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"philebus" (Westport, CT United States)

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Socratic Wisdom: The Model of Knowledge in Plato's Early Dialogues
Socratic Wisdom: The Model of Knowledge in Plato's Early Dialogues
by Hugh H. Benson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 126.01
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars "Imaginative skepticism and dramatic irony", June 14 2002
This is a book by a professor which was written for professors. More to the point, this is a book by a disciple of Gregory Vlastos for those who take the Vlastos/Irwin mode of reading Plato to be paradigmatic. The text purports to be a reading of Plato's early dialogues (eg. Charmides, Crito, Apology, Euthyphro, etc.) with an eye towards articulating what "theory of knowledge" is articulated by Socrates within these dialogues. Ultimately, the author arrives at the conclusion that "Socratic a strong and complete grasp of distinct F-nesses...[t]his grasp of the respective F-ness produces correct judgements involving F-ness that yield true cognitive states consistent with the knower's other cognitives states involving F-ness as well as the ability to answer the Socratic 'What is F-ness' question in a way consistent with those other cognitive states" (p.211).
The considerable vagueness of the previous phrase, coupled with the abstract character of the language reveals the general tone of this work. It is also worth noting that the author's description of knowledge is little more than a tautology. We know what we know when we can recognize it and articulate what it is that we know. Sure. "My cat's breath smells like cat food" said Ralph of "The Simpsons." Generally speaking, Benson tends to overemphasize the discursive character of knowledge and ignore the necessary, noetic component. After all, how do we know if our articulation of "F-ness" is correct save by looking at "F?" This is one of the overarching problems in the Hippias Major: we can see what is beautiful but when we attempt to articulate why it is so we find ourselves in all sorts of trouble. The main point here being that we can recognize that something is beautiful without needing a definition of beauty (kalos). Once we couple this with his general lack of interest in the dramatic context or dialogical content of the Platonic corpus we have discovered that the author has written 260 pages but said very little.
There are other problems with Benson's reading; far more than would be productive to detail here but I will take one to illustrate my point. Benson leans very hard upon the Apology to justify his contention that Socrates' self-appointed task was in conformity with the wishes of the god of the Delphic oracle. The only problem with this assertion is that it is utterly against the text. The oracle told Socrates (via Chaerephon) that he was the wisest man in Athens. What was Socrates' response? He refused to believe the oracle's pronouncement and set out to disprove the oracle! Now, this may simply be naivete on my part but questioning the gods is not particularly pious behavior. More to the point, Socrates' self-appointed role as gadfly is taken up *against the oracle.* John Sallis makes this point quite nicely in his chapter on the Apology in "Being and Logos." Of course, this is another place where Benson stumbles: his bibliography. Though heavily footnoted (there are literally hundreds) the book contains no reference to works on the early socratic dialogues by Sallis, Tom Pangle, Christopher Bruell, H.G. Gadamer, and numerous others who read Plato with an ear tuned towards the dramatic nuances of the text. The title of this review was taken from a sentence by the literary critic, R.P. Blackmur, who spoke of the early socratic dialogues as full of "imaginative skepticism and dramatic irony." There is almost *no* recognition from Benson that any of this exists within the works. It is, quite simply, a book for a small group of like-minded individuals who are uninterested in letting the dialogues speak for themselves. Needless to say, I cannot recommend its purchase. Put your money towards Diskin Clay's "Platonic Questions" or Newell's "Ruling Passion" which will tell you far more about Plato.

Margins of Philosophy
Margins of Philosophy
by Jacques Derrida
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 36.14
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but hardly radical, Jan. 15 2002
This review is from: Margins of Philosophy (Paperback)
One could open up this review by pointing out that the book being reviewed is not a "coherent" work in the conventional sense of the term but this would be playing into the hands of the deconstructionist. Perhaps it is best to phrase one's comments in such a fashion as to avoid the need for anything more-than-average coherence in a review. "The Margins of Philosophy" is an interesting work by this academically controversial author. Generally speaking--and what more can one do in a review--Derrida's readings are heavily influenced by Heidegger's statement that what an author keeps silent is as important as what he states. This is asserted almost immediately in the introduction as Derrida lets us know that what philosophy (and philosophers) have pushed to the margin in their work is very important to explore since its unveiling will de-center the work. Put differently, every writing undercuts itself in the end. In a series of separate, but linked essays, Derrida goes on to demonstrate how this sort of thing happens in Hegel, Saussure, Benveniste, Heidegger, and others.
I am not the first to point out that Derrida is a perceptive, subtle reader with a very keen eye for the hidden details. "White Mythology" is an interesting discussion of the role of metaphor in philosophy and its consequences for philosophy. I am also not the first to complain that Derrida's taste for exegesis runs towards the extravagant and excessive. The aforementioned essay spans 65 pages for reasons that otherwise escape me. There is also the more serious problem in Derrida that his keen eye is not keen enough and he is too clever by half in his explication. At one point in the work he connects the greek word for intuiting (ie. seeing with the soul) "theorein" with the desire for death. Strictly speaking this is a conflation of the desire to be a god with the desire to be unconscious (a leftover from the decay of romanticism?). An elementary reading of Plato's Phaedrus makes this clear. His obsession with the "metaphysics of presence" is also a problem for the work, as he hitches his interpretations to this dubious construction and the interpretations ultimately suffer for it. This is not to say that there isn't much of philosophical interest in the work for Derrida gives the reader much to chew on. He reminds us that any serious reading of a text must devote itself scrupulously to the whole of the text and not just to those parts which we think are interesting. Though, perhaps, not the best place to start one's study of Derrida it is certainly worth a serious read if only to understand what some of the shouting is all about.

Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics
Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics
by Fred D. Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 85.69
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2.0 out of 5 stars Weekend at Bernie's, July 27 2001
Miller would like to reclaim Aristotle for the modern world. In order to accomplish this task Miller has decided that he must ignore certain blatantly obvious factors in Aristotle which clash with the way we live today. This is most obvious in his poorly argued decision to attribute a theory of rights to Aristotle. Miller cites but ignores the fact that the language of rights did not appear until around the 13th century. He also ignores the context in which that language appeared. Instead, Miller choses to rely upon an abstract definition of rights by a 20th century academic, apparently not bothering to notice the problem of relying upon the definition of an accepted entity to prove that entity's existence at a point prior in time. In other words, Miller commits the logical fallacy of assuming the consequent to prove the antecedent eg. "a theory of rights contains x,y, and z"; "Aristotle speaks of x,y, and z therefore Aristotle must have had a theory of rights". There is an additional problem with Miller's attempt to argue the existence of rights in Aristotle: the definition he relies upon is so vague as to allow us to claim that both the Torah and Hammurabi's Code contained a theory of rights. As there is no credible evidence that such a thing ever existed within those documents this procedure is absurd. Furthermore, Miller's "defense" of his "hypothesis" amounts to little more than two or three footnote citations of other professors' works with the unilluminating claim that these articles are enough to answer the obvious questions regarding his approach. He does nothing to "refute" the readings of Strauss, Macintyre, or Irwin but sniff and shuffle some papers.
What Miller ultimately concludes is that Aristotle did not believe in pre-political right but only in a particular type of political or civil right which depended entirely upon the constitution of the polis. Since Aristotle *never* used the language of rights the best we can state is that Aristotle believed that the constitution of a polis gave its citizens both *priviledges* and duties. As the existence of the polis preceeds and superceeds the existence of any of its members it is silly to claim that citizens possess "rights". Since law tries to mimic justice and give to each his own as his ability warrants, there is no place for a "right" which would override the claims of justice embodied within the law. One could ask, "why make such a fuss since what Aristotle said regarding the claims of justice because it sounds alot like what we say when we speak of rights?" It is important to be clear about these things because a certain amount of Aristotle's politics is based upon his understanding of nature and the cosmos. Everything within the cosmos operates according to a set order except for the relations between men. Nature should be our guide since it appears to guide everything else but nature is silent about the proper role of man. For Aristotle, law is the attempt to complete the work of nature by taking it as a guide. There are no "rights" in nature so it would have been absurd for Aristotle to invent such a fiction. Aristotle choses to emphasize the constitution of the polis because it mimics on a human scale the order of the cosmos.
To be fair, the book starts off quite promising and it is only when Miller begins his descent into the morass of rights that things deteriorate. One can read this work and learn a little bit about Aristotle but, in the end, it is not a terribly good exposition of what he wrote. Miller paints us a portrait of the dead philosopher dressed in some rather bad beach wear and pretends that this is still the profound thinker who dominated medieval philosophy for 1,000 years. The final chapter of the book attempts to defend the relevance of Aristotle for today by using the language of the modern university and its obsession with -isms. This may be a way to gain tenure but it makes for poor scholarship.

