This volume of the highly-regarded Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy offers thirteen thoughtful and thought-provoking essays. Not only is the scholarship compelling, but the presentation is also quite nice: the typesetting is clear, the paper acid-free, and the text largely free of error.1 It is, in other words, an excellent issue of an excellent journal, and might easily stand on its own as an anthology of some top-notch scholarship in ancient Greek philosophy. This issue is particularly focused on Plato (of the 13 pieces, ten largely concern Plato or Plato’s Socrates; in addition there is one piece each on Aristotle, Archytas, and Carneades). At times, the predominance of work on Plato left this reader longing for greater variety. This focus does, however, have one especially fruitful result: the volume offers a fascinating variety of interpretative and philosophical approaches to Plato. John Beversluis, for example, argues that it is often quite reasonable to treat Socrates as Plato’s “mouthpiece,” while others in the issue seem wary of such treatment. Similarly, William J. Prior offers an interesting discussion of Alcibiades’ judgment of Socrates as ironic not 100 pages after Melissa Lane argues that no Platonic character charges Socrates with irony. All in all the issue offers a stimulating sampling of some very interesting and provocative scholarship on ancient philosophy. Below I offer brief discussions of each piece.
In “Socrates’ Demand for Definitions,” Michael N. Forster argues that three central claims of the “orthodox interpretation” of Socrates’ demand for definitions are “probably false” (3). First, Forster rejects the view that Socrates seeks or thinks it possible to possess ethical knowledge. Socrates’ mission, as portrayed in the Apology, was first to test the oracle’s claim that Socrates was wise and then to help others see that all humans are always ignorant with respect to ethics. Although Socrates possesses ethical truths, Forster correctly distinguishes such possession from knowledge; and he (slightly less convincingly) adds that even Socrates’ claims of knowledge (such as at Apology 29b and 37b) can be dismissed as “slips or failures of precision, or [involve] using the word ‘knowledge’ in a different sense” (15). Forster similarly dismisses all other apparent evidence that Socrates thinks ethical knowledge is possible in the “early dialogues.” Though not implausible, these arguments strike me as Forster’s weakest: is a counter-example even conceivable? Second, Socrates pursues definitions that “would be (relatively) non-explanatory, mundane, and simple” (22—original emphasis). Forster shows that all of the non-evaluative definitions that Socrates gives or endorses fit this description.2 Third, Socrates expects definitions to be nothing more (or more exciting) than “statements of meaning.” Forster again refers to the non-evaluative definitions, which “all seem to be attempts to give . . . informative synonyms” (27—original emphasis).
One striking virtue of Forster’s account is that the priority of definition makes real sense: if I don’t know in a mundane way what something is, it does seem impossible that I should know what that thing is like. The concluding section takes up Plato’s apparent rejection of Socrates’ view of definitions. Though not embracing Plato’s metaphysics, Forster ends by agreeing with a tradition at least as old as Wittgenstein, which holds that one can know what something is like without being able to provide an ‘informative synonym’ for that thing. If such knowledge is possible, then Socrates’ supposed project is rightly rejected. I have one final worry about Forster’s account: is the varying complexity of definitions always best explained by contrasting Plato with Socrates, or can these differences sometimes be explained by appealing to the character of Socrates’ interlocutors?
In “The Evolution of Eirôneia in Classical Greek Texts: Why Socratic Eirôneia is Not Socratic Irony,” Melissa Lane presents a case for never translating
Although Lane gives consistently compelling readings, her account suffers from a serious difficulty: the one who is supposed to appreciate an irony is often not the person being ironically addressed. Irony does indeed involve the attempt to convey something other than what is said, but in many cases the person to whom the ironic speech is directed is not expected to notice the irony—in fact, the irony often depends on that person’s ignorance. I suggest rejecting the Lane’s dichotomy between irony and “concealing by feigning”: in some cases, a speaker might be doing both, by concealing from one person what is conveyed to another. Perhaps Thrasymachus accusation can be read as the charge that Socrates intends to conceal from Thrasymachus in order to convey to his other companions his low opinion of Thrasymachus.
