14 March 2005

Alternative Hypothesis

Always, in defending an explanation, one has to argue not simply that it accounts for the facts, but also that it does so better than competing explanations.

Fact (it seems): Plato changes from holding in (seemingly) earlier dialogues that only philosophers can be virtuous, to holding in (seemingly) late dialogues that people generally can become virtuous, and that this should even be the goal of legislators in political society.

Fact: Aristotle repeatedly insists, and never seems to waver in holding, that the virtue of citizens generally should be the goal of legislators in political society.

Explanation 1: Plato changed his mind from pressures internal to his own philosophy, and Aristotle followed the view of Plato after this change.

Explanation 2: Plato later in his career changed his mind (perhaps: additionally?) in reaction to criticisms of Aristotle.

One cannot, it seems, satisfactorily establish 1, without ruling out 2. (More on this later.)


Thornton Lockwood said...


Re: "Explanation 2: Plato later in his career changed his mind (perhaps: additionally?) in reaction to criticisms of Aristotle."

Which criticisms of Aristotle do you have in mind?


Sam Rickless said...

As I see it, early Plato holds that only philosophers can be virtuous because he thinks (a) that virtue is knowledge of the good (=moral intellectualism) and (b) that only philosophers have knowledge of the good. One of the arguments for moral intellectualism (in the Protagoras) is based on the assumption that the good is pleasure (hedonism). This same argument leads not only to the conclusion that courage is a kind of knowledge, but also to the conclusion that akrasia (weakness of will) is impossible. In the Gorgias (and then in the Republic) Plato rejects hedonism (for, as Socrates argues, some pleasures are bad). And in the Republic, Plato explicitly allows for the possibility of akrasia and explicitly rejects moral intellectualism in Book IV.

It's pretty clear to me that this evidence suggests that explanation 1 is correct, since there is every reason to believe that the Gorgias and the Republic were produced before Aristotle was on the scene. If Plato changed his mind between the Protagoras and the Republic in response to criticisms of Aristotle's, why would Aristotle be so critical of the Republic's ethical and metaphysical doctrines?

David said...

Which dialogues did you have in mind? Are you thinking along the lines of Sam?

Anonymous said...

Well, these are impressions rather than results of deliberate study.

The dialogues regarded as 'late' seem to me, in preoccupation and, at points, in content, to have similarities with some Aristotelian themes. I don't see how we can rule out in advance that they show the influence of student upon teacher, not unlike Mozart's influence on late Haydn (although Mozart did not, strictly, study with Haydn). If this can't be ruled out in advance, then a comprehensive developmental story of Plato, it seems, should take it into account somehow, even if only to reject it.

A case in point--it's really a very small point, but it illustrates what I mean--is Chris Bobonich's discussion on pp. 409-411. He begins by drawing a contrast between classical and modern political theory. On classical theory, government aims to make citizens virtuous; on modern theory, government aims to provide the instruments for citizens to pursue their own conceptions of happiness (or so it's usually thought). B. then says that, surprisingly, the classical view, although usually attributed to 'Plato and Aristotle', originates not with 'Plato' (because it's not in the Republic ), and not with Aristotle, but rather with the dialogue, the Statesman. "This conception of the good city as a community of the virtuous aiming in common for a life of virtue is not found, I have argued, in the Republic nor is it found for the first time in Aristotle's Politics. It is constituted in Plato's Statesman and Laws"(417). Well, if 'for the first time' means publication or writing, perhaps. (By the way, the idea is in NE as well.) But if it is meant to be a claim about the development of ideas--with the suggestion that the change comes solely from pressures internal to Plato's philosophy--I would ask, 'How can we be confident of that?'

I should admit (and why not say it?) that I bring to this some matters I regard as 'antecedently probable'. I think it likely that Plato admired Aristotle immensely (as Haydn did Mozart), and therefore would inevitably imitate him. I think it unlikely that Aristotle, unlike almost every other genius in history, waited until he was over 40 years old to develop his distinctive ideas. And I think it unlikely that a very deep philosopher--even someone of Plato's dialectical bent--would revise his ideas radically, apart from having to meet some challenge presented from the outside.


Posted by Michael Pakaluk

David said...

I'd be very leery of attributing too
much to the Statesman, considering the stop/start action of the dialogue, the ugly myths, the nameless protagonist, and the very un-Socratic procedures of said protagonist. There seems to be as much tacit criticism of the Eleatic Stranger's ideas as there is exposition of those ideas.

Sam Rickless said...

I'm sympathetic with Michael's latest post. For example, I'll bet that Aristotle was among those whose relentless criticism of the middle period theory of forms led Plato to modify the theory in the Parmenides. (I find it difficult to believe that Plato spent time working up a bunch of potentially devastating criticisms of that theory himself. It's possible, of course, but unlikely.) But I think that the changes that led to Plato's giving up the idea that only philosophers can be virtuous were the result of internal pressures related to Plato's abandonment of some of the central Socratic theses he accepted in his youth.