Transcript: 50 - MM McCabe and Raphael Woolf on Aristotle on Plato

Peter's colleagues MM McCabe and Raphael Woolf join him for a special 50th episode interview, to discuss Aristotle's reactions to his teacher Plato.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: The topic we're going to be looking at today is Aristotle's response to Plato. And I guess that a lot of us were brought up with a kind of cliched idea about how Aristotle reacts to Plato, namely quite negatively. So Plato basically comes up in the works of Aristotle as a target or someone who has theories that need to be demolished. And I think that something the three of us agree about is that that's much too simple a way of thinking about it. So Raphael, could you maybe start us off by saying why there might be a more positive picture of the way Aristotle reacts to Plato?

Raphael Woolf: Yeah. There was, I mean, the view that Aristotle is basically trying to sort of 'blow Plato out of the water' was quite an influential one. I think still is in some people's minds. But I think maybe one of the ways to think about why that might not be quite right is perhaps to think about Aristotle's own methodology. And he's very in certain places, at least very explicit about this. And one of the things Aristotle seems really interested in is preserving as many views as possible, both, to use the cliched phrase: "among the many and among the wise." So he tends to think that if human beings generally have a certain view about something, there's going to be a grain of truth in that view. He has a very positive view basically about what other people's beliefs are going to be like and are going to be worth taking notice of. So if you actually read the methodology, he doesn't say, my job is to show how all these other blokes are wrong and how I'm right. He says, my job is to account for as many of the other views that are out there as I can, both in terms of views that human beings seem to hold generally as far as he's concerned. So that's 'the many.' And also views that, you know, clever people who've spent a lot of time thinking about the issues, 'the wise,' you'd expect them to be somewhere near the truth given that they're really clever and spent all this time on it. So actually if you start with Aristotle's own professed methodology, it would be very surprising if what came out the other end was something like 'there's this really great guy Plat, but he got it all wrong.' And there's no question Aristotle thinks he was a student of Plato. Now, that's not a knockdown argument, but it's a way I think of equipping ourselves to have a look at what Aristotle then says a bit more specifically in the light of his own methodology. And that might suggest that we wouldn't be getting a demolition of place. And we'd be getting something at least much more nuanced from somebody who seems to think that there's always going to be some measure of truth in what wise people have to say.

Peter Adamson: I guess the other question then would be whether Plato is just one more wise person or whether Plato has a special status for Aristotle. In fact, sometimes Aristotle does list various views of various predecessors, and it's sometimes almost alarming the way he lists a bunch of pre-Socratics and then Plato, as if Plato was just, as I've put it on other occasions, the last pre-Aristotelian. And Plato therefore would be kind of on a par with say Parmenides and Heraclitus, as if Aristotle never met Plato. So does Plato have a special status among the wise for Aristotle, do we think?

MM McCabe: Yes. Yes, I think he does. But I think maybe one needs to go one step further from what Raphael said in thinking about what it is he hopes to get from the many and the wise. Certainly, I agree with how you characterize it, but there's a bit more that he thinks he's going to get, which is that somehow or other they're all seeking to explain the right things. And the coordination of the views of the many and the wise isn't just assembling the maximal set of truths. It's about seeing how they explain each other. It's about seeing how we might relate them to each other in such a way that they might be explanatory. And sometimes it's Aristotle who does the explaining, but sometimes the relation is genuinely dialectical between him and Plato in a way that he's imagining them engaged on a kind of discussion of a topic rather than dealing with whether some particular view is true. And it seems to me that one of the things that's often underestimated in thinking about Aristotle's relation to Plato is how comprehensively dialectical it is, and how what he's engaging with is not something like an individual thesis or an individual proposal of Plato's, but whole swathes of Platonic argument that he's trying to engage with. And the reason for that is that what he's seeking to do is to explain what's true rather than just enumerate what's true. And I think that's perhaps what explains that there are two kinds of contexts - one of them in which he says something like, you know, 'X said this and Y said that and Plato said this other thing and here's what I think.' But there are other occasions where he's deeply engaged without saying necessarily that it's Plato he's engaged with, with particular texts and dialogues and swathes of argument. And maybe that what he's dealing with are arguments that were around in the Academy but in fact I think the textual details show up much more that what he's doing is tying what he says to particular dialogues rather than details.

