BMCR 2017.10.78

Buchstaben als ‘paradeigma’ in Platons Spätdialogen

, Buchstaben als 'paradeigma' in Platons Spätdialogen: Dialektik und Modell im ‘Theaitetos’, ‘Sophistes’, ‘Politikos’ und ‘Philebos’. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 353. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. vii, 322. ISBN 9783110462166. $112.00.

Publisher’s Preview

Based on Oberhammer’s University of Hildesheim doctoral dissertation, this worthwhile book is organized around detailed discussion of those passages of the Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus and Philebus in which Plato explores questions about philosophical method by means of the model of letters and syllables.1 Aptly enough for a book in which the Politicus model of weaving also occupies a central place, the book pursues three, somewhat loosely interwoven threads.

The first and major thread is the announced thesis (1) that in these late dialogues central epistemological and ontological points are expressed and grounded by means of the model of letters and syllable. Stated thus baldly, this thesis might underwhelm. But readers should not be misled: there is considerable substance in the way that Oberhammer unpacks this thesis in the detailed discussions of Chapters Two (primarily on the discussion of the ‘dream theory’ in the Theaetetus), Four (on the initial use of angling as a paradigm and the later discussion of dialectic in the Sophist), Five (a particularly valuable discussion of the nature and use of paradigm as method in the Politicus) and Six (on τέχνη and the divine method in the Philebus). Indeed, one element of the undoubted value of the book is that any scholar interested in one or more of these late works can expect to find many fine-grained observations that engage and, sometimes, provoke, so that these chapters repay careful reading.

Oberhammer is at his best when, as in the bulk of these chapters, he is working carefully through individual passages in their context. Occasional, more sweeping claims disappoint. For example, while I find it plausible (if, on this point, not especially original) that a broadly “atomistic” picture is foregrounded as a source of epistemological and ontological difficulties in the discussion of the third definition of knowledge in the Theaetetus, Oberhammer’s striking assertion (e.g. 69-70, 74-5) that such atomism underlies all three of the dialogue’s proposed definitions seems to me far from obvious and I did not find it anywhere fully explained or defended.2

A second thread of the work seeks to set Plato’s methodological investigations in an ethical context, encouraged, Oberhammer suggests, by Plato’s dramatic, temporal situation of the series, Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus, in relation to Socrates’ trial and execution. This thread is pursued primarily in Chapter Three, focused on certain passages of the Sophist and the Politicus concerned with the character and difficulty of their project of distinguishing sophist, statesman and philosopher, and on the Theaetetus digression (172c-177c). While an attempt to tease out ethical dimensions of Plato’s philosophical methodology is certainly to be welcomed, the claims advanced by Oberhammer here struck me as somewhat broad and underdeveloped. No doubt it is true, for example, that in the Theaetetus digression Plato brings together the dimension of wisdom and knowledge and that of the good and happiness (124), and also that knowledge of justice has a central role to play in this connection (123). But I found myself wanting more explanation than offered of how these connections should be fleshed out.

The third and perhaps least developed thread, but one that may in part be intended to bind the other two, concerns what Oberhammer calls “die «Fragilität»” of knowledge (e.g. 295). Fragility here seems to be, not an unstable condition of knowledge itself, but the circumstance that we very often find ourselves not well situated for the achievement of knowledge and, perhaps, that the vehicles required for the acquisition of knowledge may themselves constitute—or be close cousin to what constitute—such a non-ideal circumstance. As a theme, this comes into focus only infrequently over the course of the book. But it is primarily this, I think, that Oberhammer means to prepare us for by discussion of the twin topics of the book’s first chapter, focused on passages of the Phaedrus and Cratylus. These topics are: (i) the vexed, but inescapable relation between language and world; (ii) the slippery notion of similarity or likeness, which encompasses the genuine kinships that Oberhammer sees at the heart of dialectical method as well as the method of paradigm, but also the superficial resemblance of misleading or deceptive imitations.

While readers with relevant interests will find good food for thought throughout the book, its central contribution is undoubtedly its rich and close engagement with the letter and syllable passages and the account it builds thereby of the interplay between dialectic, paradigm and τέχνη. While the focus is the specific, concrete paradigm of letters and syllables, what is especially fruitful is Oberhammer’s careful analysis of Plato’s methodology of paradigm-use in general, what is involved in one thing becoming—and being grasped as—a paradigm for another. In the discussion of the Politicus, this also provides a very helpful framework for understanding the shift that takes place in the dialogue from a focus on the activity of herding to discussion of weaving in the bid to understand the activity of the statesman.

More controversially, Oberhammer has a somewhat complex view of the way in which paradigm and dialectical method interrelate, a view to which the conditions of individuation—a thing being the same as itself and different from others—are central. My concern here is that, while these conditions may indeed be common to the structure of a paradigm and of dialectic, this may be because this is a condition of reasoning quite generally, and not a sign of some particular connection between paradigm and dialectical method. More broadly, while Oberhammer is surely right that the fact that individuation is a condition on combination explains the inclusion of sameness and difference amongst the “greatest kinds” of the Sophist, it is less clear to me how much this contributes to Oberhammer’s case for Plato’s development of a new, broadly relational conception of being in this passage. I found this element of his discussion somewhat elusive.3

As for τέχνη: dialectic itself is, on Oberhammer’s view, a τέχνη; at the same time, dialectical method, the grasp of a unitary domain of being as a complex unity, is a prerequisite of every τέχνη, a somewhat demanding requirement. Oberhammer rightly insists on the deep connections between the divine method characterized in Philebus 16c5-17a5 and τέχνη; and he does a fine job of drawing them out. I was particularly taken with his suggestion that, in this dialogue’s brief nod to the story of Theuth’s invention of writing, we should distinguish what Theuth discovers ( entdecken)—linguistic articulation as a distinct and distinguishable realm of being—and what he invents ( erfinden), the method of classifying the phonetic elements thereof. Though Oberhammer does not emphasize the fact, this brings us full circle to the relation between language and reality from which we began with the Cratylus, and raises questions of broader interest about realism that also surface in other places in the book, but which Oberhammer does not directly pursue.

Overall, Oberhammer’s book makes a welcome contribution to scholarship on Plato’s late metaphysics and epistemology and has the distinct advantage of coming at these subjects with a methodological focus that is less commonly the avenue of approach to them. The book is largely well-produced by the Press, though I did notice some inaccuracies in the printing of Greek.4


1. Oberhammer wisely favours “Modell” over “Beispiel” as translation of παράδειγμα for reason discussed p. 3, n. 1. I shall use “model” or, simply, “paradigm”.

2. I find it less helpful to describe this atomism, as Oberhammer does, as “ein logisch Atomismus” (e.g. 75). Certainly, the position so characterized is not that of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In contrast, the “logical atomism” of Wittgenstein and Russell is the point of reference for Gilbert Ryle’s posthumous paper “Logical Atomism in Plato’s Theaetetus“, Phronesis 35 (1990), 21-46.

3. In this connection, one notable omission from Oberhammer’s bibliography is M. M. McCabe, Plato’s Individuals (Princeton 1994).

4. E.g. τάντων for πάντων on p. 271, and a handful of comparable misprints.