Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Drew A. Hyland, Plato and the Question of Beauty. Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 150. ISBN 9780253219770. $21.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Yancy Hughes Dominick, Seattle University

Table of Contents

There is much to commend in Drew Hyland's most recent book, though much in it frustrates this reader. The reader who is not eager for arguments or detailed engagement with the scholarly literature, and is interested in a more literary approach to the dialogues, will likely benefit from this book. When one thinks on Plato, however, and chances to experience the "leaping spark" of insight that Hyland touches on, it is valuable to find others who share such experiences. To put it another way, this work strikes me as something best enjoyed by specialists, a group I imagine as eager always for more, not less.

Hyland presents close and often compelling readings of several key passages, and he offers a happily concise overarching account of this important subject. The overall argument attempts to elucidate the role that beauty (τὸ καλόν) plays in the relation (already examined in Hyland's earlier work1) between the finitude of human knowledge and philosophy's attempts to transcend that finitude. That transcendence involves both an immediate, non-discursive grasp of being (p. 77) and a new and "higher living" (p.89), and it results from the work of discourse (λόγος) that takes place against a background of previous non-discursive intuition. "Logos is, in effect, 'in the middle' between our originating and our culminating intuitions, and it--always finitely--joins the two together into a whole" (p. 77). The existence of some connection between beauty and philosophy is of course obvious in Plato's dialogues; Hyland here seeks to show that the experience of beauty leads to transcendent intuition in a unique and paradigmatic way.

Hyland begins with the Hippias Major, which he claims fails in its attempt to define beauty because "there is something about 'beauty itself' that is not accessible to logos at all" (p. 25, original emphasis). The fact that beauty cannot be defined has, on Hyland's reading, some surprising results: there is a sense in which Socrates is responsible for the characters' failure. And, in a further, related surprise, there is a sense in which Hippias, who persists in offering "paradigm instances of beauty," rather than the definition Socrates seeks, "may indeed be right" (pp. 24-5).

Next Hyland discusses the Symposium, where he more directly addresses this ineffable nature of beauty. There is much of interest here, but I will discuss two of Hyland's most compelling claims. First, Hyland points out that since eros is not divine, there can be no "form of Eros," which means that to the extent that one can know eros, "not everything about which we have knowledge has a form" (pp. 52-3, original emphasis). That is a striking insight; I only wish that Hyland had expanded on this insight and its significance for accounts of Plato's epistemology.

Hyland also focuses much attention on Diotima's claim that beauty itself will not appear "as some discursive account nor as some demonstrable knowledge" (οὐδέ τις λόγος οὐδέ τις ἐπιστήμη) (211a7). This, for Hyland, reinforces the fact that beauty--and other forms as well--cannot be defined; insight into forms must be non-discursive. It's perhaps unfair to say so, but I would have liked a more sustained discussion of this point. Are there ways to confirm, for example, whether or not my apparent insights are genuine? Hyland mentions the "true virtue" that results from one's grasp of beauty itself, but, again, how can I be sure that my virtue is true?

The following chapter addresses the first part of the Phaedrus. That dialogue helps Hyland explain how the experience of beauty leads to philosophic living. Such an experience must be non-discursive, but it gives rise to discourse. That discourse, in turn, may lead to the non-discursive "insight, as the Symposium has it, into 'Beauty itself,' or as the Phaedrus puts it, the recollection of our 'earlier' non-discursive experience of beauty itself" (p. 88).

In explaining this relation between non-discursive experience and discourse, Hyland invokes the sun analogy of Republic VI. He writes that, like the experience of beauty that leads to but cannot be captured by speech, "the gift of the sun is not to enable us to see the sun itself . . . the gift of the sun is to enable us to see the things of our experience . . . in the light of the sun which itself is not directly 'visible' on pain of blindness" (p. 88, original emphasis). That is a helpful comparison, but in Republic VI Socrates very clearly says that the sun is in fact visible (at 508b9-10). It's certainly true that looking at the sun causes blindness, but that fact is never acknowledged by the characters in the Republic, and to suggest otherwise is both misleading and distracting.

