Aristotles Platonism

In surely one of the seminal essays in Greek philosophy of the last fifty years, "The Platonism of Aristotle" (1966), G.E.L.Owen set out to counter Werner Jaeger's influential story of Aristotle's philosophical development.5 For Jaeger, Aristotle began his philosophical career as a Platonist, and by this he meant a Platonist wedded to the canonical theory of Forms and deeply anti-empiricist epistemology familiar to us from the Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic. Over time, again according to Jaeger, Aristotle moved away from Plato, and from the latter's anti-empiricism, to what we today think of as canonical Aristotelianism, a strong commitment to the reality and knowability of the empirical realm. Aristotle's philosophical development, thus, was understood by Jaeger as a gradual weaning from canonical Platonism.

Owen would have none of this, especially Jaeger's understanding of the earliest portion of Aristotle's career, his purported Platonism. In his less kind moments Owen was dismissive of Jaeger's story, for he thought it redolent of the Prussian educational system in which students were expected to accept without demur the views of their teachers. From this angle, Aristotle was a Platonist (and had to be) from the time of his entrance into the Academy until Plato's death some twenty years later. But when he got more serious Owen pointed to two important, indeed he took them to be fatal, shortcomings in Jaeger's story, one an unwarranted assumption, the other an unwarranted omission. Jaeger assumed that Platonism was monolithic, that Plato's metaphysical views in particular were unchanging. More specifically, Jaeger presumed that the canonical theory of Forms, familiar to us from the Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic, was never forsaken. For Jaeger, the commitment to this theory by the young Aristotle was proven by finding the very theory at least hinted at in the Protrepticus. Never mind for present purposes that Owen proved, at least to his own satisfaction, that the theory of Forms is not so hinted at in the Protrepticus. Rather more to the point is Owen's strong argument that "Platonism" is a slippery term. By this formulation Owen invoked recent work, his own as well as Vlastos's inter alios (Owen 1953, 79-95; Vlastos 1954, 319-49), on the development of Plato's thought, which called into question the unitarian hypothesis, the hypothesis that denied any substantive development in Plato's metaphysics—the very view to which Jaeger himself cleaved.

The developmental story that Owen told is that Plato came to have second thoughts about his own earlier metaphysical views. The Parmenides played a major role in the revision, and whatever the precise outcome of its reflections, the important point is that it ushered in a critical attitude that showed Plato willing to question his earlier metaphysical commitments.

As Owen noted, it was just at this time of critical reflection that Aristotle entered Plato's Academy. He thus enters an Academy in which in a very real sense Plato himself is no longer a Platonist, committed to the canonical theory of Forms without hesitation. A critical spirit pervades the philosophical seminar, and it just this same spirit that shines forth in such early Aristotelian works as the Peri Ideon and the Categories, both works omitted from any serious consideration by Jaeger in the developmental story he presented. It is not difficult to see why Jaeger would not focus upon these, unarguably, early works, for they are manifestly anti-Platonic—and by this I mean that they are diametrically opposed to the ontology and metaphysics of the "middle-period" in Plato's career. The Peri Ideon presents for refutation a whole battery of Platonic arguments for the existence of Forms, some of which are precisely those that Plato himself uses in the Parmenides. And the Categories is as strong a statement as one would hope to find for the foundational nature of spatio-temporal particulars in the inventory of reality. Particulars, not universals (Forms or otherwise), ground reality, a stark reversal of the Platonic ontology of the middle-period.

In sum, Owen proved that Aristotle did not begin his philosophical life as a Platonist. For that matter, we can even see that there is a non-contradictory sense in which Plato himself was after a time no longer a Platonist. "Platonism" is indeed a slippery term, and can isolate a host of metaphysical positions, some even at odds with one another.

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