Peter Adamson: But not necessarily by naming them explicitly, right? In fact we might even think the more explicit he is when he names Plato the less carefully he's engaging with him.

MM McCabe: We might think that.

Peter Adamson: Or certainly he often engages carefully with Plato without naming him explicitly.

MM McCabe: But it seems to me that that one argument would be that the reason that that happens is that it's not Plato he's talking to but Academic arguments. But I think maybe what we need not to underestimate is that the dialogues were things that people were reading. So it isn't a kind of arcane thing. If he's referring to some argument in the Phaedo and uses a word that you find in the Phaedo that doesn't appear elsewhere, people would notice in a way that it's much harder for us to pick it up. But once you see this pattern there it seems to me it's much more pervasive than we might have thought.

Peter Adamson: So by reading Plato very, very carefully all we're getting ourselves to do is recreate the frame of mind that Aristotle's readers may be intended to have.

MM McCabe: Something like that, yes.

Peter Adamson: On the other hand he does sometimes mention Plato explicitly. So maybe we can look at a few famous cases where this happens. And for me one of the most striking examples is when in the first book of the Ethics, Aristotle explicitly brings up Plato's idea of the form of the good. And he seems to be interested in refuting it. And I guess the way that a lot of people read the Ethics is that he kind of refutes it to get it out of the way. And then he moves on with his own theory. But MM I know you think that it's a little bit more complicated than that.

MM McCabe: Yeah. Roughly what I think is that he uses the engagement with Plato in order to set up what he needs to be able to say in Ethics Book 1 Chapter 7 about function.

Peter Adamson: So this is the so-called function argument where he explains that the good life or happiness for humans would be using reason well because reason is what's specific to us.

MM McCabe: And I think two separate things happen. The first thing is that he says, well, these accounts of what goodness is, the accounts that you find in the Republic, in Republic Book 6 you might say, that suppose that goodness is something like a uniform property that things have a share in so that things are more or less good but they're not good in different ways. And Aristotle says this is just a mistake. So Aristotle's argument is, if you like, that goodness is not a property but a qualifier. So he makes his argument that you can understand goodness in terms of function or in terms of contribution to some end or in terms of outcome or input or any of the other things that one might think of in terms of how goodness arranges itself in our lives. That you can only do that if you understand something about the underlying metaphysical structure of the world itself. And he can't make that point, in the first instance, it seems to me, without there being something that he's denying because it's a very complex point to make. And so you make the argument about multiplicity of the good only against the background of its being uniform. So that's the first thing he does. Then it seems to me he lifts and deals with a whole lot of arguments that you find in the richer recesses of the Republic to come up with something that actually Plato himself might have agreed with, which is a much more subject-orientated account of goodness.

Raphael Woolf: There's an interesting moment in, I think it's in chapter six of book one, and I'm sure this is deliberate, where you're reading about the sort of irreducible plurality of the notion of goodness, or however you want to put it, and Aristotle's insistence on this. And then he sort of suddenly, as it were, pauses and says, it's a lovely bit of thinking out loud, which I'm sure is done very deliberately, he says, 'yes, but all that having been said, you would have thought there's more than just a sort of accidental arbitrary relationship between all these different things that are good.' To use a bit of Aristotelian terminology, you'd have thought it's more than just homonymy when you talk about a good sailor or a good meal or whatever variety of ways of kinds of things you might want to label good. So he has this kind of Platonic thought, and he says, 'well, actually, that's quite a reasonable point, but because we're doing ethics, not metaphysics, we're not going to think about that right now.' Now that, to me, he knows that somebody's going to be reading this, and I think the natural reaction of somebody reading this is to say, well, hang on, I want to know what the answer to this question is. I think Aristotle often does this. He often sort of raises a point that seems absolutely crucial, says he's not going to talk about it, but I wonder if that in itself is a kind of dialectical question.

Peter Adamson: Another trick he learned from Plato.

