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Platonic Conversations

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Plato Plato

“When Aristotle writes philosophy, he writes arguments. When Plato writes philosophy, he writes stories, myth, allegories.”


This distinction must always be borne in mind when reading this richly complex book by Mary Margaret McCabe, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.


This book on the method of conversation Plato employed consists of 16 chapters, nearly all of which have appeared in print between 1982 and 2012. While thus not a 'new' book, it represents three decades of intensive examination on how we should read the ancients.


Since a study of each chapter would result in a massive review, I will concentrate here on some key elements. Her chapter “Myth, Allegory, and Argument in Plato” embodies some of the finest and most problematic aspects of her prose. It was originally published in 1993.


Everyone is familiar with Ockham's razor: entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. In other words, economy is good. McCabe tells us it was really first developed by Socrates. In reading Anaxagoras, “what Socrates hoped for was an entirely systematic and exhaustive account of the universe; instead what he got were some mechanisms - with a spare part, Mind, which ended up doing nothing at all.”


McCabe says that instead of revising the work of his predecessor, Socrates “embarks on a different investigation which culminates” in a simple-minded answer. Why is this so good she asks? “What is at issue here, I think, is the nature of scientific theorizing...The great advantage of the simple-minded answer is that it is thoroughly economical.”


The analysis is excellent, but McCabe is too tentative in her various arguments, repeatedly falling back on the “I think” or “I suggest” clause that constantly interrupts the flow of her sentences. Take page 94 as an example. In the first paragraph, we read “Scientific reasoning, I suggested, is cut short by Ockham's razor.” In the second paragraph, “Dialectic, I suggested, provided us with two opposed lines of argument.” And in the third paragraph, “Hence, I suggest, Plato's 'image' imagery.”


The oft-repeated “I think/suggest” (which permeates the book) induces a wariness in the reader that is unfortunate. Perhaps judicious editing could have eliminated these, but if the author is merely suggesting - instead of asserting - a series of pertinent points, what are we to mentally construct from this? What would Socrates say?


That aside, she does go on towards the end of the chapter to examine Plato's Timaeus. “If we put the myth of the Timaeus against the background of Socrates' complaints about Anaxagoras, we may see how the mythical context allows us to challenge its extravagance and its consistency.” McCabe comes to the important conclusion that in Plato, “myths and arguments are set up as dialectically opposed to each other, offering opposed accounts of central metaphysical questions...The judgement is up to us; we are to blame, the god is blameless.”


In another chapter dealing with what the author terms a “famously vexed passage from Aristotle's de anima,” she notes several scholars have described this work as nothing more than 'lecture notes,' or “the notes taken by a sharp student.” McCabe concludes her masterful study of this passage dealing with perception that far from being lecture notes, Aristotle's work is actually “a complex reading of Plato.” Not only is she right, but it serves as a cautionary tale to modern scholars who project their own inability to understand Aristotle or other Greek philosophers onto the ancients who are unable to respond to such calumnies.


McCabe applies the same corrective lens to other texts, such as Plato's Parmenides, which, she says, “is all too often treated as ill formed and fragmented.” The author upends conventional 'wisdom' (if such a term can be applied to misguided scholars) throughout her study of Parmenides. One passage she says is “conventionally understood as a plea for teleology... but that is not what Socrates says.” By the end of the chapter, she must have convinced all but the old die-hards that “The Parmenides is not, after all, a haphazard collection of arguments, but a unified whole.”


This collection of essays should be read by anyone interested not just in ancient philosophy, but by graduate students in other fields to show them how to think critically and, if necessary, upset the proverbial apple cart.



There is a typo on page 121: 'bur' should be 'but'



Platonic Conversations (402 pages) is $75 from Oxford University Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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