Thursday, November 20, 2008


Jean-François Pradeau (ed.), Études Platoniciennes IV. Les puissances de l'âme selon Platon. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007. Pp. 464. ISBN 978-2-251-44332-4 €35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (

[Contents listed at the end of this review.]

The volume here reviewed is the fourth in a series that began in 2004. Each volume contains essays on a particular topic in Plato and its elaboration in the Platonic tradition, a "Bulletin Platonicien" containing reviews of works on the topic in that year, and a "Bibliographie Platonicienne" that aims to record all the publications on Plato and the Platonic tradition in that year. The first volume was a rather eclectic collection of essays on Plato; the second focused on Plato's Timaeus and the lengthy and complex history of reading that dialogue; the third volume, like the fourth, focuses broadly on issues relating to Plato's account of the soul, both human and cosmic. Plotinus, uncharacteristically, grumbled that Plato sometimes spoke "enigmatically" about the soul. No student of the dialogues will have any reason to doubt this. As we learn in the rich first section of this book, the ancient Greek term for soul, psychê, was used prior to Plato loosely for whatever it was that differentiated something living from its dead successor. To be ensouled was to be alive. Philosophical difficulties (but also religious and legal difficulties) begin when we ask about the relation between soul, thus considered, and persons or human beings. If the person is just the ensouled body or living animal, then its demise is equivalent to the destruction of the property of being alive. A religious doctrine of reincarnation, however, whatever its provenance may be, seems to require that soul possesses some entitative status of its own such that it can be that which reanimates another body. For, if soul were just a property, there would be no reason at all to maintain that it is reincarnated, as opposed to simply acknowledging the generation of a new and different living animal. Apart from the religious doctrine of reincarnation, the simple model of a person as a living animal eventually has to confront the tension between conflicting criteria for personal identity, that is, in terms of body or in terms of "soul" construed as the locus of cognitional, affective, or moral attributes. If it should turn out that bodily criteria are different from "psychic" or "mental" criteria, and if a priority is assigned to the latter, then there is potentially at least one way of explaining how reincarnation is supposed to work. Plato's dialogues are as much about these issues as about anything else. It is not possible in a review of reasonable length to give details of the many complex and textually based arguments contained in this volume. I shall limit myself to discussing most of the papers in the two sections of the volume concerned with cosmic, individual, and demiurgic psychic identity.

Francisco Lisi begins his paper by noting the common scholarly opinion that there is no unified psychic doctrine in Plato. That is, there is in the dialogues no single account of the soul that explains the individual soul, the "soul of the universe" and (at least on one standard interpretation) the soul of the Demiurge. Lisi's concise strategy for unifying the various claims made across the dialogues consists in (a) focusing on the Idea of the Good as the principle of unification and (b) suggesting that in fact the Idea of the Good and the Demiurge are to be identified. Lisi can thus argue that different kinds of soul (cosmic, divine, human, and animal) are all produced by the Demiurge in imitation of itself. The various souls are hierarchically ordered with respect to their proximity to the first principle of all.

Lisi's position seems to respond to the Middle Platonic conundrum regarding the relation among the first principle of all, intellect, and soul. If the first principle of all is the Demiurge and the Demiurge is an intellect, and, as in the Timaeus, the immortal soul of human beings seems to be just intellect, why should we not infer the psychic nature of the first principle? And yet, if the Demiurge creates soul, must it not be intellect and nothing more? The real problem here is that if there is reason to distinguish soul and intellect, there is also reason to distinguish intellect and the first principle. What Lisi wants to do is to make that first principle an intellect, thereby undercutting the idea that the ultimate good for an individual soul is entirely impersonal. But there is no evidence that Plato ascribed to the Idea of Good what Lisi calls "a noetic nature".

Christopher Gill briefly reprises a theme of earlier works in which he argued that the conception of the self in Plato's Alcibiades I is to be distinguished sharply from a modern or contemporary conception; the former is "objective-participative" and the latter is "subjective-individualist". Gill argues that in the Alcibiades I the questions of self-knowledge and of the nature of the self are distinct. Accordingly, self-knowledge interpreted as self-reflexivity is not a part of the concept of the self. And with the severing of self-reflexivity from self, the subjective-individualist conception of the self becomes irrelevant. The key phrase is at 129b1 where Socrates asks Alcibiades the question, "how can we discover what the self itself (auto to auto is (cf. 130d4)". Gill translates the puzzling Greek phrase as "the itself itself" which certainly suggests that the discovery of the nature of the self would be the discovery of something objective, that is, something the knowledge of which would not be limited to the subject. This objective conception of the self illuminates the Platonic ideas of assimilation to the divine and achievement of the Good as themselves objective, that is, non-idiosyncratic. This sort of interpretation is more in line with an impersonal Good, first principle of all, than is Lisi's.

