A Sharp Eye for Kinds: Plato on Collection and Division

Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 41 (January):229-55 (2012)
This paper focuses on two methodological questions that arise from Plato’s account of collection and division. First, what place does the method of collection and division occupy in Plato’s account of philosophical inquiry? Second, do collection and division in fact constitute a formal “method” (as most scholars assume) or are they simply informal techniques that the philosopher has in her toolkit for accomplishing different philosophical tasks? I argue that Plato sees collection and division as useful tools for achieving two distinct goals – generating real definitions and discovering the basic natural kinds of a given domain of knowledge – both of which occupy a preliminary stage in his account of philosophical inquiry. As to the second question, I claim that the evidence for seeing collection and division as a formal method is weak. Although Plato calls the procedure a technê and a methodos, he makes no real attempt to formalize it in any way. For Plato, collection and division do not constitute an algorithmic process that can be learned from a rule book. Instead the ability to collect and divide properly are skills that good dialecticians must acquire through the kind of hands-on training illustrated by the Sophist and Statesman. Whereas Aristotle insists on formal rules for making proper divisions, Plato seems to emphasize the need to recognize where the natural joints of the world are. In this sense, Plato’s Sophist and Statesman and Aristotle’s Topics and Analytics present two very different pictures of collection and division.
Keywords Plato  Ancient methodology  Classification
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