Tuesday, August 13, 2019


Thomas Bénatouïl, Katerina Ierodiakonu (ed.), Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xi, 391. ISBN 9781108471909. $105.00.

Reviewed by Colin C. Smith, University of Kentucky (colinclarksmith@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Dialectic After Plato and Aristotle is a collection of ten papers, nine from the 13th Symposium Hellenisticum held in the Abbaye des Prémontrés at Pont-à-Mousson in Lorraine, France in July 2013, each addressing the role of dialectic in Hellenistic or early imperial thought. The term διαλεκτική and its cognates were used to describe a wide range of practices throughout antiquity, and the contributors to this volume trace out several consistent themes corresponding to its usage. What emerges in the book is an account of several interrelated ways in which the ancient practices of dialectic reflect the nature of philosophy as a lived activity, in which the interlocutors are oriented toward ultimate goals like learning to account for truth by carving up nature at its joints or assessing the worth of received opinion through a question-and- answer process. Written by an international group of authors including both established and younger scholars, the chapters in this volume constitute a rich set of discussions of several key aspects of the history of these practices that have heretofore received inadequate attention. This book is of interest both to those working on ancient metaphysics, epistemology, or logic broadly and those engaging with any of the various historical figures and schools covered, including Megarics, Peripatetics, Epicureans, Stoics, the Hellenistic Academy, Cicero, Pyrrhonian Skeptics, Galen, and the Middle Platonists.

As co-editor Thomas Bénatouïl describes in his helpful introduction, the term 'dialectic' has consistently entailed a technical sense throughout the history of philosophy, referring either to one or more of a set of methods or a general orientation towards philosophical practice. It was first used by Plato in several interrelated senses, such as the elenctic method of examining the worth of implicit beliefs and the 'highest science' of grasping the relationships between intelligible forms as described, for example, by the Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist. In the Topics, Aristotle used the term to describe a method of arguing with reference to received opinions. (Dialectic was of course later given central prominence in the philosophical systems of modern German philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Marx, though consideration of this later usage in this book does not continue after the introduction.) The questions that the contributors to this volume address are: in what ways are the Platonic and Aristotelian senses of dialectic at play in the thinking of later ancient authors? What additional 'dialectical' considerations inform the thinking and method of later authors, where 'dialectic' is understood loosely to suggest either a question-and-answer structure or an inquiry into nature via something akin to Platonic division, or both?

The discussions of these issues are organized by historical period, dividing into four sections. The first section includes three papers on early Hellenistic philosophy. In "Megara and Dialectic," James Allen considers the shadowy Megaric School of the 4th century BCE and the controversy as to whether this school is coextensive with the so-called 'Dialectical School.' Allen is not concerned to resolve the matter regarding the 'number' of schools definitively, and he offers a helpful (if admittedly speculative) account of what the dialectical methods of this school or schools might have entailed on the basis of the scant surviving evidence. In "Dialectic in the Early Peripatos," Paolo Crivelli offers an excellent consideration of the ways in which the early Peripatetics both received and also "corrected" the method of dialectic described in the Topics. Of particular value is Crivelli's argument describing six key ways in which Theophrastus deviated methodologically and conceptually from Aristotle on this point. Crivelli also includes much briefer discussions of the minimal evidence suggesting dialectical innovation in Eudemus and Stratus. David Sedley contributes a helpful chapter about "Epicurus on Dialectic," in which he considers several ways in which Epicurus' well-known rejection of the dialectical method reflects Epicurus' own ontological commitments. One particularly noteworthy aspect of Sedley's chapter is his discussion of the so-called 'Bat Riddle' that Glaucon mentions in Book V of the Republic (89-105), in which 'a man who is not a man shoots and does not shoot a bird that is not a bird,' etc. Sedley argues that this riddling description of the eunuch (who is both a man and not a man) who shoots (and misses) a bat (which both is and is not a bird, as it is a bird relative to its gift of flight but is not a bird insofar as it is viviparous) captures the Epicurean view that being is in all cases relative and aspectual, and hence not truthfully or meaningfully disclosed through the kind of dialectical investigation at play in, for example, Platonic division.

The book's second section comprises two chapters on Stoic dialectic, and this section is particularly strong insofar as it includes both thorough historical overviews and compelling new theses. In "Dialectic and Stoic Philosophy," co-editor Katerina Ierodiakonou discusses broadly the relationship between Stoic dialectic on the one hand and Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic on the other. Ierodiakonou furthermore considers the role of dialectic as a sub-branch of logic, separated from rhetoric, in the Stoic division of philosophy. Jean-Baptiste Gourinat advances the ambitious and promising thesis in "Stoic Dialectic and Its Objects" that Stoic lekta are (most essentially) neither 'mind-dependent' nor 'purely metaphysical' entities as has typically been argued, but instead are "closely connected to the notion of a discussion by question and answer and to the processes involved in such a dialectical context, but also by the process of perception which is at the very basis of thought and language involved in dialectic" in both strictly Stoic and broader senses (137). Briefly stated, Gourinat supports his thesis by arguing that the lekta are not merely the movements of the mind, but instead that which accompanies the movements of mind alongside impressions, and hence have their own meaningful and intersubjective content in a manner similar to the distinction between signifier and signified. Gourinat argues these points with reference to distinctions drawn in Aristotle's De interpretatione. This chapter and its ambitious argument are of significant interest to those working on Stoic ontology, insofar as Gourinat offers the resources for a conception of Stoic lekta in specifically dialectical terms.

