BMCR 2022.09.05

L’âme comme livre. Étude sur une image platonicienne

, L’âme comme livre. Étude sur une image platonicienne. Paris: Éditions Classiques Garnier, 2021. Pp. 174. ISBN 9782406101314 €26,00.

There is scholarship in ancient philosophy whose value is solely dependent on the quality of its analysis. There is also scholarship—perhaps not as widespread—which goes beyond description and makes an interesting contribution of its own. The two approaches are both important, so it is not a judgment of value to say that L’âme comme livre: Étude sur une image platonicienne belongs to the second category. To be sure, readers find here interesting perspectives on Plato’s dialogue Philebus, but they also take a journey that is enjoyable on its own terms.

Thein begins his work by pointing to a connection between phantasia and the modern notion of imagination, a connection that, he claims, has been denied often. He asks whether the notion of imagination refers to some entity that has a natural unity, or whether it is just a name that covers diverse functions.

The question naturally directs Thein toward the image of soul as book that is found in Plato’s Philebus (39a-c). Here, Socrates suggests to Protarchus that our souls are the kind of things on which something can be written. This description comes in the middle of a discussion regarding the association of pleasures with either right opinion and knowledge or false opinion and ignorance. In general, the image of soul as book may lead to various paths of inquiry. I mention here two. The first is about the status of soul as recipient of ideas written or painted by the two agents mentioned by Socrates in the Philebus, the writer and the painter. The second is about the production of images in the soul and the connection or lack of connection between the writer and the painter. This second inquiry requires an account of out how ideas come to be, how they interact with each other, and how communication / interpretation may work within this book / soul.

Thein explores this second set of questions, bringing together sources not often associated with studies of ancient Greek philosophy. On top of analyses of ancient writers on perception and the role of phantasia, you will also find Descartes and Kant, Derrida and Sartre, and novelists such as Gustave Flaubert.

The book is built around Philebus 38c3-39c6, where Socrates makes the connection between false judgment and false pleasure. Socrates claims that opinions are sometimes true and sometimes false, a statement with which his interlocutor Protarchus agrees. Socrates further claims that the production of judgments stems from memory and perception, to which he further adds feelings, pathemata, at 39a. The first step in the image of soul as book comes here. In our soul, Socrates claims, there is an internal writer or scribe, which R. Hackforth describes as “a being composite of present sensation, memory, and the παθήματα (fear, confidence, anger, etc.) consequent upon the conjunction of sensation with memory.”[1] If this scribe writes what is true, we have true judgment; if he writes what is false, the opposite obtains. At this point, Socrates introduces another artist, a painter, who produces mental pictures of what the writer has written in us. According to Hackforth, this artist “symbolizes the faculty which Aristotle calls φαντασία, imagination or image-making.”[2]

Although Thein’s main aim is not to clarify Plato’s view of perception and the role played by phantasia in the dialogue, he does bring clarification to it. For example, in a chapter that studies the writing and the visualization of ideas, the author looks more in depth into how the pathemata already present in our souls/books may influence the activity of the scribe. Thein addresses such questions as whether Plato would claim that the painter comes always after the writer, or whether it is possible that the painter and the writer are simultaneously at work in our souls.

The connection between the writer and the painter is due to the fact that the soul is engaged in an activity of anticipation. The soul is time-oriented: it anticipates that things change. However, this change does not take place in a value-free world; anticipation means for Plato, Thein says, either fearing or desiring something, due to some belief about what is to happen, belief that depends on the past. This leads the soul to calculate or analyze what it should pursue or avoid. This makes the soul an entity that lives and thinks at the same time; the soul calculates what is more advantageous in calculating what, on the basis of experience, it believes may give pleasure or pain. A human soul, then, is never purely in the present, but also and at the same time in the future and past.

Thein directs his attention to the issue of false pleasure first. He emphasizes that the Philebus connects “the propositional dimension of pleasure with the process of forming opinions” (25), and the notion of false pleasure makes sense in this context only. Pleasure and pain are intentional states of the soul, Thein says, endowed with a propositional content. Thus, the author speculates in two directions. First, the human soul does not seem to know states that are absolutely deprived of pleasure and pain. Second, the presence of a minimal degree of pleasure and pain is a necessary condition of our self-awareness.

The writing of this initial chapter illustrates quite well the approach of the entire book. Thein begins with analysis of the text, and he ends with speculation beyond the text about the role of pleasure in the soul in general. (This movement from analysis to speculation effectively mirrors the very image of soul as book that is at the core of the text.)

The simultaneous presence of the writer and painter in a human soul has produced various debates regarding the connection between mental images within us and the linguistic structures we use. Some believe that internal images are irreducible to linguistic structures; others maintain that images derive from the content of statements. Does Socrates believe that mental images participate in judgments? Thein believes so. He rejects the opinion of commentators who propose that there are two different creations in the soul, without genuine connection: opinions expressed about some reality and non-linguistic imaginations or visualizations. In our psychic states, Thein believes, there is no separation between language and image.

