BMCR 2000.08.22

Studies in Plato’s Two-Level Model

, Studies in Plato's two-level model. Commentationes humanarum litterarum, 113. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1999. vi, 143 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9516532985

We have entered a period of transformation in Platonic studies. A survey of Platonic scholarship1 suggests that many basic ideas about Plato — views that used to constitute a widespread consensus — have now become disputed. Thesleff (henceforth, T.) himself cites no fewer than eleven of these problems as motivations of the present volume: the shortcomings of developmentalism, stylometry, and chronology; the implication of these shortcomings that there is no ‘early Socratic stage’; the apparent lack of dogmatism and doctrinal system in the dialogues; difficulties with how to deal with Plato’s metaphysics; problems about the claim that Plato taught his true doctrines esoterically; perceived limitations of literalistic “analytic” interpretations; the advantages of literary and philological methods in accounting for more of what is actually found in each of the dialogues; the interpretive problems posed by Platonic anonymity; the puzzling character of Platonic dialectic; problems about the dialogues’ original functions, publication, revision, and authenticity; and the evidence for a long-term growth of the Republic into the dialogue we have as distinct from its assumed completion and publication at some moment in Plato’s ‘middle’ or other period. This seems a formidable list of topics to be dealt with in such a slim volume, but careful study will reward the reader. As in his previous monographs on Plato,2 the argumentation is dense and rich, the scholarship thorough and impeccable.

The immediate subject of this monograph is a ‘two-level vision’ of reality that, T. argues, is found throughout Plato’s writings.3 Most Plato scholars would probably agree with the idea; but, as chapter I makes clear, since he is arguing that this model should replace the “two-worlds” views of Plato’s ontology (12), the monograph actually proposes an alternative to that widely held approach. Rather than the intelligible realm or the Forms constituting a world separate from the sensible realm or world of individual material things, T. maintains that these are two levels of one and the same world. And since the two-worlds view itself instantiates further views about the relationship between Forms and things, the monograph is also a revision of that relationship, of the “theory of Forms” taken as a whole, and of the nature of Forms as types, categories, and first principles. Thus, the book really addresses many of the most basic, and most debated, issues in recent Plato scholarship.

Chapter II, “General Notes on Contrasts”, is a brief preparation for the broader theory to follow. T. begins from certain generally human and Greek ways of thinking about things that utilize contrasts. Among them he distinguishes between harmonized contrasts (e.g. odd/even) and polarized contrasts (e.g. good/bad). A subset of harmonized contrast is what he calls “two-level contrasts,” complementary pairs of opposites of which one is preferable, even if not simply better. This is the kind of framework or model that underlies all of Plato’s thinking. Although Plato’s dialogues abound in cases of polar opposites, T. argues that Plato’s basic vision is a two-level one in which these polar opposites actually belong only on the lower level.

In chapter III, “Pairs of Asymmetric Contrasts”, T. argues more directly that Plato “visualized his universe” in terms of asymmetrical, two-level contrasts. The two-worlds view of Plato is thus incorrect, and this volume “is an attempt to elaborate this claim and its consequences for our understanding of Plato’s philosophy and such specific issues as the theories of Forms and Principal Categories” (12). He begins with the divine and human as an example of the above point. Plato’s philosophy is orientated toward the good from beginning to end, but it is a universe neither totally divine nor totally human. The relationship is thus both complementary and asymmetrical. [Plato is almost always concerned with values, and “orientation was in fact much more important than the exact fixing of the ideal” (12).] Then he goes on to ten illustrative pairs of two-level contrasts that are “basic constituents in Plato’s vision of reality in so-called early and middle dialogues.” These are: divine-human, soul-body, leading-being led, truth-appearance, knowledge-opinion, intellect-senses, defined-undefined, stability-change, one-many, and same-different. Pages 14-25 show the occurrences of these contrasts with an astonishing wealth of citations from all the dialogues usually considered genuine as well as from many of the dubia and spuria.

Chapter IV, “Two Levels”, presents the two-level scheme directly: one over many, stable over changing, soul over body, knowledge over opinion, etc. There could be, and some scholars have argued that there is, a third, “intermediate” realm, but T. claims that this never became an area of central interest to Plato (28). The two principal levels have a background in Greek thought prior to Plato and the crucial characteristics of the vision, the graded, terraced (rather than hierarchically related), asymmetrical (i.e., not reciprocal, not polarized) relationship between the two levels are “manifest in practically all dialogues” (30). Examples on pages 33-41 are drawn from Protagoras, Charmides, Alcibiades 1, Apology, Hippias Minor, and the “early Utopia.” Moreover, T. claims, the dialogues themselves are structured similarly, in that they communicate on two levels: a realistic protreptic level and a higher philosophic level found near the center.

Chapter V, “On Polar Opposites in Plato”, elaborates the point already stated that such contrasts are not central to P.’s views: they are seldom thematic and never the actual outcome of the argument. Examples are drawn from Gorgias, Republic 1, Lysis, Euthydemus. A longer discussion of Phaedo both illustrates his double thesis about contrasts and introduces the discussion of Forms to follow.

