——–Illustrasjon: Åsne Dorthea Grøgaard——–
Thomas Kjeller Johansen studied philosophy and the Classics at Cambridge University, where he did his doctoral work on Aristotle and the sense-organs under the supervision of Myles Burnyeat. He has taught at the Universities of Bristol and Edinburgh, and for the last ten years he was University Lecturer and Professor in Ancient Philosophy at Oxford University. Earlier this year, he took up position here at IFIKK, and he’ll be teaching, among other things, ancient philosophy, which was the very general subject of our conversation.
First of all, welcome to the University of Oslo! After ten years at Oxford, what was it that caught your interest here at IFIKK? Was it the new master’s programme in Ancient philosophy?
That’s not the first time I’ve had that question! Being sort of Scandinavian, my mum is Danish, my dad is Norwegian, and as I’ve been abroad for thirty years now, I thought now was probably the best time – I don’t want to get too old. But I also love Norway, and it’s a great department. It’s quite unique to have that many colleagues in Ancient philosophy, so that makes for good seminars and discussions – and help with your research, which is a really important thing! I think it’s going to take some time to get the new programme off the ground, but I’m optimistic because, as I said, we’ve got a great team of Ancient philosophy teachers here, so I think Oslo should be a very attractive place for people to come to. There are some structural challenges to do with setting up a new MA, which any university would face, and one of them in a smaller subject like Ancient philosophy is the question of how many ancient philosophers the world can actually accommodate. And how do we do it in a way so that it would be attractive to the sort of people who may not have a background in ancient philosophy, but would like one, or would like to explore it. So on one hand to make it open, but at the same time a tool for people – sufficiently serious, you know, for a research degree, so that they can go on to do a PhD, here or elsewhere. So those are just general challenges. I haven’t been involved in setting it up because I’ve just arrived, so I look forward to learning more about it.
It could be said that many, or maybe even most, modern philosophical debates can be traced back to the debate between Plato and Aristotle. Would you agree that this is the case, and if so, to what extent?
Whitehead came up with this quote that Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato. I think that’s a wild exaggeration. I mean, there are so many areas of modern philosophy today that have moved beyond. I think one important fact is that philosophy so often today is philosophy of: philosophy of physics, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of psychology or whatever. And that means that because of all these developments in the sciences, philosophy itself has to change too, and the theorizing has to change to accommodate that. One could press the claim for Plato, but I think this claim just becomes less and less interesting. There are probably some areas where it’s more true than in other areas. If you’re talking about the status of universals, or the role of teleology in biological explanation; those are areas where modern philosophers might still want to look at Plato. I did my PhD on Aristotle and the sense organs at a point when people were very excited about the question whether Aristotle was the first functionalist in the philosophy of mind. And I didn’t think so. But it was a really interesting debate, and people got a lot out of it, also in terms of reading Aristotle in new ways. I think the consensus ended up being that Aristotle was not the first functionalist. But it was a nice try!
It poses a particular challenge to read ancient philosophers as if they were precursors of modern debates, of modern positions. And whether that’s the right way of reading ancient philosophy I’m not sure, but quite a lot of people have approached it like that. So you’ve kind of done a good job when you’ve shown that Aristotle is interesting to a modern philosopher who is in the middle of this debate. But to try to argue that ancient philosophers already occupied positions familiar from modern debates may not be the most interesting thing to do in ancient philosophy. Philosophy, of course, moves on all the time; sometimes you may actually want to move beyond a particular current debate. Sometimes ancient philosophers can make you think in a completely different way, and that I think is even more exciting.
You mentioned teleology in relation to Plato. Would you say that there is teleology in Plato’s philosophy, and if so, how does it compare to that of Aristotle?
That’s a really interesting question. There are quite a lot of students of ancient philosophy who are Aristotelians in a way that they see Aristotle as developing his key positions as a rejection of Plato. That’s the Aristotle versus Plato school of thought. And they’ve done that on the subject of teleology in particular. Plato wrote a work, the Timaeus, his cosmology, about how a divine creator set out to make the world as beautiful and good as possible. So the entire world is structured in such a way as to display order – and that’s also beauty. It’s a particular kind of order, mathematically informed order. And though the world is not completely beautiful or completely ordered, it is still kind of the best of all possible ones. That gives you a teleological agenda in trying to explain how the world is put together. What you are trying to do is reconstruct what the divine maker was thinking when he tried to make the world as good as possible. What were his ends?
