Footnotes to Plato: in a manner of speaking

Louise asks:

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 [1985], 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.

2 thoughts on “Footnotes to Plato: in a manner of speaking

  1. Although the cogito idea is often attributed to Descartes, it was known to ancient Greece. Plato alludes to it, and Aristotle gives a detailed account (Nichomachian Ethics, 1170a25ff ).
    Plato of course says a lot about the soul. Rather à la Descartes – soul can exist without the body. Certainly Plato doesnt deal with how an immaterial soul could interact with a physical body, something Descartes wrestled with. Unsuccessfully of course, since it is an insoluble problem. The front runner to explain the “hard problem” these days is physicalism, but it can only suggest that, not explain how, consciousness “emerges” from dumb matter suitably arranged. I favour panpsychism and predict it will become the mainstream view in due course. It’s another ancient idea, standard among the presocratics, notably Empedocles, and Plato is sympathetic to it in his later dialogues (Sophist, Philebus, Timaeus, Laws). So Whitehead’s panpsychism is another “footnote” in the sense he intended and I explained.

  2. I think it is possible to disagree here. Those who view Descartes as the ‘father of modern philosophy’ would say that the problem of consciousness/ self-consciousness and the first person as Descartes posed it was completely unknown to the Greeks. Whitehead cleverly assimilates Descartes by giving his ‘actual occasions’ — the micro-events that constitute physical reality at its most fundamental level — a degree of subjectivity. Consciousness is everywhere, not just in you and me. The theory is known as ‘panpsychism’. So Whitehead can say that he is ‘adding to Plato’. But this is stretching the truth more than a little!

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