I think Gill is right to insist that the Alcibiades I provides no support for the subjective-individualist conception of the self, at least as this has come to be understood in modern philosophy. Yet I am not convinced that we do not see beginning in that dialogue self-knowledge construed as self-reflexivity, that is, as the awareness by a subject of its own cognitive states. Since for Plato the human ideal is the achievement of a cognitive state, the self-reflexivity of that state does not allow us to reduce the self to something that is completely objective. Thus, if knowledge, the highest form of cognition, is self-reflexive, knowledge is subjective in the sense that it is first-person, not third-person or objective, and not directly transmittable. Knowledge of the self could not be, for Plato, something like scientific knowledge, communicable among selves.

Filip Karfik offers an analysis of the cognitive activity of the Demiurge in Plato's Timaeus. The trick here for any interpreter is to include all the parts of the story in a way that is both coherent in itself and at least takes account of Plato's treatment of these elsewhere. These parts are: the Forms (or: the Living Animal), The Good, numbers, the Receptacle, the inchoate constituents of the Receptacle, the soul of the universe, and, of course, the nature of the Demiurge himself. All of these are obviously intended by Plato to be understood together. Karfik makes an impressive attempt to do just that. Appealing to the Republic, he argues that the Demiurge achieves his good in thinking the Forms. (Karfik could have also appealed to the Symposium, I believe.) Appealing to the Phaedo, and ultimately to Plato's interpretation of Anaxagoras in the Phaedo, he sees in the Demiurgic intellect Plato's insistence on connecting theoretical activity with its practical expression. Thus, the desire for the Good among intellects is achieved in thought and action is the natural expression of that achievement. This is the doctrine that Plotinus expressed in Aristotelian language as the doctrine of internal and external energeiai.

The intellectual activity of the Demiurge, Karfik rightly insists, is not psychic activity; the immortal part of the soul of human beings (their intellects) is in the Timaeus only an image of the pure Demiurgic intellect. The Demiurge imposes on the Receptacle and its "contents" a mathematical order, the elements of which are the mathematical intermediaries, representations of the intelligible content of the Living Animal with which the Demiurge is eternally cognitively identical. This makes the intermediaries, such as the World Soul, the product of the Demiurge, and begins to illuminate the puzzling Old Academic doctrine of the soul as a moving number.

I would disagree, however, with Karfik's further claim that the quasi-qualities of the Receptacle prior to the imposition of mathematical order by the Demiurge are themselves "traces" of the Forms rather than traces of their current, cosmic versions. Thus, say, precosmic fire is sort of like cosmic fire without the mathematical arrangement of it. We do not need to assume a Form of Fire to be other than an ideal mathematical ratio. But why should one pure mathematical ratio be Fire and another one Water? That is, why should one qualitative array be matched up with one ratio and another with another? The need for an answer to this question is, as Karfik sees, precisely why the Demiurge's Goodlike intellect is needed. He imposes his mathematical order in the best possible way.

Gwenaëlle Aubry provides an analysis of one example of the way that Plotinus systematizes Platonic doctrine. In the Alcibiades I and in the Charmides, we seem to get two different views of the nature of self-knowledge; the first pertaining to psychic self-knowledge and the second to intellectual self-knowledge. As Aubry shows, Plotinus presents a sort of projective model, wherein the diverse accounts are mapped onto a hierarchical metaphysics: psychic self-knowledge in Ennead 1.1 and intellectual self-knowledge in 5.3. What links these two accounts for Plotinus is their commensurability in terms of relative proximity to the Good, the first principle of all. The self-knowledge of the soul is a stage on the way to the self-knowledge of intellect which, in its ultimate achievement, is constituted by an intellectual vision of all that is intelligible in the Good.

In 1.1, for example, we find the tripartite division soul/body/composite, which Plotinus interprets as separate soul/embodied soul/animate body, in part because Plotinus accepts the Aristotelian point that an inanimate body is not a body except equivocally. This is not exactly what Plato says, but if one's goal is to articulate a philosophical position (call it "Platonism") that one believes is revealed in part through Plato's dialogues, then one will not hesitate to draw on other dialogues, where Plato comes much closer to giving Plotinus' tripartite division or at least implying it, and drawing upon Aristotle's insights as well as a means of expressing that philosophical position.

