Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 27.
Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, Words and Ideas. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2007. Pp. xv + 368. ISBN 978-1-905125- 20-3. UK£50.00.
Homerton College, Cambridge, England, U.K.
Fritz-Gregor Herrmann offers a stimulating and detailed study of those terms which seem key to the ‘Theory of Forms’ presented in Plato’s Phaedo. The book is divided into three parts. In the first two, Herrmann traces the development of each of his chosen terms in (philosophical and non-philosophical) literature both predating and contemporaneous with Plato as well as in Plato’s own early dialogues. Part 1 deals with the verbs METE/XEIN, PAREI=NAI (along with PAROUSI/A and PARAG/IGNESQAI) and E)NEI=NAI (along with E)GGI/GNESQAI). Part 2 treats the nouns EI)=DOJ, I)DE/A and MORFH/. In the third and final part, drawing on the conclusions of this history, Herrmann attempts a reconsideration of the meaning and use of each word as it occurs in Phaedo 95e-107b. This third part also includes a discussion of OU)SI/A as meaning ‘the being of something’, a sense which Herrmann argues is not found prior to Plato, but which may be informed by Philolaus’ use of E)STW/. Herrmann’s endeavour is to trace the philosophical and literary background of his key terms and then to offer a reading of their occurrence in the Phaedo which is sympathetic both to Plato’s awareness of this background and to his status as philosophical innovator. Towards the end of his discussion, Herrmann asserts that the ‘Phaedo is [. . .] from the start a dialogue in which Socrates does unusual things’ (p. 247). Herrmann’s argument is that Plato’s Socrates is using his terminology in a way that is at once unusual, in trying to describe a ‘radically different view of 'what is' (p. 278), and familiar, in building on the philosophy and vocabulary of his predecessors. This is a thorough and thought- provoking monograph of interest to anyone curious about the possible origins of Plato’s metaphysical thought, particularly within the Phaedo.
Philological spadework is not particularly glamorous, but, as here, it can serve to unearth a more nuanced understanding of Greek philosophical terminology. Thus Herrmann, in his introduction to his discussion of EI)=DOJ and I)DE/A, proclaims that its ‘aim is both to establish what EI)=DOJ and I)DE/A could mean and also what EI)=DOJ and I)DE/A did not mean and, to the best of our knowledge, could not have meant’ (p. 93). The breadth and variety of sources discussed by Herrmann is prodigious and his readings of the salient passages often quite intricate. Nevertheless, Herrmann’s exposition is, in general, remarkably clear. The structure of the book, discussing the history of a term in the first two parts and then the possible influence of this background in the last part, necessitates some repetition of arguments and translations. Even with this aid, however, when faced, for example, with Herrmann’s argument for Plato’s engagement with the possible Democritean usage of I)DE/A in Part 3, I found myself having to flick back to his discussion of Democritus in Part 2 in order to ensure that he and I ended up, as it were, on the same page. Although the philology might be off-putting to those without Greek, all passages are translated so that the dedicated Greekless reader should be able to follow Herrmann’s argument without too much trouble.
Chapter 1 agitates against the translation ‘participate’ for METE/XEIN on the grounds that ‘unlike the Latin parti-cipio, derived from pars, "part", and capio, "take", neither METALAMBA/NEIN nor METE/XEIN is inherently or necessarily connected with ME/ROJ or any other Greek word for "part"’ (23). Herrmann presents the evidence for understanding METE/XEIN as meaning, in both pre-Platonic and early Platonic literature, '"having of" something together with somebody else’ (p. 43) with any notion of parts being supplied purely by the context. Chapter 2’s summary of the usage of PAROUSI/A etc. concludes that it carries the pretty uniform sense of various things ‘being present’ in various ways but that, with the rise of the sophists, ‘the application of the verb was extended [. . .] so as to cover all those qualities which were said to be present in someone’ (75). Chapter 3 argues that E)NEI=NAI and E)GGI/GNESQAI are relatively vague verbs for connecting things which, due to this lack of specificity ‘were found suitable in particular in physical theory and speculation such as that of Anaxagoras, as well as in medicine’ (p. 91). In Chapters 10 and 11 Herrmann presents his reconsideration of these terms (along with KOINWNI/A) as they occur in the Phaedo and suggests that their meaning at Phaedo 100c-d is intended to be read against their use in the Socratic dialogues, Anaxagorean physical theory, and Pythagorean doctrine. By adopting their terminology, Plato seeks to integrate aspects of Socratic and Presocratic philosophy into the Platonic view, whilst at the same time indicating his own innovations.
