Monday, September 06, 2004

Summer Reading 1

Interpreting Plato by E. N. Tigerstedt (Uppsala, Sweden: Almquist & Wiksell, 1977)

I had hoped for more from this book since it was recommended by a scholar of Greek philosophy in response to my concern that I don't really know enough about the history of Plato interpretation. I was hoping for a comprehensive history of how Plato's writings have (or, in some cases, have not) been interpreted since ancient times. The book is, from what I can tell, an excellent book, but it does not aim to give such a comprehensive history. It focuses primarily on Plato interpretation of the last two hundred years, especially in English and German, with a few nods to French scholarship. Discussion of ancient and medieval interpretations of Plato are almost nonexistent in this book, though I should note that Tigerstedt has written another book, The Decline and Fall of the Neoplatonic Interpretation of Plato that may deal with those periods in detail. I have not read it, but plan to. I should also note that the book was written almost thirty years ago. One major strand of interpretation that Tigerstedt does not address is that of Gregory Vlastos and his progeny. Since Vlastos's writings on Plato have cast a very long shadow over Plato studies in the second half of the twentieth-century, it is unfortunate Tigerstedt's book does not discuss him.

The book is organized into seven chapters and a preface. Tigerstedt begins with "the problem" of interpreting Plato and then tracks and critiques proposed solutions to the problem. "The problem" turns out to be: it's really hard to figure out what the heck Plato's writings mean. Of course, this is true of many great philosophers (and nonphilosophers, too), but, says Tigerstedt, "The interpreters of, e.g., Aristotle, or Kant, or Hegel by no means always agree. But the controversies about Plato are far more radical and fundamental. What some scholars regard as a faithful picture of Plato the man and his philosophy, is to other scholars an outrageous caricature or a pure invention. The dispute between the various schools of Platonic interpreters is not confined to judgement and evaluation but concerns the very essence of Platonism" (p. 13).

There have been, in the past two hundred years, five basic approaches to Plato's texts. Tigerstedt in general finds fault with all of them, though he does have praise for a number of individual interpreters and interpretations.

The first approach is to decide that some of the dialogues are spurious. It's a pretty self-explanatory way of dealing with "the problem." Get rid of the dialogues that seem to cause the problem by arguing they are not genuine. Even though this approach hides behind scientific sounding methods of linguistic analysis, e.g., "stylometric analysis," there are many problems with the presuppositions of the analyzers.

Approach number two: admit that the "contradictions, gaps, obscurities, and ambiguities that worry the interpreters of Plato" (p. 22) are real, but attribute them to the fact that Plato could not reason logically or coherently (not least because Plato did not know about his most famous student's system of logic). Seems a bit overly simplistic. Tigerstedt gives a brief refutation of the two main proponents--Richard Robinson and I. M. Bochenski--of this view.

One of the most popular proposed solutions to the problem is, thirdly, the "genetic approach." Here's how it works: first assume that Plato's thought developed, roughly along the same lines of his biography, then chalk up the contradictions, gaps, obscurities, ambiguities, etc. of the dialogues to the fact that Plato's philosophy changed (and, according to most opinions, improved) as he got older. This solution stands in opposition to Schleiermacher's, which holds that Plato was in command of his entire philosophy from his first dialogue and only expounded it gradually for the sake of his readers/students. The genetic approach seems to be prevalent today under the influence of Vlastos. Tigerstedt's analysis of this approach alone makes the book worth reading, if only to make one aware of the faults of the genetic approach that go unchecked today.

The fourth proposed solution is to suggest a unity of Platonic thought. The unity can mean "the recurrence of certain fundamental problems whose solutions, however, may vary greatly, even change radically," or "the profession of certain general ideas, a Weltanschauung which does not exclude even important variations, contradictions, inconsistencies," or "a real, close-knit system" (p. 52).

Lastly, Tigerstedt dissects the Esoterists' approach. Like the name suggests, these interpreters seek to find the secret teaching of Plato, primarily through the use of secondary sources such as Aristotle, Albinus, Numenius, or later Platonists. There is some support for the claim that Plato had two teachings--one for the many and one for a few, trusted pupils--in the Phaedrus and the second and seventh letters, but one difficulty with this approach is that by focusing on the testimony of, say, Aristotle, it seems to ignore the dialogues themselves. It is important to note that today's so-called Straussian interpretations of Plato would not count as Esoterist according to Tigerstedt since they, for the most part, attempt to derive the hidden teaching of Plato by reading the dialogues and not by examining secondary sources. (One should also note that Tigerstedt favorably cites Strauss's essay, "On a New Interpretation of Plato's Political Philosophy," two or three times.)

Tigerstedt closes his book by suggesting that interpretation of Plato keep in mind a number of things. (1) Platonic irony. (2) The fact that there are two dialogues going on in any dialogue--one between the interlocutors (usually one of them is Socrates) and one between Plato and the reader. (3) The fact that Plato chose to write dialogues, as opposed to some other kind of work. (4) The fact that the author of the dialogues is officially anonymous, though unofficially everyone seems to have known it was Plato. (5) "Plato's works being what they are, there will always remain a margin of subjective interpretation, of error, far larger than in most other works. It is vain and dishonest to try to conceal this difficult from ourselves and others" (p. 107).

The footnotes of this book are very good even if unavoidably a bit dated.

The ISBN of this book is 9122000909, and I give it because it may be difficult to track the book down by title.

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