Raphael Woolf: Another trick he learned from Plato, yes. So I think it's just that point where you think Plato's got something going for him, that Aristotle is stopping and making us think about it. So I think there's more going on even in something like that than just, well, that's a sort of footnote or a parenthesis. No, on the contrary, when you stop and kind of make a bit of a ceremony about it, you're getting your reader to think, actually, this might be a question we really need to think about in this.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that's really interesting because in the way that you two both set it up, at first it sounded like Plato was just one alternative. So the alternative where you say, well, everything is good in the same way and everything is good because it participates in the form of the good, so it should all share this property of goodness. And then we're going to have a different view, which is the multiplicity of good. The only thing that a good horse has in common with a good knife is that just as a knife cuts well, a horse runs well or does whatever horses are supposed to do. But as you just said, I mean, Plato doesn't have that first overly simplistic view of the good, right? And in fact, the example of the knife that cuts well is from the Republic. And so you might think that the function argument itself is lifted from the Republic.

MM McCabe: You might then think that supposing some ancient person who's got the Republic in their blood is reading this and makes exactly that response and then says, 'well, hang on a minute - you know, actually, now I think about it. The Republic doesn't really espouse this view of the good anyway!' By the time you get to the bit in the Republic when we are talking about the sun, where the form of the good is construed in this ultra realistic way, we're also talking about the cave. We're talking about how it is that somebody learns to be wise. Well, what else is that than they're learning somehow or other in ways that Aristotle himself goes on in Book 2 to talk about, learning how to be who they are as best they possibly can. So it seems to me that you're absolutely right, that this would get picked up on. The representation of the stuff about ideas is just the springboard, and the rest is a proper engagement.

Peter Adamson: I guess the weird thing then is that that's the place where he says, basically, I'm about to attack Plato, but it's okay that I'm doing this because "truth is dearer than our friends," the famous slogan. And now I'm wondering if that is kind of a misleading thing for him to say there because that certainly makes it sound as if Plato is just going to play the role of a target. So is it even more complicated that he kind of tries to act as if Plato is the target, but in fact he knows and maybe he knows that you know, if you know your Plato, that there's something more subtle going on?

MM McCabe: It might be that he thinks that some of this Plato would go along with, but some of what he wants to say about the actual realism of goodness, he wants to deny. So part of the challenge then that's posed to Plato is whether he can have Platonism and Aristotelianism at once. And Aristotle is saying, we don't need that bit or we don't need the stuff about the form of the good, we just need the stuff about human function.

Peter Adamson: 'Give me Republic Book One with the function stuff and forget about Republic Book Six.'

Raphael Woolf: Maybe to put that even more strongly, you might, going back to the methodology, you might think that what, for example, that maybe what Aristotle thinks Plato's got crucially and importantly right is there's something to be said about the structure of goodness and the relation between goodness and individual goods. And he may have thought that people would be unnecessarily deterred from seeing that crucial point by all the sort of realistic metaphysical apparatus. Let's say that that is Plato's apparatus and that actually what he might take himself to be doing - you know, without wanting to put it too patronisingly, though I don't think Aristotle would have particularly minded - but it would be to rescue the truth in Plato. And I mean if you think about it, otherwise it's a very odd thing to say. Well, it's a very odd dichotomy and I again, I suspect that it's sort of deliberate. And when somebody says, 'look, we care about our friends, but we care more about the truth than our friends.' Well, you might think, caring about the truth and caring about your friends might actually go hand in hand. There's no reason to think that the fact that these... firstly, the fact that these people are your friends in the first place must be for some good reason, one that's easy, one that gets into Aristotle's theory of friendship. But, you know, you imagine the reason why Aristotle might have been friends with these guys in the first place was that he rather appreciated the kinds of things they were up to. And then I think, thinking about the methodology of saving as many of the views of the many and the wise as you can, he's trying to do just that. And the criticism is a necessary bit of rescuing of what's actually true and important about the theory.

Peter Adamson: Well, let's look at another example. And this is going to be a case where Aristotle seems to be engaging with Plato, but without mentioning him explicitly. And this is another example that we've talked about in the past. So maybe you can start off with this, M.M. It's about a particular topic about sensation, which is basically being able to perceive what are called "common sensibles" by Aristotle. So can you explain that and explain where it might come from in Plato? Because this isn't really something I've covered in the podcast on either side.

