BMCR 2003.11.35

Knowing Persons: A Study in Plato

, Knowing persons : a study in Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. x, 308 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0199257639 $45.00.

On the debate whether in antiquity the concept of the person is distinct from the concept of the human being, Lloyd P. Gerson falls into the camp that they are. In his Knowing Persons: A Study in Plato, Gerson presents a Plato who wants to distinguish persons and human beings. But because Plato lacks a technical term for person, as opposed to ἄνθρωπος for human being, Gerson makes the distinction between an embodied and disembodied person for Plato. The former is a subject of a bodily state, an image of an ideal, while the latter is the ideal, a subject who recognizes and identities with his Platonic Form. In his book, Gerson examines the psychological, epistemological, and metaphysical dimensions of this relationship between embodied and disembodied persons in a number of Plato’s dialogues.

Knowing Persons is divided into six chapters. Chapter one examines the role that the Socratic paradoxes play in Plato’s concept of a person, with particular attention paid to the Protagoras. Chapter two is devoted to the Phaedo, where Socrates introduces the distinction between an embodied and disembodied person. Chapter three looks at the tripartition and immortality of the soul as discussed in the Republic and Phaedrus, with Socrates identifying personhood with the soul’s rational faculty. Chapters four and five concentrate on Plato’s account of knowledge in the Republic and Theaetetus. Gerson argues not only that Plato’s account of knowledge is the same in both dialogues but that this account of knowledge is crucial to Plato’s concept of the person. The last chapter argues that the later Platonic dialogues — Timaeus, Philebus, and the Laws — reaffirm Plato’s concept of the person as an ideal knower as described in his earlier works. Knowing Persons has a nice introduction about the main themes in the book and a conclusion that briefly reiterates Gerson’s thesis that knowledge for Plato is essentially self-reflexive.

Gerson defines self-reflexivity as a “cognition of one’s own occurrent psychical states” so that a subject’s identity is equated with his knowledge (31). Both the subject and the object become one and the same in self-reflexivity. A disembodied person is able to achieve perfect self-reflexivity with his rational faculty because he exists in a non-sensory state, while the embodied person is unable to achieve perfect self-reflexivity because he shares, through his body, the instability of the sensible world. Hence, the Socratic paradox that “no one does wrong willingly” in the Protagoras is understood as reference to a person whose subjectivity is oriented either towards belief (an embodied person) or knowledge (a disembodied person). But because the embodied person is a poor representation, an image, of the disembodied person, Gerson’s Plato is able to maintain both that “no one does wrong willingly” and that ἀκρασία (incontinence) is possible.

Gerson continues his argument about self-reflexivity with Plato’s tripartitioning of the soul in the Republic. This account of the soul allows Plato to maintain that both the Socratic paradox that “no one does wrong willingly” and that ἀκρασία is possible. Contrary to Moline and others, Gerson argues that the appetitive part of the soul lacks cognitive functions. For Gerson, the “agent of ratiocination is also the agent of passionate appetites” (107). The quarrel of self-control therefore takes place only within the ambit of rationality: it is a quarrel between a subject of the appetite and a subject of rational thought. It is a struggle about a person’s identity: whether he is a master or a servant of his irrational appetites. For Plato, there is only a single subject of appetites, spirit, and embodied reason that is an image of an ideal (disembodied) person. The identification with the rational faculty of the soul entails a self-transformation, because one “knows that a person is ideally or really an agent of rational activity and therefore one’s primary good is found in successful rational activity” (115). Hence, Socrates’ absolute prohibition against wronging is supported by the tripartite soul, with reason trumping the appetites in the dynamics of self-transformation and self-identification.

But, as embodied persons, how can we know that our ideal state is a disembodied one, i.e., a state of self-reflexivity with our rational faculty? Plato’s answer is the immortality of the soul, as defended in the Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Book 10 of the Republic. The importance of these proofs is to show that embodied cognitive states depend on disembodied cognitive states: the embodied person is merely an imperfect version or image of the disembodied person (59-60, 96). Now, although the soul is immortal and is a unity, the disembodied person is a more complex phenomenon, because it remembers its tripartite embodied nature. In other words, the embodied person’s appetites may leave a “scar” on the disembodied soul to such an extent that “the identification of the person with the subject of appetite or spirit necessitates a kind of deconstruction of the self or a loss of identity” when compared to the exclusively rational activity of a disembodied person (131). Such a person would be a fitting candidate for animal reincarnation, as Socrates suggests in the Phaedrus.

When the disembodied person achieves self-reflexivity with his rational faculty by identifying himself with the Forms, he discovers that this knowledge is non-propositional (61). Belief, by contrast, involves a representation of some sort, e.g., propositions. Accordingly, “if knowledge is non-representational, then knowledge is non-propositional” (160). Needless to say, knowledge of the Forms is not possible in our embodied state as Socrates asserts in the Phaedo (149; also see 179). Against Fine’s argument, Gerson uses the infallibility criterion to show that knowledge can only be infallible if it is non-representational, i.e., non-propositional, as opposed to belief, which is always representation and therefore fallible (161-164). Because philosophers are able to recognize that they exist only in a world of representations, they are best placed to practice the manipulation of these images in their λόγος.