If, as Plato seems to maintain, the immortal soul is an intellect, and its immortality has some relevance to me, then my self-knowledge is intellectual or self-reflexive, in contrast to the embodied psychic self-knowledge of the Alcibiades. I myself, insofar as I am embodied, and insofar as I am ideally that separated intellect, am the link between the two accounts of self-knowledge. The transformation of the self in achieving self-knowledge at the intellectual "level" is exactly what achievement of one's own good amounts to. According to Plotinus, Plato taught that philosophy is the practice of the self-transformation that is the achievement of self-awareness. As Aubry points out, this Platonic approach to self-knowledge does not easily fit in with a supposed tradition of first-person primacy or subjectivity. The so-called autonomy of the self is denied implicitly by Plotinus in the denial of its self-sufficiency; if the self were self-sufficient it would be, counterfactually, the Good.

Olivier Renault addresses the issue of the tripartition of the soul in the Republic. He faces squarely and with a good deal of subtlety two problems that have been raised for Plato's doctrine. The first is that the tripartition of the soul in Book IV does not seem to cohere with the triparititioning assumed in Book VIII and IX. The second is that the conflict that supposedly "generates" tripartition seems to imply that each of the three parts is itself sufficiently rational to engage in conflict with the other parts. Renault wants to resolve both problems in the same way. He distinguishes a subjective and an objective point of view. According to the first, the rational self observes the appetites or emotions that occur within it and adjudicates among them. This adjudication requires the rationalization of the appetites and emotions and the application of reasons to decide on whether or not to satisfy them. In this way, there is no need to postulate reason quarreling with, say, appetites, that provide their own reasons; rather, the single rational self reasons with itself. The parts of the soul are in fact psychic functions of a particular type of soul, namely, a rational one. According to the second, objective point of view, the conflict described in Book IV is a metaphorical representation that needs to be unpacked according to various conceptions of the Good and of proximity to it. Thus, identifying one's own good as an appetitive good as opposed to an exclusively rational good is a psychic defect. It is a defect because the particularity or idiosyncratic nature of the appetites is further removed from the Good that is the exercise of universal reason. The grades of proximity to the Good are given a typology in Books VIII and IX. Psychic conflict represents a hierarchy of types of life. This allows us to see the different types of life as metaphorically represented by the different psychic selves that are constructed in action.

Anne Merker, in a lengthy and complex study, addresses some of the same issues as Renault. She argues that the appetitive part of the embodied soul (to epithumêtikon) does not exhaust the sources of desire, according to Plato. For this reason, the real dualism for Plato is not between soul and body (since all the "bodily" desires are in reality those of an embodied psyche), but rather between the disembodied immortal soul and the mortal soul, which is inseparable from a body. This distinction is explicit in the Timaeus and it is an important feature of Merker's study that she sees this in the Republic as well.

The correct account of Platonic dualism, therefore, enables us to see the unity of embodied desire. This unity is in turn both determined and articulated by the unity of the Good which embodied persons seek. The lack that is the fundamental property of desire is a manifestation of the general incompleteness of all becoming that is oriented in the direction of being (ousia). All desire of whatever sort is desire for real being, but only the intellect can attain this. Intellectual attainment--knowing--is the attainment of the Good. Whereas philosophical dialectic is the process whereby the Good is attained, for the embodied person politics is the process which both makes philosophy possible and provides for the possibility of the attainment of as much of the Good as an embodied person can aspire to possess.

Since knowing that which is good for oneself is identical with knowing the Good, and since knowing the Good is a necessary and sufficient condition for desiring it, the Socratic paradox that no one does wrong willingly is only paradoxical for the conflicted embodied person who supposes that his good is determinable from an examination of his own embodied desires. Such a one is not in fact desiring what he wills. Accordingly, it is perfectly consistent for Plato to maintain both that no one does wrong willingly and that people are capable of acting incontinently, that is, acting against their own interests, even as they conceive of it. On the one hand, to conceive of one's interests as the satisfaction of embodied desire is to commit an intellectual mistake; on the other, to conceive of one's interests exclusively as attainment of the good is to become virtuous, which is to say, impervious to incontinence. The difference between authentic politics and its sophistic counterpart is simply that the first recognizes this and the second does not.

There are many other pieces in this collection well worth reading. Any Plato specialist should seriously consider an ongoing subscription to this series.

Section 1: Antécédents, context, modèles:
Marie-Laurence Desclos, "Le vocabulaire de l'analyse psychologique chez les sophists."
Alberto Bernabé, "L'âme après la mort: modèles orphiques et transposition platonicienne."
Sandra Boehringer, "Comment classer les comportements érotiques? Platon, le sexe et erôs dans le Banquet et dans les Lois."
Arnaud Macé, "La surpuissance morale des âmes savants à l'aune de la procedure athénienne d'examen public des compétences techniques."

Section 2: L'âme, puissance cosmique:
Francisco Lisi, "Individual soul, World Soul and the Form of the Good in Plato'sRepublic and Timaeus."
Francesco Fronterotta, "Intelligible Forms, Mathematics, and the Soul's Circles: an Interpretation of Tim. 37a-c."
Filip Karfik, "Que fait et qui est le demiurge dans le Timée?"

