BMCR 2002.03.08

Platon: l’amour du savoir

, Platon : l'amour du savoir. Débats philosophiques. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2001. 169 pages ; 19 cm.. ISBN 2130515649 72 FF (pb).

This new volume published by Presses Universitaires de France in its collection Débats philosophiques, focuses on Plato and specifically on Plato’s epistemology. As Michel Narcy, the editor of this volume, puts it in his introduction, ‘ savoir, c’est l’une des variants de la traduction de grec Sophia; l’amour du savoir, par conséquent, l’une des façon de traduire le terme forgé, dit-on, dans le milieu socratique, philosophia. C’est donc de la philosophie de Platon ou, plus exactement, de ce que Platon entend par philosophie qu’il sera question dans ce recueil’ (p.7). Therefore, emphasising the meaning of ‘knowledge’ rather than the meaning of ‘wisdom’ of the word ‘sophia’, the volume offers six studies all dealing (in one way or another) with the issue ‘knowledge’ in Plato. The first five essays cover, in order, issues raised in ‘The Republic’, ‘Theaetetus’, ‘The Sophist’ (and ‘Euthydemus’), ‘The Statesman’ and ‘Parmenides’ and the volume concludes with a survey of the Neokantian interpretation of Plato’s epistemology. Although largely independent of one another (stylistically and doctrinally) the six essays are brought together in a harmonious way by inquiry, firstly, into the way knowledge is conditioned by the rationality behind it, and secondly into the way in which this knowledge is delivered as science.

The volume opens with the essay of Yvon Lafrance, ‘La rationalité platonicienne: mathématiques et dialectique chez Platon’ (pp.13-48). Aiming to discuss the presence of two types of rationality in Plato, mathematical and philosophical (dialectic), the essay is more or less a commentary on ‘Republic’ VI. 510 c 2-511 c 4. Discussing the concept of hypothesis in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and in mathematical sciences, if I understand him, Lafrance takes it as meaning the agreed starting point of a demonstration, agreed meaning overtly known. According to the exigencies of ‘dianoia’, mathematical rationality is perfect. However, according to ‘noesis’ it is not. It is the task of philosophy (dialectic) to go beyond hypotheses towards the principles that determine them and to reach ‘le principe anhypothétique’ (p.34); then to pursue the way back to the hypothesis, in a combination of analysis and synthesis. This would be ‘dialectic’, a method of reaching knowledge superior to the one offered by mathematics and aiming at a purer quality of the object to be known than the one offered by mathematics. The next point of his enterprise is to prove that while any mathematical discourse is based on hypotheses as a starting point that need not be demonstrated, the task of philosophical discourse is to question the nature of these hypotheses and to try to go beyond them. Hence, the critique of Plato against what Lafrance calls ‘rationalité mathématique’. The quality of mathematical sciences is biased by the appeal to images (in geometry), ambiguity (relativity of measurements as bigger or smaller) and to derivative principles (hypotheses). Proving that beyond the mathematical rationality there is another type of rationality, the next task Lafrance takes upon himself is to prove that this type of rationality (dialectic) is not, as Festugière thought (in ‘Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon’, Paris 1936.), a type of mystical experience but ‘une intuition d’ordre strictement rationel.’ (p.39) The argument is to be found in the vocabulary Plato uses to describe this ‘rational intuition’ in ‘Republic’ 534 b-c: ousia, nous, logos, doxa, episteme (p.41). The second argument for the rational character of this intuition is the method used: i.e. deduction (‘Republic’ 511 b.3 c.2) (p.41 ff.). As a whole, the study can be seen as an explanation of the ‘Simile of the line’ in which the last part argues for a rational aspect of the intuition of the ultimate principle.

The second essay is concerned with the issue of knowledge ( episteme / ‘science’) as it appears in Theaetetus: ‘Qu’est-ce que la science? Réponses dans le Thétète’ (pp.49-72). Rather than proposing to answer the question of what episteme is, Michel Narcy seeks to discover, in the definitions of knowledge proposed by Theaetetus in the eponymous dialogue, the seeds of truth Socrates neglects when he rejects the solutions proposed by the mathematician. First of all comes the task of identifying the so-called definitions of episteme present in the dialogue. Technically there are only three: ‘knowledge is perception’ (151 e 2-3); ‘knowledge is true opinion’ (187 b 5-6) and ‘knowledge is true opinion accompanied by an account’ (201 c.8 d.1). However there is another ‘definition’ of episteme that is not often taken into account: ‘the things one can learn’, ‘geometry’ and ‘the crafts’ (146 c.7 d.3). Socrates will reject this one swiftly as not being the ‘definition’ of episteme but merely the ‘objects’ of it. (146 e). Although formally correct (as Narcy observes), the rejection operated by Socrates is rather too hasty. Aristotle already defended this type of argument in Politics 1260 a 21, there applied to virtues: ‘Far better than such definitions is their mode of speaking, who, like Gorgias, enumerate the virtues.’ (transl. Jowett). The ‘general’ definition fails to give a complete account (if any) of such concepts as virtue or knowledge, while the enumeration, although less ‘pure’, succeeds. Based on this type of argument, the conclusion of Narcy is that as concerning the definition of knowledge, ‘le première réponse de Thétète n’est pas si mauvaise que le prétend Socratè.’ (p.55). Concerning the second response of Theaetetus, again Socrates is confronted with Aristotle and his theories. Provided that, as Socrates maintains, sensation and opinion are never wrong since they pertain to something objective, knowledge also pertaining to something objective is always right, being no more than a perception (admittedly not sensory) of the object of thought. The last part of the essay is concerned, against the background of the last definition of episteme, with the analysis of the doctrine of Protagoras and the relation between sophistry and science (knowledge / ‘ episteme‘).