Now put that on one side. Then we’ve got Aristotle. Aristotle has got a teleology which is what we call natural teleology, whereby there are ends in nature that are also causes – final causes more specifically – and that means that things happen in nature; things grow, change, things have parts that serve the ends that are natural to those kinds of living beings. Now here ends operate as seen from within the kind of being we’re talking about, and not as objects of a mind, a divine creator’s mind. But Aristotle also sometimes, in particular in Metaphysics Λ, talks about how there is a world order. So it’s not just that each kind of living being has its own kind of ends, but also that those kinds of ends are sort of coordinated. It seems like there’s a kingdom in nature, with God as a king, ensuring somehow that there’s not just order to be found at the level of individual species but also in the totality of the cosmos. Now, that reading is very controversial because you can hear that it’s beginning to sound like Plato’s teleology. So, the battle lines are perhaps twofold. One is: Do natural ends work from within the living beings, in which they work as final causes, or do they work from the outside? And the second is: Do final causes, ends, have to occur as objects of a consciousness, a mind, in order to be efficacious? On those two points you can say that Aristotle and Plato differ on their teleological thinking.
But it gets more complicated than that. Some people have gone as far as to say that Plato wasn’t really a teleologist, at least not by Aristotle’s standards, exactly because he doesn’t understand how ends work internally in living beings and not as objects of consciousness, as objects of the mind. The problem is that Aristotle consistently uses craft, art – the Greek word is techne – for final causes and ends’ work in nature. He will in fact conduct some of his argument in Physics book II, which is the key text here, just in terms of this craft analogy. He will say: If this is how it works in craft – craftsmen have ends and do things with a purpose, and the purpose is good and whatever else they do serves as means to those good ends – then that’s final causation. Well, if that’s what happens in the crafts then that’s also what happens in nature. So people who think that Aristotle and Plato’s teleologies are entirely different struggle a bit with this. Because here you have Aristotle using craftsmen who are conscious operators, working on materials from without to make them as good as possible, in fact very much like Plato’s divine creator who is exactly a craftsman. So it becomes harder, really, to keep this strong division between Aristotle and Plato’s teleologies, given how much Aristotle insists on using the craftsman model to explicate what’s involved in natural teleology.
What would you say is Aristotle’s stance on Platonic forms?
Well, again that’s a really interesting question, and again the battle lines are drawn. We have sort of a stereotype going back to Raphael’s School of Athens: Plato pointing up and Aristotle pointing down. It’s probably not about forms, that’s not the right reading of the painting, but in any case that’s how people have seen the two philosophers. So for Aristotle the forms are immanent in things, whereas for Plato they are transcendental, separate from the things of which they are the forms. Aristotle has an account of why Plato came to believe this, which is in the first book of the Metaphysics, where he says that Plato developed the theory of forms out of two kinds of theories or beliefs he had inherited from other philosophers. The first one was from Socrates, that knowledge is about definitions, and definitions are of forms, common universal characteristics. These are, as Plato describes them – for example in the Meno – things that make the things that participate in them what they are. So the form of the Bee is what makes bees bees; it is by somehow participating in or having the features of the form of Bee that bees become bees. So, the forms are some sort of universals and have some sort of causal role. That’s what we’re defining when we are defining things according to Socrates, and we have knowledge of something when we can define that thing.