The third section includes three chapters on the Hellenistic Academy. In "Dialectic in the Hellenistic Academy," Luca Castagnoli offers several of his own definitions of dialectical philosophy and argues that the methods of Arcesilaus and Carneades are more dialectical than these philosophers themselves made explicit, judging at least by the extant sources, and also more so than modern scholars have heretofore realized. In other words, although Arcesilaus notably argues that dialectic is to be shunned and Carneades likens its practice to an octopus that destroys its own appendages, Castagnoli nevertheless traces several dialectical elements in their philosophy, particularly the Aristotelian senses of dialectical arguments starting from what is accepted by the interlocutor and based on claims to which the arguer is not necessarily committed. In "Pithana and probabilia," Tobias Reinhardt considers the relationship between the Carneadean and Stoic pithana (persuasives) and argues that "an impression's initial persuasiveness, prior to any testing or scrutiny, is taken to be due to the fact that its propositional content is consistent with views antecedently held by the subject, and that an impression's phenomenal clarity is an enabling not a constitutive property" of Carneadean pithana (218). Reinhardt primarily uses the extant evidence in Sextus Empiricus, drawing also on medical and classical philosophical texts, to suggest that Carneadean pithana have an inherently intersubjective character (239), and entail an assent or 'saying yes' that itself has a structure of question-and-answer similar to dialectic (252). Sophie Aubert-Baillot offers in "Terminology and Practice of Dialectic in Cicero's Letters" a consideration of "the heterogeneous, diffuse and sometimes tenuous presence of dialectic" (255) through explicit terminological appearances and the implicit question-and-answer structures at play in Cicero's correspondence. Taken together, the arguments in this chapter suggest a new conception of dialectic independent of those explicitly drawn upon by Plato in his dialogues.

Finally, the book's fourth section includes two chapters on dialectic in early imperialist authors. In "The Sceptic's Modes of Argumentation," Benjamin Morison offers an account of Pyrrhonian Skepticism via Sextus Empiricus as an ability to concoct argumentation that induces the suspension of judgment in response to dogmatic philosophy, and one that bears at least some similarities to Aristotle's 'dialectical game' as described in the Topics. Morison's account has the virtue of not committing the Skeptic to holding any views, for example, that judgment is best suspended. This is in contradistinction to the reconstructions of the Skeptical view offered by other recent commentators like Jonathan Barnes and Julia Annas, both of whom Morison discusses at length. Put briefly, Morison argues that upon hearing (for example) that 'honey tastes sweet to most,' the Skeptic is prepared to counter that 'honey tastes bitter to those with jaundice' and hence to induce the suspension of judgment; this is different from building an argument with the premise that judgment should be suspended, which of course is itself a philosophical tenet and hence the precise thing that the Skeptic claims not to endorse. Drawing upon Morison's compelling work on Skepticism elsewhere, the chapter is valuable for its highly plausible construal of the Skeptical Ten Modes and Five Modes. Its discussion of this method's relationship with Aristotelian dialectic is an intriguing if somewhat curious bonus, and one that Morison treats largely parenthetically. In the book's final chapter, "Galen and Middle Platonists on Dialectic and Knowledge," Riccardo Chiaradonna uses resources in Galen to consider both Galen's own philosophical views and those of the Middle Platonists, defined as those between the Academy and Plotinus. Chiaradonna considers these groups broadly and on the subject of dialectic, but argues against the ultimate assessment of Galen as a Platonist himself insofar as Galen advocates an unorthodox interpretation of several central Platonic tenets. Chiaradonna considers several interrelated senses of dialectic at play in Galen's writing, including its sense as a kind of logic that for Galen is ultimately subordinate to demonstration, an Aristotelian sense of argumentation at play in Galen's writing, Galen's ambivalent view of the generation of the cosmos, and the relationship between dialectic and names or words insofar as they serve as the foundation of scientific definitions and hence science itself.

Already in the Classical period, the term 'dialectic' invoked the seemingly conflicting senses of 'the highest science of being' and 'argumentation through mere received opinion.' Given this, the task of pinning down the term's precise meaning and implications, particularly as it continued to be used by more and more thinkers in novel contexts, proves ultimately to be quite difficult. This book offers many resources for getting at the rich set of meanings entailed by the term 'dialectic,' but it does not resolve the question (nor do its contributors claim to resolve the question) of the inherent unity of these meanings. Surely this is so much the better for us who seek to understand the practice of philosophy and the reasons for the perennial value of dialectic, leaving as it does a series of dialectical exercises necessary for us to take up ourselves toward this task.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Dialectics in Dialogue / Thomas Bénatouïl
1. Megara and Dialectic / James Allen
2. Dialectic in the Early Peripatos / Paolo Crivelli
3. Epicurus on Dialectic / David Sedley
4. Dialectic as a Subpart of Stoic Philosophy / Katerina Ierodiakonou
5. Stoic Dialectic and Its Objects / Jean-Baptiste Gourinat
6. Dialectic in the Hellenistic Academy / Luca Castagnoli
7. Pithana and probabilia / Tobais Reinhardt
8. Terminology and Practice of Dialectic in Cicero's Letters / Sophie Aubert-Baillot
9. The Sceptic's Modes of Argumentation / Benjamin Morison
10. Galen and Middle Platonists on Dialectic and Knowledge / Riccardo Chiaradonna

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