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Fw: BMCR 2005.01.22, T.K. Johansen, Plato's Natural Philosophy

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  • Edward Moore
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      Subject: BMCR 2005.01.22, T.K. Johansen, Plato's Natural Philosophy


      > T.K. Johansen, Plato's Natural Philosophy. A Study of the
      > Timaeus-Critias. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp.
      > vi, 218. ISBN 0-521-79067-0. $75.00.
      >
      > Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto
      > (lloyd.gerson@...)
      > Word count: 2845 words
      > -------------------------------
      >
      > In Raphael's famous "School of Athens" -- a painting adorning countless
      > philosophy department brochures -- the central figures Plato and
      > Aristotle stroll down a colonnade. The former is holding a copy of his
      > Timaeus and is pointing upward while the latter is holding a copy of
      > his Ethics with his palm pointed downward. Raphael was no philosopher;
      > he was reflecting in his iconography the centuries-old view that in
      > Timaeus was to be found the ultimate or most perfect expression of
      > Platonism. But he was also indicating the view that this work -- filled
      > with the most detailed speculations about how what we would today call
      > biology, chemistry, and physics, illuminate human life -- reveals that
      > all these matters have to be understood from the "top-down." By
      > contrast, Aristotle -- in fact not, as many suppose, here represented
      > as being in opposition to Plato -- wishes to start from the "bottom-up"
      > in understanding human beings, that is from their concrete social
      > existence. The appearance of conflict is thus only in a way
      > perspectival. Plato and Aristotle hold conflicting views on the order
      > of inquiry, but their differing methods lead to harmonious results.
      >
      > A top-down approach to the knowledge that is supposed to enhance human
      > life is one of the enduring facets of ancient Greek philosophy. The
      > assumption or inference that intelligence or nous must be somehow
      > insinuated into cosmology begins with the Pre-Socratics and, in part no
      > doubt inspired by Timaeus, continues on throughout the entire thousand
      > year period with few notable exceptions. As Socrates points out in
      > Plato's Phaedo, Anaxagoras' appeal to intelligence is hollow precisely
      > because, even though it is posited as a fundamental principle, it has
      > no discernible function in explaining anything here below. That is
      > exactly what Timaeus sets out to do. In T.K. Johansen's lucid and
      > carefully reasoned monograph, the author aims to show how teleology
      > informs every aspect of this work, including its very structure.
      >
      > In the first chapter, Johansen asks the basic question, "What is the
      > Timaeus-Critias about?" His answer is that the work -- evidently
      > intended as in some sense a continuation of "yesterday's" discussion in
      > Republic (and Gorgias as well) -- seeks to demonstrate that the account
      > of justice in that work "has a sufficient grip in nature not to be
      > uprooted by the test of war (16)." This test of war is what Critias'
      > Atlantis story is intended to show. The Timaeus itself argues that the
      > kosmos is purposefully constructed with a view towards the good,
      > guaranteeing the naturalness of justice. Just as the demiurge, the
      > governor and producer of order in the universe, overcomes necessity,
      > so, we are to conclude, we humans are well supported in our efforts to
      > overcome the obstacles facing the establishment of justice, and virtue
      > in general. These obstacles begin for human beings with the
      > inevitability of embodiment.
      >
      > In the second chapter, Johansen focuses on the question of whether the
      > Atlantis story was intended by Plato as historical. Johansen argues
      > that the story is "'history' only in a special sense: it is a story
      > which is fabricated about the past in order to reflect a general truth
      > about how ideal citizens would fare in war (24)." The story is mimesis,
      > but not of the sort rejected in Republic; rather, it is an informed
      > imitation of and extension of the universal claims made in Timaeus. The
      > key move here, according to Johansen, is the identification of
      > Socrates' citizens in Republic with ancient Athenians. "In presenting
      > the Atlantis story as the story of Socrates' ideal citizens Plato
      > redeploys Athenian encomiastic history in the service of a new ideal
      > different from the Athenian (38)." The story of Atlantis is,
      > accordingly, true in the sense of what ought to be, not what actually
      > is (or was).
