50 - MM McCabe and Raphael Woolf on Aristotle on Plato

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Peter's colleagues MM McCabe and Raphael Woolf join him for a special 50th episode interview, to discuss Aristotle's reactions to his teacher Plato.



Further Reading

• V. Harte, MM McCabe, R.W. Sharples and A. Sheppard (eds), Aristotle and the Stoics Reading Plato (London: 2010). 

• MM McCabe, "Perceiving that we see and hear: Aristotle on Plato on judgement and reflection," in Perspectives on Perception, ed. MM McCabe and M. Textor (Frankfurt: 2007), 143-77.

• R. Woolf, "A Shaggy Soul Story: How not to Read the Wax Tablet Model in Plato's Theaetetus,'' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69 (2004), 573-604.


Walter Bruning on 16 October 2011

Thank you, Professor

I am thoroughly enjoying the podcasts.  At age 72 I have "suddenly" discovered Philosophy and am quite taken by Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas.  The sessions on Aristotle have been a big assist to my organizing my reading of his works.  Please continue.  From:  Fan in California.

Thorwald C. Franke on 20 November 2013

Plato was no Platonist :-)

Indeed our idea of Plato and his philosophy is biased in many ways, especially when the cliché of the opposition of Aristotle and Plato comes into consideration.

A more recent discussion of this kind is Sir Karl Poppers condemnation of Plato as a friend of tyrants and the forerunner of closed societies, whereas Aristotle (allegedly in strong opposition to Plato) is seen as the only opener of free objective thinking, leading us into our modern western world. But maybe, Plato is not so far from Aristotle (and surely not a friend of tyrants)?

Cf. Ronald B. Levinson: In Defense of Plato, Cambridge 1953, and Hartmut Erbse: Platons Politeia und die modernen Antiplatoniker, in: Gymnasium No. 83 / 1976; pp. 169-191 (German).

Just another topic far from the core topics of philosophy is the question of Plato's Atlantis. In the last 100 years it became common to quote a word from Strabo's Geographica (2.3.6) as an explicit statement of Aristotle against the existence of Plato's Atlantis. But by examining all the backgrounds this common view dissolves into nothing or even the opposite (Cf. Franke: Aristotle and Atlantis, 2012).

The greatest danger seems to be that our Zeitgeist introduces a bias into our view of Plato and Aristotle whatever the Zeitgeist may currently be.

Jorge on 29 November 2020

Plato as "just another pre-Socratic"

Imagine that a student of yours wrote a text where she decided to put forward a dialogue with and perhaps even refute all the great philosophers that came before her. She decided to collect in an extremely ambitious project the main ideas of said thinkers, the most famous and greatest that history had produced since the dawn of history until today. This list would focus on the greatest of the greats, the ones of most renown and importance, starting as this podcast does with Thales, going through Aristotle, Augustin, Aquinas, Descartes, Wittgenstein, to your surprise (or perhaps not) the last name on this list, and the philosopher who she would deem the most important (only after herself of course) happens to be Peter Adamson. Would you take it as an insult or flattery even if she systematically endeavored to refute most of what you had written?

