BMCR 2023.03.11

Kant et Platon: lectures, confrontations, héritages

, , Kant et Platon: lectures, confrontations, héritages. Bibliothèque d'histoire de la philosophie. Paris: Vrin, 2022. Pp. 232. ISBN 9782711630509

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This volume collects nine essays in French (plus an introduction) which display serious competence in working with both Plato and Kant and use historical proficiency to make provocative and thoughtful investigations. All are originals, except the entry by Korsgaard, which is a French translation of her well-known 1999 essay from The Journal of Ethics. (Dangel’s piece, while translated from English, is new here.) The essays are divided into three sections, Readings, Confrontations, and Legacies. The first seven essays compare Plato and Kant on a given philosophical question (mathematics, deontology, intellectual intuition, self-constitution, the beauty-good relation, teleology, and myth); the two concluding essays deal with post-Kantian attempts either to pry apart (Jacobi) or to synthesize (Cohen and Natorp) the two philosophies. Overall, I think most readers drawn to the title of this volume will find what they expect and more. There are numerous helpful analyses (some more complete, others more like pointers for further development) which could help spark or support additional research in either corpus. Fortunately, the essays generally eschew oversimplification; and no essay depicts Plato as a Kant avant la lettre nor Kant as a Plato acolyte. In what follows I will briefly summarize each essay, dwelling longer on what I see as the most significant claims.

The section entitled Readings contains the excellent essays of Calori and Delcomminette. Drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgment §62 and his Tone of Superiority essay, Calori’s Kant sees latter-day “Platonists” as having pushed Plato’s honest “admiration” for mathematics into an excessive “enthusiasm” which reifies Ideas and treats human intellect as essentially divine. Admiration for mathematics’ effectiveness, i.e. for its merely formal purposiveness (CJ §62), is compatible with critical philosophy’s understanding of human finitude; but if such admiration leads us to divinize human intellect, then an elitist “tone of superiority” or excessive pride in human intuitive powers emerges. Calori persuasively shows how Kant denounces this tendency in some of his contemporaries professing Platonism (e.g. Johann Georg Schlosser). Next, Delcomminette offers the closest reading of Plato in the volume, showing that happiness there is not reducible to satisfaction as it is in Kant; and Platonic duty thus does not conflict with happiness. Likewise, if for Kant happiness is dangerously indeterminate due to the constant flux impacting subjectivity, Plato sees it as indeterminate only because we are ignorant of its true determinacy. Hence, Delcomminette interprets the ranking of the causes of the good life in Plato’s Philebus as arguing that the primary source of happiness in Plato is determinacy itself or “measure.” This thrust in Plato, he argues, aligns with Kant’s emphasis on the primacy of the moral law: “Platonic ethics […] ends up identifying the good with […] determinacy which, in the domain of action, imposes itself on us as duty” (55). But if this law “imposes itself,” then does Plato have a notion of giving oneself the law, i.e. of autonomy? Yes and no. Platonic ethics certainly is not heteronomy, he argues: It does not involve following a norm cognized extrinsically to action; and, although the good life is pleasant, pleasure is not the grounding motive of action for Plato. That said, Platonic autonomy is not Kantian either, for Plato suspects that law cannot be universalized to capture all the nuances of newly emergent situations (see Plato’s Statesman). “Intelligence must evaluate each situation in its singularity so as to realize duty by helping itself to this instrument of just measure, which corresponds in some sense to the manifestation of the good in duty” (58). Delcomminette thus admits that Kant would still reject this “deontological” Plato since—as Calori also previously indicated—Kant would refuse (as “enthusiasm”) its suggestion that we can share in divine nous; he would refuse the task of “assimilating oneself to god as much as possible” (61; citing Theaetetus 176b). This careful and nuanced essay—I would add that further treatment of Kant’s Religion (briefly mentioned, p. 59, note 3) could add even further nuance—is to be recommended for anyone pursuing the question of “deontology” in Plato.