Section 3: L'âme humaine: le soi à l'épreuve du multiple:
Christopher Gill, "La connaissance de soi dans l'Alcibiade de Platon."
Gwenaëlle Aubry, "Conscience, pensée et conaissance de soi selon Plotin: le double heritable de l'Alcibiade et du Charmide."
Olivier Renaut, "Les conflits de l'âme dans la République de Platon."
Anne Merker, "Le désir chez Platon."

Section 4: L'âme, puissance cognitive:
Yvon Lafrance, "Les puissances cognitive de l'âme: la reminiscence et les Formes intelligible dans le Ménon (80a-86d) et le Phédon (72e-77a)."
Jan Szaif, "Doxa and Epistêmê as Modes of Acquaintance in Republic V."
Francisco Gonzalez, "Wax Tablets, Aviaries or Imaginary Pregnancies? On the Powers in Theaetetus' Soul."

Section 5: L'ême puissance pratique et politique:
John Cooper, "Socrate et la philosophie comme manière de vivre."
Annie Larivée, "L'âme pedagogue du corps. À propos d'une tension entre le Charmide et le Timée."
Mario Vegetti, "Politica dell' anima et anima del politico nelle Repubblica."

Section 6: Varia:
Claudia Maggi, "La concezione plotiniana dell'uomo tra fascino e autodominio: la questione degli influssi astrali".

1 comment:


    I do not propose to comment on Professor Gerson’s review. I merely offer some reflections evoked by the first paragraph of the review.
    Plotinus was not wrong in remarking that what Plato said about the soul was enigmatic, regardless of the fact that Plotinus’s own writings are enigmatic in the highest degree. Is there cause for complaint in that? I think not. A philosophical statement that is not enigmatic is of little worth. Philosophy deals with ultimates. All that is ultimate is in some significant sense absolute. What is absolute cannot be contained in a determinate linguistic statement — cannot be conveyed in fixed conceptual terms. Hence a statement claiming or seeking to give expression to a genuine philosophical insight cannot but be metaphorical, paradoxical, enigmatic or mythical. That is why (1) Plato asserts that the best philosophy cannot be put into any fixed text (Phaedrus 274b-278e, the Seventh Letter 341c-344a); (2) Plato insists in the Republic that dialectic must destroy all its hypotheses (tas hupotheseis anairousa); (3) Plato clothes his profoundest philosophical insights in myths, allegories, and enigmatic statements.
    I maintain that myth in Plato extends far beyond the traditionally noted myths in several of the dialogues. The philosophical insight in the notion of anamnêsis for instance, is smothered when this is taken as a doctrine and is quickened when it is taken as a myth: the fecund idea of education in the Republic, for instance, as the turning of the mind’s eye inwards, can then be seen as one of the fruits of that myth. I will stick my neck out so far as to say that, where Plato is concerned, any ‘textually based argument’ is more likely to go astray than to penetrate to Plato’s true intention. Plato’s meaning is in the drama, in the whole, in the give and take of live dialogue, where, as Plato tells us in the Seventh Letter, “like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself” (341c-d, tr. Glenn R. Morrow) — not in fragments lifted from their natural milieu and subjected to laboratory testing.
    Similarly, the idea of the soul and of the immortality – better still, the eternity – of the soul, taken as a myth representing what was for Socrates simply that in us which thrives by doing what is right and is harmed by doing what is wrong, gives insight into that inwardness, that locus of ideas and ideals engendered in and by the mind alone, which characterizes us as human beings and constitutes our whole worth, and which empirical and analytical philosophies seek to deny us. The soul as myth secures our spirituality, affirms the reality of spiritual life, assures us of the inward reality of spiritual values, endangered equally by the theological dogma of a separate and separable soul and by the reductionist approach of empiricism. (We then have no need to ascribe to the soul any ‘entitative status’.)
    In vain do we seek to fix in definitive form any Platonic solution, or any philosophical solution at all, to any problem posed by Plato. Plato poses a problem; considers it from this angle and that angle, and leaves it without a final conclusion; thus it remains good for exercising our own mind, for it is only in the active process of phronêsis that we may glimpse our inner, strictly ineffable, reality. This is the Platonic development of the Socratic elenchus which, pace Aristotle, was not meant to reach definitions but to produce the aporia that leads the mind to look within itself, where alone it can behold what is real.
    I cannot do better than conclude by culling a sentence from Professor Gerson’s article: “According to Plotinus, Plato taught that philosophy is the practice of self-transformation that is the achievement of self-awareness.” This agrees completely with my interpretation of Plato’s position, what I have elsewhere called my version of Platonism.
    D. R. Khashaba