In this episode and others, you mention somewhat as a demeaning statement from Aristotle the grouping of Plato with the rest of pre-Socratic thinkers or viewing him as one in a list of pre-Aristotelian thinkers. Even though you present this as somewhat of a misconception in this episode, I would argue that what Aristotle does for Plato (and ultimately also himself) is the opposite. Judging the grouping of Plato with the rest of pre-Socratics as somehow lowering to his status as a thinker seems more like a consequence of a current bias than how it must have been on its time. This stems from our dividing classic philosophy as before and after these three thinkers. I think it more likely that at this point in history where that division was not set in history's narrative, placing Plato in the same level as the rest of "the great wise men" that preceded him was an elevation rather than a diminishment of his reputation, and Aristotle's by extension as his pupil. It could even be seen as a strategy to aggrandize both his master and himself and even promoting Attic philosophy into the center of culture and philosophy replacing Ionia. By placing Plato with the rest of these thinkers, Aristotle actually set the foundation of the current narrative (followed even by this podcast) of Socrates being a breaking point on antique philosophy. This simultaneous continuation and breaking of philosophical tradition remind me of Serge Guilbaut's book, How New York stole the idea of modern art. Please forgive the comparison with art history and criticism (which is what I am actually most familiar with) but this seems a bit like when Clement Greenberg and other critics with the active and conscious participation of abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock and artist-writers like the later minimalists Frank Stella and Donald Judd took the ideas of European modernism and set the continuation of the avant-gardes in the cultural scene of New York in the post-war period. At the same time, they tried to set American art as something separate, qualitatively different from Europe with concepts like the all-over painting and non-compositional art. This coupled with the influx of much of the material culture of Europe into American museums and the central status of America in the economy and politics that followed WWII worked as an active and conscious shift of the center of culture from Paris to New York. Likewise, imagine yourself naming all the great philosophers of the past and in the same breath placing who used to be your teacher. I see this more as a move where  Aristotle sees himself and his master as contending with the great thinkers of fame that preceded him and placing both on equal footing or perhaps greater. Since clearly, he was using these thinkers as a starting point for a system that would presumably supersede its sources (which again were the greatest of thinkers) and foremost upon them he placed his former master, I see the appointment of Plato with the rest of the pre-Socratics as an elevation of his master rather than the opposite. In essence, Aristotle actively led the way into how Athens stole the idea of antique philosophy. 

By the way, just started the podcast a couple of weeks ago and I am addicted.

In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 29 November 2020

Aristotle on Plato

Firstly, thanks, glad you like the podcast! Secondly, yes, that is a good point. I think what I say in a scripted episode comes closer to my considered view, which is that Aristotle thinks of Plato as the last pre-Aristotelian. This isn't necessarily a slight against Plato as such - in fact I think he considers Plato to be his most significant predecessor, and he is responding to him throughout his treatises, even when this is not obvious. So the point isn't so much about putting Plato in his place, as how Aristotle sees his own place, i.e. not just as the latest philosopher to come along, but as the one who has finally figured out many really crucial things and finally produced a coherent system and method for doing philosophy. Indeed I'd say that his characteristic move "against" Plato is not so much criticizing him as transcending him by introducing new terminology, distinctions and so on, to change the terms of the conversation. If you told him that most philosophy after him for about 2000 years would be broadly Aristotelian, I suspect he'd say, "why only 2000, what went wrong after that?"

But I love your point that by elevating Plato as the crucial predecessor he is claiming some reflected glory for himself, that is surely right also.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jorge on 30 November 2020

Sorry for yet another comparison to modernist painting

Hi Peter, thank you for your answer (I'm having a fanboy moment right now).

Your answer nevertheless, begs for me the question of whether Aristotle viewed his philosophical approach as a continuation of the dialectic that he inherited from Plato's academy or if he saw himself and his philosophy as a final solution or explanation to how to approach the questions raised by his teacher and previous thinkers. In this episode, you guys mention that he is a participant in, meaning that it could also be entered into dialogue with and likewise engaged by a subsequent thinker (perhaps another student) to build upon his arguments even if he also feels the obligation to also regard truth dearer than his friends; or was it rather the case that like Ad Reinhardt or Alexander Rodchenko he felt like he was completing painting (and therefore coming to the end of it) where his system was final. I guess my question arises from the way that you were supposed to engage with Aristotle according to himself (if it is at all possible to know that) as opposed to how people actually engaged with his thinking. Did you have to follow his philosophy to the letter and believe his conclusions to be true, or did you (as he did with his master) have to place him within that list of the wise and common knowledge that are the sources of information that you then have to grapple with? I would expect that Aristotle wouldn't want me to parrot his thought, but rather utilize the tools that he developed (after all he did name them the organon) to use them to think for myself. So even if I were to follow Aristotle's procedures to the letter (at least as described in this podcast) I would have to start by collecting empirical data, including the knowledge of those wise men that lived before me, as a starting point. Performing this step would give Aristotle a place (which he probably would agree he deserves) within these wisest of men. Therefore, any philosopher after Aristotle would class him with the rest of "pre-Aristotelians" as a starting point to their own inquiry to knowledge. Meaning that if the first case is true, that in Aristotle's view the way to do philosophy is for you to follow in Aristotle's footsteps, every philosopher (including Aristotle) would be a pre-yourself philosopher. After all the distinction of philosophy as pre or post whoever is in itself a historical notion that I don't think Aristotle would have held despite the high regard which he seemed to have for himself. Instead, the classing of everyone by Aristotle as a pre-Aristotelian would be not a consequence of hubris or self-importance (even though he did not lack either), but simply the effect created by how Aristotelian philosophy would be practiced by Aristotle.

