Platonism and Modern "Idealisms"
I want to invite people’s ideas about the relationship between Platonic philosophy and modern philosophical “idealisms.” I’d also be interested in any comments that people might have about the ramifications of Platonism and “Idealism” in modern literature, in writers like Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Yeats, Rilke, Woolf, Eliot and so forth.
For purposes of division of labor, much scholarly investigation of Plato and his successors and of the modern “idealists” (Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Royce, and so forth) treats the two traditions separately. But they overlap a great deal in substance, and I think that considering what they have in common can do a lot to illuminate the doctrines of each. It might in fact help us to identify a core thought, underlying the two traditions, that’s not just of historical interest but true.
I regularly put “idealism” in scare quotes because it’s not at all clear what the common thesis of “idealism” as such is supposed to be. We have “subjective” idealisms, “transcendental” idealisms, “absolute” idealisms, and so forth. Of course there can also be considerable dispute about what “Platonism,” as such, is.
We can share brief accounts of our own ideas and relevant work. And we can draw each other’s attention to recent publications that deal with the relation between the two traditions.
I'll lead the way by posting a 1300-word essay I've written on how "Actual Freedom Is the Fullest Reality: A Plato/Hegel Thesis."
Platonism and Modern "Idealisms"
Reply to Robert M. Wallace
Actual Freedom Is the Fullest Reality: A Plato/Hegel Thesis (Robert M. Wallace)
I want to put forward a thesis that I think motivates a great deal of what Plato and modern “idealists,” especially Hegel, write about the relationship between freedom and reality. They think that in some way, free or self-determining functioning constitutes the fullest reality. I want to explore this thesis (call it the “Plato/Hegel Thesis”) because I think it’s an important truth.
Since freedom probably involves mind, the thesis that full reality goes with freedom may remind us of the familiar modern “idealist” theses that “to be is to be perceived” (Berkeley) or that the mind in some way imposes basic features on reality (Kant). But the Plato/Hegel thesis is importantly different from these familiar theses. The Plato/Hegel thesis suggests that “reality,” rather than being (for whatever reason) simply present or absent, in fact exhibits a scale of increasing degrees: that a given phenomenon may embody more or less reality than another phenomenon. If there are degrees or levels of freedom or self-determination, then there are degrees or levels of reality.
The thesis that actual freedom is the fullest reality is stated and developed explicitly and at length by Hegel, especially in his Science of Logic (1812-1814; see my Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God [Cambridge U. Press, 2005], chapters 3-5). But it seems to me that in this work, Hegel is in fact spelling out and systematizing a line of thought that already played an important role, though expressed in different terms, in the Platonic tradition long before Hegel picked it up. Platonists express this line of thought in terms of the “soul,” its “ascent” or “return,” the “One,” and the like.
Briefly: according to book iv of Plato’s Republic, the soul isn’t automatically a unity. In order for the soul to be a unity and thus (I suggest) to be fully actualized or real, as a soul, it needs to be unified, by its highest, “rational” part’s creating harmony among itself and the soul’s appetitive and “spirited” parts. Plato says that when this harmony is achieved, the person “becomes entirely one,” and “only then does he act” (443d). It seems clear that Plato thinks that a person who acts “as one” is in fact fully in charge of his action, rather than allowing himself to be governed by a mere part of himself, such as an appetite or an emotion. This seems to be precisely the state that in modern discourse we often describe as one of “inner freedom.” The absence of such unity or “inner freedom” may not absolve the person of responsibility for her action, if she could have chosen to unify herself (to act with inner freedom), but in fact chose not to. The presence or absence of this capacity is what we focus on in determining whether a person is competent to stand trial or be otherwise praised or blamed. Without focusing on this particular aspect (the presence or absence of the mere capacity), Plato’s analysis draws our attention to the same broad issue about the agent’s inner functioning that modern philosophers articulate in terms of the role of reason or inner freedom in the responsible agent. Plato was laying down the most general features of the kind of account of responsibility that has been pursued by broadly rationalist compatibilists such as Gary Watson, Susan Wolf and John Martin Fischer in recent years.
Now the striking implication of Plato’s analysis is that a person can fail to be “one.” Being “one” is an accomplishment, rather than a “given.” The Republic’s tripartite account of the soul appears also in the Timaeus, and appears to be Plato’s mature view. Later Platonists like Plotinus don’t necessarily follow Plato’s tripartite account in its details; but Plotinus’s overall structure of thought appears to have a similar implication. Why do human individuals “turn back” towards the One? They do so, it seems, in search of genuine one-ness for themselves. In Plotinus’s account, they find this first through the unitary cosmic “Soul,” then through “Intellect,” and ultimately through the “One,” itself. Losing the unity that individuals appear to possess within the “Cave,” they discover true unity outside it. So the underlying assumption is again, as in Republic iv, that individual humans can and indeed regularly do fail to be truly “one,” and that true “one”-ness is (accordingly) an accomplishment, rather than a given. But if “one”-ness is an accomplishment, which a being can lack, then we see how it could make sense to describe an entity that achieves such “one”-ness as more fully real than an entity that lacks it. That is, the term “reality” can be used to refer not to mere existence but to what achieves “one”-ness, or (as we could also put it) what succeeds in being real “as itself,” and not just as a heap of ingredients.
We can see a similar line of thought in Immanuel Kant’s account of the will and its ideal freedom or autonomy. In chapter 3 of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant indicates that a will that’s governed simply by “inclinations” is not self-governing. Inclinations have their source, it seems, outside the will, and if the will is to be guided by itself, it will be guided by the kind of rationality that Kant associates with the “Categorical Imperative.” Kant takes it that anyone who understands the difference between inclinations and self-governing reason will agree with him that something that’s capable of being self-governing obviously ought to be self-governing. (Note: Kant is not assuming that we ought to be moral. Rather, he’s inferring our need to be moral from the more fundamental thesis that we need to be self-governing.)
A materialist or empiricist might well ask why he or she should agree with Kant that we need or ought to be self-governing. It’s a deep question. But it seems clear that Kant is assuming this. And it also seems clear that Kant’s assumption is closely related to Plato’s assumption that Socrates’s interlocutors, in the Republic, would find “becoming one” a compelling goal. This is the same assumption that Hegel goes on to anatomize in fascinating detail in his account of the infinite as the finite’s way of becoming “in itself,” rather than through others, what it is.
Thus I see a continuous thread of concern, between ancient Platonism and modern German Idealism, with the issue of how an entity can achieve full reality, reality (we might say) as itself, by (in some sense) unifying itself. It’s well known that Kant, for epistemological reasons, refuses explicitly to connect his ethical theorizing with a metaphysics. Hegel feels that Kant’s epistemological scruples are unjustified. (I explain why Hegel feels this in chapter 3 of my Hegel book.) So Hegel proceeds to recreate the connection that Plato and Plotinus had drawn between modes of practical/intellectual functioning (on the one hand) and degrees or kinds of reality (on the other).
To me, this connection is one of the most suggestive and potentially powerful threads within both the Platonic tradition and modern idealism. One of the weaknesses of post-Hegel "Idealisms," I believe, has been their failure to focus on this particular issue, which played such a central role in Plato and (in different ways) in Kant and Hegel. If the serious interest in Kant and Hegel that has been reborn in recent decades ever bears full fruit, I suspect it will be (in part at least) by its coming to appreciate the role of this connection, this train of thought, in Platonism and in modern "idealism."