Aristotle's Theory of Material Substance: Heat and Pneuma, Form and Soul
Aristotle's Theory of Material Substance: Heat and Pneuma, Form and Soul
by Gad Freudenthal
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 88.50
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4.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly and Informative, June 26 2001
This is a slender, enjoyable book from Oxford University Press's Clarendon imprint. Gad Freudenthal (CNRS, Paris) sets out to explain Aristotle's conception of material substance in his various works. Bluntly stated, the problem (according to the author) is that while Aristotle speaks rather clearly about coming-to-be and passing-away he doesn't offer an immediately intelligible account of the persistance of things. Obviously, form (eidos) plays a large role in this but there are other factors as well and Freudenthal endeavors to uncover them. More accurately, Freudenthal states that it is "vital heat" or "pneuma" which plays the very important role of imparting form to substance. Needless to say, Aristotle is not always very clear on how vital heat does this or, even, if it does this on all occasions so it is up to intrepid commentators like Freudenthal to compare and contrast the various passages in the Aristotlean corpus in an attempt to render something like an accurate account of the role of vital heat. The author is quite up to the task as he does a lovely job of discussing the various accounts Aristotle gives us as well as advancing the provocative thesis that, with the discover of vital heat, Aristotle was trying to give a physiological account of all psychological phenomenon except for the highest type, nous (which is the priviledged possession of man among terrestrial creatures). This is not without it problems, as the author well acknowledges, and it is not without its share of controversy. The journey, however, is well worth making.
Why, then, is this only a 4-starred review? I found this work to be stimulating and accessible while still being quite intelligent and faithful to the spirit of scholarship. It was relatively "jargon-free" and light on the polemics. There are certain peculiarities, however, in the author's explication which seem to indicate that a very modern prejudice is ruling his commentary. For example, he likes to speak of Aristotle's discussion and investigation of "vital heat" as a "research programme" (182) as if Aristotle were a scientist at the NIH or a biologist at Columbia University. He tends to assume that philosophy in Aristotle's time is supposed to "systematic" ie. that all facets are supposed to dovetail with one another to reveal a comprehensive picture of the cosmos. This assumption leads him into the thicket of "developmental" interpretation where he proceeds to associate the less-coherent elements of Aristotle's vital heat with an early, immature form of Aristotle's philosophy. As there is little evidence that Aristotle changed his mind ala Wittgenstein it is problematic to assume that such must have been the case. There is a very real possibility that each one of Aristotle's works was written to address a specific problem or set of problems and it is that areas which he concentrated upon. This would mean that each work was written for a specific audience or reader and idiosyncratic statements are localized within that work, as opposed to being attributable to a garbled understanding of the world. This is not to dismiss the difficulties inherent in Aristotle's explanations but to view them as deliberate instead of unconscious or the product of an ever-changing view of the matter. I do agree whole-heartedly with the author when he states, "[a]t times, identifying Aristotle's problems may be more revealing than recording his solutions" (144). This statement is equally relevant to Freudenthal's own work, and it is well worth the effort to read this commentary slowly and carefully.

The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger
The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger
by Professor Stanley Rosen
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint of heart, May 31 2001
While I agree with the previous reviewer's assessment of Rosen's originality it seems that there is a bit of confusion which I think should be clarified. This book is a careful, profoundly original discussion of Heidegger's misunderstanding of Plato and how it fundamentally colored the rest of his thinking. In order to clarify where Heidegger went wrong Rosen deems it necessary to embark on lengthy, difficult discussions of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche. He also deems it necessary to take an occasional swipe at some of Heidegger's less-talented progeny as they are oblivious to the very difficulties their misreadings imply and their influence within the Academy is undeniable. Furthermore, in the case of Plato, it becomes necessary to "save" the dialogues from their many positivist admirers and interpreters. The tone of the book is not so much polemical as exegetical, and it is studded with Rosen's subtle humor. [N.B. This may be the source of the previous reviewer's accusations of "arrogance" ie. the self-confidence of the knower as opposed to the tentative gropings of the blind.]
Rosen's "platonism" is not the neo-platonism which has been handed down to us by Iamblichus, Albinus, and Plotinus but a substantially "deeper" platonism which does not assume that the dialogues were loaded with metaphysical dogma. To paraphrase Rosen, the history of "platonism" begins with Aristotle. From this standpoint the literary structure of the dialogues are as important as the allegedly "technical" discussions of "doctrines" which have been canonized in the secondary literature. Rosen's sympathies always lie with Plato but he is very careful to cite instances where he agrees with Heidegger, Nietzsche, or Kant. Indeed, his judicious and balanced discussions of these men lay bare the fundamental problems which each philosopher was attempting to confront and overcome. He does not, however, spare any of these men when their conclusions went awry. No sound writing should avoid this responsibility, though it can be done well or done poorly, depending upon the writer.
The book engages in a lengthy discussion of Heidegger's misinterpretation of "greek ontology" and in particular with regards to Plato. Rosen demonstrates the untenability of Heidegger's claims about a "general concept of being" animating greek philosophy. He also engages in an original reading of the central section of Plato's "Phaedo" as a way of contrasting Plato's slippery discussion with Heidegger's static, professorial interpretation. In effect we are led to realize that Heidegger read into Plato (and Aristotle) what he wanted to in order to make certain claims about them later on. Rosen also spends a bit of time on Heidegger's own political nihilism which he perceives as being fundamentally grounded in his philosophy. Along the way Rosen points out how Nietzsche's claims to having overcome Plato are really just less coherent instances of a quasi-platonic teaching and that Kant's transcendental ego is fundamentally flawed.
As the title of my review indicates, this book is not for the "uninitiated." It delves very deeply into areas of philosophy which most will find baffling. If, however, you want a challenging, profound discussion of philosophy and some of its most famous practitioners this book will reward many a careful reading. It will remind the reader that philosophy isn't the logic-chopping or ethical blather which we hear so often today, but is, has been, and always will be about what is the best life and how can we lead it.

