Brill’s Companion to German Platonism explores how Plato was interpreted and appropriated by some of the leading thinkers of the history of German philosophy, from Nicholas of Cusa to Hans Georg Gadamer. The book includes fifteen chapters, each of them devoted to one author or school, written by outstanding scholars. While most of the contributions deal with the reception of Plato’s epistemology and ontology, some others also—or only—address the long-disputed issue of how to interpret Plato’s philosophy. Since it is not possible to discuss all the topics in this almost four-hundred page volume, the review is limited to discussing how Plato’s most famous and controversial doctrine, the so-called theory of forms, was interpreted by German philosophers. More specifically, I will pay special attention to what we might call—to use the terminology suggested by the editor—the ‘transcendental interpretation’ of Plato’s theory of ideas. In the following lines, I focus on how this reading emerged and was developed by German philosophers in their various ways of endorsing, modifying, or rejecting Plato’s thought.
Alan Kim’s Introduction (chapter 1) provides an overview of the topics discussed by each of the contributors and identifies the two conflicting interpretative models already mentioned: the ‘transcendental’ or ‘functional’ reading of the ideas, on the one hand, and the ‘transcendent’ or ‘substantial’, on the other (2). According to the latter, which is the most common interpretation of Plato, ideas are separated substances that exist in a transcendent sphere of reality. Under this view, the forms are conceived as the true objects of knowledge and the soul is said to gain access to them through intellectual intuition. On the other hand, the former reading does not understand the forms as objects, but rather as ‘transcendental conditions of possible experience’ (3). The transcendental reading thus rejects the realism and dualism associated with the transcendent one and does not consider ideas as objects of intuition, but rather as functions of understanding. Among the figures examined in this volume that ascribe to Plato the substantialist view are Kant, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the other side, the functional interpretation was anticipated to some degree by Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Mendelssohn and Hegel, and explicitly supported and developed by Cohen, Natorp and Husserl.
In the first chapter after the introduction (2), Claudia D’Amico presents a detailed study of the manifold connections between Nicholas of Cusa and Platonism. She also provides a valuable survey of German authors that in one way or another were influenced by Cusanus’ thought. As for the understanding of Platonic forms, Nicholas of Cusa criticizes Plato for conceiving ideas as separated forms, suggesting instead that while forms are real, they do not exist separated from things. Cusanus thinks that real forms are inaccessible to human reason, only capable of forming conjectures.
In chapter 3, Jack Davidson examines how Leibniz incorporates Plato and Platonism into his own philosophical system. Among the most remarkable points of agreement between both philosophers, Davidson points out Leibniz’s rejection of materialism and his conviction that reality ultimately consists of immaterial, intelligible substances, of which sensible things are appearances (53). After indicating other points in which both philosophers converge, the author devotes epigraph 5 to show how Leibniz’s epistemology reshapes some Platonic themes. More precisely, this section focuses on the agreements and disagreements regarding the role and nature of innate ideas. As it is well-known, Leibniz holds that some of the most fundamental concepts are known innately. At the same time, however, he rejects two positions he ascribes to Plato: the pre-existence of the soul and the presupposition that every truth one knows has been explicitly known by the soul before (63). Despite the emphasis that Leibniz puts on his differences with Plato at this point, both philosophers agree on a fundamental level, as Davidson suggests, that sensible experience does not suffice to account for our knowledge of necessary truths. Thus, the human soul must be equipped with a special potential to know them (ibidem).
The next chapter, written by Bruce Rosenstock, studies Moses Mendelssohn’s appropriation and reworking of Plato’s Phaedo within the framework of his ‘Leibnizian Platonism’ (79) in his own Phädon. Rosenstock focuses on the ‘infinitesimal calculus of the soul’ as Mendelssohn applies it in his own version of the dialogue. The application of Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus leads Mendelssohn to endorse a functionalist view, since he believes that the soul’s process of knowledge works—like that type of calculus—by progressively ‘integrating’ the initially indistinct mass of representations’ (83). Thus, following Leibniz, Mendelssohn understands the soul as an active Platonic idea that brings unity into multiplicity (84). However, as Rosenstock indicates, this is only one side of the story. Under Mendelssohn’s view, the Platonic ideas do not only account for the integrative nature of human knowledge; they are not merely abstract objects of understanding, but also and at the same time ‘the object[s] of the soul’s authentic (philosophic) desire for happiness’ (92). In this sense, the soul’s capacity to unify the multiplicity of appearances through conceptual unities is the ‘expression’ of the soul’s desire for happiness (93). Hence, according to Mendelssohn, the search for knowledge is necessarily entangled with the quest for the good (92).