In Chapter 4, Herrmann surveys the evidence and concludes that ‘EI)=DOJ can denote "appearance; guise; type; way(s); scheme"' (p. 147). He argues against the translation ‘form’ because the latter’s connotations of ‘shape’ are not found in the meaning of EI)=DOJ (Chapter 6 argues that ‘form’ is a better translation of MORFH/ since this does carry the sense of ‘physical shape’) and because, although some senses of ‘form’ may correspond with some senses of EI)=DOJ, such a translation will always require qualification. In Chapter 8, Herrmann notes that EI)=DOJ appears in the Phaedo with a variety of non-technical senses up until 102a-b. At this point, however, Phaedo gives a summary of the discussion in which, speaking with his own voice, he uses EI)/DH as a piece of philosophical jargon to refer to ‘the just itself’, ‘the beautiful itself’ etc. Herrmann’s stimulating suggestion is that this switch in register is explained by the fact that Phaedo is addressing an audience of Pythagoreans. Herrmann points to the use of EI)=DOJ to refer to opposites in Philolaus and proposes that Plato may, with his own use of the term, be addressing and correcting Pythagorean attitudes towards the most fundamental elements of the world, which are not, for Plato, pairs of opposites, but things like ‘the just itself’.
Chapter 5’s survey of the background for the Platonic usage of I)DE/A indicates that this term shares many of the semantic extensions of EI)=DOJ. In Chapter 9, Herrmann emphasises the possibility that Democritus used I)DE/AI as a technical term for his atoms. He argues that Plato’s own use of the term was motivated by the fact that his ultimate constituents share many of the qualities of Democritean atoms: immutability, indivisibility, invisibility etc. Although there are obvious differences between atoms and Platonic I)DE/AI, most notably in their corporeality (or lack of it), ‘each Platonic 'figure' is, like each of Democritus’ figures, 'that which is', 'what is', TO\ O)/N.’ (240). Herrmann offers a further suggestion that Socrates’ interest in AI)TI/A at Phaedo 95d- 99d should be understood as an implicit reference to Democritus, the explicit criticism of Anaxagoras notwithstanding.
Herrmann concludes by recapitulating the extent of the terminological debt Plato owes to Philolaus, Anaxagoras and Democritus. He ends with the suggestion that the Phaedo uses this background as a series of ‘stepping stones’ to establish, for the first time, ‘the contrast between the world of stuff, the 'bodily', [. . . . ] and the world of thought’ (p. 278).
At several points within his treatment, Herrmann seems to present himself as working against the flow of a scholarly community who might be thought less scrupulous than he in worrying about the translation of key Platonic terms. I confess to feeling slightly uneasy about both this characterisation of Platonic scholarship and some of Herrmann’s methodological assumptions. He concludes his study of EI)=DOJ in Part 2 with the following: 'Form' has been used as a translation of the word EI)=DOJ in Plato so universally that -– for the Ancient Philosopher –- it has become wholly devoid of meaning, and there is a danger that this process is irreversible even if one is aware of this circumstance; using the word 'form' to translate EI)=DOJ prevents one from asking what is meant by the term’ (p. 149). One might think, however, that the strength of the translation ‘form’ could lie in this very meaninglessness. It seems quite plausible that some Ancient Philosophers employ the translation ‘form’ as a fairly vague place-holder for EI)=DOJ precisely because they recognise that Platonic EI)/DH are difficult things that resist exact description. Likewise, although the word may appear to mean different things in say, the Euthyphro and the Phaedo, using one underdetermined translation in both cases opens up but does not insist on the possibility that occurrences of EI)=DOJ throughout the dialogues may be related. My point is not that Herrmann is mistaken in his belief that it is important to consider the range of possible meanings that EI)=DOJ carries in its various appearances within the corpus, but rather that it doesn’t seem to me to be any more problematic to ask ‘what does "form" mean here?’ than ‘what does EI)=DOJ mean here?’. Nor does it seem obvious that translating ei)=doj as ‘form’ or METE/XEIN as ‘participate’ necessarily prevents or has prevented readers of Plato from asking what we might mean by ‘form’ or ‘participate’ (or EI)=DOJ or METE/XEIN). Some might prefer a translation that requires qualification to one that proffers rigid specificity.
There should be no doubt, however, that, whether one asks such the questions in Greek or in English, anyone looking for answers will be greatly aided by Herrmann’s ‘Words and Ideas’.