In “A Defence of Dogmatism in the Interpretation of Plato,” John Beversluis offers a reading of Plato as having held views (
Beversluis presents “moderate” Michael Frede’s position4 as supported primarily by an appeal to “formal features,” such as the employment of fiction, that distance Plato from the views found in the dialogues. As Beversluis is right to point out, the observation that Plato wrote fiction is not in itself an argument for non-dogmatism. Similarly, the fact that Plato’s characters are humble in their claims does not entail that Plato does not endorse any claim: “Disavowing complete epistemic certainty is compatible with advancing positive doctrine” (108). Beversluis concludes by attacking the claim that Plato in all cases holds that one must arrive at correct views for oneself (a position that apparently places even Gregory Vlastos among the “moderate non-dogmatists”). Beversluis argues that if someone could impart moral knowledge Plato’s Socrates “would certainly want them to impart it” (109). I will here simply mention that Forster argues in this volume for the contrary position (see above) and leave adjudication to the reader.
In “The Ridiculousness of Being Overcome by Pleasure: Protagoras 352b1-358d4,” David Wolfsdorf persuasively argues first that, contrary to other interpretations, the “concept of being overcome by pleasure is ridiculous because self-contradictory” (117). Socrates dismisses the popular conception of
In “The Portrait of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium,” William J. Prior makes a reasonable case for the view that the depiction of Socrates in the Symposium” could be a portrait of the historical Socrates” (140—original emphasis). Though Prior offers no “theory” to account for the unusual structural complexity of the dialogue, he does point out that the many layers allow explicit comment on Socrates’ “wisdom, his character, and his effects” on others (141). In particular, the comments of various characters (including Socrates’ own in the Diotima story) inform readers that Socrates has many devoted followers, occasionally enters into a trance-like state, and seems to possess some wisdom. This combination leads Prior to suggest that Socrates served as Plato’s
In “Speaking with the Same Voice as Reason: Personification in Plato’s Psychology,” Rachana Kamtekar argues that Plato consistently employs personification in his psychology because of its usefulness for the promotion of philosophical virtue. “Personification,” for Kamtekar, means treating the soul or each of its parts “as itself a subject of desires and beliefs which can originate movement and which can converse with the body or with other parts of the soul” (171). Personification has been criticized on various counts: it appears to lead to a regress, since my psychology is explained in terms of parts that each seem to need their own psychological explanation; and it is hard to see how a unified person can be composed of a multitude of persons. Kamtekar largely avoids these issues, however, and focuses on a more basic question: why personify in the first place? Personification does not explain complex behavior or personality differences: the partition of the soul explains these phenomena, and personification appears irrelevant to such explanations. The fact that personification is wide-spread also does not explain its presence in Plato, nor does simply pointing to the contexts of particular dialogues.
Before revealing her account of Plato’s motivation for personification, Kamtekar offers an anecdotal discussion of the usefulness and prevalence in folk psychology of personification (imagine an angel on one shoulder, devil on the other). This section works well enough, but surely reference to some data could have been made to back up these claims. Kamtekar argues finally that personification is particularly useful in the cultivation of philosophic virtue. In both Republic and Phaedrus, Kamtekar argues, the more complex, more fully personified accounts of the soul (as in the image of the charioteer at Phaedrus 246a ff.) serve as a means of promoting philosophic virtue. In each dialogue, simpler psychologies promote “civic virtue” and “human self-control”; to convey that philosophic virtue is intrinsically desirable, Plato employs personification to a greater degree. The identification with reason as the ruling element fostered by the charioteer image is unnecessary for mere “human self-control,” but it is useful for promoting philosophic virtue. Kamtekar ends by observing that although Aristotle views an exact psychology as unnecessary for ethics, Plato disagrees. The useful device of personification, then, must be based in sound psychology and must be viewed as provisional, as open to improvement as one develops wisdom and philosophic virtue.
