Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Plato on the Capacity for Beliefs

with 2 comments

There has been, in recent years, a surge of interest in the development of Platonic moral psychology between Plato’s middle and late periods. Much has been written – especially since Bobonich’s influential Plato’s Utopia Recast (2002) – on whether, and in what ways, Plato’s thoughts on moral psychology evolved after he wrote the Republic. A prominent aspect of this subject is the development of Plato’s views on the cognitive and conceptual capacities of the non-rational parts of the tripartite soul. A key question in this context is whether the non-rational parts of the soul are capable of holding beliefs (doxai) in the proper sense, and whether Plato changed his mind on this matter. An emerging view, with noteworthy proponents (such as Lorenz 2006 and Stalley 2007), is that in the Republic, Plato took the non-rational parts of the soul to have such limited cognitive and conceptual capacities that they cannot, strictly speaking, hold beliefs, even though Plato seems to suggest otherwise in various passages. This reading constitutes a rejection of the traditional interpretation of the tripartite soul in the Republic as consisting of agent-like parts. Concerning Plato’s later works, however, there seems to be a general agreement, by scholars on both sides of the debate about the Republic. On this widely held view, in later works such as the Phaedrus, Timaeus and Theaetetus, it is unambiguous that only the rational part of the soul is capable of holding beliefs. Accordingly, the non-rational parts of the soul are, at this point, devoid of any cognitive and conceptual resources, so much so that they are incapable of forming not only beliefs but desires as well. The non-rational parts are thus emptied of content, and the story is of how Plato comes to see them as useless entities, as a result of which he eventually abandons the tripartite theory of soul.

In a recent paper* I argue against not only the emerging view about the Republic, but also the consensus about the later works: (i) Plato does not, in the Republic, deny or cast doubt on the capacity of the non-rational parts of the soul to hold beliefs. The attempts to explain away the evidence for the non-rational parts’ capacity for holding beliefs are unconvincing, and yield uncharitable readings of Plato’s text; and more controversially, (ii) Plato does not, in the later works mentioned, deny the capacity of the non-rational parts to hold beliefs. Due to limited space, I focus in that paper on the Phaedrus, leaving aside the Timaeus and the Theaetetus. I argue that the passages in the Phaedrus cited as evidence for this denial do not, in fact, provide the purported support. It therefore appears that Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul did not, at least in the Phaedrus, deny the capacity of the non-rational parts for holding beliefs. I continue to work on this topic – which I find fascinating – and expect to reach similar results in the Timaeus and the Theaetetus. It seems to me that in those dialogues as well, the textual evidence fails to support the dumbed-down conception of the non-rational parts of the soul. If this is right, that the tripartite theory did not undergo a gradual demotion of the non-rational parts should also shed light on the important question whether Plato came to abandon the tripartite theory in his late works.

Comments are welcome.

*  “Plato on the Capacity for Beliefs”, presented at the 35th Annual Workshop in Ancient Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin, March 2012.

Written by Mehmet M. Erginel

May 22, 2012 at 6:06 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Dear Mehmet – thank you for this interesting post. I am inclined to agree with your assertions though I would have to see your paper one way or the other to be more certain.
    My sense of contemporary English writers on Plato is to see clarity where there is none and so they miss Plato’s point entirely. Clearly Plato wants his cake and eat it too in the Republic: the faculties to have their own unique character, yet operate within a substantial unity. He wants both. The dissolution of the state is precisely the rending apart of the classes, just as the dissolution of the soul is due to radical separation of each part. But to have the unity, he needs the parts and all the parts have to be known and unified in the Good. He knows there has to be both.
    But I think I have to be wary of reading the lower non-rational faculties’ unity in a rational, modern, cartesian way. Plato remains structurally invested in hierarchy and so the division between the Good and what is other than it. In this, perhaps, Proclus in his essays on the Republic remains loyal to Plato. (Google: Greg MacIsaac Proclus to get some interesting stuff on this.) The explicit development of the One and Dyad in the later works – pleasure in the Philebus would be an important starting point (see G. Van Riel’s book on this) – would only intensify this hierarchy and thus this uneasy reconciliation-ish of the lower faculties with reason or the unity of the soul generally.
    Perhaps we should see Plato problematising the elements first and foremost and then only check for ‘doctrinal’ changes. Because Plato, not-having graduated from Ox-bridge, did not write clearly in the correct (sic) way.
    But we should talk about this in person – or perhaps you can send me a version of your paper. best, David Butorac

    Davd Butorac

    May 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    • Dear David,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree that hierarchy is important for Plato and that he sees a hierarchy within the soul. But I disagree with the scholars who take the hierarchy between the soul-parts to entail spirited and appetitive parts of the soul that are altogether devoid of reasoning. I think the dumbed-down reading of the lower soul-parts are inconsistent with the text, and moreover unnecessary for avoiding problems with the tripartite soul such as infinite regress.

      As you suggest, one needs to get into the details of an interpretation to be able to assess them, so I will email you my paper. There is a chance that I will be in Istanbul this summer, in which case I would very much like to meet and talk about all this in person.


      Mehmet M. Erginel

      Mehmet M. Erginel

      June 12, 2012 at 9:13 pm

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