The two following essays are less concerned with the issue of knowledge itself than with its manifestation. The essay of Elsa Grasso, ‘Le savoir à l’épreuve de son imitation: la sophistique’ (pp. 73-103) seems to take up the discussion where Narcy has left it (though this is, I believe, completely accidental) and, through a continuing dialogue between ‘Euthydemus’ and the ‘Sophist’, investigates the nature of sophistic discourse, and will find in the ‘Sophist’ the key to a solution of the fallacies presented in ‘Euthydemus’. Of a different nature is the fourth essay, ‘La classification des objets. Sur un passage du Politique (287 b.289 c)’, by Frédérique Ildefonse, which investigates the relation between the classification of arts (techne) implied by the classification of objects in 289 b and the definition of the statesman.

This series on particular dialogues is concluded by Alain Ségui-Duclot with: ‘Savoir et non-savoir dans le Parménide de Platon’. Through an analysis of the hypotheses of Parmenides (identified by the author as being 9 in number) we discover firstly an exposition of the dialectic method, and secondly several types of rationality, each being represented by a hypothesis. Each type of knowledge aims at a specific type of reality, which ultimately determines the degree of truth and the limits of that particular type of knowledge. The aporetic character of ‘Parmenides’ aims to give an account of this variety and the relation that each type of knowledge establishes with the ineffable. However, this process is possible only after a distinction has been made between ontology and henology, where the latter governs the rules of the former. Despite being interesting and challenging on its own merits, the explanation proposed by Ségui-Duclot does not seem to me to allow any role to the first part of the dialogue, before the analysis of the hypotheses themselves, or if it does allow any, certainly not a higher one than as a prologue for the ‘game of hypotheses’.

The last chaper, ‘De Platon à Kant. Épistémologie et ontologie dans l’interprétation néokantienne de Platon’ (pp.145-170) is, in its core, a summary of the interpretation of Plato as given by the ‘Marburg School’, namely by its two masters: Cohen and Natorp. Through contrasting these two positions within the ‘school’, F. Fronterotta tries to codify Platonic epistemology in Kantian terms. This is fair enough, as long as the main purpose of the essay is to summarise the Neokantian position. However, there is also a personal note: Plato is ‘a philosopher of his own time’ whose problem was the ontological over-ruling the epistemological, not because of a ‘primitive objectivism’ but because of an underlying realist position. Caught between Parmenidian immobility of things (in order to preserve their identity) and Heraclitean eternal change (which accounts for their qualities), Plato is forced to redefine the concept of the real. The ‘real’ comes in degrees, of which the maximum is envisaged as the immobile and the eternal. The object of knowledge can be situated between the two ontological extremities, and in consequence, knowledge will have, in its turn, degrees. Absolute knowledge will be of course the knowledge of the maximally real, the true real (ontos on). Therefore, the degree of reality of the object determines the value of that particular knowledge of it we possess. For this reason, the ideas must have a substantial status: they are ‘objects’ of knowledge. Participation and separation (the other two key Platonic concepts) intervene in order to govern the relationship between the various degrees of reality. A detailed discussion of the rest of the chapter would involve a discussion of (rather an objection to) the Neokantian interpretation of Plato, and this would be, for the purposes of this review, superfluous. However, a few remarks may be introduced. Supposing as irrelevant the metaphysical foundation of Platonic epistemology, from within the theory of knowledge itself, I see a rather weak link (if any) between the Kantian and Platonic ideas of ‘a priori’. The Platonic ‘a priori’ is a consequence of the status of the soul, and the so-called ‘anamnesis theory’ (although proposing such an ‘a priorism’) is most likely based on a psychological interpretation of the process of deduction. For example, in ‘Meno’, is the slave really recognizing ‘the law’ (Gesetz) of the relationship between sides and area or is he, simply, methodologically led to construct a double sized square?

Although addressing different issues, the volume is unitary, and sometimes the same theme is treated in two essays from different perspectives, but in a supplementary way, e.g. the issue of hypothesis in ‘La rationalité platonicienne’ and ‘De Platon à Kant’; sophistry in , ‘Le savoir à l’épreuve’, ‘La classification des objets’ and ‘Savoir et non-savoir’ etc. For the most part homogenous stylistically and in the value of its essays, the volume, I believe, manages to give an interesting account of dialectic as ‘love of knowledge’.