Anti-platonism

Introduction: Part 1.

What I want to do first is set the scene a little bit with regard to this notion that what we still call ‘continental’ philosophy is an anti-Platonism. Which in many respects is a truism and probably not at all a surprise. Any of you who have had much to do with working or studying in this area will have come across one or another of the various forms of the distance that must be taken from Plato. The surprise of anti-Platonism as this series attests is in the sense that it can be seen to be a unifying theme and thus, dare I say it, an Idea at the heart of continental philosophy itself. I’m going to drop the ‘continental’ from now on, except where we need the emphasis.

So, schematically, I’ll run across some of the tropes of this anti-Platonism. Then I will talk a bit about Plato. However, I don't want to assert or even argue for some sort of the Plato. That's to say, I don't want to and frankly cannot give a definitive Plato that then all the positions and figures of philosophy are somehow incapable of knowing or comprehending as such. That is stupid in the sense that it would actually be to repeat a mistake of what we might call vulgar Platonism – that is the kind of Platonism some Platonists espouse as Platonic and that some analytic philosophers refer to self-flatteringly as ‘little p Platonism’.

It is vulgar because it assumes that what is essential to Plato is precisely definition – that this or that is definable or definitive as this or that in one way and that is as object – thus resistant to thought at some point – and that this is what all enquiry aims at – a finality of the object under enquiry. Thus a definitive Plato in this ‘little p’ sense would not be Platonic, I say, because Plato is not an object nor does he treat a thing as such, and definition, though pursued, is not his aim.

In a certain sense it is this vision of a vulgar Platonism which stands as the Plato that continental philosophy must renounce or subvert or have done with and so on and this is right, I’d say. Thus of course part of the point of this course, part of what Whitehead was aiming at, what Badiou has elaborated and so on is that this definitive Plato might not or even is not Plato and thus many Platonists are less Platonic than they assume and indeed Plato himself demonstrates this, supposing we know how to look, and again the means of this looking are also there in Plato.

Of course, to find these other means of enquiry which are not-definitive is part of what’s at stake. To pre-empt a little, this might mean looking outside Plato, outside philosophy as such to find these means, which can be brought to bear on philosophy in order to see what is there more than it knows. In some ways, the history of continental philosophy is an attempt to find these ways, which it has generally considered to be un-Platonic already. But again this might not be the case or at least not the case as it is set out.

I will not attempt a definition of Platonism because I don't think that is the platonic thing to do. The platonic thing to do is to set up an enquiry and this is what we are doing in these sessions. It’s an enquiry into what is anti-Platonism, which requires that we traverse a wide range of figures in their relation to Plato as it figures in their philosophy and it also means, for those who know the dialogue the Sophist, that we are essentially in the hunt for a being which is not; or we are looking for where the non-beings are. To clarify, if the continental philosopher is not being platonic what are they being in their not being at all?

The interesting thing about an enquiry is that the means of it doesn’t at all prescribe the ends. That would be to suppose that the rule of the enquiry is already the outcome. That at least the one must be adequate to the other; this adequation being judged from outside the enquiry itself; thus some rule exists of it and it supposes that adequation – and thus via speech, verification of word and deed – is indeed the form a truth takes.

To proceed without recourse to such a rule is exemplified in the very dialogue form: we begin where we are, we go where it takes us. As Drew A. Hyland notes: ‘Plato had to make this choice, to write in this way from among the many options available and he had to choose this fully conscious of the fact that his master didn't write and considered philosophy un-writable.’ So maybe I can say the dialogue is an impossible form, written.

Of course the recourse to the rule – worried by the insistence of the indefinite or the impossible – is another possible orientation to Plato, a sort of Platonism that has been through the Aristotelian wringer, we might say, a sort of ordo-Platonism we could call it, which is really a fix. Aristotle tried to fix what he saw in Plato as a lack.