That’s one influence, and the other influence is from Heraclitus. So, Heraclitus says that everything changes, and Plato took this to be true of the physical, perceptible world. But that, in turn, meant that if you ask ‘What is it knowledge of?’ and the answer is ‘universal features’ that we define – then there is nothing corresponding to that in the physical world, because everything changes. So, it doesn’t seem that there are any objects in the physical world that our knowledge could be about, and that’s where Plato introduced these forms, which in a way are the perfect objects for definitions to correspond to. That’s how Plato’s forms came about. Then Aristotle criticises this, particularly this point of the forms somehow being causes of the particular things, because he says, among other things, that you can’t really understand how the forms can be causes if they are separate from that of which they are the causes. So, that attaches particularly to what Aristotle calls efficient causes. He doesn’t see how the forms can play that role. Now, whether Plato ever thought that the forms should play that role is quite unclear: If we go back to his Timaeus, we’ve got this craftsman, the divine creator, who looks to the forms and creates a copy; this world is a copy of the forms. So, the efficient cause here is not the forms, but the divine creator, and there seems to be this particular sort of role for that in the picture. Aristotle ignores this. So, perhaps behind this critique there is actually a lot more agreement. Our impression that Plato and Aristotle’s theories of forms (because Aristotle has a theory of forms too, as immanent forms) are completely different is partly a result of Aristotle’s rhetoric against Plato, particularly in texts like the Metaphysics. But when we read Plato’s entire work, it actually seems that Plato’s theory accommodates quite a lot of the points that Aristotle uses to criticise him.
In the second book of his main psychological work De Anima, Aristotle writes that the soul “cannot be separated from the body”. But he immediately goes on to say: “Still, some parts of the soul might well not be actualities of any body and might therefore be separable”. Could you give an explanation of this, as related to the Platonic forms – is Aristotle suggesting that there can be forms without matter? What parts of the soul could he be thinking of here?
So, he’s talking about the soul here, and he’s particularly interested in the intellect, and whether there’s a kind of intellect that might be separate or separable from the rest of the soul. And because the rest of the soul is not separable from the body, it requires the body of which it is the form, this kind of intellect would be separable from the body as well. So, if that part of the soul is separable from body, what is it? It would certainly make it like the Platonic forms, rather along the lines of the argument in Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates suggests that the soul, like the forms, might be immortal. So there’s a kind of essential kinship between the soul and the forms. There’s a bit of that going on, just with different ontological categories, in Aristotle too. But I think his primary interest is not really in the question of forms, but this kind of theoretical soul. And then there’s a long, long debate about this as with almost anything else in Aristotle: Whether this intellect then is part of our human nature, so that we have this theoretical intellect in us, that is part of our souls while we are alive, but when our bodies die then that part kind of gets separated and drifts off and leads a life somewhere else. That’s a thought. Or whether this theoretical soul, once narrowed down and really understood – this would be in Γ 3.5 – is actually God. This separable intellect was actually God all along, and not part of our individual souls. We did not each have our own theoretical intellect; it was somehow God we were dealing with.
This is a really obscure issue, and we don’t get that much in the De Anima, we have to piece together the story in some other texts. I happen to agree with this last point: I think God is what is traditionally called the agent intellect, the active intellect, which is a condition of our successfully thinking of things. The thought goes back to Plato’s Republic with the Image of the Sun, where you have the form of the good, which provides a medium of successful thinking and understanding, and it’s God that provides that – but as I said this is very contentious.
In your book from 2012, The Powers of Aristotle’s Soul, you investigate Aristotle’s De Anima, and claim that the soul’s capacities serve as causal principles. Could you explain why you think this is the case?
In a way the thesis is not too controversial: that we have these different capacities in our souls, faculties, abilities to do things and to be affected in certain ways and that those capacities are constitutive of our nature. The question is, I suppose, just how you understand these capacities, how you understand their relationship to each other, and how it works out in practice as an explanatory agenda for Aristotle’s psychology. In fact, not just for his psychology, but also for his biology; that follows from his study of the soul, because the soul is the principle of the life activities of living beings. So all of that gets a lot more complicated and you easily get involved in a lot of debates about various activities of the soul. There’s also a modern context, which was part of the reason I got interested in this, and that is that faculty psychology has had a revival in recent years. People have become interested in this idea that one can think of there being different sorts of functional units within the mind, with a certain kind of functional independence, and then one could understand the function of the mind as a whole, as a sort of aggregate or cooperation of these different kinds of units. I think this also applies to Aristotle at least in a sort of broad brush way, and part of why this is a good agenda for somebody like Aristotle to adopt is its explanatory economy: You can just assume a few basic principles, capacities, and then you can do a lot of explaining with those, you can explain a whole range of different psychological phenomena. So that’s a nice thing; the hunt is on for the fewest possible principles and capacities, because the fewer you have the more explanatory power they have. So I thought that was also part of what Aristotle was doing in his psychology, and that’s why there’s an argument in the book that for a lot of the psychological phenomena we might be tempted to assume distinct capacities where the same explaining can be done with the few existing capacities that we have. I tried to show that in the case of a range of perceptual activities like imagination, dreaming, and various of other kinds of high order perception, they can all actually be understood as functions of a single perceptual capacity. In the case of animals’ ability to move, do we need to posit a distinct kind of locomotive capacity, an ability to move in space, as a distinct capacity, or can we explain it in terms of already accepted capacities? The latter is what I argued for: We can explain their ability to move in terms of perception and reason, because these can be understood as having desiderative aspects. Both reason and perception in their full functioning involve desires for certain kinds of things, and that’s why we can understand these capacities already as moving us in certain characteristic ways, so we don’t need to introduce any further ones. So those are just examples of how you can achieve explanatory economy within a faculty psychology of Aristotle’s kind.
