BMCR 2006.06.31

Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. Volume XXVII (Winter 2004)

, Oxford studies in ancient philosophy. Volume 27, Winter 2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 350 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0199277133 $35.00 (pb).

The present volume of this excellent series has the usual spread of stimulating articles by notable contributors. There are ten articles in all, one on Socrates, four on Plato, three on Aristotle, and two on post-Aristotelian philosophy (one on Pyrrho, one on Alexander of Aphrodisias). The titles are as follows (I shall comment individually later): William J. Prior, ‘Socrates Metaphysician’; David Wolfsdorf, ‘Interpreting Plato’s Early Dialogues’; Gail Fine, ‘Knowledge and True Belief in the Meno‘; Hendrik Lorenz, ‘Desire and Reason in Plato’s Republic‘; James Wilberding, ‘Prisoners and Puppeteers in the Cave’; David Bostock, ‘An Aristotelian Theory of Predication?’; Scott Labarge, ‘Aristotle on ‘Simultaneous Learning’ in Posterior Analytics 1.1′; Lloyd P. Gerson, ‘Platonism in Aristotle’s Ethics’; Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson, ‘Pyrrho’s Undecidable Nature” Inna Kupreeva, ‘Alexander of Aphrodisias on Mixture and Growth.’

The first three articles have something in common, as all concern the early Platonic dialogues. Prior joins the ranks of those taking on Gregory Vlastos for one or another aspect of his view of Socrates (particularly in Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher), by challenging his claim that the ‘Socrates’ of the early dialogues (or ‘Socrates-sub-E’ as this character is sometimes denoted) is exclusively a moral philosopher. Prior maintains that, just because a theory of separable Forms cannot be imputed to ‘Socrates-sub-E’, that does not mean that he did not have a metaphysical position, and that indeed he does hold to the existence of a set of objective realities, knowledge of which can be attained by the elenctic process. Prior argues his case well, and I think I agree with him.

Wolfsdorf, secondly, has been concerning himself for some years now, in a series of articles, with the nature of Plato’s procedure in the early dialogues, and here makes a number of interesting points about Plato’s authorial stance, the audience at which he is aiming, and his use of Socrates as a character. I am not sure that I learned much that was new, but I think that his distinction between Socrates as ‘mouthpiece’ of Plato and Socrates as his ‘favoured character’ is a good one.

Thirdly, Gail Fine returns yet again to the distinction between knowledge and true belief in the Meno. The issue revolves round what is that element, the aitias logismos (98ἀ, that converts true belief into knowledge by ‘tying it down’. It is always enlightening to read Fine’s lucubrations on this, as on other subjects, but, were I the Editor, I would be tempted now to say, “this correspondence is now closed.” On the contrary, Fine ends her article ominously by declaring that “much more remains to be said.”

Moving on, we find two stimulating articles on aspects of the Republic. In his critique of the doctrine of the tripartite soul, Hendrik Lorenz most effectively picks apart Plato’s analysis of the desiderative element, with illuminating reference to the psychology of the various ‘corrupt’ forms of soul, such as the timocratic and oligarchic, in Books 8 and 9, but concludes that the desiderative part does not itself use reasoning in the Platonic sense, though it seems hard to deny some form of ‘means-ends’ reasoning to it. This is again a well-worn topic, but always worth going over.

Likewise, one might say, with the issue of the Prisoners in the Cave, but here James Wilberding produces much that I found new and stimulating. It really does seem to make good sense to take the prisoners, not as members of the general public, even if they are described as “just like us,” but rather as “political contenders occupied with the struggle for power in the polis” (p. 123), while the general public are the puppeteers, setting the agenda for the democratic politicians, who follow rather than lead.

We come now to a series of three articles on aspects of Aristotle, the first two more narrowly logical in topic, the third a most interesting discussion of the essential Platonism of Aristotle’s ethical position. David Bostock is concerned with Aristotle’s views on predication, and the question whether they amount to a coherent and (reasonably) valid theory. He sets Aristotle most interestingly in the context of the modern logical theory of quantification, and shows that he comes out not too badly, even if his notion of a subject of predication is rather restricted.

Scott Labarge turns to the interesting topic of Aristotle’s views on the possibility of ‘simultaneous learning’, as a means of getting round the problem involved in the principle stated at the beginning of the Posterior Analytics, “All teaching and all intellectual learning arise from pre-existing cognition.” If this is not to involve an infinite regress—or worse, in Aristotle’s view, an admission of antenatal knowledge, as propounded by Plato—one needs some formula to explain how this can come about. The interpretation of An. Pr. 2. 21 is important here, a passage in which Aristotle is dealing with the problem of how, and in what sense, we can come to know and not to know the same thing, and in that connexion makes an interesting reference to the argument for learning as anamnêsis in the Meno, as well as using his own term epagôgê in an apparently odd way. Labarge’s analysis of this, adopting but modifying the (rather attractive) position of Mark Gifford, I found most enlightening.

Lloyd Gerson’s assertion of Aristotle’s basic Platonism in the area of ethics, and in particular of his position on the role of theria in EN 10. 6-8, which is an elaboration of one part of his argument in his recent book Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca/London, 2005), is most salutary, and will serve to reinforce our new (or rather, revived) consciousness of the essential Platonism of Aristotle. This does not involve trying to make Aristotle a faithful follower of Plato. As Gerson acutely remarks (p. 221), Platonism should be regarded, not, so to speak, as Catholicism (as opposed to Aristotle’s Protestantism), but rather as representing the whole Christian tradition, within which many tendencies may flourish and compete.

We move on now to Hellenistic and later philosophy — though in fact Gerson, in his argument, made much use of Plotinus and other later Platonists, and Pyrrho himself is only a younger contemporary of Aristotle, whom Aristotle may even be criticising in Met. 4. Svavar Svavarsson contributes an excellent study of the sceptical argument that nothing is by nature good, set out by Sextus Empiricus in AM 11. 69-78, but arguably going back to Pyrrho himself, based on the ‘natural invariability’ thesis: that is to say, the principle that if anything has a certain characteristic by nature, it should be universal and invariable in its effect, like the heat of fire; and this is not the case with ‘good’. Since the argument seems to move from the variability of our perceptions (subjective) to lack of a definite nature (objective), it has been judged invalid, but Svavarsson provides a very full and informative defence of it. My own impression of Pyrrho, however, is that he operated very much in the mode of a Zen master, in his effort to induce a state of ‘tranquillity’ in his disciples, so that subjecting his arguments to a strict logical examination may be hardly appropriate, but Svavarsson undoubtedly produces much of interest along the way.

Lastly, Inna Kupreeva provides a fine account of the critique of Alexander of Aphrodisias, both in his surviving treatise On Mixture, in a number of his Quaestiones, and in various of his lost works, preserved in Philoponus and in Arabic sources, of Stoic theories of mixture and of growth. Lurking behind the scientific argumentation here is, of course, a dispute about metaphysics—specifically, the Stoic theory of the total interpenetration of the divine pneuma with the matter of the world, and Kupreeva deals with both these aspects of the subject most learnedly.

All in all, this is a very fine collection of articles, but, having now worked my way through them, I am moved to wonder how many of us, unless particularly provoked to do so, ever read through a whole volume of such a journal as this. I may be wrong, but I suspect the answer is very few, if any. This reflection enhances my admiration for David Sedley, who as editor has plainly not simply read through all of these articles, but contributed useful comments on most of them as well. Better him than me!