Thus, Socrates’ defense of the immortality of the soul is crucial for Gerson’s argument about personhood. According to the recollection argument in the Phaedo, all people have knowledge of the Forms prior to entering their bodies. Through recollection, the philosopher will be able to recognize images as images of Forms: the philosopher will recognize that this reality is deficient, although he will not possess actual knowledge of the Forms themselves. Our connection with the Forms in our preexistent and post-existent embodied life is the self-reflexive awareness that our cognitive state is the identification of the knower and the known. Since the Forms are eternal and immaterial, several knowers are possible for self-identification. Knowledge consequently is “an infallible state because the awareness of the presence of that state itself guarantees that presence — that is, the identity of the knower and the known” (193). In short, knowledge constitutes our very personhood.

Gerson continues to defend his thesis that personhood is intimately connected with knowledge when he argues against Burnyeat, Bostock, and others that Plato’s account of knowledge is essentially the same in both the Republic and the Theaetetus : knowledge ( ἐπιστήμη) and belief ( δόξα) are radically discontinuous. For Gerson, Socrates succesfully refutes the claims that knowledge is sense-perception, true belief, and true belief with an account ( λόγος) because only knowledge, not belief, can satisfy the reality, inerranacy, and infallibility criteria (202). Sense-perception can only be belief “because at every moment there is a different perception constituted by a different perceptual object and a different perceiver”; and this perception is not infallible, because it fails to attain the being of the Forms (209). Because belief fails to satisfy these criteria, it can never become knowledge.

According to Gerson, knowledge “is an occurrent, self-reflexive, infallible cognitive state” (236). The reality, inerrancy, and infallibility criteria indicate that Plato conceives of knowledge as an ideal state that is unattainable to embodied persons. A person has knowledge only when he “is self-reflexively aware of his own cognitive state and where that awareness guarantees that what is known is not other than as it is known. The guarantee consists in the fact that the content of the cognitive state is the knowable” (237). For Plato, a person is distinct from a human being (an embodied person) because only a person identifies himself with his rational faculty. By identifying only with his rational faculty, the embodied person is “both to approach the ideal state and to ‘identify’ with it” (238). The possibility of knowledge exists only because the concept of the person has been defined as a knower.

Gerson reaffirms this account of the person as a thinking subject in his last chapter, where he looks at Timaeus, Philebus, and the Laws. The description of the immortality of the soul in the Timaeus not only reiterates the epistemology of embodied and disembodied persons, but it also becomes the basis for choosing the philosophical life over the pleasurable one (247). The introduction of immortality is to reform the person from the hedonist life, as criticized in the Philebus, to the life of contemplation. And the model of the life of contemplation is the Demiurge, who is able to contemplate the Forms, thereby making the cognitive identity between the knower and the known self-reflexive (250). As embodied images, we can look and strive to be like our maker as far as possible.

In the Laws, Gerson continues his argument that Plato’s concept of person remains fundamentally unchanged since the Republic. Against Bobonich, Gerson restates his earlier point that it is the person, not the appetitive part of the soul, that is in conflict with himself — “a divided self” (267). The original partitioning of the soul in the Republic continues in the Laws to make ἀκρασία possible as well as reaffirm Plato’s earlier concept of the person. For Plato, a person’s identity resides in his soul, specifically its rational faculty, whereas his body is merely a semblance or image of who he is ( Laws, 959a4-b7). Far from backing away from his commitment that a person is the identification with the soul’s rational faculty, Plato “reaffirms the distinction [between embodied and disembodied persons] in the most emphatic terms” (275).

Plato’s dualism therefore is not based on the distinction between body and soul but on embodied and disembodied persons. The embodied person “has a body and is the subject of bodily states,” while the disembodied person is a knower without a body (276). With this distinction, Gerson is able to side-step the entire “human being” versus “person” or “body” versus “soul” debates alluded to in the introduction. Some may argue that Gerson is merely playing a semantic game, but I would disagree. Gerson’s arguments and the evidence he uses from the dialogues make a reasonable case for reading Plato in this fashion. He provides a new approach to a debate and perhaps points it in a more productive and interesting direction.

Knowing Persons is a worthwhile book for Plato scholars to consult. Although some may quibble about his identification of Socrates with Plato or the analytical as opposed to a dramatic approach to the Platonic dialogues, Gerson presents an excellent argument for reading Plato’s psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics as based on a distinction between embodied and disembodied persons. Making the necessary qualifications in his analyses of the dialogues, Gerson nonetheless maintains his thesis consistently throughout the book while, at the same time, engaging the contemporary scholarship that disagrees with him. In brief, for those scholars interested in the concepts of subjectivity, person, and human being in Plato’s works, Knowing Persons is an excellent account and resource on these topics.