Category: Philosophical theories

Plato and Analytic Philosophy

During the middle of the 20th century, Platonic studies, mainly in the Anglo-American world, came to be characterised by the introduction of the methods of analytic philosophy to the study and interpretation of the Platonic dialogues.

Alexander Nehamas has suggested that a significant factor contributing to the rising interest in ancient philosophy is the recognition that ancient Greek thinkers, most notably Plato and Aristotle, despite the separation of time, dealt with certain basic problems and methodological questions that are still of interest to contemporary analytic philosophers. In general, the so called analytic tradition in philosophy is characterised by the pursuit of clarity, the extensive use of explicit argumentation, and the exposure of all claims to critical scrutiny.

The analytic approach of a platonic text

The integration of ancient philosophy into the dominant analytic tradition by leading figures such as Vlastos, Owen and Geach, meant that Plato was considered to be an equal contributor to discussions about meaning, universals, language and knowledge. Plato’s thought became an object of interest not only for scholars of ancient philosophy but also for those engaged in debates in contemporary analytic philosophy. For example, Ryle’s interest in the topic of meaning in Plato’s Parmenides shows not only that Plato had a theory of meaning but also that a productive dialogue between these two philosophers – Plato and Ryle – was possible despite the separation of time and Plato’s status as an authority. Up to that time, the study of Plato’s work was mainly part of classical studies and ancient philosophy was pursued primarily in Departments of Classics and not of Philosophy. Plato, before his adoption by analytic philosophy, was regarded as an authoritative figure; and, as a result, the readings of his dialogues focused largely on the philological and historical aspects.

On the other hand, for the analytic tradition Plato was not just another philosopher in the history of ideas. A prime example of this is the interest in the dialogue Theaetetus in which the definition of knowledge is pursued. Myles Burnyeat says: «No other dialogue of Plato’s speaks so directly to the concerns of the working philosopher in modern time. The Theaetetus is not only the first major treatment of the problem of knowledge, a problem which remains central to philosophy ever since; it is a classic treatment in the full sense of a work to which the philosopher can return again and again to find a challenge and stimulus to reflection».

A number of contemporary writers such as Chisholm and Armstrong have identified the dialogue’s final definition of knowledge as ‘true opinion with logos’ (201d) as a prototype of the contemporary standard analysis of knowledge, according to which, S knows that p if and only if p is true, S believes that p, and S is sufficiently justified in believing that p.A number of recent translations and commentaries of the Theaetetus, especially these by McDowell and Levett-Burneyat follow a similar line of interpretation.

The reading of the platonic corpus and the flourishing interest in methodological questions and the logical analysis of the arguments found in certain passages of the dialogues are mainly focussed on the validity and correctness of these arguments. The aim, following a thorough examination of the passages under investigation, is to scrutinise all the premises (existing and silent) of the argument and to identify any possible contradictions and unclarities regarding both the premises and the conclusion. There is an extensive use of analytic terminology and logic. The commentaries rooted in the analytic tradition follow a certain methodology, which is based on a detailed commentary of the dialogue, with little emphasis on philological and contextual issues. The focus of these commentaries is on the thorough and careful reading and criticism of crucial passages. They consider carefully whether and to what extent Plato’s arguments can serve as answers to questions posed by contemporary analytic thinkers. The evaluation of the platonic arguments is often, at the same time both, generous and critical employing a thorough exposition of the arguments and the counter arguments.

Vlastos and the ‘3rd Man argument’

A milestone in the analytic approach to Plato is Vlastos’ article on the ‘3rd man argument’ in Plato’s Parmenides – this is the name given to it by Aristotle in the Book A of the Metaphysics. According to the problem posed, if there is a Form that explains why something has a particular property, then it is necessary that this Form also has this property. If this is true, then the Form and the particular it explains share that very property in common and, therefore, are similar to one another in that respect. As the argument goes, this similarity must be explained by reference to a further Form in which both the particular and the first form participate. The problem that arises is that at each step we must introduce a new form to explain the particular and all the previous forms. If we continue with this process, then in order to explain the initial similarity we need to introduce an infinite number of forms. Because the steps of the proposed explanation are infinite, the attempt to solve the problem is incomplete and there is no genuine explanation. Vlastos’ exhaustive argumentation showed that the assumptions of ‘self-predication’, ‘non-identity’ and ‘one over many’ inherent in this argument lead to a vicious circle. The ‘3rd Man Problem’ and Vlastos’ article became a matter of controversy and discussion amongst scholars. For a good example of this debate see Sellars and Geach.

Criticism and Reconsideration

The tendency to ignore the historical and literal features of the platonic dialogues led to a reading which, in certain cases, placed undue emphasis on their analytic philosophical elements. This meant that central elements of the platonic work such as the characters, the contest and the dramatic frame of the dialogue were side-lined or even ignored. Such ahistorical readings of the Platonic dialogues often lead to the search for answers to problems that were important to contemporary thinkers, but which were not necessarily present in the platonic text. This practice, of applying the methods of analytic philosophy to Plato and of searching for the answers to questions concerning language and meaning therein, led to the development of a new technical vocabulary for reading Platonic texts. The man reason for this was the need to show that the ideas and arguments put forward by ancient thinkers are still relevant to us. Therefore the analytic philosopher can, in some cases, stand-in for Plato, and, for example, can add premises to arguments from the Platonic corpus that she regards as incomplete. As a result, we often talk about the fragmentary approach to the topic under discussion; on such an approach the context matters little while the discussion centres on the philosophical content and is carried out using contemporary analytic vocabulary. Since the beginning of the 21st Century there has been an attempt to reintroduce the historical, dramatic and contextual elements of Plato’s dialogues into the philosophical discussion, and to balance these with the, by now well-entrenched, analytic philosophical approach.

Author: Eleni Kaklamanou
  • Annas, J. "Ancient Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century." Leiter, B. ed. The future for Philosophy. Oxford, 2004.
  • Lesher, J.H. "The flourishing of Ancient Philosophy in North America: Some causes and concerns." Thorp, J., Rossetti, L. eds. Greek Philosophy in the New Millennium. St. Augustin, 2004.
  • Lesher, J.H. "Analytic Approaches to Plato." Press, G. ed. A Companion to Plato. London and New York, 2012.
  • Nehamas, A, Virtues of Authenticity. Princeton, 1999.
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