire volume of essays published in 1992 ( Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima edd. M. Nussbaum and A. Rorty, Oxford University Press).

It has to be said that this debate remains inconclusive. As regards On the Soul, it is not clear that either party has given enough weight to the dialectical nature of 408b1-18. On the more general issue, the issue is left hanging in part because of the freedom with which both sides invoke ambiguity in key terms. Both “subject” and “tode ti” are alleged to have at least two senses not explicitly noted by Aristotle himself, and there is no agreement about non-arbitrary criteria for when to posit ambiguity in key terms (a philosopher like Aristotle can all too often be saved from self-contradiction by imputing to him terminological distinctions of which he is apparently unaware). Further, larger questions about Aristotle’s diachronic consistency seem to be shaping the debate, as are substantive philosophical views of the debaters (Shields concludes his discussion by saying [176]: “if the soul were not a subject, it would not be a substance; and then Aristotle really would have anticipated Ryle’s worst mistake.”) But despite these limitations, this exchange goes well beyond attempts to shift the burden of proof from one side to the other.

The Aristotelian focus continues with ‘Activity and Change in Aristotle’ by Robert Heinaman and David Bostock’s ‘Aristotle on the Transmutation of the Elements in De generatione et corruptione I.1-4′. Heinaman challenges the commonly held view that Aristotle’s distinction between activity and change in Metaphysics Theta 6 is either a merely linguistic distinction, or at most a metaphysical distinction grounded on a merely linguistic observation. Rather than being so linguistically driven, Aristotle (according to Heinaman) has independent theoretical motivations to develop and maintain the crucial distinction between change and activity. The importance of the so-called ‘tense test’ for change is important, however, and is based on key doctrines of the Physics. The picture of Aristotle which emerges is more realistic than the one-sided linguistic philosopher which used to be associated with analytically inclined interpreters.

Bostock steadfastly maintains his controversial defence of Aristotle’s belief in prime matter, which has often seemed to be the only position Aristotle could take in view of his own analysis of change in the Physics, and strengthens it by analysing where Aristotle goes wrong in Gen. Corr. I. Aristotle falls victim to a confusion over the nature of generation and alteration when they are applied to the four basic material stuffs in Aristotle’s physics. On Bostock’s rather attractive view, Aristotle goes wrong in holding that alteration and generation are mutually exclusive kinds of change, so that when he holds that the transmutation of one form of matter into another is generation he thereby blocks himself from accepting it as also being a case of alteration. This move creates a problem for Aristotle, because it “must involve the denial of prime matter, whereas in fact Aristotle has no wish to deny prime matter” (225). Bostock goes on to show how Aristotle should have treated the issue, and while his suggestions here are more contestable his discussion as a whole demonstrates the wisdom of not assuming ex hypothesi that Aristotle (or any other philosopher) maintains internal consistency in his theory. As often, it is precisely the failures of consistency which give us the clearest and most informative view of how a philosopher’s mind works.

Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Eros and the wise: the Stoic response to a cultural dilemma’ is an extension of her recent work on love and sexuality in Platonic and Hellenistic philosophy. Here she situates the undeniably peculiar Stoic view of erotic love in a cultural and intellectual context, as a philosophical reaction to the conflicting views of eros (as divine gift or positive social force on the one hand and as an uncontrollable, destructive madness with the potential to victimize the vulnerable on the other). Her cultural history of erotic love will inevitably be seen as controversial, but the analysis of Plato ( Symposium and Phaedrus) advances the debate and includes a well-judged correction of Nussbaum’s own earlier discussion in The Fragility of Goodness. But the best of the article is certainly its discussion of the Stoic view of eros (and the official definition of it), especially in its relationship to the Platonic background. (It is regrettable that other voices from the ‘Socratic’ tradition are not heard in this discussion, especially since Nussbaum finds room for a treatment of Epicurean views.) That Stoicism is a ‘Socratic’ philosophy is a truth often taken for granted; Nussbaum shows both the continuity with Socratic thought (as represented in Plato) maintained by Zeno’s school and also how sharply they must diverge from the Platonic Socrates if they are to achieve the detachment from the mundane which their cosmology and ethics require. The Stoic reconciliation of what they call eros with their own doctrine of freedom from passions forces the unstable Greek view of eros away from madness—whether divine or sinister—in the direction of moral improvement in conjunction with a detached indifference to sexual acts. Nussbaum, the reader suspects, thinks that this was the wrong choice, that the price paid to achieve a rationally sustainable and consistent kind of love was too high. But what remains up in the air at the end of the discussion is whether the Platonic solution, with its advocacy of passionate attachment to the individual beloved, does not also exact a price too high for a sane person to pay.

The collection as a whole is well worth attention, even from non-specialists (who will inevitably be drawn more to the Calef’s and Benson’s discussions of Socrates and Nussbaum on eros). Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy continues to reflect the vigour of a challenging but vital sub-discipline within Classical Studies and philosophy.