Chapter VI, “On Ideas and Forms”, makes the case that although the notion of forms is present from Plato’s earliest writings, the terminology comes into use later as does the development of a “theory.” What Plato was really concerned about was an “orientation” towards the level of ideas, rather than the details of a theory about the ideas themselves. T. believes, in short, that the theory always had a merely secondary status and was an attempt to bring a conceptual apparatus into the vision of the upper level. Its importance has been exaggerated, he thinks, because, for example, Aristotle’s criticism made it appear as Plato’s main doctrine. Although the technical terminology is problematic for many reasons, T. supposes that core of the theory remained more or less unchanged throughout. The chapter includes discussions of pre-Platonic uses of εἶδος and ἰδέα, ideas as values, ideas of the αὐτό type, participation, and the Good, notes on the interrelationships of the levels, neutral and negative ideas, and forms as “types” and “kinds.”

The argument of chapter VII, “Forms and Categories”, is that in later dialogues, the contrasts one-many, same-other, and stability-change were “combined and slightly systematized … [and] began to form a set of ‘Categories’: a net extending over the entire reality … a system inherent in the human soul, and a tool for understanding reality in the large sense” (89f.). But T. maintains that their use as categories was only tentative. The terms are used only vaguely in Cratylus, Theaetetus, Phaedrus, and Republic IV. They are used more systematically in Parmenides, Sophist, and Timaeus, but in these dialogues Plato’s own role is less clear.

Chapter VIII, “Forms, Categories, First Principles”, argues that “the theory of Principles did not take shape before the mid-350s … was a late ‘pythagorizing’ intellectual adventure, an experiment” and was not a doctrine of fundamental significance to Plato (106). The chapter is the most careful, well-informed, and nuanced critique of the various forms of esoterism in Platonic studies from Krämer and Gaiser through the most recent work of Szlezák, Erler, Reale and others that has been published by anyone to date.

Chapter IX , “Notes on Platonic chronology”, applies T.’s views of 1982 and 1989 to the present thesis. It here serves to underwrite the view necessitated by T.’s thesis of a two-level vision running all through Plato’s work, that it is not possible or meaningful to distinguish ‘early’ and ‘middle’ dialogues.

What emerges from this book is thus much more than a theory about a two-level vision as distinct from a two-worlds metaphysics. Rather it is a comprehensive and integrated view of Plato’s dialogues and of Platonic philosophy that is different in many ways from most of the prevailing ones. For one thing, T. does not plump for any single available “school” of Plato scholarship. He appreciates the contributions and identifies the shortcoming of each while finding a place in his synthesis for their diverse contributions. I note especially the detailed confrontations running all through this book with Kahn and the Tübingen school. T. is also, however, “a non-believer in developmentalism” (28) and a severe critic of the stylometry and Platonic chronology on which it depends. He sees Plato as making thought experiments rather than as teaching dogmas (e.g. 101, 106), and, although he argues for a dominating two-level vision, he sees Plato’s thought as open-ended and leading to no system (106). For his Plato, philosophy is a matter of orientation towards the upper level, the level of Forms, rather than of dogmas settled even temporarily.

Some philosophical readers will no doubt be troubled by sentiments like these: “for Plato, the orientation was in fact much more important than the exact fixing of the ideal” (12); “Plato was no dogmatic, but a truth-oriented visionary constantly experimenting with new approaches (33); “the dialogues are never systematic philosophic treatises, and they are not likely to reflect directly the development of Plato’s thought” (53); “the final theory of Principles did not take shape before the mid-350s, and … it was not entirely a product of Plato’s own thought” (106), “the Timaeus-Critias complex remained a draft not intended for publication in its present form” (107); “Plato seldom or never gives an explicitly ‘full’ account of his position in regard to any question of philosophic relevance” (109); “the Laws… was the Academy’s up-to-date version for a more general use of the never-published Republic” (115). They will also be troubled by the notions that Plato had no doctrine of Ideas and no two-worlds metaphysics, that polar opposites are not the essence of Plato’s philosophy, and that all the dialogues communicate on both a realistic, protreptic level and a higher philosophic level (41).

However, as the old dogmatic and developmental consensus fails,4 new directions must be found and T.’s two-level model offers a truly comprehensive, integrated, and coherent alternative. The wealth of T.’s scholarship and the nature of his variation on unitarianism insulate his position against the sorts of criticisms leveled at Shorey, because T. does not claim a unity of dogmatic teaching or a philosophical system. His view should be congenial to many who have been trying new approaches to Plato in recent years. Besides the overall theory T. proposes, the wealth and richness of insights found all through the book will more than compensate the special level of effort required to follow grasp T.’s argument.

This is a book to be read by all who study Plato’s dialogues and purchased by all research libraries.


1. See, G. Press, “The State of the Question in the Study of Plato”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 34 (1996), 507-532. Reprinted in Plato: Critical Assessments, ed. Nicholas D. Smith. Vol. I, pp. 309-332. New York: Routledge, 1998.

2. Studies in the Styles of Plato (1967), Studies in Platonic Chronology (1982). His “Platonic Chronology”, Phronesis 34 (1989), 1-26, was a follow-up to the latter and should not be read independently.

3. The theory presented at length here was adumbrated in T.’s “Looking For Clues: An Interpretation of Some Literary Aspects of Plato’s ‘Two-Level Model'”, pp. 17-45 in G. Press, ed., Plato’s Dialogues: New Studies and Interpretations (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993).

4. One should note, e.g., that Cooper [Introduction to Plato. Complete Works. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997] and Annas [ Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999)] have now publicly abandoned traditional Platonic chronology and developmentalism.