BMCR 2013.04.14

Philosophos: Plato’s Missing Dialogue

, Philosophos: Plato's Missing Dialogue. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. x, 290. ISBN 9780199606184. $55.00.


At the beginning of his dialogue Sophist, Plato appears to project a trilogy of conversations, the first aimed at defining a sophist, the second a statesman, and a third a philosopher (217ff). We possess the first two dialogues, Sophist and Statesman; there is not a trace of the third. It seems unlikely that it was written and lost, given that there is no reference in antiquity to anything that Plato wrote that we do not possess. So, the puzzle has always been: what happened to the dialogue named Philosopher ? It is probably not the case that Plato died before he got around to writing it, since there is one very lengthy work, Laws, that was, based on the ancient testimony, his last. Apparently, Plato died when the work was still in draft form. Some have implausibly suggested that the missing dialogue—or at least its putative substance – appears under an alias, so to speak, namely, as Philebus or Timaeus. But though each of these dialogues does take up issues that could have made their way into Philosopher, they both seem so different from the two extant parts of the projected trilogy that this suggestion has only had a very lukewarm reception at best, and even that owing to the fact that there does not seem to be anything better. Another simple, albeit very controversial solution, is to suppose that Plato’s doubts in his 7th Letter about putting into writing discussions of the matters of which he is most serious caused him to stay his hand in writing the dialogue that would surely have addressed these. But then why did he strongly suggest at the beginning of Sophist and at the beginning of Statesman (258A) that Philosopher was very much a part of his intended publishing schedule?

This is the puzzle that Mary Louise Gill aims to solve in Philosophos. Plato’s Missing Dialogue. Her strategy is to situate Sophist and Statesman into a wider context including Theaetetus, and Parmenides, the former being the dialogue that sets up the theme of knowledge, presumably the purview of the philosopher, and the latter proposing the ‘dialectical pattern’ that is to provide the template for the presumptive subject matter of philosophy, namely, being. It is not entirely clear to me how Statesman is made to fit into this strategy beyond Gill’s suggestion that this dialogue ‘recommends and uses techniques to define the statesman that can be extended to the investigation of the philosopher’ (11). It might be supposed that if Sophist defines the sophist as a purveyor of non-being in the form of false belief, and the statesman is defined as one who employs true belief (based on knowledge) on the human world of becoming, then the philosopher would probably be defined as one who aims for knowledge of the realm of eternal being. This would fit well with how the philosopher’s special métier is characterized in Republic, though this can hardly be the whole story if the projected Philosopher is supposed to discuss something other than dialectic. Gill, though, embraces the widely held view that in Plato’s ‘later’ dialogues he renounced the sharp division between being and becoming, though she is admittedly ‘stunned’ by its reappearance in Timaeus (38). Consequently, she eschews this way of characterizing the contents of the missing dialogue.

Her alternative solution proceeds in the following way: the second part of Parmenides is a dialectical examination of Parmenides’ own hypothesis, that all is one. There are four (or, according to some, five) ‘positive’ hypotheses (‘that the one is’) and four ‘negative’ hypotheses (‘that the one is not’), considering this one both in itself and in relation to ‘others’. Gill takes only the first four ‘positive’ hypotheses of this most contentious exercise as actually being concerned with a Form of Unity and intended to provide a template for an examination of a Form of Being (ch. 2). The pattern, roughly, tries out two opposing ways of conceiving of unity, then seeks a resolution of the conflict, then finally destroys this resolution, leaving a sort of aporia for the reader to consider.

The dialectical pattern is taken up first in Theaetetus with the refutation of Heraclitus, the proponent of extreme flux. Gill takes this to be the view that being is identified with becoming since this is all there is. The next step is taken up in Sophist with the refutation of Parmenides, the champion of the stability of being. It is also, according to Gill, alluded to in the so-called digression at Theaetetus 177B-177C where, as Gill admits, Parmenides is not mentioned, though Plato advances ‘a philosophical ideal of which Parmenides is a prime exemplar’ (86). Each of these two positions—all is in flux and all is stable—is unacceptable. The next step in filling in the dialectical template is taken in Sophist with the attempted reconciliation of the ‘gods’ and ‘giants’, the proponents of materialism and idealism, presumably stand-ins for Heraclitus and Parmenides. The final step, which Gills calls ‘the aporia about being’ shows that this attempted reconciliation will not do. This refutation is itself deeply flawed. The only way to proceed beyond it is for the young Socrates of Parmenides and the readers of Sophist and Statesman (and, presumably, Theaetetus) to give up the assumption of the former in the first part of that dialogue that Forms do not have opposite or contradictory properties. One needs to arrive at an understanding, then, that being both changes and is at rest or, more perspicuously, that it includes both things that change and things at rest. Thus, the philosopher’s bailiwick is actually being qua being, what Gill calls a ‘structural kind’ which is always ‘filled in’ with the contents of some ‘categorial kind’ (230 with 241). Plato’s philosopher is thus, as it turns out, an Aristotelian metaphysician.