In chapter 5, Manfred Baum examines Kant’s appropriation of the theory of ideas in both the pre-Critical and the Critical period. It is worth noting, first, that Kant never attributes the two-world doctrine to Plato, even though his primary source, Brucker, does it. The Kantian pre-critical reading of the Platonic idea assimilates it with a ‘common standard of perfection’ for measuring all other less perfect realities (115). In the critical period, Kant’s well-known differentiation between understanding and reason leads him to reshape his reading. Under this new light, Plato’s ideas are interpreted as anticipating to some extent Kant’s concepts of reason, the regulative ideas, in contrast with the concepts of understanding, the categories (123-124). According to Baum, both Kant and Plato agree that ideas do not originate in the senses and that their object is not found in the empirical world (ibidem). However, Kant rejects the alleged hypostatized nature of Platonic forms, that he presumably takes from Bruker’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato (126-127). The result of Kant’s appropriation of Plato’s theory of ideas, then, is twofold (as Kim also puts it in the introduction ): Kant attributes to Plato a substantial or transcendent view of ideas, while at the same time he sees Platonic ideas as the first attempt towards a transcendental consideration of human knowledge.
Hegel’s reading of Plato can be seen, as Jere Surber persuasively presents it in chapter 6, as the first modern philosophical interpretation of the Platonic corpus (133). The most distinctive features of the Hegelian approach to Plato are, first, Hegel’s direct and detailed engagement with the dialogues and, second, his distinctive appropriation of the Platonic ideas. According to Hegel, Plato’s ideas anticipate in a still unsystematic way his own systematic account of genuine Begriffe (concepts) as “concrete universals” (141). Relying on his interpretation of Parmenides, Timaeus, and Republic, Hegel rejects the dualistic, transcendent interpretations of the forms. He suggests instead that the Platonic idea should be understood as an ‘identity-in-difference’, and therefore as a genuine concept in Hegelian terms, that is, one that unifies in itself the formal and material aspect of reality (136). On the other hand, Hegel also dismisses the psychological transcendentalism according to which the ideas are mere constructs (or mere concepts, as opposed to genuine concepts) of the human mind since this view fails to account for the essential connection between the ideas and the sensible things (p.136). Therefore, as Surber points out, Hegel thought of his own philosophy as the articulation of Plato’s ‘in a modern systematic form’ (142).
The following two chapters (7 and 8) are devoted to Schleiermacher’s influential approach both to Plato’s philosophy and its interpretation. In chapter 7, André Laks provides an insightful discussion of Schleiermacher’s both philological and philosophical reading of the Platonic dialogues. Regarding the interpretation of Plato’s ideas, Schleiermacher rejects Aristotle’s criticisms and defends that the forms are real concepts that actually possess causal force and can directly affect both the physical and the moral world, given that they derive from God’s power (155). Chapter 8 is at odds with the rest of the contributions since it does not offer a reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato, but rather presents the author’s (Thomas Szlezák) main reasons for disagreeing with it. While the philological arguments provided by Szlezák are highly illuminating, and many of his objections to Schleiermacher are indeed very persuasive—see, for instance, his detailed analysis of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus (172-179)—, one cannot but wonder why Schleiermacher’s interpretation is the only one subject to such critical scrutiny. Besides, the main objections of the Tübingen School–to which Szlezák belongs– to Schleiermacher are again developed and argued for in chapter 14 by Vittorio Hösle. In his contribution, Hösle also provides a valuable survey of some of the most representative advocates of the abovementioned school and provides a summary of the main points of Krämer’s pioneering dissertation Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, still only available in German (337-339).
