Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Philosophy is a Series of Footnotes to Plato

In her 1961 essay, "For The New Intellectual," Ayn Rand writes, "Plato’s system was a monument to the Witch Doctor’s metaphysics." What an outlandish assertion! If she had read a single Platonic dialogue, she would not have attacked Plato without any rhyme or reason. She does not provide a reference to any quote or work of Plato—so it is impossible to understand what she is talking about, but I suspect that she herself didn’t know what she was talking about and neither do her followers.

Along with his master Socrates, and his pupil Aristotle, Plato has defined the nature and scope of the entire modern system of philosophy. It’s difficult to imagine modern philosophy without taking into consideration the work that Plato has done along with his master and his pupil. I am a believer in Alfred North Whitehead’s statement, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology; Part II; Chapter 1; Section 1)

In his next lines, Whitehead puts his statement on Plato in its proper context: “I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars 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 writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.”

Whitehead is not saying that Plato has singlehandedly given birth to every idea or methodology that we have in modern philosophy—rather, he is pointing out that Plato is the towering figure who has identified almost all the major issues of philosophy, and that he has presented an outline of the philosophical method. Modern philosophers continue to grapple with the questions that Plato has raised; they continue to use his methodologies.

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