In “Plato’s Prometheanism,” Christine J. Thomas argues that the Promethean method of the Philebus importantly involves not only collection and division, but also insight into ratio and proportion, empirical observation, and all arts and sciences (
In “The Bad is Last but Does Not Last: Aristotle’s Metaphysics
Against this objection, Katz and Polansky argue first that Aristotle never mentions any notion of priority in worth; what’s more, the claim that bad actualities are posterior in nature occurs during his ranking of priorities, supposedly in worth—it seems that Aristotle sees no distinction between priority in worth and priority in nature. Although I accept that Aristotle does not see this distinction, I cannot endorse Katz and Polansky’s eventual claim that “there is no [such] distinction” (239). The authors next argue that Aristotle does not see potentialities as neutral but as always “directed towards their (good) actuality” (239). One can validly conclude, on this reading, that every bad actuality has some potentiality prior to it, since each should best be seen as some perversion of a potentiality for some good actuality. Only good actualities, then, are prior to potentialities, and every bad actuality has some potentiality associated with it—Aristotle can hold, without equivocation, that all bad actualities are posterior by nature to potentialities and therefore that no bad actuality is eternal. In sum, Katz and Polansky offer an ingenious and surprisingly persuasive defense of Aristotle in this important piece of interpretative work.
In “Living in Doubt: Carneades’ Pithanon Reconsidered,” Suzanne Obdrzalek interprets the
As Obdrzalek acknowledges, the key difficulty with her preference for a stronger reading concerns
In “Some Cautionary remarks on the ‘is’/’teaches’ Analogy,” John Malcolm rejects Lesley Brown’s way of rescuing certain philosophers from their own arguments.6 Problems with the “to be” verb (
Malcolm offers two cautions: the most troubling cases can all be explained without appeal to the analogy—treating every occurrence of
In “Archytas Unbound: A Discussion of Carl A. Huffman, Archytas of Tarentum,” Andrew Barker judges the book to be “admirable.” In addition to laying out historical discussions of Archytas’ life and the surviving fragments, Huffman also attempts an ambitious reconstruction of Archytas’ thought: much of Barker’s discussion concerns these speculative chapters. On Huffman’s reading, Archytas conceives of science as involved with making distinctions about universals in order to arrive at an understanding of particulars. Huffman presents a discussion of Archytas’ work on harmonics as exemplifying this view of science. Although the reading is speculative, Barker notes that the “data can be made to fit” (306); also noteworthy is the fact that reasoning from principles alone isn’t enough: empirical observation plays a key role in Archytas’ supposed procedure. This last point, though, as Barker rightly notes, raises the question of the relation between the initial general divisions and the ultimate claims about particulars: if the latter are not derived from the former, but are reached “because of” a proper grasp of them, what is the “exact force of this ‘because’?” (308). Barker then turns to Huffman’s interpretation of the superiority (according to fr. 4) of
In “With Friends, ‘more is going on than meets the eye’: A Discussion of Terry Penner and Christopher Rowe, Plato’s Lysis,” R. M. Dancy offers a sustained attack on Penner and Rowe’s book, which he at one point calls a “tortured tale” (327-8). Dancy does, though, call the book “highly provocative,” and asserts that it is “the most thorough commentary available on the Lysis, covering every important aspect of the dialogue” (346). After criticizing the authors’ attempt to identify the form of the good and the first friend, Dancy offers a particularly incisive discussion of the “adventurous” (Penner and Rowe’s term) “re-reading” of the Lysis in the second part of the book. One of the more “adventurous” explanations Penner and Rowe offer concerns what they call the “principle of real reference”: the reference of one’s words is determined neither by one’s own beliefs nor by linguistic convention; instead, words refer always to objects as they are in the “real world.” In the Lysis, Socrates informs Hippothales that although he thought he was praising Lysis he was really praising himself (205d-e). On Penner and Rowe’s account, Hippothales has no first-person authority over the reference of his words; thus, he refers to himself by using the name “Lysis” even while Lysis stands next to him. Dancy—rightly, in my mind—rejects this account as implausible. Dancy then criticizes a further principle at work in the book, which Dancy calls the “principle of the priority of the truth”: to know what Socrates is saying, one must first determine the truth value of what Socrates is saying. As Penner and Rowe themselves write (in the voice of an “analytic-elenctic” objector) this view seems “preposterous”: “[s]urely we can know what a sentence says without knowing whether it is true or false” (344; Penner and Rowe, 199). According to Dancy,8 Penner and Rowe do not answer the objection (nor make much use of this “principle”): the verdict of “preposterous” must then stand. Dancy ends with a brief examination of the “best material in the book,” Penner and Rowe’s treatment of Socrates’ egoism (345). In all, the discussion is compelling and, though critical of Penner and Rowe, reaffirms the significance of this new text on the Lysis.9