      >
      > Chapter three addresses the well-known crux of the status of Timaeus'
      > "likely account." In so naming Timaeus' account of the generation of
      > the kosmos, Plato means to emphasize that the account is a more or less
      > faithful representation of a likeness, namely, a likeness of an eternal
      > model. Its status is not probabilistic. The account shares all the
      > imperfections of the sensible world itself (54-5). Likelihood is in
      > principle the best we can aim for in dealing with a likeness, though,
      > if we had direct knowledge of the eternal model, we could no doubt give
      > a better account. As it is, the best we can aim for is "conviction"
      > (pistis) not "truth" (aletheia). This is at bottom why analogous as
      > opposed to demonstrative reasoning is required. That is, we cannot know
      > why the images are made the way they are; this is the prerogative of
      > the demiurge. We can only understand relationally the structure of the
      > kosmos. Thus, for example, "time is the way of being eternal in the
      > mode of coming-to-be (60)." This likely account is, therefore, a muthos
      > as well as a logos, a muthos for humans. From the divine perspective,
      > however, there would undoubtedly be a genuine logos of creation,
      > because from that perspective the purposes of creation would be
      > transparent.
      >
      > In chapter four, Johansen begins to address directly the philosophical
      > question of the teleology operating in Timaeus. Specifically, he aims
      > to examine the "unnatural" teleological role of the demiurge in
      > relation to the "natural" teleology central to Aristotle's Physics.
      > Johansen construes the argument for the existence of the demiurge as an
      > inference to the best explanation of the order and beauty of the
      > kosmos. But the demiurge thus reached is extensionally equivalent to
      > the eternal model according to which the kosmos is crafted. Johansen
      > sees Aristotle's natural teleology as an alternative type of
      > explanation. Roughly, the inference is to nature, an internal cause of
      > order, rather than to the demiurge, an external cause of order.
      > Johansen insists that, based on the text, there are no grounds for
      > assimilating the external cause to an internal one. To do so would be
      > to gainsay the radical distinction made in Timaeus between the orders
      > of being and becoming. Having thus defended the distinctness of the
      > demiurge, the author argues that his virtual co-extensiveness with the
      > eternal model leads to a depersonalized conception of the divine source
      > of order, one that makes of him more craftsmanship itself than a
      > personal craftsman. Thus conceived, neither the benevolence nor the
      > intelligence of the demiurge is gainsaid. And further, interpreting the
      > demiurge in this way closes the gap between the so-called unnatural
      > teleology of Plato and the natural teleology of Aristotle. Finally,
      > with craftsmanship rather than with a craftsman we can interpret
      > apparent temporality of creation as the ongoing process of order
      > production. That is, whenever order is produced or restored, it is
      > owing to craftsmanship. The demiurge becomes in effect the ex post
      > facto explanation for order. This presumably would make a
      > future-directed providential role for the demiurge otiose, a
      > consequence that the author does not clearly reject.
      >
      > In the fifth chapter, Johansen examines the role of "necessity"
      > (anagke^) in the economy of creation. He distinguishes between the
      > necessity which is independent of or prior to the intervention of the
      > demiurge, namely, "the wandering cause" (he^ plano^mene^ aitia) and the
      > necessity that belongs to the "contributory cause" (sunaitia) which is
      > under the aegis of the demiurge. The former Johansen calls "mere
      > necessary conditions" and the latter "necessary conditions." The
      > distinction -- a more nuanced approach to the distinction between
      > causes and condition than is found in Phaedo, according to Johansen --
      > answers to Aristotle's distinction of absolute or simple necessity and
      > hypothetical necessity. Contributory causes are what the mere necessary
      > conditions become when the demiurge -- the true cause of creation --
      > surveys the contents of the receptacle and begins to introduce
      > mathematical order. Thus, when the natural bodies and their parts are
      > constructed, the demiurge selects from the "elements" according to his
      > ultimate purposes within the bounds of hypothetical necessity. He is
      > constrained by the properties of the mathematically ordered elements.
      > For Plato, as for Aristotle, then, final causality is intrinsic to a
      > scientific explanatory framework. Absolute necessity is relegated to
      > the non-intelligible receptacle. Johansen concludes, however, that the
      > final causality of Timaeus contains an irremovable element of intention
      > or purpose or thought that is not necessarily a part of "acting for the
      > good" in Aristotle's teleology.
