Plato and Analytical Philosophy

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  • Critical Discussion

    PLATO AND ANALYTICAL PHILOSOPHY

    Kutschera, Franz, von,Platons Philosophie I: Die fruhenDialoge,Mentis,Paderborn, 2002, 236 pp. e 29.80 (paper). ISBN: 3-89785-264-0.Kutschera, Franz, von, Platons Philosophie II: Die mittleren Dialoge,Mentis, Paderborn, 2002, 239 pp.e 29.80 (paper). ISBN: 3-89785-265-9.Kutschera, Franz, von, Platons Philosophie III: Die spaten Dialoge,Mentis, Paderborn, 2002, 274 pp.e 29.80 (paper). ISBN: 3-89785-266-7.(together also available as)

    Kutschera, Franz, von, Platons Philosophie I-III, Mentis, Paderborn,2002, 749 pp., e 78,- (paper), ISBN 3-89785-277-2.

    The above mentioned books are outstanding for more than onereason: Firstly, nowadays there are more publications on Plato thaneven the most dedicated researcher can cope with, but this set of threevolumes aims at nothing less than a presentation of the entirephilosophy of Plato, something that only very few scholars haveundertaken in the past. The (hopefully still) well known names are:Ritter (1910), Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1919), Friedlander (19281930), Brocker (1964) and Guthrie (1975, 1978). Secondly, a newbook by one of the leading and internationally renowned scholars inthe eld of analytic philosophy, Franz von Kutschera, is in itself ofinterest. Thirdly, it is precisely the combination of these two factorsthat is so intriguing, for former attempts to interpret Platos philos-ophy in all of its breathtaking depth and variety have been writtenfrom a more or less philological or doxographic point of view.Especially the German tradition has contributed to that tenet in theresearch literature, e.g. Friedlanders three volumes, in which hepaints a very subtle picture of Plato but uses only the colours pro-vided by Schleiermachers (philological) romanticism (E. Heitsch,

    Erkenntnis (2005) 62:263275 Springer 2005DOI 10.1007/s10670-005-7487-y

  • personal communication). But also the english literature does notprovide us with an analytic account of Plato: Apart from Guthriesimpressive work I can only think of two older (and considerablyshorter) studies by Shorey (1903, 1933) and Taylor (1926). They allhave the purely doxographic aim in common, but they are quite dif-ferent in style and method: Whereas Taylor and Guthrie are workingtheir way through Plato dialogue by dialogue, Shorey underlines hisstrict unitarian interpretation by providing us with a rst attempt at asystematic overview. To be sure, here systematic does not mean anymore than an interpretation structured in accordance with philo-sophical topics (e.g. ethics, ontology etc.), instead of a chronologicalapproach von Kutschera presents something very similar, but a greatdeal more elaborate: At the end of volume III (pp. 173236), the readernds a topic-centred overview, which summarizes Platos philosophyunder ten subjects (1. The character of Platos philosophy, 2. Forms, 3.Dialectics, 4. Doctrine of principles, 5. Theology, Teleology, Theodicy,6. Dualism, 7. Perception and Knowledge, 8. The good life, 9. TheState, 10. Philosophy). So far, however, I have only pointed out thatKutscheras books belong to a very distinguished class of literature onPlato but even within this very small group they are special, because incontrast to all the mentioned predecessors he pursues a quite dierentapproach. This has to be examined in detail.

    It is worthwhile to pay careful attention to the preface, for itincludes more than the usual expression of thanks and announcementof text-editions being used. In fact the rst pages develop a meth-odological framework for interpreting ancient philosophical textswith special regard to Plato. The author dismisses the common no-tion of a history of philosophy with purely doxographic aims asnecrophilism (I; p. 10) and presents four arguments, the rst two ofwhich are linked more specically to Plato:

    (1) Plato himself was highly interested in the truth of his asser-tions, so even if we are doing history of philosophy, we should takehis intention seriously and ask ourselves what the truth is with regardto the philosophical problems he raises.

    (2) Plato wants his readers to think independently, for he con-sidered his texts only to be tpolvglasa (memorials) for those whofollow the same path, and he will be pleased when he [the writer] seesthem putting forth tender leaves (Phaedr. 276d). Thereby claim (1) isextended and justied, rstly, through Platos use of the dialogueform and, secondly, through his suspicion against written philosophy(I; pp. 9, 4751).

