Catherine Rowett presents an in depth study of Plato's Meno, Republic and Theaetetus and offers both a coherent argument that the project in which Plato was engaging has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented, and detailed new readings of particular thorny issues in the interpretation of these classic texts.
The paper starts with reflections on Plato’s critique of the poets and the preference many express for Aristotle’s view of poetry. The second part of the paper takes a case study of analytic treatments of ancient philosophy, including the ancient philosopher poets, to examine the poetics of analytic philosophy, diagnosing a preference in Analytic philosophy for a clean non-poetic style of presentation, and then develops this in considering how well historians of philosophy in the Analytic tradition can accommodate the contributions (...) of philosophers who wrote in verse. The final part of the paper reviews the current enthusiasm for decoding Empedocles’ vague and poetic descriptions of the cosmic cycle into a precise scientific periodicity on the basis of the recently discovered Byzantine scholia on Aristotle. I argue that this enthusiasm speaks to a desire for definite and clear numerical values in place of poetic motifs of give and take, and that this mathematical and scientific poetic is comparable to the preferred poetic of analytic philosophy. (shrink)
Pythagoreans dominated the political scene in southern Italy for nearly a century in the late 6th to 5th century BC. What was the secret of their political success and can their political, social and economic policies be assessed in the customary terms with which historians try to analyse ancient societies? I argue that they cannot, and that the Pythagorean approach to politics was sui generis, and successful because it was based on ideas, not force or popular demagogy.
In this paper I explore a famous part of Plato’s Theaetetus where Socrates develops various models of the mind (picturing it first as a wax tablet and then as an aviary full of specimen birds). These are to solve some puzzles about how it is possible to make a mistake. On my interpretation, defended here, the discussion of mistakes is no digression, but is part of the refutation of Theaetetus’s thesis that knowledge is “true doxa”. It reveals that false doxa (...) is possible only if there is a certain stock of abstract knowledge, conceptual knowledge, that is not awareness of the particular individual that is being described. The individual must be identified under some description, or seen as something of a certain kind. Error can only occur if the description applied misdescribes the situation, but then if it is to be applied falsely it must first have been known from somewhere else. So knowledge cannot be reduced to the application of descriptions to particulars, but is to be found in the prior possession of abstract descriptions that can be deployed in identifying particular individuals on the ground. (shrink)
Professor Christopher Stead was Ely Professor of Divinity from 1971 until his retirement in 1980 and one of the great contributors to the Oxford Patristic Conferences for many years. In this paper I reflect on his work in Patristics, and I attempt to understand how his interests diverged from the other major contributors in the same period, and how they were formed by his philosophical milieu and the spirit of the age. As a case study to illustrate and diagnose his (...) approach, I shall focus on a debate between Stead and Rowan Williams about the significance of the word idios in Arius's theology (in the course of which I also make some suggestions of my own about the issue). (shrink)
In this paper I argue that we can better understand Plato’s Phaedo, if we don’t concentrate solely on the hints of Pythagoreanism among the characters and their doctrines, as though that were the principal key to the dialogue’s dialec- tical targets. I suggest that the dialogue is intended to make us think of the meta-physics of at least one other Presocratic predecessor, besides any Pythagorean influence (which may be much less than has been thought). Not least among the thinkers of (...) whom we are reminded is Heraclitus. In the Phaedo, Plato invites us to explore the limitations of these earlier metaphysical views, and to consider how far they can or cannot make space for the capacity of the soul to direct the body, to make decisions, to grasp eternal truths and potentially to survive in perpetuity beyond the decay of the body. (shrink)
Do you need to know the name of the god you're praying to? If you get the name wrong what happens to the prayer? What if the god has more than one name? Who gets to decide whether the name works (you or the god or neither)? What are names anyway? Are the names of the gods any different in how they work from any other names? Is there a way of fixing the reference without using the name so as (...) to avoid the problems of optional names? There is a type of formula used in prayer in ancient Greece which I call (in this paper) a "precautionary formula". The person praying uses expressions like "whether you want to be called [x] or [y]", and "if this is the name by which you would like to be called". I also include here the practice of adding definite descriptions that identify the god by means other than the name (e.g. their place of birth or residence, their deeds etc). In this paper I ask what these formulae were for, why so many occur in philosophical work, particularly Plato, and whether the puzzles about the names of the gods go back to the Presocratics. (shrink)
A universal basic income is an unconditional allowance, sufficient to live on, paid in cash to every citizen regardless of income. It has been a Green Party policy for years. But the idea raises many interesting philosophical questions, about fairness, entitlement, desert, stigma and sanctions, the value of unpaid work, the proper ambitions of a good society, and our preconceptions about whether leisure or jobs are the thing we should prize above all for free citizens. Coming from the perspective of (...) ancient philosophy, I consider the answers offered in the ancient world to some of these questions, and how we might learn from rethinking our notions of how to create a good society in which people can be free and realise their creative and intellectual potential. (shrink)
The character Protagoras in Plato's Protagoras holds similar views to the one in the Theaetetus, and faces similar problems. The dialogue considers issues in epistemology and moral epistemology, as a central theme. The Protagorean position is immune from Socrates' attacks, and Socrates needs Protagorean methods to make any impact.
Philosophers are generally somewhat wary of the hints of number mysticism in the reports about the beliefs and doctrines of the so-called Pythagoreans. It's not clear how much Pythagoras himself (as opposed to his later followers) indulged in speculation about numbers, or in more serious mathematics. But the Pythagoreans whom Aristotle discusses in the Metaphysics had some elaborate stories to tell about how the universe could be explained in terms of numbers—not just its physics but perhaps morality too. Was this (...) just fanciful speculation? Is it muddled as a theory of causality, as Aristotle suggests? I shall try to rehabilitate the passion for numbers by linking it with the notions of harmony and proportion in other thinkers who have a higher credibility factor in the philosophical stakes, and by showing that the desire to reduce quality to quantity, and to discover an exact science that can explain human life and meaning, is a serious philosophical passion that doesn't easily go away. And, after all, why should it? (shrink)
In this paper I argue, controversially, that Plato's Meno anticipates Wittgenstein's critique of essentialism. Plato is usually read as an essentialist of the very kind that Wittgenstein was challenging, and the Meno in particular is usually taken as evidence that Plato thought that to know something you must be able to define it, and that if you can't define it you can't investigate any other questions on the topic. I suggest instead that Plato shows Socrates proposing such a position (much (...) as Wittgenstein's imaginary interlocutor might do), only to have it knocked down by what happens in the dialogue. Plato shows that one knows a concept when one can apply it in practice, or, for virtue, when one typically chooses to act in certain ways, passes certain judgements and so on. It turns out, then, that one who claims to "know what virtue is" need not give necessary and sufficient conditions for it. (shrink)
This book is an amazing treasure trove of riches, and my response, done properly, would probably occupy three monographs. Naturally, Rashed is addressing quite a few controversial issues concerning the interpretation of Empedocles, and on some of these I would heartily disagree with his conclusions, or have minor quibbles; but all his contributions are welcome and reflect a most impressive breadth of learning and scholarship. Where I disagree, it is mostly not that Rashed’s reports of the tex...