      >
      > In the sixth chapter, Johansen turns to an analysis of the receptacle
      > of creation, arguing that its function is to be understood in the light
      > of Plato's conception of what coming into being actually is. The
      > receptacle constitutes space (or place) because Plato needs to
      > postulate a condition for something's coming into or going out of
      > existence. These are construed as "a certain kind of movement in and
      > out of space (122)." Consideration of such movement abstracts from the
      > mathematical conceptualization of nature. Thus coming into existence
      > and going out of existence are really cases of the locomotion of the
      > solid triangles out of which bodies are constructed. This is in
      > contrast to the pre-kosmos where the coming into and going out of
      > existence of the phenomenal bodies does not involve the movement of
      > triangles. Both in the pre-kosmos ands in the kosmos itself, movement
      > is intrinsic to the phenomenal bodies or elements and is only
      > derivatively attributable to the receptacle. Johansen goes on to argue
      > that, in addition to the receptacle's representing space or place,
      > Aristotle was basically correct to identify it with matter. So, "place
      > and matter coincide in that both are to be understood as the product of
      > abstracting the formal characteristics of a body (133)." Space or place
      > becomes mere extension. The receptacle thus becomes the continuant in
      > change, which in the context of Timaeus is essentially locomotion. By
      > contrast, Aristotle wants to distinguish fundamentally locomotion from
      > other types of change -- especially generation and destruction -- and
      > so he makes a sharper distinction between space or place and matter
      > than does Plato.
      >
      > Chapter seven contains a discussion of the teleological role of the
      > human body in relation to the soul. Johansen argues for taking the
      > circular motion of soul literally, not figuratively. Accordingly, the
      > distinction between soul and body in Timaeus is not the Cartesian
      > distinction between two kinds of things, one bodily and one not.
      > Rather, what distinguishes soul and body is that the latter is
      > perceptible whereas the former is not. "Soul stuff does not add to the
      > volume of a body, even whilst it was extended along the body. In this
      > way the soul could be throughout the world body without adding bulk to
      > it (141)." On this interpretation, soul is unlike a body in that it is
      > not three-dimensional and solid, but it is like a body in that it is
      > extended in space. On the one hand, this would seem to make soul like
      > an attribute of a body -- for example, its surface -- though on the
      > other hand, soul's causal priority to body suggests otherwise. In the
      > case of the human soul, embodiment involves the experience not only of
      > circular rational motions but also the rectilinear motions of bodies.
      > The "interplay between rationality and irrationality is thus understood
      > in terms of the interaction of circular and rectilinear motions (143)."
      > The affections which are a consequence of embodiment are the product of
      > simple, not hypothetical necessity. Teleology comes into play when the
      > lesser gods, responsible for embodiment, make the affections capable of
      > contributing to our good. The construction of the soul-body complex
      > thus follows along the lines of the basic trifold distinction of the
      > composition of the world -- products of simple necessity, hypothetical
      > necessity, and reason. Plato's tripartite psychology results from the
      > interaction or combination of circular and rectilinear motions in the
      > embodied soul. Harmonious operation of the soul can thus be explained
      > in terms of the ordering of motions. This ordering is the manner in
      > which the good is achieved for human beings. This ordering is explained
      > in a way that is in some respects in contrast to tripartition in
      > Republic, for what was there a conflict of desires is here the
      > "devolved rationality" of the lower two parts (154). This analysis
      > appears to lessen the normative contrast between the ideal life of
      > disembodied existence and the life of a human being. The advance of
      > Timaeus over Republic is the treatment of embodiment from the point of
      > view of cosmic teleology.