MM McCabe: Okay. So the idea is that when you perceive, you perceive the things that are proper to the senses in question. So you see color, you hear sound, you taste savory. That actually, there are other things that we might think go on when you perceive, for example, that you perceive that some particular thing is both savory and hard. So when something's got two sensible properties, there's something in common between those two properties. And building on that then, there are other properties which are just common: like 'being' or 'moving' or 'shape,' which you can see and touch. And all sorts of things. And in fact, although this isn't what Aristotle insists on, being an object would count as a common, I take it. The expression "common" is something that Aristotle takes directly from Plato's Theaetetus. In Plato's Theaetetus, the same kinds of arguments are mounted against somebody who insists that knowledge is perception. And the argument against them is that perception only gives you the special sensibles and doesn't give you what they have in common. So the contrast itself is set up by Plato and it could be represented in that context as allowing you to perceive raw data belonging to each particular special sense. And then all the rest is done by your mind. It's done by judgment or assessment or whatever it is. So that I get the input from the raw data and then on top of that I do thinking about those things in order to be able to say, 'oh, it's an object that's got two properties' or 'this object is moving,' where moving is a common property. The argument that Aristotle mounts in the De Anima where he's talking about this is extremely attenuated. It comes really quickly and it's not at all clear where all the antecedents of the argument are coming from. And it seems to me that just as a matter of the way the thing is set up, one can't imagine it being other than allusive to the argument of the Theaetetus and some of the examples are the same and the language is the same. So what one sees there is Aristotle using a text of Plato that imagines his audience to be familiar with and disagreeing with it, because Aristotle's argument is that all of this is perception, which gives Aristotle a completely different account of what perception looks like.

Raphael Woolf: Yeah, I think that's right. I think one thing to say about that is that genuinely (no pun intended) there's a commonality there as well. One way to think about that might be that again, in terms of perhaps a rather sort of old fashioned way of thinking about Plato versus Aristotle is that Aristotle comes up with this idea of an object as what's kind of fundamental about our ontology. What are the basic things out there in the world where they're objects? Whereas Plato, because he bangs on about forms all the time, you know, you've got the form of justice and the form of this and the form of that, that Plato maybe can't account for or doesn't even have a notion of an object. Now it seems to me that the crucial thing that's happening in the Theaetetus is that we've got maybe the invention of the object. We suddenly have, now I don't want to beg any questions about what Plato was up to before that, but we have this moment where it seems really important to him that we don't just have a quality there and a quality there and we're sort of, we're a bundle of qualities. We have this crucial idea that they're unified in some way and he's thinking about how that can be so and how we can be aware that that's so. And again it seems to me that Aristotle, yes, as MM said, he's starting from something that he thinks is right and it's from that basis that he's, and I think I agree with him, that there's a genuine dispute about what the answer to how you get hold of the unity of the object is.

Peter Adamson: So the idea is that Plato thinks you do it with your mind, so it's with your mind that you realize that it's the same thing that's both blue and hard or whatever, whereas Aristotle thinks you can just see that or sense it rather. You can use your powers of sensation to discern that it's the same object.

MM McCabe: And that ends up when you think about it as a really deep dispute about what the mechanics of perception are, because Plato can have a view of perception that's really, as I put it 'raw,' that's really kind of basic. All that's happening is some input from the outside world to the special sense organs. But Aristotle in modifying that, and I think Brayfield's right on this, is modifying it in order. I mean, some of what's going on here is a kind of bringing down the metaphysics from the heavens. So underlying all of this stuff is something like a metaphysical difference between them. But the metaphysical difference isn't, 'oh, Plato believes in forms and Aristotle believes in objects of the physical world.' It is much more that they are disagreeing about how we know "the world." The world just here.

Raphael Woolf: Perhaps a relatively little disagreement about what the world is that we're trying to get, rather than this historical idea of 'Plato thinks the real world is somewhere else and Aristotle doesn't,' it's a question about different forms of apparatus for getting at a world which we're, relatively speaking, perhaps agreed on its nature. I mean, that's rather a contentious thing to say.

