01 February 2008

Was That a Philosophical Mugging?

In the next few posts, I want to take a look at a review of a recent book by Sam Rickless, Plato's Forms in Transition: A Reading of the Parmenides.

When the review came out last December--by John Palmer in NDPR--I was stuck by what seemed its harsh tone. The fact that several friends immediately wrote to me about it showed that my perception was not unusual. Without question, the review had 'made an impression'.

Yet the question was raised in my mind: Did Rickless write a very poor book, as the reviewer seemed to suggest, or was he treated unfairly? I know Rickless to be a very able philosopher, so my first suspicion was of the latter, and I thought too that, if this were so, then it would interesting to show this on the blog (as belonging to its muckraking function).

Back then, I only had time to glance at the review. So I kept it in the stack at the bottom of my mailbox, to revisit it when I at last had some free time. Today I found that time, studied the review more carefully, and reached a considered judgment. And tomorrow I'll let you know something of the direction of my thought.

Not to leave you only with a teaser, I'll end by copying some lines (emphasis mine) from near the end of the review. (Given that they are at the very end, you may not have even gotten to them.) They're striking because one would never think that they could belong in a harshly negative review of a book:

It is natural to think that the Parmenides satisfies the expectation raised by the youthful Socrates' insistence that it would be truly remarkable if someone were to show that the forms themselves admit in themselves opposite attributes (Prm. 129c1-3) and that they are in themselves capable of combining and separating (129e2-3), so that the forms would be revealed as involved in the same complexities to which Zeno showed sensible particulars to be subject (129e5-130a2). Rickless argues that this expectation is borne out in the dialectical exercise in a manner that demonstrates the need to abandon the axiom of Radical Purity, the theorems of Purity and Uniqueness, and the auxiliary principle of No Causation by Contraries. This is a provocative new view worthy of taking its place alongside other interpretations of the dialogue's overall purpose.