Footnotes to Plato?

Louise asked:

Alfred Whitehead famously wrote: ‘the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’. Do you agree and if not why? How could this be argued/ refuted?

Answer By Peter Jones

I would strongly agree with Whitehead. His view is easily justifed by a review of the literature. The entire profession is busy these days trying to prove his view wrong in order to justify departmental funding but with no success. Thus we see the rise of scientism and the ludicrous idea that a good university does not need a philosophy department. I do not believe his view can or should be refuted but that we should concede his point and do something about it.

Doing something about it would mean abandoning the narrow approach to philosophy adopted by stereotypical Western thinkers. Unfortunately, at this time most professional philosophers seem unable to think outside the box or even see they’re in one.

Note that Whitehead is careful to condemn Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophy, not philosophy as a whole. It is very easy to escape from studying dull and endless footnotes if we open the window and let the rest of philosophy in.

The explanation for this problem, I will venture to suggest, is, as Heidegger notes, that Plato’s school abandoned the idea of ‘Unity’, cutting itself off from the perennial philosophy and painting itself into a corner from which it cannot escape. It will be writing footnotes forever unless it studies the whole of philosophy but it cannot do this while it continues to suffer from Russell’s allergy to the nondual philosophy of mysticism and the incomprehension of metaphysics that naturally accompanies it.

The state of professional European philosophy is an academic scandal and Whitehead’s low view of it will be inarguable as long as it continues in the same way.  There are some signs of change but most professionals today still think philosophical problems are intractable and are probably more convinced than Plato. The views of Russell and Carnap as to the pointlessness of metaphysics are still current today and the amateur philosopher can expect no help from the professionals.

As you may have guessed this is a hobby-horse for me. The situation is ridiculous. The trick of being able to do more than writing footnotes to Plato would be to study those areas of philosophy that are not studied in our European universities. The internet allows us all to do this quite easily, for the first time in history, with no tuition fees required.

if you wish to begin an exploration of the rest of philosophy I’d recommend a study of Nagarjuna and a book by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. If nothing else it may reveal what philosophy looks like when it is not footnotes to Plato.

2 thoughts on “Footnotes to Plato?

  1. Whitehead didn’t mean to use the term ‘footnote’ in a disparaging sense. He considered that his own ‘process’ philosophy in ‘Process and Reality’ (1929) was merely a clarification and development of Plato’s ‘two-world’ theory of the world of Becoming and the world of Forms. In other words, he was saying that Plato was basically right all along, and he, Whitehead, was modestly filling in the gaps in Plato’s metaphysical description of reality.

    1. Disparaging or not, modest or not, Whitehead makes it clear he is talking about the whole of the European tradition.

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