MM McCabe: I think that I completely agree with that. And I think that if one thinks about it, maybe one of the spins off from this way of thinking about the relation between Aristotle and Plato is actually a revision of what we should be thinking about Plato. That Aristotle, if this is right, then Aristotle is treating Plato not as an airy-fairy man who's only interested in forms and sort of sitting under the trees outside the cave going "tra la! tra la! it's the form of the good!" Aristotle, I think rightly, sees that Plato is just as interested in the here and now. And that what we can see in seeing Aristotle's disputes with Plato is just that. That Plato isn't a Platonist in the way that he's often represented to be.

Peter Adamson: Actually, there's something in Aristotle's epistemology that I think is a similar response to Plato, which connects to what you were just saying about sensation a minute ago. Because Plato has bequeathed to Aristotle, and indeed the rest of us, this problem about basically 'how do you get started?' So if you don't know anything, then how are you ever going to build up any knowledge? This is, you know, Meno's Paradox, which Aristotle explicitly mentions at the beginning of the Posterior Analytics. But I think his real solution doesn't come until the end of the Posterior Analytics where he alludes to the paradox but without mentioning it explicitly. And his solution, I think, is really to point to sensation. And he says: how do we start from nothing and get to the principles on which knowledge is built? We use the same capacity that is possessed even by non-human animals, namely sensation, which I think is supposed to kind of shock you a little bit, especially if you're a Platonist. So forget all this stuff about being an immortal soul before you fell into the body, blah, blah, blah. All you need to do is understand that sensation is rich enough and thick enough that there's content in there that you can use as a basis for deriving principles. And once you've got the principles, you're off and running. So I guess the interesting thing about that is that the problem comes from Plato. And to some extent, the ultimate epistemology looks a lot like Plato's because you still have some kind of idea where there's knowledge being based on fundamental principles past which you should not try to get. But he thinks that the way that you can derive the principles from your experience is just from the experience, whereas Plato seems to have a real problem about that in the Phaedo. He seems to deny that you could, for example, derive the idea of equality just by looking at equal objects in the world around you. So he seems to be much more optimistic about the role of sensation in coming to knowledge despite having kind of the same expectations about what knowledge would look like.

MM McCabe: So it seems to me that it falls into the same pattern as the other two cases that we've thought about, doesn't it? Because what you find is the sort of nitty-gritty of the philosophical stuff that's going on, quite a lot of agreement about how we can think about sensation where the dispute may be whether it's sensation or thought that does it, but not about the world in which we do it. And one of the things that you get in these Aristotelian passages, in all three of the Aristotelian passages that we've talked about, is Aristotle just dispensing with the sort of frills and furbelows that a lot of people think just are what Plato is. And this shows you that it isn't, that they aren't what Plato is. So you don't need to say that in order for Plato to be a proper Plato, he's got to have a theory of recollection. You better not think that, it seems to me, because that is falsified by its non-appearance, for example, in the great epistemology of the Republic. And one of the things that you might think of Aristotle as doing in the Posterior Analytics, albeit in the last chapter of Posterior Analytics, is actually getting rid of that bit. You know, we don't need to think about remembering it from some airy-fairy time before. But still there's a question about how perception will generate the principles. And as you suggest, Peter, it seems to me that if you put the Posterior Analytics together with the De Anima, you can see how perception has become, in this discussion with Plato that he's having, without the frills and the furbelows, rich and interesting.

Raphael Woolf: And again, what's interesting, and one of the interesting things about that is, without wishing to get into vexed questions of Aristotelian chronology, that he may think by the time he's written - by the time he's writing the Posterior Analytics, he's sort of, he's earned the right. I mean, I think one of the things that puzzled people, including me, about the last chapter of the Posterior Analytics - where perception sort of rises to the rescue, and this may be something about how Aristotle writes his works - but you read the text and you think, 'yeah, wait a minute, you're saying that, Aristotle, but have you really shown me how perception of all things can do that?' We'll go and look at the De Anima, go and look at the debate with Plato that happens there, and you'll understand how this debate with Plato is actually managing to sort of get going.

