When Alfred Whitehead famously writes: “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 Craig Skinner
Footnotes are comments clarifying or commenting on a literary work. So, if we took Whitehead literally, his statement would be nonsense. Aristotle’s work, for instance, doesnt just clarify/ comment on Plato. He is original, going beyond and disagreeing with Plato on key points, and is at least the equal of Plato as a philosopher. And I doubt if Whitehead thought his own magnum opus, Process and Reality, was a footnote to anybody. So I wouldnt agree with Whitehead if his comment were meant literally.
But he doesnt mean it this way. As he says:
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. 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” (Process and Reality: Corrected Edition , ed. Griffin DR & Sherburne DW, p39. Free Press).
So he just means that Plato’s work is so wide-ranging that it deals with practically every topic that philosophers have since written about. Fair enough, who could disagree, but not very profound.