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  • The second two arguments are of general importance and morechallenging:

    (3) Considering the true answer of a question does not only helpto describe Platos answer to it, it is a necessary condition of doing socorrectly. This, certainly, is a more striking and stronger claim, but itis substantiated by a very neat and surprisingly concise argument: Ifwe want to stick to the charity principle of interpretation and if we,accordingly, strive to present an author as holding true and sensiblepositions, we rst of all have to tackle the question of what might be atrue and sensible position. Needless to say, this does not amount tofree Plato from all failures. (I; 10).

    But one might argue that von Kutschera is simply aiming too high.Isnt the entire history of philosophy including modern branches likeanalytical philosophy all about trying to defend various notions oftrue and sensible positions? The assumption that considering the trueanswer of a question is a necessary condition of describing the answergiven by some other (historical) philosopher seems to imply theambitious claim to have found the truth. Even if we think that to bepossible we would expect Kutschera to present the true answer to aphilosophical question and than in the light of this truth providesus with a description of Platos position. But that is not what thereader gets. For good reasons, because this method seems to rely on acircle: In order to nd out what questions (and answers) are ofinterest to Plato we got to read him, but in order to read him, we needthe true answer to his question. In the nal paragraphs of this essay Iwill come back to the fact that von Kutschera with a few exceptionsnever strays very far from Platos text. In the end the reader willwelcome his actual procedure, which manly consists in confrontingPlatos texts with a modern conceptual apparatus in hope of mutualbenet. This leads me to his next claim.

    (4) We do not have to apply modern concepts and distinctions ofvarious modern notions to Platonic texts, but if we wish to estimateand evaluate Platos theories, it is vital to use our modern conceptualframework. Therefore we have to rely on modern distinctions whilereading Plato.

    Does that amount to the anachronistic fallacy, as might be sus-pected? Not necessarily, as von Kutschera is not trying to force laterdistinctions in an old text, for sometimes he recognises that in thelight of Platos argumentation these modern distinction turn out to beinadequate. Examples of that will be given below.

    According to von Kutschera, modern distinctions concerningtruth are methodological tools which have to be used for a better

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  • understanding of Plato. But ancient texts can also be read for thesake of developing modern theories! In fact, Ryle has called for anapproach (Ryle 1954, p. 14), in which the ancient texts function as astepping board or a quarry for arguments. These two ways of readingancient texts do not exclude each other. Before I discuss thesequestions referring to various interpretations of book II of PlatosRepublic, I will have to explain why I am focussing on this kind ofproblem, i.e. the use of modern distinction in the interpretation ofPlato.

    (a) It is precisely the approach explained above which makes vonKutscheras books so interesting. (b) Plato has written 26 dialogues(plus two presumably spurious but relevant ones, the Greater Hippiasand the Alcibiades) and they are jam-packed with arguments dealingwith nearly all of the still prominent philosophical questions. Now,von Kutschera has written almost 900 pages, hence there is not muchof a chance to discuss even the most important problems and inter-pretations, which would be necessary, however, to do justice to thescope of Platos and von Kutscheras work. (c) Surely, analytic dis-tinctions have been used in the interpretation of Plato before, butthey have rather been used than defended on an explicit method-ological level. (d) I hope that my main question will be of interest tothe readers of a journal which is committed to analytic philosophy.(e) With regard to the methodological problem the research literatureon ancient philosophy leaves a signicant gap, which I would like todelineate now (van Ackeren/Muller 2005).

    Since its founders, Anaximander and Thales, ancient (if not theentire western) philosophy is characterised as the quest for aqvai andaisiai (reasons, causes and principles). There are two aspects involvedhere (Graeser 1992, pp. 1415): On the one hand, what is sought inphilosophy can be understood as causes which explain why some-thing is the case or a fact (rationes essendi) or, on the other hand, assomething that gives us a reason why we our thoughts about theworld can be regarded as knowledge (rationes cognoscendi). TheSocratic-Platonic kocov didovai (giving an account) stresses that theaim of argumentation is we ourselves (La. 187e--f; Phaed. 89c--91c;Rep. 484b and the famous passage 534b--d): The argument that givesan account justies our own assumptions and actions. Given thatthis is one of the most fundamental tenets in ancient and especiallyPlatonic philosophy, one can only wonder that there is almost nostudy in which scholars explicitly explain how, methodologicallyspeaking, they interpret ancient texts. A major part of this desideratum

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  • is the question if and to what extent we need modern terminologywhen interpreting ancient texts.

