BMCR 1997.02.05

1997.2.5, Gill and McCabe, edd., Form and Argument in Late Plato

, , Form and argument in late Plato. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. x, 345 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780198240129.

This impressive collection consists of essays commissioned by the editors to address the issue of the relationship between form and argument in the late dialogues of Plato. Two basic issues are discussed: (1) whether the dialogue form of the late works can plausibly be regarded as having the same philosophical significance as it clearly does in the early and middle periods and (2) whether Plato’s project in the late dialogues should best be understood as ‘dogmatic’ or as ‘dialectical,’ that is, as conveying doctrines or simply carrying forward a discussion.

Plato’s later dialogues, often obscure, highly technical, and long-winded, have at various times in the history of ancient philosophical scholarship, been the focus of intense study. Owing precisely to their obscurity, they admit of widely divergent interpretations. For example, I once had occasion to catalogue twenty-two distinct and mutually exclusive interpretations of the Parmenides, a dialogue that is generally recognized as the gateway to the later works. Formally, these are all dialogues, but the philosophical import of their structure has almost never received serious intention until now.

The essays are: “Unity in the Parmenides: The Unity of the Parmenides” by Mary Margaret McCabe; “Likeness and Likenesses in the Parmenides” by Malcolm Schofield; “Three Platonist Interpretations of the Theaetetus” by David Sedley; “Conflicting Appearances: Theaetetus 153d-154b” by Gail Fine; “The Literary Form of the Sophist” by Michael Frede; “The Politicus: Structure and Form” by Christopher Rowe; “Space, Time, Shape, and Direction: Creative Discourse in the Timaeus” by Catherine Osborne; “The Hedonist’s Conversion: The Role of Socrates in the Philebus” by Dorothea Frede; “Reading the Laws” by Christopher Bobonich; “Afterword: Dialectic and the Dialogue Form in Late Plato” by Christopher Gill.

McCabe argues that the Parmenides offers a metaphilosophical argument for the primacy of a theory of individuals in any ontology. This argument looks backward to the problems that Plato’s Forms encounter without such a theory and forward to some of the issues exposed in subsequent works. For McCabe, the dramatic structure of the dialogue mirrors the theoretical issue dialectically developed.

Schofield, emphasizing the tentative dialectical method of the Parmenides, focuses on the so-called second version of the Third Man Argument, arguing that it is a Form of Likeness that generates the vicious regress and that Plato wishes to explore the consequences for eliminating this Form and others like it.

Sedley’s fascinating paper examines three examples of the ancient tradition of Platonic commentary. He shows that there was in antiquity widespread agreement that a dialogue such as the Theaetetus is in its structure an example of the method for answering philosophical questions. And, importantly, that the nominal failure of the dialogue to reach a conclusion functions as intellectual midwifery for the reader.

Fine focuses on an example of a well-known problem in the Platonic dialogues generally, namely, how committed is Plato to any of the various theories he has his characters delineate. In the present case, it is a question of the Protagoreanism of the Theaetetus, the view that “man is the measure of all things,” and Plato’s assessment of this view for the sensible world. Fine argues that Theaetetus’ definition of knowledge as perception commits him to a Protagorean view which in turns commits him to some form of Heracliteanism. Plato himself is, however, not committed to such a view.

Michael Frede asks the straightforward question: why is the Sophist, one of the most technical and complex of all of Plato’s works, written as a dialogue. His answer is that by using the dialogic structure, Plato can advance philosophical claims without investing them with a false authority. This structure, significantly transformed from the earlier dialogues, allows Plato to display his own view of how to do philosophy.

Rowe consider the question of whether or to what extent the Politicus follows the dialectical strictures of the Phaedrus. To this question Rowe gives a qualified positive response. He calls the work a “dialogue of search,” that is, a work that, however imperfectly, mimics the actual process of discovery of answers to important philosophical questions.

Osborne presents a detailed analysis of the Timaeus showing how the structure of the dialogue follows the complex account of the creation and structure of the sensible world. Timaeus’ account of the cosmos parallels the position occupied by the images of true reality. This analysis is worked out for the accounts of time, space and shape, and matter.

Dorothea Frede tries to show how the Philebus, despite its late metaphysical innovations, can be read as a Socratic dialogue. Specifically, the goal is conversion in the soul of the interlocutor, the “reformable hedonist,” Protarchus.

Bobonich takes on the formidable task of showing how the Laws, Plato’s longest and in some ways most puzzling work, can be understood to be a unity and to retain, in some ways, the form of a dialogue. Plato, argues Bobonich, employs this literary technique to foster true beliefs in the minds of the citizens, who are required, as we are reminded, to read the Laws.

Gill’s paper, picking up many of the themes dealt with in the other essays, is a general study of the use of the dialogue form in the later works of Plato. In a careful examination of the relation between doctrine and method, Gill shows both why the dialogues lend themselves to divergent interpretations and why, even as he became absorbed in technical philosophical issues, Plato was disinclined to forgo dialectic.

The above summaries do not of course do justice to the highly sophisticated and thoughtful discussions in this volume. I think the papers by Sedley, Osborne, and Michael Frede are outstanding and ought to be read by anyone with a professional interest in Plato, especially in his later writings. I found, however, that virtually all of the essays, written from the perspective of form interacting with content, provided challenging and sometimes surprising claims. The contents of this volume are likely to provide much material for future discussions of late Plato.