13 April 2007

Perinatal Perception

Mahoney responds to Sedley's rejoinder, with an explanation of why Plato might have wished to "stress the approximateness of the temporal reference": according to Mahoney, Plato thinks that the "corruption of the revolutions in our heads" begins when we first begin to perceive, but Plato would plausibly have regarded perception to begin, not exactly at birth, but rather 'around the time of birth', peri\ th_n ge/nesin:

Plato suggests that the disruption takes place at a very specific time: 'it was just then, at that very instant' (kai\ dh_ kai\ to&te e0n tw|~ paro&nti, 43 C7). When is this exactly? Sedley and Zeyl agree that the disruption occurs at birth, but this may not be accurate. The disruption begins to occur when a person first encounters external stimuli, which happens no later than the time of birth, but perhaps even earlier. An expectant mother often feels the movements of the child within her womb. It is not unreasonable to think that such movements are the reaction to soem stimulus that has been transmitted to the foetus within the womb. If so, then the disruptions to the revolutions begin even before birth. This would mean that we cannot make any general rule about the precise time at which human revolutions begin to be disrupted, so the most accurate way to describe the time at which these disruptions begin with with a suitably approximate expression such as peri\ th_n ge/nesin, 'around the time of birth', the exact phrase that Plato uses.
But Mahoney's explanation contains a flaw. Can you see what it is? (A hint: it involves an equivocation.) And yet in spite of that his interpretation is, I think, ultimately sustainable, although on slightly different grounds.

But more of this on Monday, as I'll be travelling over the weekend.


Leon said...

I have not taken the time to peruse the full passage, but why not 'genesis' as such (in particular, the genesis of the perceptual organs), rather than 'birth'? Also, I find it strange to exclude the stimuli arising from interactions with the womb itself, to the preference of transmitted extra-maternal phenomena. Does the text demand it? And what's the equivocation you'd have us note? - his shifting between a discrete and absolute disruption to a series of compounding ones?

Michael Pakaluk said...


'Equivocation' is probably not the best word for what is going on. But perhaps you have caught what I had in mind, which is that, true enough, genesis in similar uses gets translated as 'birth' by Zeyl and others, not simply for the Timaeus but also in other dialogues, and yet (again, in such uses) typically Plato means, I think, the coming to be of a human being through the joining of body and soul. Thus Mahoney is straining to find an appropriate understanding of peri genesis, in the sense of 'around the time of birth', when he really ought to be concerned with peri genesis, in the sense of 'around the time of the origin of a human being'. That's perhaps more a matter of being misled by a translation rather than an equivocation.

And then Sedley's rejoinder has force again. Since Plato thinks of the joining of body and soul, it seems, as a definite moment, and since, one might presume, that moment also marks the beginning of perception, then why should Plato's reference to that time have been indefinite?