A Forum for and the Background of the Mediation of Dialogue in Ancient and Modern Academies

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Philebus. Again.

After the Philebus conference in Prague (November 14-16, 2013), I will be happy to provide some background and comments.

Let me narrate backwards, starting with some fog in Kafka's neighbourhood: marvellous wanderings and a visit of an impressively conceived museum, which drew Kafka's literature to life, after a marvellous conference.

To the conference: I found the context ideal, as far as the number of people involved is concerned: A right balance was found between too many and too few. The background of the speakers was diverse, a condition which I consider to be a sine qua non for a successful conference that aims at promoting genuine dialogue and critical and fruitful research. Moreover, the hospitality of our Czech colleagues has left fond memories. What will follow is a neutral brief report of the talks, without the addition of any evaluation or critique: Maurizio Migliori, Thomas Szlezák, Sylvain Delcomminette, Chad Jorgenson, myself, Francesco Fronterotta, Gerd van Riel, Richard King, Amber Carpenter, James Wood, Dorothea Frede, Ales Havlícek and Rachel Barney were the contributors, who gave their paper in this order.
Maurizio pleaded against the prejudice that Plato does not appreciate the empirical dimension while strolling through the entire corpus in order to depict the way from Socrates' intellectualism to Plato's conception of the good as mixture. All bits and pieces in Plato were pointing to common Platonic views, the Protagoras in perfect harmony with the Philebus and the Laws. 
Thomas directed his critique against Gadamer's interpretation of Plato's good in the Philebus and drew the attention to a small detail, namely the difference between ἐν τοῖς προθύροις and ἐπὶ τοῖς προθύροις (64c1-2).
Sylvain focused on the distinction between mixed and pure pleasures, and got some help from the investigation of the genus of the unlimited as inherent in impure pleasures to explain their being susceptible to falsehood. The purity of the Philebus was interpreted with the help of the purity in the Phaedo, and so the Philebean pure pleasure became the simple outcome of thinking.
Chad undertook to shed some light on the exclusion of impure pleasure and the inclusion of pure pleasure in the good life. A distinction between the Phaedo and the Philebus has been thereby of use. To purify in the latter does not mean to suppress or extirpate the lower faculties but to perfect them.
Georgia, in agreement with a model of purity that differs from the Phaedo's, grounded the difference between mixed and pure human pleasures in the different modus and awareness of our being-in-time, and the radically different experience of the present, which we as subjects of pleasure attain. Instead of momentarily curing our human condition by restoring a disturbed harmony, pure pleasures have arisen as intrinsically good, blessings, which are nonetheless incapable of becoming a telos in human life.
Francesco opened the floor for debates by drawing the analogy between the Philebus' fourfold division and the Timaeus' context. Above all, Francesco has been interested in what he called the "homogeneity" of cause and effect in the Platonic onto-cosmological context, with which he meant a relation of continuity between cause and effect. The content, which the cause transmits, and which the object undergoing change receives, are the same, even if they do not coincide nor have the same ontological status.
From immanent causes we moved to the immanence of nous, as Gerd took the lead. Gerd decided to start with Laws X instead of the Timaeus, to which he then turned. It has been vigorous and challenging as well as debatable to reject any separate intelligence in Plato (recall the similarities in Carone's undertaking, though the presuppositions are not identical).
Richard, challenged by and starting with Myles Burnyeat's critique of perception in Plato, focused on sensation as the only thing common to body and soul, which he understood as body and soul being the subject of the undergoing (of sensation).
Amber asked the question of why knowing and striving to know are good. For this, she examined the division of knowledge into its fields and the problem of dialectic (Is the method or the object what counts?). The dominant value throughout the entire scale of crafts mentioned by Socrates is not pleasure, but truth, and to be more precise, an affect, namely the love of truth. This we exercise in our every day activities when e.g. playing the flute and building houses. In the Philebus, Plato respects and attends to reality rather than ignore it.
James brought the relation between becoming and being to the fore, which had been at the centre of attention throughout the conference, and stressed the new theory of (immanent) forms, which solves all problems from the questions at 15b to the problem of limit and unlimited in the fourfold division.
Dorothea asked again the question of whether Socrates has an all too easy win over hedonism, and re-evaluated the last parts of the dialogue. Protarchus forgets all pleasures other than the erotic ones, that is also the pure pleasures, when Socrates asks him which pleasures should be allowed to enter the good mixture of life. And he is eager to reject the erotic pleasure, having been converted by Socrates in the meantime. Socrates' reaction shows a subtle critique and an improvement of the converted interlocutor. He namely includes pure pleasure in the list of the goods at the end. Protarchus is no Socrates, but definitely Plato's Protarchus.
Ales focused on all important aspects of the Philebus, turning from the distinction between human and divine good to mixture as the nature of the former. Dialectic in the Philebus, which does not differ from the Republic's or the Sophist's at all, refers to the human good.
Rachel tackled the rank-ordering at the end of the dialogue, setting up a list of (some) things that go wrong in this ranking. The placement of proportion (formal cause), nous (efficient cause) and knowledge and pleasures as elements of the mixture (material causes), she explained through the priority of the formal cause over the efficient and the material. Rachel could detect Plato's still on-going commitment to paradigmatism in the Philebus, based on measure being the best due to its being the cause of the good properties in things that are moderate.

To bring scholars from diverge environments is necessary but not sufficient for a successful conference.  The success of a conference we can experience, as I see it, when listening to researchers who have been developing their views (die fallen nicht aus heiterem Himmel, and out of the blue), and put not only their cards on the table, but also the weaknesses of their own view. Many conditions must be fulfilled to get there, and then we do have dialogue. We got there in Prague. We definitely did.
Jakub approached me with a smile, confident he had found out who had been responsible for my paper. I smiled back, taking the responsibility for weaknesses and strengths of my paper, and not blaming anyone else. Admittedly, he had gotten to something, and expressed this with charm. I avoid to mention philosophers, since I avoid, as far as I can, reading them into Plato, but when I do mention someone, I choose to come up with not less than three names: Hegel, Ryle and Heidegger. No reductions.

Small footnote to a great artist: To listen to just one sentence from Verdi's Il Trovatore sung from Netrebko, let us take the one on the earth and heaven uniting, is a piece of art in itself. No need for stage direction (the wonderful one, by Stölzl, as ingenious as his Parsifal), no need for the completeness of Verdi's piece. This sentence sung is enough, eyes closed and past moments and future sequence of the opera erased. What a lady! When I come across so talented ladies in ancient philosophy, I am more than happy to review their work and its development.