This is a genuine approach because it is true to say that the production of any thought also produces its lack – or it shows also what remains to be thought. And on such aporia – the internal exhaustion of dialogical resources – philosophy is always tasked to intervene, to recommence, to start again. This is Platonic or rather we could say it is generic philosophy. Of course, such a lack could never be seen as such without the work of the thought whose lack it is, so it's a positive thing, this aporia, this lack, not at all a failure. But there are different ways to approach this aporia. I think Aristotle tries to correct Plato. It's a schoolmaster’s way, a pedagogue’s way and part of it is in changing the form of discourse itself. In a way we can say whereas Plato treats the impossible as real, Aristotle’s correction concerns the reality of what’s possible.

What I mean is that he brings a knowledge to fill the aporia, a technique to fill the lack as lack – he seems to see the lack as a less than, a negative hole in philosophy, which in turn suggests that his idea of philosophy – which is not an idea but an end – is as complete or as a whole or as final. Hence the positive image of philosophy as sovereign – as the all of knowledge or the knowledge of knowledge – must be fulfilled. Something like this, I am being a little loose and obtuse. But again, I don't think it’s necessarily un-platonic of Aristotle to go down this route but, funnily enough, to go down this route is to thereby ‘miss’ or lack what is in Plato which is not or is more than this – thus to miss the very whole you claim is lacking.

Hence the footnote metaphor of Whitehead, perhaps – to correct the text, augment its alignment to itself, background or contextualise, keep the unwieldy dialogue on the straight and narrow and so forth. Indeed Gadamer, essentially criticising Heidegger’s readings of Plato, was clear on this: ‘Aristotle often over-or even misstated the positions of others in order to make his own argument clear. Careful consideration of Plato's articulation of the Idea of the good in the Republic as well as his exposition of the ontological grounds of the theory of ideas in ‘later’ dialogues like the Sophist and Parmenides shows that he never had the patently absurd concept of a world of ideas existing somehow in complete separation from things’. We’ll see down the track how Aristotle does this.

I think it is true to say, then, – and indeed better readers of the history of philosophy than me have said this – that so much of what passes as Plato studies today – and this is said in reference to what we might call analytic Platonism but is not its problem alone – is read through Aristotelian eyes – which is to say, generally, through the corrections or the necessity of them as set out by Aristotle. Aristotleianisation, Stanley Rosen, calls it, talking of Heidegger.

Aristotle was, after all, Plato’s student and is after all, considered in historical terms to be his successor and equal in terms of our philosophical history – even if, famously, that was not how Plato saw it. You know that Plato did not name Aristotle as his successor at the Academy but instead named his nephew Speusippus. We know that later, Aristotle sets up a rival school in Athens, the Lyceum, which in terms of the breadth of its curricular activities can again be interpreted as an intervention on the site of what Plato qua Academy had come to lack – but in the sense we just spoke of, as a correction to or filling of this lack. Moreover, we should remember the very different styles of their philosophical transmission – the dialogue for Plato, the treatise for Aristotle – this is a division which is much more than a distinction.

Clearly, generally speaking, the treatise – exposing the principles or nature even of its subject – has won out and this has a lot to do with the reception of Aristotle into the Church and in the educational apparatus for which they were long responsible in Europe.

I don't know the link exactly but the form of the liturgy and the form of the treatise share some formal aspects and the adaptation of the liturgical form into Christianity made the treatise its more natural companion – the rule of its link with the order of things is built into it. It took Galileo to re-inscribe Plato back into the scene of European knowledge, but this intervention, crucial as it was to the enlightenment, by no means resecured Plato a central place in it.

In his magnificent essay Galileo and Plato, Koyre puts the Platonic re-turn in these terms: ‘what the founders of modern science had to do – Galileo among them – was not to criticise or combat certain faulty theories, and to correct or replace them by better ones. They had to do something quite different. They had to destroy one world and replace it by another. They had to reshape the framework of our intellect itself, to restate and to reform its concepts, to evolve a new approach to Being, a new concept of knowledge, a new concept of science – and even to replace a pretty natural approach, that of common sense, by another which is not natural at all.’

