Is Philosophy a Footnote to Plato?

By | December 19, 2010

Spanos states his case:

In your essay, “Is Platonism the model for philosophy?” (in this blog) you put “the question of Platonism”: Is philosophy (in general) a form of Platonism (or as Whitehead said, “a series of footnotes to Plato”)? You also quoted Whitehead’s famous statement in full:

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

You overlooked a few things. First, a characterization of the European philosophical tradition is not necessarily a characterization of philosophy in general. Second, footnotes to Plato do not have to reflect agreement with Plato’s philosophy. Finally, the “safest general characterization” is not necessarily a completely safe general characterization. These oversights could lead to a straw man argument against Whitehead.

I’m not sure what exactly Whitehead had in mind. According to my best guess, he was thinking that the central theme running through the history of European philosophy from Plato to the present is realism. Most European philosophers have assumed one form or another of realism. In other words, they have assumed that reality has a structure that can be captured in language or represented in terms of the categories that form the basic structural units of language. But there have always been dissenters to this view, and it was the central issue throughout the history of medieval philosophy. Duns Scotus was a particularly noteworthy defender of realism, while William of Occam was an extremely influential dissenter. The twentieth century debate between Einstein and Bohr over the interpretation of quantum experiments is one of those footnotes to Plato in which Einstein insisted on a realist position while Bohr took a rather ambiguous position that smacked of anti-realism (e.g. instrumentalism or pragmatism). At the turn of the century, of course, anti-realism was well represented by Richard Rorty and his fellow post-modernists. Meanwhile, realists were spread out over a range that included both transcendental and materialist versions.

My reply:

I also ask: What exactly did Whitehead mean by his statement that we can characterize European philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato? To me this surely suggests that the old metaphysician, Whitehead, was asserting that we can look at European philosophy as a continuation of Plato’s philosophy. After all, what is a mere footnote to the main thesis? It is just a footnote and does not question or reject the main thesis. So now ask yourself, can we characterize the philosophies of the many ‘philosophers’ who are found in the European stream of philosophy as just elaborations on Plato’s philosophy? I submit that the obvious answer is a negative one. Not even the work Plato’s student, Aristotle, who went on to develop his own philosophy, can meaningfully be characterized as a mere footnote to Plato. The same can be said for a large set of philosophers in the European stream.

The fact that the issue of ‘realism’ (e.g. the issue of the status of universals) is an issue that occupied many of those philosophers does not show that their work is just a “footnote to Plato” or a continuation of Platonism. As I tried to show you in an earlier email, and as you seem to have forgotten, there’s much more to Platonism that just preoccupation with the metaphysical issue of ‘realism.’ Affirming that ” that reality has a structure that can be captured in language or represented in terms of the categories that form the basic structural units of language” does not make one a Platonist and does not affirm Plato’s philosophy. At most it shows one point of similarity in very different philosophies.

At best, Whitehead’s famous remark can be taken as a figurative way of saying that many philosophers in the European tradition proceed in somewhat of a spirit of Plato. But his figurative language is surely more misleading than insightful, even when taken as a metaphor.
Spanos comes back:

This is a problem in hermeneutics! A key principle of hermeneutics is the principle of charity. It applies to situations where we must choose between different possible interpretations of a text. It requires that we choose the interpretation that seems most reasonable or most defensible. You seem to me to have chosen an interpretation that is not very reasonable and not very defensible. We should always try to give the writer we are interpreting as much credit as we can within the constraints of the language he or she uses.

My reply:
Principle of charity, huh? Just how charitable do we have to be? Carried far enough, the principle of charity would excuse any foolishness that a writer asserts, especially when the writer is a respected professor of philosophy. And your qualifier surely calls for clarification: “as much credit as we can within the constraints of the language he chose to use.” Exactly how do you determine these “constraints” if you’re not to read what is written as meaning what is written, but go out looking for a charitable interpretation to rescue those writers you favor?

Apparently you were applying this principle of charity when you interpret Whitehead’s remark on “philosophy as a footnote to Plato” as just referring to the fact that a number (and only a minority, really) of European philosophers have been preoccupied with the problem of ‘realism’ (“realism” in the sense that universals and general categories have real, independent existence). You might think this is just the principle of charity (oh, that grand “hermeneutics”!) applied. But it strikes me — as I’m sure it strikes many people — as a case of reading into the text what you want to find there. This is similar to a case of the President’s press secretary telling reporters what the President really meant to say when he committed some blooper or other.

Look man, if I tell you that ‘B’ is just a footnote to ‘A’, I’m surely implying that at best ‘B’ is just commentary or clarification of the main thesis ‘A’; if one is using these words in a figurative sense to say something about how we who indulge in the activity of philosophy are in a sense children of Plato, then one should signal more clearly that this figurative language is not to taken too seriously. But this special interpretation would be just that, a special interpretation. It flies in the face of a fact of our linguistic behavior: we use such expression to elevate the main thesis ‘A’ at the expense of ‘B’.

At any rate, even on your charitable interpretation of the Whitehead statement (philosophers are children of Plato), there are great problems with the amended statement about footnotes and Plato; and it is an amended statement, not a case of charitable interpretation at all.

(When in doubt invoke the principles of textual interpretation and that ugly word, “hermeneutics.”)

134 thoughts on “Is Philosophy a Footnote to Plato?

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    The concept of the footnote connotes a reference to an authority. There is a rich history of the dialogues of Plato being held in high regard as something worthy of attention. However, the idea that the entire history of philosophy can be reduced to the status of secondary literature on Plato misses the reason why this “feels” like the truth. The strongest basis of this idea feeling like the truth is that the basics of Socratic philosophy, which had no real content, influenced Plato’s writing.

    Socrates was saturated with an unending need to better himself, endless inquiry and the relentless examination of ideas. Nothing was held sacred such that it is not allowed to be examined. These are characteristics that underlay all possible philosophies. They have such relevance because they are issues of human character and not a system of belief. Recognizing our ignorance and the immense need to seek a remedy is the only epistemological surety in the philosophy of the man from whom Plato’s writings took such amazing influence. These things are innately relevant to the human impulse to thrive philosophically. There is also an unescapable fundamentality to such questions as “What is Justice?”, “What is Virtue?”, etc. Socrates treatment of these questions, as characteristic in the earlier dialogues, set forth an exemplar of behavior and character for the journey of any philosopher. The questions themselves are essential to philosophy.

    In short, it is not that the history of philosophy is reducible to secondary commentary on Plato, but that Plato set forth (via Socratic influence) a pattern of behavior, character and focus so basic and so relevant to such a wide range of philosophical activity that it secured a highly relatable relevance for the dialogues. This is not to say that specifics of ideas did not also have a timeless appeal, but strongest truth in Plato is the fundamental truth of human character and focus as illustrated in Socrates.

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