The next section, Confrontations, steps back somewhat from the texts to achieve broader comparative insights. Benoist argues that Kant, despite some evidence to the contrary, aims to develop a positive notion of the noumenon (in practice), and this goal implies some alliance with Platonism. Yet, Kant sees Plato’s Ideas not as too abstract, but rather as never successfully divorced from sensibility, and Kant’s practical metaphysics thus aims to complete Plato’s purification of the noumenon from all “analogy.” Kant is thus a radicalizer of Plato, but he still differs from Plato because Plato’s intelligibles are not merely practical: they are also objects of knowledge; they are accessible not just via any type of practice but specifically via “ascending dialectic” (i.e. a theory-practice by which I inquire with another who questions me); and they are grounded in a Good which, while shedding light on norms around us, does not grant us power to lay down a universal law where none existed before. Plato thus is not, as Kant feared, a proponent of an “intellectual intuition” creating its own object; he rather preserves a sense of exteriority and otherness that goes missing in Kant. Next comes Korsgaard’s well-known article, translated here into French, which finds a shared view of self-constitution at work in Plato’s conception of justice and Kant’s conception of moral action. It fits comfortably among these essays inasmuch as it steps back to argue that Plato and Kant generally hold that action is only good inasmuch as deliberation makes of us a unified person or “constitutional” system. Placed after the Benoist essay, this essay appears almost to remind us that, even if Plato preserves the otherness of intelligibles (Benoist), this does not exclude a creative self-constitution in relation to this otherness, by which we would become responsible agents.

Continuing the Confrontations section, Partene’s essay turns to a comparison of the Beauty-Good relation in both thinkers. How might Philebus 64e, depicting the Good as taking “refuge” in the Beautiful, compare to Kant CJ §59 where beauty is a symbol of morality? While this essay ranges widely across Plato to select moments hinting of Beauty-Good alignment (and focuses less on comparing any particular argument), the ultimate contention is defensible: If Kantian judgments of beauty are disinterested, our moral vocation is nevertheless interested in a world in which that vocation has a sensuous analogue, i.e., beauty. So too does the Philebus find its own way of showing the Good—beyond all sensibility and beyond being—to reverberate nevertheless in sensibility. See, e.g., pure pleasure, which emerges, in Partene’s terms, as a surplus or excess beyond any drive to satisfaction. Next, extending the analysis of Kant’s CJ into the realm of natural teleology, Dangel’s essay lucidly compares Phaedo 96a-102a to Kant’s critique of mechanism. If some essays in the volume seem to want to subvert dominate narratives, this essay seems rather to provide textual support for an oft-noted comparison: Plato and Kant align in appealing to the necessity of teleological judgments (to “save the phenomenon” of living organisms), but they differ inasmuch as, for Kant, such judgments satisfy merely a subjective necessity (relating to our practical vocation). While ineliminable, they still attain only “as if” status. Guerpillon’s subsequent essay, by contrast, is more adventurous and even combative: Kant’s hermeneutics in Religion tends heavily to reduce religious texts to the demands of a priori moral reason. Plato, by contrast, both criticizes and utilizes myth, but he always presents myth merely as a belief-object, radically separating it from any fully accurate interpretability. In a deliciously paradoxical twist, therefore, Kant’s attempt to find rational content even in contingent, historically transmitted myth reveals Kant himself to be deeply beholden to a sort of hyper-Myth of an all-pervasive Reason. Thus, Plato the “mythologist,” who would avoid a reductive attitude towards myth, is far more sober than Kant, who, retaining no contents which cannot be interpreted as pointing towards the Rational Idea, ultimately comes across as a “mythomaniac” (173). My only suggestion is that it would have been helpful here to entertain the potential objection that Kant might have shown more respect for the extra-rational than Guerpillon lets on, by withholding from morally interpreting certain stories or parts of stories.[1]

