31 March 2005

Antepenultimate PUR Post

I'll post just three more times on Plato's Utopia Recast (PUR).

First, readers of this blog who are not yet readers of PUR may wonder why Change 2 (as I have called it) should explain Change 1. What does Plato's rejection of a tripartite soul have to do with his coming think that non-philosophers don't entirely lack virtue and happiness?

Let me first define terms. Call the Tripartite Theory the view that there are three parts to the soul: reason, spirit, and desire. Call the Homunculus Theory the view that there are three parts of the soul and that, moreover, each of the parts is itself a 'source of agency', that is, it can formulate and pursue its own conception of what is good for itself.

PUR maintains: Plato in the Republic needs some way of sustaining the sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers that he had formulated in the Phaedo. The Homunculus Theory, which Plato puts forward in the Republic, allows him to do this. Why? Philosophers are those for whom reason sets the goal, with the other parts following along. Non-philosophers are those for whom the other parts of the soul set their goals, with reason being subservient. (Without the Homunculus Theory, there is no setting of goals by lower parts.) Plato in his later dialogues abandons the Homunculus Theory, and tripartition altogether, because of difficulties inherent in that theory. (Why? The Homunculus view leads to an infinite regress of homunculi, and it destroys the unity of the person.) But once he has abandoned the theory, he can no longer sustain a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers. In all persons, now, reason alone sets the goal, with more or less clarity, and one's non-rational impulses (now conceived of as varied and multiple) follow along with better or worse success. So now in principle everyone can be virtuous and happy.

Thus, Change 2 would explain Change 1, in the sense that Change 2 would remove the grounds on which Plato could sustain a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers.

Two difficulties here, in addition to whether there really is Change 1 and Change 2 in Plato:

  1. It's not clear why one couldn't make out a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers, if one wished, on almost any theory of the soul.
  2. If the Homunculus Theory is so fraught with internal difficulties, that it can be seen to degenerate rather quickly into infelicities and vicious regresses, shouldn't we be cautious in attributing that version of the Tripartite Theory to the Republic, and do so only if absolutely necessary? It's not enough that that reading is possible: such a reading has to be required, or at least favored.

On this last point, Rowe writes in his review:
I believe that B gives a radically misleading picture of the lower parts of the soul in the Republic. This is an old and unresolved issue, but the interpretation of ’spirit’ and appetite as homunculi, each with its own beliefs and powers of reasoning as well as desires (and, of course, goals), is no more inevitable than it is philosophically attractive; it is simply the outcome of a series of hermeneutical choices that B makes, each of which seems, separately, virtuous, but which together take B – as I see it – in entirely the wrong direction....This is not in the least to say that B’s reading is an impossible reading of the Republic as such. But for my taste it pays too little attention to the flexibility of Platonic language, to Plato’s capacity for shifting between different perspectives on the same ideas, and above all to the overall coherence of Platonic thought, including its philosophical coherence (hence my reference to ’hermeneutical choices’ above: for all the virtues of B’s painstaking sawing apart of particular contexts, it brings with it the danger of mistaking the trees for the wood – whose very existence is already thrown into doubt by the presumption of fundamental shifts, developments in Plato’s thinking). In particular, if one looks at that part of Plato’s oeuvre which presumably forms the background to the Republic, including those dialogues we have become used to calling ’Socratic’, the concept of agent-like parts is likely to come from nowhere (except, of course, in the case of the reasoning part, which will be what makes us into agents in the first place); since on B’s account Plato abandons it pretty soon after the Republic, I for one feel content to suppose that it was never there at all.