Creative Arts with Patrick Moore

Was Plato a Platonist? Rebecca Newberger Goldstein says No and Yes
January 12, 2015, 11:23 am
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Was Plato a Platonist, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein asks in her new book, Plato at the Googleplex (2014), p.49. Her answer is, no, except mathematically yes.

No, Plato himself did not subscribe to “Plato’s Heaven,” that she describes one page earlier. Plato’s Heaven is Bertrand Russell’s lampoon of Platonism. Plato’s Heaven would be a “place” where the abstract universals of things reside eternally—say, the ideal form of horse. These abstract universals would reside in some other dimension than the here and now. These abstract universals could be reached in the “hereafter”, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein describes. In this version of Platonism, Plato was not a Platonist, she says. Well, maybe when he was younger he was, but he grew out of it, she says. Her evidence is that 1) his later dialogue, Parmenides, challenges the concept of forms existing in some ideal place, and no character can meet this challenge, and 2) at Plato’s Academy, people were taught math, not the theory of forms. If there is any subject where Plato was a Platonist, she says, it would be math. Plato was a Mathematical Platonist, she tells us. Plato believed the essences of mathematical concepts exist eternally true, somewhere, according to Newberger Goldstein.

It is ironic that she feels qualified to tell us what Plato believed. Because 8 pages earlier she quotes Plato as claiming no experts know what his Philosophy is:

“One statement at any rate I can make in regard to all who have written or who may write with a claim to knowledge of the subjects to which I devote myself [philosophy]…Such writers can in my opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in the future; for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining.” (Plato’s Seventh Letter, 341b-d;Post)

On p. 37-43 of her book, Newberger Goldstein emphasizes all the reasons why Plato’s work cannot be taken as stating his beliefs or philosophy. He chose dialogues with characters as his medium, specifically so that nobody could pick out his belief. I feel this is the most convincing portion of her book.

Then by p. 48 Newberger-Goldstein tells us no, Plato was not a Platonist, except yes, he was a mathematical Platonist.

Is it just me, or is Newberger-Goldstein contradicting herself? She told us that Plato was certain no reader of his works could know what he believes, and then she tells us she knows what he believes. She told us that Plato said it would have been impossible for him to encapsulate his philosophy in words because his philosophy cannot be put into words. But she seems to forget that she quoted this, in the hundred or so places in her book when she encapsulates, in words, what Plato believed and didn’t believe, what he “got right” and what he “got wrong”.

How could she know what he believed? How could she know what he got right and wrong? The evidence she gives is all from the words he left, which she already told us do not refer to what he believes. Where does her authority, to tell us what Plato meant, come from?

Can the question, Was Plato a Platonist, be answered?

Since “Plato’s Heaven,” can easily be put into words, we can eliminate it as Plato’s belief. If Plato really said his belief cannot be put into words, then any “-isms” that can be encapsulated in words, are not Plato’s belief. Or at least they do not stretch to the scope of the Philosophy he was dedicated to.

I praise Rebecca Newberger Goldstein for having the guts to write what she wrote on pp 37-43. Please forgive me if I add to her ideas with some of my own speculation. Perhaps by giving us dialogues, rather than just saying what he believed, he wished for all the characters’ perspectives to be considered. Perhaps the dialogue form provided an experience for the reader. Newberger Goldstein suggested maybe the dialogues were intended to be acted out. If so, this would provide a process for the viewers and the actors.

What if at Plato’s Academy, students had to act out these dialogues? One week, a particular student might have to play Meno, and embody Meno’s perspective that knowledge is what is taught. And the next week the same student would have to play Socrates, who had a different perspective than Meno. Socrates said knowledge is accessed from within the person, and is accessed by asking the person questions. In this process of having to play one character one week, and the opposing character the following week, students would have the experience of embracing multiple perspectives. What if it is this process, of embracing divergent perspectives, that sometimes sparks the enlightenment or understanding? The understanding they would gain, perhaps still cannot be written in words. In fact, the understanding students would gain from this role-reversal, may have nothing to do with the content of those dialogues! The students may gain insight into the process of perspectives, rather than the content of Meno’s and Socrates’ discussion.

In this sense, Plato might have been more like a drama teacher than what is currently called a “philosopher,” who tells people what is right and wrong to think. No no–many will say—Plato hated drama! Really? How is it known that Plato hated drama? The reason so many of Plato’s readers believe Plato hated drama is that many characters in Plato’s dialogues said they hated drama, and therefore Plato himself must have hated drama. Really? If the author of those characters hated drama, why did he pose all of these characters in dramas? All of Plato’s authentic writings are dramas.

But Plato’s Seventh Letter is not a drama. Is it authentic? Julia Annas said that Plato’s Seventh Letter is probably not written by Plato . It would be unlikely that someone who devoted his career to not saying what he thought, to come right out and say what he thought in a letter, she feels. Those who wish for Plato’s Seventh Letter to be authentic, are those who long for something to grasp onto, to say, This is the thing Plato believed! Annas feels there is no belief or “philosophy” that a reader could grasp onto and say this is what Plato believed. I read Julia Annas’ Plato a Very Short Introduction and found it to be very clear and easy to grasp.

Building on these ideas, I speculate further.

What if Plato, when using the word, “Philosophy,” meant something completely different and opposite to what people today do, who call themselves Philosophers? What if to Plato, philosophy was a process? And since his time, everyone else has assumed philosophy is the content? What if to Plato, philosophy could not be right or wrong? The word literally means, the love of knowledge. Is it right or wrong to love knowledge?

What if Plato was curious about the existence of essences of things, essences that were unbreakable, even though the individuals of those things could die? Does the fact that in one of his later dialogues (Parmenides), he challenged this concept, proof that he stopped being curious about it? A person who was mature and comfortable with his philosophy could easily write a work that challenged concepts that were valuable to him. I am not saying I know this was his belief, but I am saying his challenge of the concept of eternal essences is no evidence that he discarded this belief in later life.

What if Plato realized that trying teach the concept of essences directly does not lead people to embracing the understanding of essences? If you really want to assist people to embrace essences, you would provide them with a process, not tell them the content. This might explain why Plato’s Academy did not teach the concept of essences, but more mathematics. It wouldn’t matter what subject you taught, really, if the path to embracing essences is a process. I am not saying I know that Plato was trying to teach embracing essences. But I am saying that using the subjects taught at his academy as evidence that he had given up on the idea of embracing essences, is not valid evidence.

If Plato realized later in life that trying to teach the concept of essences directly does not lead people to embrace essences, then his dialogues would have reflected this. Perhaps what he gave up later in life was not the philosophy of essences, but attempts to teach this as content. I am not saying I know this to have been his thought process, but I am saying that using the content of his later dialogues as evidence of his discarding a philosophy of essences later in life, is not valid.

What do you think?