Hegel’s Platonism

Hegel’s admiration for Aristotle is well known, and he is often (though rather misleadingly) said to have revived serious philosophical consideration of potency and act. But there is at least one important matter on which Hegel sides with Plato against Aristotle.

In his Lectures on Natural Philosophy, Duane Berquist points out that Plato and Aristotle disagree on their answer to the following: ‘Does truth require that the way we know be the way things are?’ Plato answers ‘yes’ to this question. And therefore, since he notices that our knowledge of mathematicals (for example) is unchanging and separate from matter, he concludes that there are subsisting forms in reality, unchanging and separate from matter. Aristotle, on the other hand, answers ‘no’ to the question: he argues that the mind knows things in abstraction from matter, so that we can have unchangeable and universal knowledge of things that are in reality changeable and particular.

Hegel, like Plato, implicitly answers ‘yes’ to the question; he things that truth requires that the way we know be the same as the way things are. And since he notices that our knowledge begins with a vague and confused notion of being, and that it becomes more definite and distinct through a dialectical process of negation and negation-of-negation, he comes to the absurd view that reality itself begins with vague, potential, and unconscious being (rather than with God as pure act and perfect thought), and that being comes to itself through a dialectical history. As I have noted before, this leads Hegel into an error equivalent to that of David of Dinant.


Socratic Dialogues Without Socrates

“TNET is a bit like a Socratic dialog . . . once you’ve cut out all of Socrates’s lines,” someone recently remarked on TNET. That gave me the idea of removing Socrates’s lines from a random section of the Gorgias. Here is the result:

Gor. Well, Socrates, I suppose that if the pupil does chance not to know them, he will have to learn of me these things as well.

Gor. Certainly.

Gor. Yes.

Gor. Yes.

Gor. Certainly.

Gor. To be sure.

Gor. Yes.

Gor. That is clearly the inference.

Gor. Certainly not.

Gor. Yes.

Gor. Clearly not.

Gor. Yes, it was.

Gor. True.

Gor. Yes.

Polus. And do even you, Socrates, seriously believe what you are now saying about rhetoric? What! because Gorgias was ashamed to deny that the rhetorician knew the just and the honourable and the good, and admitted that to any one who came to him ignorant of them he could teach them, and then out of this admission there arose a contradiction-the thing which you dearly love, and to which not he, but you, brought the argument by your captious questions-[do you seriously believe that there is any truth in all this?] For will any one ever acknowledge that he does not know, or cannot teach, the nature of justice? The truth is, that there is great want of manners in bringing the argument to such a pass.

Pol. What condition?

Pol. What! do you mean that I may not use as many words as I please?

Pol. Yes.

Pol. To be sure.

Pol. I will ask; and do you answer me, Socrates, the same question which Gorgias, as you suppose, is unable to answer: What is rhetoric?

Pol. Yes.

Pol. Then what, in your opinion, is rhetoric?

Pol. What thing?

Pol. Does rhetoric seem to you to be an experience?

Pol. An experience in what?

Pol. And if able to gratify others, must not rhetoric be a fine thing?

Pol. Did I not hear you say that rhetoric was a sort of experience?

Pol. I will.

Pol. What sort of an art is cookery?

Pol. What then?



Ralph Fiennes’s film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is quite good. Unlike many ‘modern-dress’ Shakespeare performances, this one doesn’t seem forced and stupid. Maybe that is because it was filmed in Belgrade, and Serbia is one of the few places today where one can imagine someone like Coriolanus actually living. Continue reading

Europe as the Synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelianism

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens”. Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems. The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. (Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament)

Charles De Koninck, Jacob Klein, and Socratic Logocentrism

The bi-lingual Quebecois journal Laval théologique et philosophique, has recently uploaded its archives to the web. This was the organ of Laval School Thomism, and the early issues contain lots of fascinating material by Charles De Koninck, the school’s most distinguished thinker, as well as pieces by his students and colleagues. Laval School Thomists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward writing and publishing. In the spirit of Socrates’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus,1 they are wary of the ways in which writing can aggravate the tendency of words to lose their connection to things. De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions. De Koninck was a great enemy of philosophic “systems” in which concepts are rendered intelligible by their function in the system, rather than by their rootedness in pre-scientific logos. Among his disciples one gets a sense that the problem with writing is that it lends itself to the development of a “technical” vocabulary from which such systems are formed. De Koninck  was especially opposed to any system which would use not words, which by their nature intend the world, but symbols, which replace what they represent. He pointed out the absurdities that followed from conceiving of thought as a method of manipulating symbols according to rules– of replacing “logic” in the ancient sense with philosophical calculus, or characteristic, or symbolic mathematical logic; all of which are not so much logic as grammatology.

In this De Koninck agrees with a philosopher of a quite different tradition: Jacob Klein. A student of Husserl and Heidegger, Klein did not follow his teachers. He understood philosophy in a way very similar to De Koninck. He looked to the Greeks whose account of philosophy he summarizes as follows: Continue reading

Empire II: Herodotus, Aristotle and Jokes

If Virgil is in some ways a follower of Plato, Plato would certainly not have agreed with him on the need for world empire. Like most of the Greeks Plato thought that a limited population was necessary for a good political community. The Greek view seems to have been formed by the experience of the war with Persia. In book VII of Herodotus’ Histories Demaratus famously tells Xerxes that the Greeks will win for, Continue reading