      >
      > The eighth chapter treats of the role of sense-perception and its
      > cooperation with reason in the economy of creation. Johansen argues,
      > mainly against Cornford, that from the teleological point of view Plato
      > does not wish to exclude the deliverances of sense-perception from a
      > contribution to our rational understanding. The question is in effect
      > why the philosopher should be interested in anything other than
      > mathematics. Johansen focuses on the central role of astronomy in
      > philosophical education. He argues that the observable regularities of
      > the heavens were, according to Plato, intended by the demiurge to
      > contribute to the development of our cognitive capacities. Thus,
      > sense-perception changes from being an obstacle to our wellbeing to a
      > contributor to it, owing to the foresight of the demiurge. Johansen
      > considers two basic interpretations of the role of sense-perception in
      > its contribution to reason. According to the first, sense-perception
      > provides the basic mathematical concepts, for example, the idea of
      > number. According to the second, sense-perception does not itself
      > present mathematical information; rather, it provides stimuli to
      > activate reason's own concepts. After weighing the textual basis for
      > each interpretation, Johansen opts for the second, concluding that the
      > sensible world is intended by the demiurge to contribute to our
      > rational development, not as an empirical view of science would have
      > it, but by providing an appropriate image of eternal reality.
      >
      > In the last chapter, the author asks the question, "In what sense is
      > the Timaeus-Critias a dialogue?" Johansen answers that the principal
      > sense of "dialogue" in a Platonic work is between author and reader.
      > The Timaeus-Critias contains numerous clues and directions by the
      > author to direct the reader's thinking. It is the subject matter of
      > this work that causes the dialogue among characters to be suppressed in
      > favor of a monologue. First, the speakers are presented as experts on
      > their topic, suggesting that the opportunity for them to speak at
      > length uninterruptedly is intentional on Plato's part. Specifically,
      > Timaeus is given a speech that is as orderly as the kosmos he is
      > describing. Here we have "teleology as a principle of literary
      > composition (193)." The give-and-take and tentativeness of genuine
      > dialogue amongst characters would be inappropriate for a discourse
      > which is intended by Plato genuinely to represent its subject matter.
      > Johansen ends the chapter with some speculation on why Critias' account
      > is incomplete. He suggest that Critias' inability to complete the
      > account of the life of ideal citizens in action is perhaps owing either
      > to Critias' own supposed personal shortcomings (if he is indeed to be
      > identified with the historical tyrant Critias) or the inability of any
      > contemporary Athenian to speak with authority about the lives of ideal
      > citizens.
      >
      > A recurring theme of this book is the similarity of Timaeus' account of
      > the kosmos to Aristotle's philosophy of nature. Johansen demonstrates
      > again and again how the basic principles of nature presented in
      > Aristotle's Physics have their origin in Plato's work. Although the
      > author argues for assimilating the demiurge to nature itself as a
      > principle of change, Aristotle himself seems to acknowledge that nature
      > is only relatively sufficient as a principle of explanation. For in the
      > last chapter of book Lambda of his Metaphysics he compares the unmoved
      > mover to a general of an army upon which, analogous to the members of
      > the army, all natural order depends. This unmoved mover is separate
      > intellect. Aristotle is not content to stop at the craftsmanship of
      > nature (natura naturans); he argues that all nature depends on an
      > external; principle. (cf. 1072b13-14). Johansen's claim that Plato's
      > demiurge is craftsmanship rather than a craftsman makes the demiurge
      > more like an immanent principle, internal to nature. Thus, Johansen's
      > demiurge cannot be much like Aristotle's external principle of change,
      > and if Johansen is right on other grounds that Aristotle follows Plato,
      > one wonders whether Johansen's demiurge is much like Plato's demiurge,
      > either. Perhaps the author's tendency to depersonalize the demiurge
      > arises from an anachronistic assumption about what the personality of a
      > divine intellect was supposed by both Plato and Aristotle to be. In any
      > case, my lone serious criticism of this excellent book is the author's
      > tendency to discount the intelligence (as opposed simply to order or
      > intelligibility) which is evidently viewed by both philosophers as
      > being integral to cosmology. With this discounting, Plato's interest in
      > such matters as goodness and providence are left in the shadows. The
      > discussion of teleology is thus somewhat diminished.
      >
      > If I were going to recommend to someone who had just read Timaeus one
      > philosophical monograph on this work I cannot think of a better choice
      > than Johansen's. Traditional in its exegetical approach, yet properly
      > critical of giants of the past like Taylor and Cornford, Plato's
      > Natural Philosophy is a solid contribution to what is evidently a
      > renaissance of interest in what is surely one of Plato's major works.
      >
      >
      >
      > -------------------------------
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