MM McCabe: Absolutely. I'm sure that explains then why in the last chapter of the Posterior Analytics there's this awkward metaphor: 'the perceptions sort of stand together like a little army, and then they're not routed, but they stand firm,' and then we get the principles. Well, you better not base your theory of principles on a pretty flimsy metaphor, because there's no kind given in that passage of what it is for a perception to stand together and, you know, poke their swords at the enemy coming along and stop running away and all of that. But you're quite right that if what we've got there is something that builds on the really interesting complex theory of how perception is complex that you get in the De Anima, then he's got it. And the metaphor then is not so much a failure as an invitation to go to something else.

Peter Adamson: In fact, I once wrote something about this chapter and pointed out about the metaphor of the phalanx of troops, is that at first it's coherent then breaks apart because they're starting to retreat and then reform, sounds a lot more like Plato's epistemology in the theory of recollection than it does like Aristotle's. Because Plato's idea is you have it, you lose it, and then you have it again - like the phalanx, whereas Aristotle's epistemology is you don't have it, but then you do, which doesn't sound at all like the phalanx.

Raphael Woolf: And I think that's part of what we're trying to deny is happening, that you are... I mean, I'm not overly fond of this phrase, but it's a phrase that certain scholars use about Plato's epistemology is he thinks that 'knowledge must be based on knowledge.' And that does imply that there was a phase when you had knowledge, then it all went wrong in ways that it's not always clear Plato knows how to explain, but then it can all come good again if you do the right things and talk to Socrates and so on. Actually structurally again, it seems to me that Aristotle ends up without the heavy metaphysical apparatus in quite a similar position.

MM McCabe: Still thinking that knowledge is based on knowledge. Yes. I think that's right.

Peter Adamson: Well, before we wrap this up, I just wanted to maybe step back from these particular examples and think about this as a broader issue. I guess one thing that's emerged from this conversation is that whatever Aristotle thinks of when he thinks of Plato, he doesn't think of it as a body of doctrine. It sounds more like he thinks of it as the way we think about it, which is a bunch of dialogues and maybe specific passages in specific dialogues, but he is reading Plato rather than just thinking, 'oh, well, we all know what Plato thinks.' And again, it seems odd that he tends to do that more when he's not mentioning Plato than when he is. In fact, when he mentions Plato explicitly, sometimes he mentions things that Plato doesn't say in the dialogues.

Raphael Woolf: But picking up something that M.M. said earlier about that, one reason for that is that 'the less specific he is about who he's referring to, the more there's real engagement with Plato' is this project of finding out how all the bits fit together in Plato. And that I take it as what Aristotle is trying to... Aristotle does not have... In one sense, he doesn't have a system in the sense that he's building something and he thinks that all the pieces are in the right place and that that's where he's finished. I don't think that's true and I don't think the way he does philosophy indicates that. But he's systematic in the sense that he thinks that the bits of your philosophy had better fit together. They'd better be coherent. And that the sort of endless project is trying to make sure that that's what they do and that actually, in that sense, the less specific you are in referring to Plato, the more that might be an indication of the fact that you're seeing... Yes, you're seeing the individual dialogues, but you're actually not... You're not sort of stopping there. And your earlier question is that Plato was, when all is said and done, a bloke with some thoughts which, in some way or other, he tried to express in dialogues. We only have the dialogues and I think one of the things that's emerged from what we've been saying is that's kind of all... Pretty much all we need. There's some stuff we haven't talked about, but it's pretty much all we need to figure out what Aristotle's doing with Plato. But then, after all, it's a perfectly proper project, particularly if this is somebody who you were taught by and knew personally, to try and think about how all the bits of the thought fit together.

MM McCabe: But I mean, I don't think this is... I agree with that, but I don't think this runs... What I'm about to say runs counter to this, but supposing you also think that one of the things about the dialogues is they're open-ended. Open-ended is too strong, but is that they're supposed to be much more challenging than they are dogmatic, so that they're supposed to show you ways of thinking. They're not skeptical, but they're supposed to get you, when you read them, to engage in philosophical inquiry. Well, if that's right about Plato, and Aristotle was his pupil, well, for sure, Aristotle will have learned that too. So it may be that actually he's just doing what he was taught. I mean, this again turns itself on its head into an interpretation of what we should think about Plato. If Aristotle treats Plato like this, maybe that's how he was taught to treat him.

Peter Adamson: And how we should treat him too. 


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