Gill maintains that Plato did not write Philosopher because he wanted the reader to work for the results of the hidden dialectical exercise, though one would have thought that Plato makes his readers work hard enough to get at his meaning in the dialogues we possess. The intriguing, or perhaps amusing possibility arising from Gill’s analysis—though she does not spell this out—is that prior to Gill herself the only person to discern this dialectical exercise, ‘hidden in plain sight’ according to the author, was Aristotle, whose own metaphysics is the only authentic Philosopher.

Gill’s detailed case for her reconstruction of the contents of Philosopher takes her through some of the most difficult and controversial texts in Plato. There are two chapters on Parmenides, two on Theaetetus, one on each of Sophist and Statesman, and a concluding chapter in which the various threads are pulled together, and a bit on Philebus is added. She engages, albeit briefly, with a good bit of the scholarly literature. She ably defends some positions on some crucial texts that certainly fall within the range of respectable opinion. She defends others which I find incredible. For example, Theaetetus examines the question ‘what is knowledge? ( epistēmē). The dialogue explicitly rejects three definitions of knowledge: as sense- perception, as true belief, and as true belief plus an account of some sort. Gill draws the lesson from the dialogue that we should think of knowledge as constituted by sense-perception, true belief, plus an account (137). Thus, she feels justified in articulating ‘levels of knowledge’ variously employed by the philosopher, the statesman, and even the sophist. This interpretation seems to be at odds with the plain sense of the text.

I also find difficult to accept her reading of the portentous passage at Sophist 248E-249B, where the Eleatic Stranger urges the idealists (the ‘gods’) to accept that that which is ‘completely real’ ( pantelōs on) includes motion, soul, life, and intellect. According to Gill (97), the idealists are merely being asked to accept that these are somehow real, rather than as found among that which is really real, that is, in the intelligible realm of being. But surely these ‘friends of Forms’ would never have thought of denying that, say, ‘life’ or ‘motion’ name some features or properties of the universe, which even for them includes the realm of becoming. What these idealists deny is exactly what Timaeus 30C-D takes as obvious: that within the intelligible realm are indeed found life and intellect and even motion (cf. Laws 897D3, on kinēsis nou) in the person of the Demiurge and the ‘Living Being’ containing all Forms. If, as Gill assumes, Timaeus can have no relevance for understanding what Plato in his later years thought philosophy and the philosopher are, then alternative, and to me, unlikely readings, must be preferred.

Gill is highly selective in her use of Aristotle’s testimony, since it is essential for her thesis that Plato radically changed his metaphysics from what it was in Republic to what it was in the so-called later dialogues, something that Aristotle’s testimony does not support. Aristotle does recognize something like a ‘development’ in Plato’s metaphysics, but it is not in the direction that Gill proposes to take it but in the direction of the mathematization of the Forms and their reduction to first principles. One might have thought that Philosopher would at least broach the topic of the first principle of all, identified as the Idea of the Good in Republic and then clearly alluded to in Timaeus 48C2-6 and 53D4-7. This Idea, we are told, is ‘beyond being’. It really strains credulity to suppose that Plato’s most refined account of what the philosopher is concerned with would ignore this first principle. So, we are asked to set aside Aristotle’s testimony and instead follow the accumulation of a collage of passages that, looked at in a certain light, reveal what has hitherto been lost for the ages, the contents of Plato’s Philosopher. Gill’s attempt to make Plato into a sort of proto-Aristotelian metaphysician is surprising on a number of scores, not the least of which is that Aristotle himself identifies the science of being qua being with theology, whereas Gill wants Plato’s philosopher to be untainted by such things.