Robert Wicks’ chapter on Schopenhauer (9) stresses the role of Plato’s account of time in the former’s metaphysical account of human consciousness and reality. More specifically, according to Wick, the Platonic conception of time as ‘the moving image of eternity’ in the Timaeus inspired Schopenhauer’s consideration of the spatio-temporal world as a prison of human consciousness (192 and 215). In his mature philosophy, Schopenhauer regards Plato’s ideas as essentially dependent on the Will, which constitutes the core of reality, the thing-in-itself, which lays beyond any form of representation and time (209). Under this view, ideas are said to play an intermediary role between the thing-in-itself as Will, on the one hand, and the objects of the spatio-temporal world, on the other (210). Therefore, as Wick suggests, Schopenhauer’s reading of ideas within this framework attributes them a twofold nature: as long as they are objects, they ultimately belong to the world of representation and, to this extent, they are high-ranking illusions; however, considered in their relationship to the thing-in-itself, ideas are ‘timeless acts of Will’ (213-214). In this last sense, Plato’s forms are placed behind the veil of the ordinary experience of the world, and thus they are only apprehended by a certain timeless intuition that Schopenhauer identifies with an intense awareness of the present moment (200-201). Philosophy is thus conceived as a form of asceticism whose aim is to reach such timeless, transcendent, and even mystical awareness (215). As Richard Bennett stresses at the beginning of chapter 11, Nietzsche regards this ascetic approach to reality—that he attributes to Plato—as anti-natural, coward, and decadent (249-252). In the second section of his contribution, Bennet proves that Nietzsche’s consideration of Plato goes far beyond this one-sided evaluation and is more multi-faceted and less consistent than usually acknowledged.
The transcendental reading of Plato’s ideas was explicitly defended for the first time by the two leading figures of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism: Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp. In chapter 10, Karl-Heinz Lembeck examines both authors’ attempts to mediate between Kant and Plato in their ambitious philosophical-historical interpretations (217). Cohen’s early reading of the forms as psychological categories radically evolved in the mid-1870s into a purely logical-transcendental interpretation of them. Under this new approach, and drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, ideas are now viewed as ‘regulative concepts’ guiding knowledge. Within this picture, the form of the Good is not seen as a real entity, but rather as ‘the function of a unifying synthesis of appearances’ (223-224). Cohen extracts this interpretation from Plato’s alleged identification of ideas as hypothesis, that is, as ‘pre-sub-positions’ which thinking anticipates in order to be able to apprehend reality (228). In other words, ideas are said to be a priori conditions of knowledge.
Unlike Cohen’s, Natorp’s appropriation of Plato is grounded on a deep engagement with the texts. In Platons Ideenlehre (Plato’s Theory of Ideas), Natorp develops his reading of Plato’s theory of ideas as a theory of the constitution of experience (231-232). From this standpoint, Natorp downplays the ontological significance of the ideas, stressing their epistemological relevance as ‘laws’ that govern the dynamisms of knowledge (233). In his late systematic philosophy, Natorp modifies his reading of Plato’s ideas, as he seems to come under the influence of Neo-Platonism. Now, forms are understood as categories and, as such, as secondary functions unable to grasp the ultimate level of reality. Such level corresponds to Plato’s form of Good, which is radically transcendent and, therefore, inaccessible by means of articulated knowledge (237).
