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Anti-Platonism

Lecturer: A.J. Bartlett

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 2 2016

"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."  This famous line from Alfred North Whitehead is usually presented as standalone and serves to mark out the singularity of Plato relative to the history of the discipline he ostensibly ‘invents’. But a footnote does not necessarily flatter the subject and as Marx shows to our profit in Capital they can operate to undermine, subvert and deride. It is obvious that the history of philosophy, right from its beginnings, has maintained an ambiguous relationship to Plato. And this ambiguity has left a complex mark on the contemporary philosophical scene concerning which it is generally safe to say that in the past century and a half the dominating or perhaps prevailing ‘footnotes’ have tended toward undermining, subverting, deriding and finally overcoming the ‘Plato sickness’. But already embodied in Whitehead’s larger claim is that this overcoming is not as easy as it sounds given that philosophers ultimately must rely on the very ‘wealth of general ideas’ and methods of approach already ‘scattered’ across the dialogues. A real break with Plato is still a break with Plato.

Alain Badiou argues that these diverse, opposed and competing efforts, making up the bulk (but not all) of what we call European or Continental philosophy since at least Nietzsche can be themselves conceptually unified in a single term: Anti-Platonism. Badiou gives three general and linked characterisations:

 a) that, '[u]ltimately the 20th century reveals a constellation of multiple and heteroclite anti-Platonisms … what unites them is that each ostensibly accuses Plato of being ignorant of something essential to philosophy and 'this something is identified with the real itself': change for the vitalists (Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze), language for the analytics (Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap), concrete social relations for the Marxists, negation for the existentialists (Kierkegaard, Sartre), thought in as much as it is other than understanding for Heidegger, democracy for the political philosophers (Arendt and Popper).'

 b) that contemporary anti-Platonism – this broad church divided unto itself that circulates through these figures and the philosophies associated with them – has also functioned to educate us in what is Platonism. 'This 'Platonism', then, is that common figure, the contemporary montage of opinion, or configuration that emerges out of this anti-Platonist collective itself. 'Platonism …  is the great fallacious construction of modernity and post-modernity alike. It serves as a type of general negative prop: it only exists to legitimate the new under the heading of anti-Platonism.'

c) this anti-Platonist-Platonist collective advances three predominant 'philosophical' tendencies:

(i) the hermeneutic tendency, whose central concept is interpretation

(ii) the analytic, whose concept is the 'rule'

(iii) the postmodern, concerned with the deconstruction of totalities in favour of the diverse and the multiple.

What they have in common are two interrelated commitments:

(i) a positive commitment – to language, its capacities, rules and diversity such that language is the 'great transcendental of our times'

(ii) a negative commitment – to the end of metaphysics, the end of truth as central to philosophy and thus to philosophy since Plato. Plato marks for contemporary philosophy, as both its very condition and its reason, the point of an inception that must be reversed.

What we will do on this course is work through these general tendencies and predominant tropes relative to some of the key figures of continental philosophy and draw out their relationship to Plato and thereby assess this claim of 'anti-Platonism'.

For example: in what way and why and by what means is or can the Plato sickness, as Nietzsche puts it, be overcome; what does Heidegger mean – and what are the consequences for him – in saying that the Platonic Idea is the veil thrown over thought thus precipitating the forgetting of being in the history of philosophy; what does it mean for Deleuze that the simulacrum arise and affirm its rights and thus reverse Platonism; what does Wittgenstein mean by arguing philosophy is devoid of sense, and saying, ‘I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition’ and thus in a discourse which is not philosophy for Plato; why is Plato the exemplary idealist and propagandist for the slave owning class for Marxism; why does Lacan prefer to see Socrates as the first analyst and thus Plato as falsifier in chief thus perpetrating a trope often deployed within analytic philosophy itself starting with Aristotle; why is Plato the sovereign of sovereign discourse for Rancière?

Prior to all this we will begin by looking quickly at Aristotle, Neo-Platonism, Skepticism, Cynicism & Stoicism: going back to the anti-Platonist Platonism and Platonist anti-Platonism that prefigures and in some way sets up this contemporary scene as return to it and/or continuation of it.

To examine this complex anti-Platonism at the heart of European philosophy we will do something more or less like the following, involving some if not all of these figures:

Weeks 1:  Introduction etc.

Week 2/3: Aristotle, Neo-Platonism, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics.

Week 4:  Existentialism in general & Kierkegaard, Sartre et al.

Week 5/6: Hermeneutics in general & Heidegger, Gadamer but also Derrida et al.  

Weeks 7: Marxists in general & Historical Materialism, and, in contradistinction but similarly, Vlastos and Strauss(ians)

Week 8/9: Vitalism in general &, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze, Foucault et al.

Weeks 10: Post-modern sophistry in general & ‘political philosophy’, Popper, Arendt, New Philosophers & relativisms, Lacoue-Labarthe, Lyotard et al.

Week 11: Psychoanalysis in general & Lacan & Rancière's philosopher kings.

Week 12: Conclusion: Plato today?