The problem is that this method, when seen through the lens of the later historic importance that he came to have and the narrative acts in which we divided it, makes it seem like he wants to break the history of philosophy a couple of generations after we do. Could we view Aristotle's writings (or at least this part of them) as a sort of fanfic self-insert of himself inside the dialogues and read them as such? As MM McCabe points out, the readers of Aristotle would have the dialogues "in their blood" and this insertion of Aristotle's arguments into the dialogues would have been automatic, as with your example of the knife in the Republic. And seeing that he himself would act as a character in the dialogues, him thinking himself to be right would not be any different than the conviction with which other characters voice their arguments. It seems to me logical that if you are willing to put forth a philosophical argument you must believe in some way that it is true; unless of course, you are a Sophist which Aristotle purports not to be. Perhaps this would be a solution (reminiscent of Borges's the Garden of forking paths where the only word not mentioned in a novel about time is "time") to why when Aristotle mentions Plato least explicitly he seems to engage with him more. Would Aristotle expect that his philosophical inquiries hold for 2000 years or rather would he expect that philosophy after him (and before him) continue to be one grand extended dialogue between yourself and all those that preceded you? If to philosophize is to think in a dialogue like he and his master before him did with their predecessors, then perhaps he would not be the end of it. 

Would it be wrong to see his method of the collection of previous knowledge and then engaging with it directly quite similar ultimately to what Plato does but doing away with the literary need to having to place the characters in a scene? As you just wrote in your answer to me, if he transcended Plato would he also have expected a student of his to transcend him in turn? Or on an even more humble note would he have also added not the final argument but yet another to those which end in an ultimate state of aporia? Should we read him as we read Plato, Heraclitus, Zeno, etc. where they write as a source of intellectual engagement that creates the discomfort that Socrates talks about in the Mino which engages us to think, or is he just presenting us with the solution of the problems just telling us that the side of the square is that of the diagonal? In this Socratic Extended Universe Aristotle would be then another character just as convinced of their own position as any other, leaving an incomplete work to be added on later. Especially since Aristotle seems (at least to my limited impression of his work) to depend so much on the collection of knowledge from experience to perhaps allow for the possibility of being superseded, but maybe it might be my own bias to the way in which we think of scientific knowledge, now where a theory is true temporarily until a better explanation comes along. Still I would like to know your opinion on weather Aristotle thought of his thought as definitive and would be actually unsurprised with its longevity. Or would he already be aware of different manners in which those in contact with his thought elaborated or interpreted it, like that most famous of his pupils deciding to take find the middle way to a difficult problem by the use of a sword in Gordium.

Relating to that previous episode about eternity with Richard Sorabji, you might raise the argument that if the world is eternal and we managed to understand it clearly through the help of Aristotle's system of thought, like Ad Reinhardt he would have been the one to complete philosophy, as he understood how things were, are and are going to be forever. Nevertheless, one would come to the end of philosophy (that of thinking for one's self) and come to repetition or replication of the same truth that Aristotle discovered just like an epic poem might be learned before the invention of writing, a knowledge to be passed down the generations. Yet is repetition really thought? And if this knowledge was eternal then did it arise into conciousness through Aristotle who finally knew how to extract it from the world? Is this the death of philosophy as declared by the avant-gardes of the XX century (and ever since in a periodic fashion every two or so decades)?