    Let us have a closer look at book II of the Republic, for vonKutscheras interpretation is pretty representative of his overallstrategy. Additionally it has to be kept in mind that this text isextremely important, for here Socrates is confronted with the chal-lenge to prove that the just person lives more happily than the unjust.The challenge seems to be connected to a threefold division of goods.Apart from the fact that such a division is in itself highly interesting,it is crucial to understand the relation between the division and thechallenge in order to read the entire Republic as Socrates answer andto see how it constitutes the remaining books. The three types ofgoods are (cf. Rep. 357b--d): (1) things we nd desirable in themselves(e.g. harmless pleasure), (2) things we nd desirable in themselves andfor their consequences (e.g. knowledge, sight and health), (3) thingswe nd desirable only for their consequences (e.g. physical trainingand medical treatment). Justice is commonly placed in the third class,but Socrates would like to see it in the fairest one, the second class.Then the challenge is rened: Socrates has to praise justice regardlessof certain consequences, namely the rewards and (social) reputationthat follows from somebody being just or merely appearing to be so(cf. Rep. 367b). Now, this kind of consequence may be called articial(because it is rooted in human conventions), whereas Socrates isallowed to take natural consequences into account. But this distinc-tion does not t in with the division of goods: The examples of thesecond class -- knowledge, sight and health -- have natural but noarticial consequences. Additionally, the elements of the third classdo not have articial consequences, e.g. enduring medical treatmentdoes not bring about fame (Annas 1981, pp. 6671). Many authors(Foster 1938; Sachs 1963; Irwin 1977; White 1984; Pappas 1995) haveaccused Plato of being confused or they tried to downplay theimportance of the division in order to avoid a conict between thedivision and the challenge (Kirwan 1965). Is Plato really confusedhere, or did we simply apply a distinction which makes him lookconfused? Both questions are to be denied, as the challenge can beinterpreted along the lines of the distinction between articial andnatural consequence, but the division cannot. But is this a problem?Socrates was asked to prove that justice belongs to the second class,thus he had to praise justice for its own sake and for its consequences.Then the challengers argued that Socrates is not allowed to take aspecial form of consequences, i.e. rewards and reputation, intoaccount, because these could follow from the appearance of justice

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  • just as well as from true justice. (Annas 1981, ch. 3; Williams 1997).Still, why have commentators been dissatised with Plato? Here theproblem is not to interpret a certain passage of Plato using a moderndistinction, but to resist the temptation to expect a systematic appli-cability of that distinction, i.e. that it can be used in the interpretationof other passages. The fact that the division of goods does not t in thedistinction of articial and natural consequences, does not weakenPlatos argumentation at all. Therefore the modern commentatorshould look for dierent modern distinctions which may help tointerpret the dierent steps of Platos argumentation.

    The argument in book II also entails valuable information aboutthe type of arguments that Plato wants to use within his ethics.Justice, later identied as virtue and health of the soul (Rep. 444de),is defended as a good which is desired in itself and for its conse-quences (like the health of the body). We are used to distinguishbetween deontological and consequentialist ethical arguments. I referto arguments not as theories, for nowadays there are not many the-ories which entirely rely either on deontological or consequentialistarguments. Most theories combine both types of arguments on dif-ferent levels or in dierent realms (Mackie 1977, ch. 7). But are weallowed to assume that every ethical argument in the history ofphilosophy has to be either deontological or consequentialist? Platohas been severely criticized (Foster 1937, 1938; Sachs 1963) for pur-suing a strict consequentialist, namely a utilitarian approach or inother words: the Republic is supposed to lack a moral argument, i.e.one which brings duty or obligation into account (Mabbott 1937).But both the division of goods and the challenge suggest that Platohas neither a deontological nor a consequentialist argument in mind,but something that comprises aspects of both types: Firstly, Socratesinsists on putting justice in the second class. Secondly, according tothe challenge Socrates is asked to praise justice strictly for what it is(a tso` jah a tso`; Rep. 358b and d, 361bc), and what potency andeect it has in and of itself dwelling in the soul (Rep. 358b). Onlyconsequences such as social rewards and reputations are excluded.The challengers make it quite clear, that the two aspects c...