20 November 2006

Aristotle and Other Platonists

(Note: this post has been significantly revised. See note (*) below.)

I begin now a series of posts on the recent book by Lloyd Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists, which intrigued me because of its talk of investigating the 'harmony' between Plato and Aristotle.

I find the promise of a 'harmony' intriguing for two reasons, because: (1) this would match my idea of what philosophical progress amounts to, and (2) a 'harmony' might indicate whether there was such a thing as a 'perennial philosophy'. Let me explain.

(1) I accept Aristotle's view about philosophical progess: Z is a better philosophical view than X and Y, if Z incorporates whatever we regard as interesting and true in X and Y, and Z furthermore can give an account of those ways in which X and Y, in comparison with Z, got things wrong. In sum: a better philosophical view is a bigger truth, which shows by its synthetic nature that it is bigger, and which accounts for why lesser truths went wrong where they did.

When I hear talk of a 'harmony of Plato and Aristotle', then, I expect that this would be a view that was better than Plato's or Aristotle's taken separately; it would mark progress in philosophy.

(2) It seems to me that if there is knowledge (i.e. contact with the truth) anywhere in philosophy, this would show itself in the existence of a school of thought which over time showed a certain kind of vitality and development, not unlike that of a living system. Because of the nature of philosophy (in philosophy a mistake is a kind of 'folly' rather than an 'error' or 'ignorance'), I do not expect that near universal agreement among intelligent and informed persons will be a mark of philosophical truth, as it is in the natural sciences. I expect, rather, that the mark of knowledge will be a vitality of the sort I have mentioned. (To see examples of how this notion of 'vitality' may be explicated, see Alasdair MacIntrye's Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, or, as an analogue in the area of theology, John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.)

I have wondered, then, if the 'harmonization' which Gerson will investigate is a system with precisely this kind of enduring vitality, and which thus might count as a philosophia perennis.

Now I must say that, at first glance, I have serious doubts that these hopes will be fulfilled. I have not entirely ruled it out that they will, but Gerson's remarks in his Introduction are not encouraging.

The problem is already indicated in the title of the book, Aristotle and Other Platonists. The title is meant to be provocative, to be sure, yet it itself suggests that the 'harmony' between Aristotle and Plato to be achieved, is not that of arriving at a bigger view, of the sort I have described, but rather at some kind of reduction of Aristotle to Plato.

And then Gerson says just as much in the Introduction. He says that by a 'harmony' he means that, when Aristotle seems to disagree with Plato, either the disagreement is verbal merely (that is, a case of people using different language to say the same thing), or these views of Aristotle:

... are different from those of Plato because they rest on an imperfect or incomplete grasp by Aristotle of the correct Platonic principles (5).
That is, the harmonization amounts to: Plato is correct and Aristotle either agrees with Plato or disagrees because of a misunderstanding.

Now this would not be a 'harmony' at all but, as I said, as reduction of Aristotle to Plato--an attempt to vindicate the truth of Platonism as against apparent criticisms from Aristotle. As such, the work that Gerson is exploring would fall within a common, but to my mind not respectable, genre of philosophy--viz. 'school advocacy', not unlike works by Thomists who argued that Kant and Aquinas are saying the same thing (and when Kant seems to differ, that is because he misunderstands the correct Thomistic principle); or Wittgensteinians who argue that Aristotle and Wittgenstein are saying the same thing; etc. etc. But in this case the 'school' that was doing the advocating ('neoplatonism') would not be a thriving movement today but rather--it might be thought-- a strange interlude in the history of philosophy from the distant past.

Apparently sensing that the arguments he will be exploring are vulnerable to such a criticism, Gerson writes:
...a book that aimed to do nothing more than show that a group of largely forgotten scholars and eccentric philosophers were not quite as naive as is sometimes thought would in my view be of little interest. Rather, I want to show that reading Aristotle as a Platonist, or understanding Aristotelianism as a type of Platonism, far from being an exercise in historical perversity, does actually yield significant results both exegetical and philosophical (7).
Well, those are the stakes, are they not? That is, if Gerson cannot show that there are 'significant results' from his efforts, then, as he admits, his book is no more than "an exercise in historical perversity". To my mind, then, that becomes the guiding question as I read his book: Does Gerson follow through with his promise of 'significant results'?

(*) It was pointed out to me that my original post was supposing too much, in attributing to Lloyd Gerson as well the advocacy and view of harmonization that he is investigating in certain neo-platonists. I have revised the post to remove this suggestion, and I regret that unnecessary imputation, arising from my misreading of Gerson's Introduction.


David said...

Might it also be worth noting that whether or not the thesis is plausible depends upon what we deem as "significant agreement" between Plato and Aristotle?

Michael Pakaluk said...


Yes, that should be added.

I suppose I was thinking that the attempt to reduce Aristotle to Plato (as I call it) will involve considerable interpretative strain, if it can be achieved at all, so that only the promise of great fruitfulness could justify it.

But perhaps to adopt that sort of pragmatism is already to go off the rails.


Tony Z. said...

Dear Michael,

As an amateur interested very much in this topic, I would like to make a few comments.

First, I have often heard that Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy are complementary. I have found this to be a concept that many Aristotelians are not inclined to. I find in the philosophy of Plato many elements that are simply not understood by those of a more Aristotelian bent. It seems that Aristotle's philosophy is so rigid that it can not admit differences that aren't of a true/false variety.

In an introduction to a student's version of the Proslogion, the author once suggested that Aquinas' difficulty with Anslem's proof of the existence of God was based on Aquinas not understanding some of Anselm's reasoning. To some Thomists, suggesting that Aquinas didn't understand something was simply laughable. I think it is quite coherent. I think that Aristotelian-type philosophies are often blind to a more mystical type of philosophy; hence the complementarity.

Second, I hope that Neo-Platonism isn't dead. I wonder if the language has changed and it has emerged under different guises. For example, phenomenologists seem to use a similar approach to philosophy, using psychological language instead of the "spirit"-based language of Plato.

Please forgive the small learning of the author. I am a mere amateur.

David said...

I think that we're already in trouble if we view the matter as an attempt to "reduce Aristotle to Plato." I haven't read Gerson's book but, from what little I know of his "project," it seems that such a reduction isn't a part of it. It may be as benign as pointing out Hegel's enormous debts to Kant or, for that matter, Kant's debts to Descartes.

Michael Pakaluk said...


I haven't read the book either, only the introduction, but there Gerson says that his harmonization project will involve showing how Aristotle misunderstands Plato, in places where they do not agree--but it never (apparently) involves showing how Aristotle rightly correctes Plato, or points out a misunderstanding or confusion in Plato. It seems to be a one-way street. Thus 'reduction' seems (so far) not an unfair term.


Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk said...


I was supposing too much when I referred in my last comment to Gerson's harmonization project, and I would refer you instead to the revised version of this post.