It would seem (at least to me) very unlike Aristotle to actually make a cut with the past instead of talking about a continuation (but again I am no expert on the subject) and this pre-whomever thing seems to me to be more a consequence of the way that the history of philosophy has come to be told to us, with a dividing line at around this point of history. A dividing line either as a start of the practice of philosophy or its ultimate end seems quite incoherent to the idea of eternity in Aristotle. Something more reasonable would be that if Aristotle's thought is one of many arguments in a continuing discussion, every argument though imperfect and limited would add to the immortality of the practice of philosophy, just as how a single animal is finite but the species is eternal.  Aristotle in his writing would be basically doing the same as Plato but in a more ambitious sense, where he would be engaging in a dialogue with all those thinkers that both preceded him and would come to follow. In this sense, Whitehead's quote would prove to be true because it was articulated through Aristotle, taking the episodic dialogue and transforming it into the continued discourse we call philosophy. In this way too, Neo-Platonists would be on to something in believing that in order to engage with Plato you had to first know Aristotle, who true to form takes the discrete and turns it into the general. In this sense Aristotle's treatment of his master as among the rest of "pre-Aristotelians" would be both an elevation of him into the pantheon of the wise and a way to place himself within that pantheon. The only sense in which the stronger claim that Aristotle should be distinguished as that marker of history is if he fundamentally changed philosophy. This means that Aristotle has to view himself above and beyond the thinkers that preceded him (including Plato) in a way that distinguishes him from all of them like these modernist painters that felt like they were coming to the end of painting. I guess my question is Peter, did Aristotle feel like he killed philosophy? It seems to me that what Aristotle does instead is to take the Platonic dialogue, place himself as an interlocutor, and extend it to philosophers past and philosophers future creating in a sense the super immortal dialogue we now call philosophy. He might have perhaps been successful in doing so or he was a finite specimen of what is an eternal species.

Perhaps I should have listened to the next episode regarding his disciples before writing this comment, maybe most of my questions are answered in his relationship with his students but I am lazy that way.

Again, love the podcast!

In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 30 November 2020

Aristotle and post-Aristotle

Wow, that is quite a comment! You anticipate at the end what I was thinking of saying while reading it, namely that we might want to take a cue from the production of his students, for instance Theophrastus. These seem to show that Aristotle conceived something like a "research program" that could be furthered by other people, for instance by dealing with topics in nature that he hadn't dealt with (Theophrastus on plants, and on minerals; others dealt with mechanics, music, etc). I think he believed that successful philosophy would have to be broadly done within his paradigm, so using concepts like potentiality and actuality, hylomorphism, etc. But he surely did not think that there was nothing left to say in terms of applying these concepts to new topics. So I would say that he thought, in a way, that he had not "killed" philosophy but rather set out the framework in which it could be successfully done; the framework, though, he would have expected to prevail (which it did, for a long time, after a hiatus during the Hellenistic period).

And I think by the way that lots of major philosophers had more or less a view like this, e.g. Avicenna, Scotus, Dignaga, Kant, or Hegel would have (rightly) predicted that further philosophy would be done within their systems, but thought too that in some sense they had "cracked" the biggest questions about how philosophy should be done in general and what a system should look like.

Jorge on 30 November 2020

correction and more

I meant the "death of painting" when referring to the avant-gardes of the XX century, not of philosophy.


Also, I heard the episode again and also the one about "the next generation". At the end of the discussion you had with your colleagues, where you come to the conclusion that the dialogues are supposed to be more challenging than they are dogmatic and are supposed to engage the reader in philosophical inquiry. The conclusion is that Aristotle treated Plato as engaging with his thought, it would stand to reason that as you said this is "how we should treat him too" not only now but how he intended his thought to also be treated. So perhaps they would have both been surprised by how doctrinarian the teaching of their thought became later on.

On the following podcast, you mention that Aristotle's disciples not only extended but challenged some of his views which also seems to support this notion of it being up for challenge. It is maybe the case that the centrality that Aristotle has in his own thought is incidental in the same way that we are the protagonist of our own life story especially when we are its narrator too.


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