What we need to highlight is a fundamental division – one not within knowledge but between knowledge and truth, really. We have natural, common sense, sustained by repetition, liturgy and established knowledge. The expectation of this knowledge is that all critique and change happens within this form itself – this is what empiricism for example, maintains. Note that when the clever people call for ‘evidence based’ knowledge, this is what they mean – the more things change the more they stay the same (I’d even say it is the science of capital). But the Platonic assault, as Koyre sees in Galileo, and here as the truth of modern science, is not to play the empiricist game but to un-do its very form. Thus to un-know what it knows as knowledge and to change our orientation within and to the world entirely.

Thus going a bit beyond what I noted about Plato being read through Aristotelian eyes is to note that the history of Philosophy and indeed beyond – theology for example, the distinction between mathematics and logic – is divided in some sense between Platonists and Aristotelians. In his Logics of Worlds, Alain Badiou claims: ‘What may be called ‘Platonism’ is the belief that in order to come close to this ideal, [that there is the true] it is necessary to mathematise, by hook or by crook. This is opposed by all the doctrinaires of sense or meaning, be they sophists or hermeneuticists – all of them, at bottom, Aristotelians’. Heidegger is the most influential Aristotelian of the 20th C.

In Badiou’s generalization, then, basically all those we will be looking at as this series takes its course, all those who refuse some place for truth as philosophies invariant category, let’s say, and thus positing notions of sense, experience, interpretation, rule, deconstruction etc., and doing so almost exclusively within the framework of language or the linguistic turn as its called – are, at bottom, and by way of his misstating of the theory of Ideas, Aristotelian. Clearly, this would not necessarily be what most or any would avow. But this designation does of course rely on the claim that anti-Platonism is the Idea of continental philosophy.

A key thing to notice, then, is this ambiguity of the relation. Plato marks the site upon which an intervention is made. Thus there is something Platonic in the intervention but then also something un-Platonic to be got out of it. The denouement of this I reckon is that getting something un-platonic is exactly what Plato wants you to do. Philosophy is not his. He says this over and again and more than that, I’d say, he sets up the dialogues, the dialectic such that it never can be so. Philosophy is bequeathed, we might say, to all but not because it is Plato’s to give but because this is what philosophy is. If Plato is guilty of a sovereign thought it is this one – that philosophy is the thought of all.

Of course, in what way can this be so – can it be lived, can it be demonstrated to be so – is then an abiding question.  But this again leads to a long series of refusals or denials that philosophy can be for all, or rather that this is what is inherently wrong with philosophy, that what in fact makes it sovereign is this assumption that there can be the thought of all. Is this not a totalitarian style masterstroke? To posit such a thing, and to claim it for philosophy? Indeed, as we know, a great trope of philosophy and thus its anti-Platonism is to refuse and to delimit and to destroy such determinations of universalism – of being, truth and subject we might say – and especially insofar as such notions are those of philosophy.

But again this relies on seeing these notions in a specific sense and indeed as actually a particularism of philosophy.  But is this what philosophy is: A particularism beholden to a special few; a special form of knowledge, one that claims to know the truth of things and thus be the master of knowledge? Is it just another genre of discourse? Is this what Plato says or means by distinguishing sense and intelligibility, perception and thought? Is this what philosophy names in the inexistent but not impossible Republic where ‘philosophers rule’. Is this rule a sovereign thing? What sort of rule is it? Is it not a city of philosophy, and thus for all in the sense that as a Republic it is the city of all? Not in the sense of the few over the many but in the sense that it is a city only insofar as all participate equally in its being so? Thus, we might say, a city in which democracy is true or in which truth is lived out equally or democratically? And so, would not philosophy be the holding place of all genres while not being one itself? And indeed and again is it not this failure of philosophy to be just like anything else that draws all ire to it? Which would be ontologically interesting, no? Would it not suggest a category mistake to accuse what is not of being the All of everything?

Is this conflation of two very different infinities not the basis of that all pervading notion of potential, so critical to philosophy in almost all its variants? Perhaps we can speculate here, on the general tendency of philosophy as we know it to, if not treat it as anathema, to hold mathematics at a distance, to tame it – which would be the very discourse that could properly separate the void from the All, making it available to thought.

