Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quote of the Day: Footnotes to Plato

(((More Whitehead; that quote you've all heard or misheard part of; how to be Platonic)))

Most of us have at one time or another, and perhaps many times, heard or read some allusion or reference to the famous statement of Whitehead about Western philosophy. But I suspect we often mistake or perhaps merely oversimplify his point. So, let's try a little context.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars [and earlier philosophers? like Aristotle? or like Proclus? Ficino?] have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writings an inexhaustible mine of suggestion. (Process and Reality, 39)

There's something sort of retro-Renaissance about this, on the one hand: let us go back to the horse's mouth and start over. But on the other hand, he's really right in several respects, perhaps most especially in the simple observation that Plato was freer than we are. He had a much smaller and less systematized tradition or set of traditions to deal with, and maybe most importantly, there was not the tradition of philosophical writing and scholarship that we have now, where philosophy can only properly be philosophy if it is, frankly, dull. And in any case, it cannot be ambiguous, especially not deliberately ambiguous. That is for poets, and don't we Know that Plato hated poets? And yet, Plato wrote what amount to plays, not treatises, even if there are treatises of sorts to be found in them.

So, if we want to be truly Platonic, and there are good reasons to want just such a thing, perhaps we need to throw off the shackles of disciplinary, and particularly scholarly, custom.

Oooh, scary.

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