Where would such an explanatory economy leave the capacity of intellect? Does it fall outside of natural philosophy?
This theoretical intellect we were talking about? That’s a good question, because I do think it falls outside, and I don’t think it’s part of natural philosophy. The psychology of Aristotle is part of natural philosophy; it operates with the same causes and perhaps most importantly with compounds of form and matter. And we see that throughout Aristotle’s explanations of various psychological capacities: They are capacities that are realised in matter, that’s part of what they are. But with the theoretical intellect that doesn’t seem to be the case, it’s separable from the body as we said. So one of the advantages for my overall line of argument, of saying that the theoretical intellect at least understood as the active intellect is God, is that I don’t need to fit it in into the account of the human soul as part of the study of natural being.
Would you say that these capacities of the Aristotelian soul could be considered parts of the soul? And in that case, how does this differ from Plato’s partition of the soul?
That’s probably the bit I found most difficult in writing this book. Again we have to separate what Plato says, what we think Plato says, and then what Aristotle thinks that Plato says. So we have texts like the Republic book 4 with the division of the soul into three parts, and each of those parts seem to have a distinct kind of desire, that’s in book 9. The intellect has a desire for truth, the spirited part has a desire for honour, and the appetitive part has a desire for bodily pleasures. Now, it’s easy to come to think of them as independent agents, these parts, and in a way Plato invites us to think like that when he compares the intellect to the human within us, the spirited to a lion, and the appetitive part to a many headed beast. So it’s almost like treating these different parts as if they were individual substances with their own distinct agency. That’s the sort of view that most people who talk about parts are worried about, it’s what we think of as homunculi and that’s supposed to be a bad thing. But I’m not sure Plato is guilty of this. When he introduces these parts of soul he just asks “Is it the case that when we think and desire and so on, that we do this as a whole or do we do these different things with one part or another part?” And the way he talks strongly suggests that he still thinks that we are the agent and that these are instrumental parts in relation to what we do as agents. So if we end up with this problem I don’t think it’s what Plato is trying to say.
Aristotle reads Plato as if he takes spatial distinctness to be a criterion of psychic parthood, that’s to say if the psychological part is located at a distinct part of the body then it’s a distinct part. He probably got this from the Timaeus where these three parts have their own region in the body. Aristotle disagrees with this, and that becomes the apparent disagreement with Plato. Aristotle says: “These parts of the soul cannot be understood as spatially distinct”. He uses the example of a worm; he cuts up a worm and he says: “Look, each of these parts has the same functions – they can still wriggle and perceive!” So it’s not spatial discreteness that constitutes psychological parthood, but rather a kind of functional distinctness: the ability to do different things. You understand the capacity to perceive as being just that, and the other capacities are defined differently. It’s still not clear whether that’s sufficient to make those capacities distinct parts. What I’ve tried to argue in this book – building on other people’s work, Jennifer Whiting and others – is that when we’re talking about parts we’re actually talking about psychological capacities that are not just definitionally different, that’s to say there are different elements in their definition, but that they are definitionally independent or separate: They don’t make reference to each other. Going back to my earlier example of imagination, which I take to be an aspect of the perceptual part, I can define imagination, and Aristotle does define imagination, using rather different terms than just the way in which you would define perception proper. But it’s still quite clearly a functional aspect of perception and makes reference to perception in its definition. Thinking, on the other hand, doesn’t make any definitional reference to perception. So we can treat that as a distinct part and the other things that depend on thinking as analogous to the way in which imagination relates to perception. That goes back to the point about using these parts to establish explanatory economy. You can lump or cluster together various psychological functions around key capacities that then have the status of a part of the soul. So that is what I’m trying to argue for, though again, Aristotle’s text is really difficult.