The book’s final section, Legacies, brings the discussion into two separate post-Kantian contexts. Brunel offers a wide-ranging summary of Jacobi’s increasingly nuanced attempts to coopt Plato (especially the Philebus) for his anti-Kantian project. Kant, argues Jacobi, cannot deny reality to speculative Ideas while also honestly affirming their practical reality. Brunel then sees Jacobi as radicalizing practical reason not only to motivate a more realist conception of Ideas, but also to reinterpret perception as a subordinate mode of action which reveals the genuinely real (i.e. as a revived Platonic nous). For Jacobi, we can know the real; but, given our dependency on others and otherness, we can do so (whether individually or collectively) only in a fragmentary way. Awareness of this fragility should lead us back to Socratic wisdom, against Kant’s treatment of us as universal legislators over nature.[2] Lastly, Fronterotta’s essay shifts to the Neo-Kantian context to show how Cohen and especially Natorp were to read Socratic “Concepts” and Platonic “Ideas” in a Kantianizing way. They were battling, on the one hand, psychologism, with its the reduction of thought-structure to empirical psychology and, on the other hand, logicism, with its inability to connect thought-contents (i.e. semantic contents, realistically interpreted à la Frege) back to the act of thinking. Drawing on themes of mediation in Plato (e.g. “mathematicals”), they developed three core theses: Plato’s forms are seen as a priori concepts in the mind; the Platonic form-sensible distinction is read as Kant’s understanding-sensibility distinction; and Platonic participation blends with the Kantian schematism. Fronterotta rightly acknowledges in a footnote that Cassirer and especially Hartmann would later go in a different direction. It would be interesting to hear more about Hartmann in this story, inasmuch as he aims at a more robust, pluralistic ontological (i.e. “Platonizing”) realism than the earlier Neo-Kantian appropriations of Plato would suggest.[3]

On the whole, these essays nicely complement one another, with each one analyzing a distinctive set of passages on a distinctive question. This design feature, along with the authors’ generally excellent work of locating and highlighting the relevant passages, would alone justify the volume’s existence. Happily, as I hope to have shown, much more can be said of its value. While not all the theses accord with one another, if there is a central theme, I would suggest it is this: Despite Kant’s apparent lack of close familiarity with Plato’s dialogues, and despite his hostility to the reification of Ideas, it cannot be said that he was anti-Platonic. Indeed, most of the essays suggest a Kant who, throughout his career, and not just in his pre-critical era, sought to revitalize his own “Plato” against Platonism and at times even against Plato, albeit always with various supposed “obscurities” pushed aside. While Kant thus missed much of what is loveable about the dialogues, the loss is accompanied by Kant’s spirited and surprisingly nuanced (given his textual limitations) critical-appropriative maneuvers. This volume thus gives us a taste of the complexity of each of its topics while avoiding blatant caricature (even as Kant does inevitably caricature Plato). Of course, it is generally Plato who must be simplified in works like this, since the Kant comparison tends to force us to be inattentive to, e.g., the dialogue format, the dramatic context, or nuances regarding who is speaking, their character, and so on. But because completely avoiding this risk would likely have precluded such a valuable volume’s existence, we should here appreciate the good and not insist on perfection.


Authors and Titles

Elena Partene and Dimitri El Murr, “Introduction” 


  1. François Calori, “On Geometrical Admiration: Schwärmerei, Platonism, and Critical Philosophy”
  2. Sylvain Delcomminette, “Is Eudaimonism Necessarily Incompatible with an Ethics of Duty?”


  1. Jocelyn Benoist, “Loveless: Plato With and Against Kant”
  2. Christine M. Korsgaard, “Self-Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant”
  3. Elena Partene, “From the Beautiful to the Good in Kant and Plato”
  4. Tobias Dangel, “The Problem of Teleology in Plato’s Phaedo and Kant’s Critique of Judgment
  5. Louis Guerpillon, “Interpretation, Myth, and Philosophy in Kant and Plato”


  1. Pierre-Jean Brunel, “Plato and ‘the spirit of Kantian philosophy’ according to Jacobi”
  2. Francesco Fronterotta, “Return to Kant: The Neo-Kantian Approach to Plato”



[1] See Kant’s treatment of the “Binding of Isaac” in Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, and Other Writings, trans. Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 100 and 180.

[2] It should be noted that Brunel, while dealing extensively with Jacobi’s corpus and letters, also leans very heavily on Stefan Schick, Die Legitimität der Aufklärung: Selbstbestimmung der Vernunft bei Immanuel Kant und Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2019).

[3] See Nicolai Hartmann, New Ways of Ontology (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1952); and Keith Peterson and Roberto Poli, “Nicolai Hartmann,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed.