14 December 2006

A Bending Back of the Stick

Gerson finishes his book with "two final points", which provide suitable final points for us also. The first is this:

The Neoplatonists' devotion to the study of Aristotle should not be confused with an illicit dalliance. They knew or intuited that Aristotelian analysis served Platonic ends. Neoplatonists readily adopted, apparently ungrudgingly and without mental reservation, many of the concepts by which Aristotle articulated the structure and functioning of the sensible world. They would not have done so had they though they were introducing contaminants. If Aristotle is a kind of Platonist, then Neoplatonists were perhaps not wrong to suppose that Platonism needs Aristotle too (290).
Here Gerson alludes to the strategy of harmonization: follow Plato as regards the non-sensible world; follow Aristotle as regards the sensible world. For my part, I cannot regard that strategy as sound, for reasons already given.

But there is something else in Gerson's observation which I can endorse: Aristotle could never have been mistaken for a Platonist, unless there were features of his thought very much like Plato's--a 'shared framework', as we may call it. And just as this shared framework makes Aristotle's points of philosophical disagreement (as I have said) very interesting rather than irrelevant, so the fact that there is a shared framework makes a project of reconciliation seem achievable. (In contrast one couldn't even entertain a reconciliation of, say, Plato and Quine.)

But for all that it is misleading to say that "Aristotle is a Platonist", because there is no more reason to attribute this shared framework to Plato than to Aristotle.

But this perhaps is where Gerson's second final point comes in:
My final point arises from what I hope is a pertinent anecdote told to me by one of my undergraduate professors. When he himself was an undergraduate, he took a class on John Milton by a world-renowned scholar of English literature. This scholar spent class after class lecturing on prosody in Milton's works. Finally, one student screwed up his courage sufficiently in order to ask the professor if he thought that that was all there was to Milton. The reply was, "No, of course not, there is much else besides, but that is the part that has been missed in the study of Milton for some time." I hope that I have in this book provided some reason for thinking that, likewise, in the study of Aristotle, the harmonists' hypothesis is the part that has been missing for too long (290).
Thus: if we take Gerson's book to be one long bending of the stick back in an opposite, extreme--and ultimately unsustainable--position, as a kind of corrective, then we can agree that it plays a very useful role.