How would you say that Aristotle’s thoughts about the soul could be relevant to modern philosophy, especially to the philosophy of mind?
I mentioned the point about functionalism earlier, as a possible kind of avenue of exploring similarities between modern and ancient philosophy. When I was at Oxford I was working with David Charles, who’s now working at Yale, who thought that what is actually really interesting about Aristotle is that unlike very many philosophers of mind since Descartes, he does not think of how we can explain the correlation or relation of physical and mental events. Ever since Descartes we’ve had this idea of the mind–body problem. They seem to be different kinds of things, mental states and physical states, and there are many different ways in which one can relate them to each other, from dualism to reductive physicalism. But what’s interesting about Aristotle in this context is that he treats mental events as intrinsically psychophysical; you can’t really separate the mental from the physical in these events. This follows from his hylomorphism. David uses some examples that Aristotle also uses, for example weaving. Weaving, is that a physical activity? It’s something you do, you are moving, and for Aristotle it would be something involving the soul, since soul is the principle of movement. You are of course doing things with the body, but you can’t really separate what you are doing with the body from what you are doing with your soul; in a way you have two descriptions, at most, of the same event. I’m not sure if this interpretation quite works out, but it’s an interesting way of using Aristotle to give a completely different perspective on well-known debates. It would be nice if it worked out, both philosophically and as an interpretation of Aristotle.
We’ve been touching on how we as modern philosophers should read ancient philosophers, and this could be seen as a general problem: Do you think we should use our own logical and philosophical apparatus when treating problems in ancient texts?
In the 1950’s, people like Gregory Vlastos or Gwilym Owen started doing what we think of as analytical ancient philosophy: You formalize arguments and see what goes wrong or right – as you would do reading a modern philosopher. Gilbert Ryle did that too; he thought that the greatest compliment that you could pay to ancient philosophers was actually to treat them like modern philosophers. And I think the last fifty plus years show that there’s been a lot of truth to that; there’s been a lot of progress in our readings of ancient philosophers.
There is of course the question about whether this is sometimes anachronistic: using conceptual terms that are not the terms of the philosophers themselves. I’m not sure that’s too much of a worry, presumably anthropologists are allowed to use a theoretical framework to explain the people that he or she is studying, but it’s certainly worth being reflective about those terms we’re using to make sure that they are appropriate. There’s also of course the danger of creating debates around the function of our own interpretive terms rather than the function of the texts themselves. To take one example: One question we’ve raised in the ancient metaphysics class this semester is whether Parmenides and Plato argue using different senses of being: existential, veridical, predicative etc., and then the search is on for which one we have in this particular passage. And there’s pretty good evidence that ancient writers didn’t distinguish in those ways. Of course we’re still free to use these terms ourselves in part of our assessment, and to say: “I think that that’s actually what’s going wrong here, even if the ancient philosopher wouldn’t conceptualize things like that.” So, I’m not too worried about this – I’m not a conceptual relativist myself who thinks that there’s a sort of an unbridgeable gap between the ancient and the modern concepts so that we can’t even talk to each other.
How important is language, then, in the study of ancient philosophers?
It’s hugely important, and in my own experience of reading texts it’s only when you read it in the original language that you actually get the sense of the range of possible meanings and can make informed choices. But even then, of course, we’re in this position of abject mediocrity as far as our knowledge of the ancient languages is concerned. Most schoolboys in the nineteenth century who had been learning Greek from an early age would master it better that I do, probably, and that’s just a function of the modern education system. But there is also the fact that we don’t speak ancient Greek. I always thought that it’s a very odd way of relating to a language, just reading it. I was delighted when I started learning modern Greek, because I thought: “It’s not ancient Greek, but it’s still a way of relating to a strikingly similar language,” in the way in which I think one should relate to a language, which is by speaking it and hearing it and so on. So if only we had that with ancient Greek, it would be so much better.