Hyland then turns to Plato's Second and Seventh Letters, which he uses to support his assertion that Plato wrote not to capture any doctrine or dogma, but to "limn the possibility of philosophy" (p. 108). Philosophy, then, does not involve established doctrine, but rather living a certain way. In establishing these claims about Plato's views on knowledge and living, Hyland contrasts Plato with Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that ἐπιστήμη and νοῦς do not admit of being false (1139b17). Plato, according to Hyland, is "less optimistic" (p. 111). It's certainly true that in the Seventh Letter Plato says that knowledge is defective (343d), and it seems reasonable to view human knowledge as finite, but surely this is not evidence that Plato conceives of knowledge as the sort of thing that might be false. I grant that it is possible that Plato disagrees with his characters' frequent assertions that knowledge is infallible, but to seem credible Hyland's assertion needs quite a bit more support than he here offers.

The final chapter returns to the Phaedrus and approaches the issue of the relation between λόγος and the transcendent goals of philosophy through a discussion of the critique of writing in the closing pages of that dialogue. This chapter is interesting, but Hyland hardly mentions beauty at all, making it difficult to see how this section works as a conclusion to the earlier discussions.

One of the more compelling parts of this chapter addresses the apparent inconsistency in Socrates' treatment of writing and reminders. Earlier (249c), Socrates spoke of reminders (ὑπομνήμασιν) as beneficial things that might lead to recollection. In the criticism of writing at the end, however, Socrates says that by providing reminders writing will foster forgetting rather than remembering (275a). "If Socrates accepts [this] critique, then ironically he fails to remember what he said earlier" (p. 120, original emphasis). Perhaps writing is not so awful after all? This is a very nice point, though it would be even nicer if Hyland had weighed his reading against other similar attempts to examine such tensions in the dialogue.2

In many ways, Plato and the Question of Beauty is a successful study. The book, however, has some serious shortcomings. Much of my objection, to be fair, may ultimately have to do with Hyland's interpretative approach. Hyland is less interested in arguments than in the more "literary" aspects of Plato's work, as is natural enough in a work published in a series on continental thought. And secondary literature is given scant attention. I find it quite remarkable that in a work addressing three of Plato's dialogues and two of his letters, the bibliography mentions only 31 texts, five of which are by Plato while four are by Hyland himself. Short bibliographies are one thing, but if an author is going to mention "other recent books" (p. 7), preface clauses with phrases like "as many have noticed" (p. 60), and mention the "vast and important literature" (p. 138n.15) on a point of interpretation, that author ought to cite her or his sources.3 Not to do so is perhaps more ungenerous than anything else: Hyland has clearly benefited from reading other works on Plato, and yet denies the reader the information she needs to get that benefit herself.

Let me also register a protest against transliterating Greek. Hyland's book includes only transliterations, and these are often extensive, as at p. 105, where Hyland transliterates an entire fragment of Heraclitus (DK B112). If I cannot read Greek, then I cannot read transliterated Greek; and if I can read Greek, then I am only going to be confused and irritated by transliterations, especially ones like this, which does not mark the difference between long and short vowels. Including the actual Greek should be easy in this age of computerized typesetting, and readers would certainly benefit.

I end with a final concern. According to Hyland's Plato, genuine philosophy is something lived rather than studied. Part of that way of life involves questioning, and Hyland in the end asserts that questioning "comes before any possible answers occur to us and is the only genuinely philosophical response to the answers that so occur" (p. 134, original emphasis). In this spirit of questioning, then, I ask: is Hyland's Plato a skeptic? Is that the lesson of this closing? What reasons might persuade me to accept such a strong claim? And what exactly does this have to do with beauty?


1.   Especially in Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
2.   For similar instances, see pp. 36, 103, 118, 129, 138n.15, 140n.23, 141n.25, and 144n.1.
3.   I am thinking especially of Charles Griswold's Self-Knowledge in Plato's Phaedrus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), which also discusses the various claims about "reminders" in the dialogue. Hyland mentions this text in the earlier chapter on the Phaedrus, but regrettably does not return to it.

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