It is true to say that one of the reasons for the animosity to Plato is this recourse to mathematics: a discourse which admits no sense, no interpretation, no opinion, no knowing, feeling, emoting affective body as constitutive in what its thought can think or effect. And this animosity goes back to the very beginning of anti-Platonism, including the Platonist kind, and indeed is even in his own dialogues, and in ancient commentaries and in the Stoics and the Skeptics. Sextus wrote a treatise against the mathematicians in defence, essentially, of not knowing; which is to say, in claiming a certain positivity for knowing when to suspend thought as such. A subjective knowing that knowledge is impossible at a point – this supposedly gives peace of mind. I suppose it does if mindlessness is peace and the status quo satisfactory.

For Plato, that such a discourse as mathematics exists means that what it thinks has to be thought – indeed it is exemplary of the risk that thought always is – and what it thinks is not limited a priori by some rule of thought derived from experience or ‘sense’ or nature, which means in turn, then, that these tropes of philosophy – empiricism, aesthetics, ethics, vitalism, power, relativism etc. – fascinating and brilliant as they might be in their practical scepticism or even affective stoicism, are not all there is to think or rather, all that can be thought. But again such a thought as mathematics, which, lets face it, is an anti-humanism par excellence and as such not reducible to any of these discourses of sense, cannot be allowed to be thought itself. Which Plato never does say by the way.

He’s a committed dialectician after all – which continental philosophy is not really a fan of anyway. But that a thought exists which refuses the varieties of claims to the limits of sense or experience means quite simply that sense cannot be all. The challenge has to be taken up in and even as philosophy, the risk of this truth must be taken up; maybe that's what philosophy is? But from Aristotle onwards, mathematics, when it is treated, is treated as what must be kept in its place – a place determined by the commitment to the impossibility of knowledge at a point, which is really to say, an aversion to risk. And in fact mathematics must be put in its place by what it gives rise to – logic. Technique is the rule of thought.

Indeed, the vulgar Platonists too, do just this in reducing or regionalising Plato’s mathematical commitments to a thinking of objects and thus specifying a limit set by a rule drawn, they suppose, from the nature of thought itself – which is not foreign to the phenomenologists, either. The irony being of course that mathematics can, and over the centuries has continued to show in revolutionary ways, as Galileo attests, that these rules for thought are in themselves inconsistent, right at the point where they draw their conceptual justification – on this point of impossibility, which thought, to be so, must always risk.

That there is what is impossible to know or to think, what knowledge knows this or even claims cannot be known at all? Of course, let’s note that what these cynics and sceptics are assuming they are doing is saving us all from the All of knowledge – from a totalisation of some sort that has its affects on us in all manner of negative ways. The conservatism of these positions registers as a politics of the least worst, something familiar today.

So the point is that over the course of the semester we’ll come to know Plato through the diverse ways the knowledge of philosophy has sought to un-know him. We’ll let this unknowing speak, as it were, and we’ll see what sort of Plato turns up – which again, I can’t help but remark seems to me Platonic. Note again that we are conducting an enquiry – that is definitely Platonic on purpose – and means we interrogate known knowledge on its own terms – but that out of this disparate set of engagements what might emerge, as in the Sophist, out of the cupboard, is something which was always already there; even if it might not be what we thought we knew it was.

To speak a bit abstractly here, it might be that we come to see something invariant which we could mark as Plato, but I’d already suggest that it will have little to do with the known Plato that gets the whole Platonism and anti-Platonism thing going. What we will see over the course of these sessions, then, is anti-platonic Platonisms, some Platonist-anti-Platonism and perhaps somewhere from without of all this some Plato who might well be what is in fact nothing to all these – or perhaps is collectively made up of all the nothings of all these anti-platonisms which clearly, by mathematical definition, could not be some All or sovereign Plato – but precisely what there is to be thought of Plato!

In the next session and in order to suggest this latter idea, I’ll give a reading of something in Plato that I think can sort of orient the rest of the course; something to hold onto as we go through the very thorough cure that Nietzsche prescribes.

But before that I’ll give the schematic tour.