We’ve touched upon your work on Plato’s natural philosophy and the Aristotelian soul. What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on craft. It was a result of my study of Plato’s natural philosophy, this idea that God is a craftsman. But I got interested, basically, in what the ancients thought craft was, such that they could use it as an explanatory model – not just in natural philosophy, in the natural teleology we talked about, but also in ethics and aesthetics: Ethical knowledge is a lot like having craft knowledge – perhaps it is the craft of how to construct your life; aesthetics is a matter of knowing how to make things. There are a lot of areas where the ancient philosophers turn to craft as a model for what it is to know something, so I thought it would be interesting to be clear about what those kinds of comparisons involved from different philosophers. I’ve been working on this for a while, and I hope at some point there will be a book coming out of it.
Then I’m also doing something more specific, which is a translation and commentary of the first two books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which also deals quite a lot with craft, but more generally with Aristotle’s relationship to his predecessors. I’m quite interested in the Pre-Socratics, and questions about the beginnings of philosophy.
Speaking of the Pre-Socratics: Is there a discontinuity between the Pre-Socratics and Socrates, or the philosophers following him?strong>
Philosophers after Socrates, like Plato, return to things that the Pre-Socratics were concerned with too. So, people say that there’s sort of a break with Socrates, because Socrates is no longer concerned with natural philosophy. He says it’s far too complex, when he doesn’t even know who or what he himself is, so ethics becomes his focus it seems. I don’t think that means that Socrates completely forgets about the cosmos or natural philosophy. Xenophon reports on how Socrates uses cosmic order like the beauty of the eye as a parallel for goodness in the ethical realm. I think he’s still interested in the cosmos even if he’s not studying it in the manner of a cosmologist. And of course, the Pre-Socratics are also interested in ethics, so it’s a kind of artificial break. It’s also artificial chronologically, because ancient philosophers like Anaxagoras are actually contemporaries of Socrates. Still, there’s clearly a difference – we haven’t got Socrates’s writings but I suppose we can tell from Plato – there’s a difference in the manner of doing philosophy, a difference that Plato himself highlights repeatedly. Socrates does dialectic in a certain way, questions and answers; he’s going for conceptual clarity. He very often breaks up people or interrupts people. In the Protagoras, for instance, when someone is about to give a long speech, Socrates says he’s a forgetful type and that he’s unable to follow it. And obviously he’s not forgetful at all, he can cite long reams of Homer, but he’s insisting on this to get conceptual clarity, argumentative clarity. Now that’s a different way of doing philosophy.
Well, perhaps there’s one interesting point. In Plato’s Parmenides you get Pre-Socratics together with Socrates, talking to each other, and they actually end up doing a kind of dialectic anyway, one that’s supposed to achieve conceptual clarity, and it’s Parmenides talking. And Plato elsewhere expresses great respect and admiration for Parmenides, and they’re presented as agreeing about being as something that is stable and unchanging. It’s as though Parmenides’s Being becomes Plato’s forms, and they are presented as a condition for intellectual discourse. So, Plato presents it as if there’s quite a lot of continuity. I also mentioned earlier the point about Heraclitus; if Aristotle is right then Plato kind of takes Heraclitus’s view of the sensible world into his system, then there’s quite a lot of continuity there. So, that’s one reason why we study the Pre-Socratics, because they had a very palpable, clear influence on Plato and Aristotle. In his first book of Metaphysics, as I mentioned, Aristotle tries really to use the Pre-Socratic philosophers as a way of teasing out the basic principles of reality. He says that different philosophers have understood parts of the picture, and if you piece them together you actually get a pretty good picture of the basic principles of reality. They didn’t get it quite right – they need Aristotle for that – but there’s a sense that Aristotle and Plato are still working with the Pre-Socratic philosophers. They see themselves as being in a tradition, introducing new dialectical techniques, new methods of conceptual clarification and argument, but still building on the Pre-Socratics. And that is why we’re studying the Pre-Socratics today, because if it weren’t for Aristotle picking out Thales as the first philosopher, there wouldn’t be a very strong compelling reason to include him as departure point in our history of Western Philosophy. It’s really because Aristotle has a narrative about how these people fit in that we’re still studying them as philosophers.