In “Plato in Tübingen: A Discussion of Konrad Gaiser, Gesammelte Schriften,” Wolfgang-Rainer Mann relentlessly criticizes the “Tübingen school” of Plato scholarship in his discussion of Gaiser’s collected works. Indeed, Mann cites Vlastos’ 196310 criticism of the Tübingen school only to judge it to be too lenient. In discussing the central claim of the “school”—that Plato’s key views were contained in an esoteric “indirect tradition” ( indirekte Überlieferung)—Mann makes what appears to be a good-faith attempt at seeking support for that claim. He first entertains the notion that Plato held that his key views could not possibly be communicated directly but then shows that the Tübingen thinkers themselves reject this account. If Plato does not in his writing express his most important ideas even though those ideas could be so expressed, perhaps Plato holds that these ideas ought not be expressed to an indiscriminate audience. Mann rejects this account for a number of persuasive reasons. Two appear particularly salient. If Plato did not publish his important views because he was afraid that, due to their complexity, they would be too easily misunderstood, why would he be comfortable publishing, for example, the Parmenides or Philebus ? Secondly, inasmuch as the unwritten views are given pride of place, the Tübingen reading implies that Plato conceives of philosophy as a doctrine rather than a method: as Mann writes, this is a “decidedly un-Socratic” (383) view of philosophy, and I would add that it seems also rather un-Platonic. Mann also highlights the surprising banality of the supposedly central Platonic doctrines: there is a One, and a Dyad. “‘Is that all there is?’ (Shades of Peggy Lee!)” (385). Finally, Mann charges the reading with near circularity: the interpretation is supported by appeals to the dialogues, and yet only those who already know of the unwritten doctrine will know what to look for in the dialogues. After rightly chastising Gaiser’s account of Aristotle—who is supposed not to have become a Platonist because he was not “illuminated”—as anti-philosophical, Mann attempts to end on a positive note: he assures the reader that Gaiser was “kind” (397), and recommends another of his books.
1. The only typographical errors I spotted where in bibliographies (for example on p. 201). I feel compelled to mention, however, that the physical volume I received (the paper edition of OSAP) seems surprisingly fragile. After reading it twice, I cannot open the text without the ominous sound of pages pulling away from the binding (though, in fairness, no pages have actually fallen out).
2. See for example the definitions of “speed” as “the faculty that gets a great deal done in a little time” (Laches 192a-b) and “mud” as “earth mixed with moisture” (Theaetetus 147c).
3. Found on p. 40 in Nails’ Agora, Academy, and the Conduct of Philosophy Dordrecht, Boston, and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995.
4. “Plato’s Arguments and the Dialogue Form,” in J. C. Klagge and N. D. Smith (eds.), Methods of Interpreting Plato and His Dialogues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 201-219.
5. See “The Skeptic’s Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge,” in M. F. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds.), The Original Skeptics: A Controversy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 127-151.
6. “The Verb ‘to be’ in Greek Philosophy: Some Remarks,” in S. Everson (ed.), Language (Companions to Ancient Thought, 3; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
7. At least all true attributions of properties are assertions of existence on Russell’s account. See, for example, “On Denoting,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 56. (Oct., 1905), pp. 479-493 (available online). Immanuel Kant appears to have held a similar view, as seen most clearly in his rejection of the ontological proof of god’s existence in his Critique of Pure Reason (see especially A598/B626 ff.).
8. Regrettably, I have yet to read Penner and Rowe’s book in its entirety.
9. One final comment about Dancy’s discussion: he make the excellent point, in a footnote, that transliteration of Greek terms benefits no one. Typesetting is now done by computers, making Greek easy to incorporate; those who cannot read Greek can no more read transliterated Greek; and Greek readers are often only frustrated by transliteration (324 n.4). With that reasoning in mind, I have eschewed all use of transliteration in this review.
10. “On Plato’s Oral Doctrine,” first published in Gnomon, 41 (1963), 641-655; reprinted with appendix in Vlastos’ Platonic Studies, Princeton, 1981, 379-398.