In the next chapter (12), Alan Kim explores Husserl’s ‘productive appropriation of Plato into phenomenology’ (273), relying on the fact that Husserl considered himself a phenomenological Platonist. By doing this, Kim provides an original, perceptive reading of the theory of ideas from a phenomenological perspective and, at the same time, a compelling presentation of the Husserlian account of eidetic intuition. In a way akin to Cohen and Natorp, Husserl endorses a transcendental interpretation of Platonic ideas, rejecting the ‘static’ Platonism of separated substantial forms along with its subsequent metaphysical dualism and mystical intuitionism (274). According to Kim, Husserl’s ideas or eidê refer to the object of the apprehension of the what-ness of a given thing. Such eidê, however, differ from the empirical universal concepts derived by abstraction from contingent facts. Eidê also relates to facts, but not because they derive from them, but rather because they constitute the rule of any possible apprehension of them. In order to illustrate the process by means of which consciousness moves from facts to eidê, Kim draws on Plato’s Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. The first is meant to represent the different psychic states, while the second focuses on the soul’s progression from one to another. Here, eidê are presented as logical structures or essential meanings ‘that had always been co-intended in my aesthetic grasp of the phenomenon as actual thing, but which had been, as it were, eclipsed by the glare of ‘reality’’ (278). The ascension of the soul towards the realm of ideas is thus understood as a progressive detachment and liberation from the blinding glare of sensible appearances of things, so as to be able to perceive the essential features of them. This interpretation explains both the fact that the highest form of knowledge according to Plato, namely, dialectics, is said to deal only with ideas, and also that the knowledge of ideas allows the ex-prisoner in his return to the cave to recognize images as what they really are (280). In the following pages, Kim equates both Husserl’s and Plato’s account of the vision of eidê with the ‘understanding of the F-ness of many f’s’ (281). As the author points out in a footnote, the state of consciousness in which we grasp an eidê is not adequately described as a learning process, that is, as certain acquisition of knowledge, but instead as some sort of perceiving or, even more accurately, re-cognizing (erkennen) (281, n. 70). In this sense, the phenomenological method of purifying the mind from its factual intentions and redirecting it towards the essential turns out to be very similar to Plato’s account of dialectic as a process of remembering (anamnesis) what one already knows in his or her soul (281). Within this framework, Kim forcefully argues that Husserl’s basic idea of a ‘noematic form implicitly governing the coherence of sense experience’ can be paralleled with Plato’s account of the relationship between noêsis and aisthêsis in the passage on the summoners in Republic VII, as well as with the role attributed to sensibility in the recollection argument offered in the Phaedo. Finally, the author points out that the Husserlian reading was deeply influenced by Lotze’s thesis that ideas do not possess existence (Sein), but rather validity (Geltung) (294).
The two remaining chapters are devoted to Heidegger’s confrontation with Plato (chapter 13) and Gadamer’s productive reshaping of the Heideggerian reading (chapter 15). Francisco J. Gonalez begins his chapter on Heidegger’ reading of Plato by focusing on the 1924/25 course on Plato’s Sophist. In these lectures, it becomes apparent a tension that characterizes how Heidegger will read Plato the rest of his life. On the one hand, the Heideggerian approach reveals several points where Plato’s understanding of being comes very close to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. On the other, the German philosopher insists that Plato interpreted being as presence, that is, as the object of logos, and therefore that Plato’s philosophy is to be seen as the first of a long series of reductions of truth to correspondence (306). As Gonzalez clearly shows in his contribution, this tension will persist until the late Heidegger, although the latter approach will become the ‘official’ reading. The author suggests that one of the most remarkable exceptions to the official reading can be found in the Parmenides seminar of 1930/31. Drawing on both Heidegger’s class notes and Herbert Marcuse’s transcript of this seminar, Gonzalez clearly shows that Heidegger saw Plato’s discussion of exaiphnês (instant) in the Parmenides as a genuinely ontological comprehension of the problem of ‘being and time’ (314-315). We find a similar exception in Heidegger’s interpretation of erôs in the Phaedrus seminar of 1932 (319 ff.). Gadamer’s appropriation of Platonic philosophy, discussed by François Renaud in the final chapter (15), reacts against Heidegger’s official reading. Gadamer claims that ‘Plato is not a Platonist’ and argues that the theory of forms and the method of dialectic are meant to make explicit the conditions of Socrates’ practice of dialogue in the early dialogues (356). According to Renaud, Gadamer seems to think that the forms are objects independent from representation, though he also speaks of them as if they only were transcendental principles (374).
This volume is worth reading for both historical and philosophical reasons. Each of the fifteen chapters provides the reader with valuable insights into the history of German philosophy in line with the most updated research and effectively supports the general thesis of the book that Plato exerted a decisive influence over the most relevant German philosophers (1). On the other hand, anyone interested in the interpretation of Plato’s works will surely find this book an exciting source of inspiration. In particular, as I hope to have shown, it will prove especially helpful for those intrigued by the possibilities of a transcendental reading of Plato’s theory of ideas. Last but not least, this collective work reminds us of both the risks and benefits of a philosophical reading of Plato, that is, one that attempts to identify and rethink the core issues of Platonic philosophy anew.