I’ve only published one article on the Pre- Socratics as such, and that was about Parmenides. Parmenides is a very mysterious philosopher. He is the one who says that being is one and changeless, and that you can’t talk about not-being, or know it. So there’s only one true way, one proper way of inquiry, which is to talk about what is. And then he’s got this whole other part of his poem, which is about the cosmos, which is premised on change and plurality and things not being in certain ways. This has been a standard puzzle in the literature: Why does he have this other way of talking about things, the way of opinion, when he’s just insisted that there’s only one proper way of talking about things? So, like many others I tried to give an answer to that; I tried to understand at least what kind of status this other way, the way of opinion, would have as a kind of image of the way of being. That was my idea, it’s a way of talking about change in a way that maximises its likeness to being, and therefore gives it some degree of intellectual credibility.
There’s a similarity between Plato here and Parmenides which I try to bring out, particularly in the Timaeus, where Plato figures the cosmos as an image, as a likeness of eternal being, and therefore as having a degree of intelligibility. And the world for Plato has been made, as I said there’s this craftsman, divine maker, who’s made the world to be like that and that’s why it’s like that. It’s beautiful because it’s been made on the model of being. Parmenides has the same idea, that one can give a degree of intelligibility to the world of becoming, the cosmos, insofar as it resembles the way of being on certain points – not on all – but there’s a degree of similarity and that gives it a degree of intelligibility. The difference between Plato and Parmenides is that there’s no clear sign that Parmenides thinks that the world, the cosmos, is a likeness of being because it has been made to be a likeness of being. There isn’t anything in Parmenides that corresponds to a divine craftsman or maker who has brought this likeness about. But nonetheless, the point about intelligibility through degree of similarity to being remains.
So again, in a way this continues our earlier discussion about the degree of continuity between Pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle. I like to think of these philosophers as being in dialogue with each other. Some of your questions in the beginning were very much about Plato versus Aristotle, and I think in some ways that’s a false opposition. On some points it can be illuminating, but on other points I think it’s more illuminating to think of it as a dialogue about forms, say, “Okay, we accept that there are forms, just how are we supposed to understand those?” Or: “We understand that there are final causes, ends, in the world, just how are we supposed to think of how they come about?” Sometimes the similarity is much greater than the difference. If you compare both Plato and Aristotle to the atomists, say, they’re much more together. So this kind of question always has to be related to a background of comparison, a point of comparison with something. And if you don’t have points of comparison we often end up exaggerating the differences between Aristotle and Plato. There’s a book by Lloyd Gerson called Aristotle and other Platonists, a very nice title!
For a student of ancient philosophy, what are the five books or texts that one should read?
Well, goodness… I mean I always found Bernard Williams really inspiring to read, there are some articles one just comes back to time and again, say on the Republic, “The Analogy of City and Soul in Plato’s Republic,” that’s a kind of thing one wants to read again and again. His book Shame and Necessity is a wonderful book. He’s not even a classicist but he has a solid grounding in classics. And the sort of overall message of this book is that developmentalism is wrong. This goes back to our discussion about anachronism. There used to be a school of thought that said that the early Greeks, particularly in Homer, didn’t have a concept of the body. They didn’t have a concept of body because they always talk about body-parts, and never really talk about one unified body. And Williams really shows how nonsensical this kind of idea is, even though it was very influential. And he also talks about shame, how central shame is in early ancient ethics – not guilt, but shame, which is this idea of the external gaze, somebody who judges you by looking at you from the outside. And it’s also how this gaze can be internalised, so it also works to prevent your own wrong actions. It’s a wonderfully written book, and it’s weaving together philosophical insights with lovely readings of ancient texts. I’ve always been very inspired by Bernard Williams’ student, Myles Burnyeat, who was my PhD supervisor at Cambridge, and he also has a way of writing that is extremely inspiring. Somewhat similar as an exercise in classical scholarship with philosophical acumen is Burnyeat’s Culture and Society in Plato’s Republic. That’s also an amazing web of observations and philosophical points and so on, it’s great. So for me, Bernard Williams and Myles Burnyeat have been the most influential writers on ancient philosophers. But if I was going to recommend five works in ancient philosophy to a student taking up ancient philosophy I’d say Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s Republic and Theaetetus, Parmenides’s Poem, and Seneca’s On Anger.