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Plato on the Capacity for Beliefs

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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