The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault
The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault
by Alexander Nehamas
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 39.95
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Bathetic, May 19 2001
Arriving after so many good reviews I feel rather self-conscious, (as if I have somehow not gotten "the joke") in saying that this book is dreadful. I do not mean that this book didn't appeal to me or my sensibilities; this book is totally and utterly wrong from the first page. To paraphrase a popular saying, "it's not even wrong; it's bunk!" Let me provide an example at the very beginning of the book. Nehamas states "[My] own that the philosophical life is only one among many praise-worthy ways of living." This is as effective a demonstration as I can muster that Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, has never understood the very subject matter he claims to speak about. What one is constantly told from every major ancient and modern philosopher is that philosophy is **the only** life worth living. All other lives are steeped in superstition, ignorance, and self-delusion. I can point to Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or Plato's Phaedrus (249ff) as adequate justification for this claim. I repeat: philosophy is the only life worth living! All other lives are radically inferior because all other lives involve blind acceptance of unexamined opinion. Nietzsche spoke of philosophy as the most spiritual will-to-power. This implies that all other types are reactive and decadent at best; prey to their own illusions at worst. With that opening salvo Nehamas has demonstrated conclusively that he does not know what philosophy is or why one should practice it. Let me put this another way: Nehamas is a relativist with a bad conscience.
I would like to praise Nehamas for finally "getting it" and realizing that Plato never cared about "aesthetics" or "epistemology" (both academic sub-fields created within the last 300 years) but was always concerned about the best life and how to live it. I cannot, however, because Nehamas believes the exact opposite of what Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hegel, Cicero, Maimonides, Averroes, etc. taught on no other basis than it offends his egalitarian sensibilities. He has no real understanding of philosophy because philosophy is not a living option for him. It is simply one more dead museum piece which we have thankfully overcome because now, for some reason, we are superior and know that Plato's claim is an illusion. History has ended and the last man now triumphs: "'We have invented happiness,' say the last men, and they blink.'"(Thus Spake Zarathustra 1.5). Nehamas cannot understand why Plato wrote in the peculiar way that he did but Nehamas somehow cannot believe that Plato would ever lie to us. "O Plato, so much admired, I fear that you have told us nothing but fables..." (Voltaire, "Great Chain of Being", Philosophical Dictionary). He blindly asserts that Plato was hardly guilty of creating fictions and resorting to slippery ironies. Why? Because he assumes that philosophers must behave like bourgoeis university professors who worry about whether they will receive calls from The New York Review of Books. The book reeks with the failure to conceed that the greatest souls create and think upon a level which the overwhelming majority of us cannot reach. Plato is just a stuffed corpse to our Princeton professor.
Lest my animus be mistaken for personal vindictiveness, I wish to state upfront that I have never met Prof. Nehamas. Based upon my reading of his work, however, I can say that he cannot tell us anything intelligent about philosophy and its practitioners. If this book were a high-priced academic monograph, destined to moulder on the shelf of research libraries, I would not care. Unfortunately, this work has been priced and marketed to the individual consumer who is interested in philosophy and it's to him/her that I direct my comments. Do not buy this book for you are wasting your money. The favorable reviews by Lear and Nussbaum only confirm the fact that neither professor *ever* understood a word of Plato (indeed, both are pseudo-aristotleans of a peculiarly noxious stripe). If you want to learn about Plato as a living, breathing author of a radically compelling, profound vision of the world and man, buy Sallis's "Being and Logos", Rosen's "Plato's Symposium", Sayre's "Plato's Literary Garden", Bloom's "The Republic of Plato", or Griswold's "Plato's Phaedrus". All of those books are about a Plato who entreats us to change our lives from passive lemming to active seeker of the truth. All of them are about an elitist Plato who is not concerned with rescuing the rabble because he knows that such things are futile and stupid. All of them are about a Plato who is both profound and profoundly human. Leave this book to the paper pulpers who will make good use of its materials, after destroying its worthless contents.

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