It may seem that it is easier to claim that the production of images takes place in time, since this depends on anticipation and also evaluating that anticipation due to memory. But the work of the writer, Thein says, is also influenced by the rapport that the soul has with past and future. Socrates describes the case of a statue that someone sees from a distance and wonders whether it is a human or a statue. This very thought, Thein emphasizes, depends on a prior assumption that stems from one’s judgments: one must assume that it is possible to find a statue in that place. If this prior thought were not present in one’s judgment, one could not even wonder whether a human or a statue is present. The prior idea that it is possible for a statue to be there allows for considering that possibility. (The writer, then, if he makes a mistake in referring to the object he sees in a distance, does not miscalculate, but apply his calculations badly: see p. 54.)

So Thein attributes this role to the writer in the soul: prior logoi that allow someone to judge new information in context. This raises the question regarding the purpose of the painter: what kind of images does he produce in the soul? Thein follows the view that the painter adds an emotional taint to the discourse present in our soul. So, the inscription “Simmias” when one sees Simmias would be changed to “Simmias, finally someone reasonable!” or some other qualitative description of him (see p. 57). After all, the painter seems to account for that which differentiates us from calculating machines: we do not receive input of external objects without attributing values to this data. Thus, when we see a person, e.g. Simmias, we do so while attaching to his presence, at the same time, various positive or negative descriptions.

In his more detailed chapters on the role of the painter, Thein discusses three possibilities regarding the relation between the writer and the painter in the soul. Here they are, according to his summary (see p. 91). First, images join the articulated discourse, but they remain secondary to it; second, images precede words, even determining their sense (see above the example with Simmias); third, the rapport between mental images and words is that of a great number of free encounters of which we bring into focus only one part, and this part receives a linguistic expression more articulated. As may have become evident, Thein sides with the third option. He shows that the painter cannot be reduced to a simple illustrator of written discourses. This is due to its role in anticipating possibilities of future events, which can produce counterfactual memories of that which has never happened. Such moments are numerous in the past, and many of them take place without us even paying attention to them. Nevertheless, as Thein says, this is where all the regrets and omissions of our lives are listed.

Thein believes that one of the results of this perspective is that Philebus presents a different view about the agent of falsity than we have in the Sophist. In the latter, the sophist constructs a distortion with the clear purpose of provoking and inducing false ideas. In the Philebus, the victim and the instigator of the trap are one and the same, since the writer and the painter are not two different faculties in the soul (see p. 102).

In the second part of the book, Thein applies Plato’s image of soul as book to Plato’s own text. What kind of images do Plato’s myths create in the souls of his readers? Thein suggests that the creation of an image through myth attempts to replace the role of the painter, so that the writings in the soul are transformed according to these Platonic paintings.

Toward the end of the book, in a chapter on “Imagination et délibération”, Thein discusses phantasia in Aristotle’s De Anima. Thein situates Aristotle’s ideas in continuity with the Philebus, primarily because the production of images is an integral part of the forming of opinions, but also because Aristotle takes into consideration pleasure and pain. Still, Thein does not intend to clarify the views of the two Greek philosophers in this chapter. Instead, he wants to enlarge a horizon not explicitly developed by them, he says, a horizon that has its seeds in their texts: “là où les images mentales se projettent comme les états virtuels du monde et de nous-mêmes, la question de l’image se connecte naturellement à celle de notre pensée modale” (132).

After all, Thein believes that the relationship between the writer and the painter in our souls defines our humanity. The connection between the visual and the linguistic aspects of our imagination makes us beings who judge and create images while perceiving. This takes place in a social context, since the way we perceive external objects depends on how we learn to evaluate them in our interactions with peers. In what he describes as his general conclusion, he says, “l’écrivain et le peintre dans notre âme, si figuratifs ou métaphoriques qu’ils soient, font partie du paysage commun à tous les individus humains en tant qu’êtres d’emblée sociaux et artificiels, êtres qui pensent et imagines seuls mais qui ne pourraient jamais penser ni imaginer sans les autres et leurs artifices” (156). It is a compelling and seductive view of humanity, which suggests that, even if a definition of its nature emphasizes something about each individual (its capacity to think and imagine alone), this essential feature is impossible without the framework of a community. In other words, one’s own humanity depends on the existence of that of others.

Thein’s volume is worth reading on two accounts: first, as a discussion of the image of soul as book in the Philebus, second, as a book that brings forward a fresh account on how thinking and imagination unites us not only because they are essential properties of humans, but also because their actualization depends on the company of our fellow humans.


[1] Plato’s Philebus (Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 75

[2] Op. cit. 72