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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.4 (2001) 306-308
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Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's "Timaeus"
Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's "Timaeus." John Sallis. Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Pp 208. $34.95 h.c. 0-253-33568-X; $16.95 pbk. 0-253-21308-8.
Chorology: On Beginning in Plato's "Timaeus," as the title indicates, has as its central task a consideration of the famous and perplexing discussion in Plato's Timaeus of the "cwvra" or "receptacle." The book contains a brief set of acknowledgments, an introductory prologue, and five chapters. The first, "Remembrance of the City," sets out in a detailed and sensitive way the dramatic, and especially the political, frame of the dialogue. It contains one of the most careful and plausible discussions I have seen of the connection of the Timaeus to the Republic, as well as the characters and dramatic plot that frame the dialogue. It also introduces what becomes an abiding theme of the book, the whole question of the problematic of beginnings. Chapter 2, "Production of the Cosmos," takes us through the first account Timaeus gives of the origin of the cosmos, the one that pointedly does not contain explicit reference to the cwvra, the one that, as Sallis shows, fails as a genuine beginning. This prepares the way for the central chapter of the book, "The Cwvra," a rich and thorough discussion of the enormously perplexing second account of the origin, in which the cwvra is introduced. This central chapter includes quite helpful discussions of the very problem of translating Plato's term cwvra, especially with the misleading terms in which it is usually translated, "space" and "place." This discussion is followed, in chapter 4, "Traces of the Cwvra," by a consideration of how the rest of the dialogue plays out, with special emphasis on the way in which the cwvra affects what happens after it is introduced. The book concludes with a chapter entitled "Reinscriptions," which, after a critical discussion of the historical claim that Plato forged the Timaeus, goes on to an enormously informative and insightful consideration of the influence of the Timaeus, and especially the discussion [End Page 306] of the cwvra, on German idealism, especially as represented by Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.
Sallis is rightfully regarded as one of the leading American philosophers in the so-called "Continental" philosophic tradition. When representatives of that tradition have addressed the writings of Plato, they have tended, following their own guiding principles, to look to the "margins" of the Platonic dialogues, thus rendering "deconstructive" readings of the "marginalized" or "deferred" meanings of these texts. As such, they have tended not to give careful and detailed readings of entire dialogues. By contrast, writers from the so-called "analytic" tradition also usually fail to address dialogues in their entirety, but for a different reason. Convinced by their philosophic principles that what counts in philosophy is arguments, they tend to look only at the identifiable arguments of a given dialogue, failing to reflect adequately on the dramatic, political context in which Plato places each dialogue.
Sallis, in the most careful and sensitive way, avoids both mistakes. Not only does he devote the entire first chapter to the dramatic political frame in which the discussion of the cwvra occurs, but toward the end, having presented his reading of the chorology, he reinscribes it in its political setting in ways that I have not seen done before. In addition, throughout, he pays the most careful attention to the subtleties of the "argument" in the narrow sense, as well as to the Greek text, debates over scholarly apparatus, and the doxographical tradition.
The book is full of striking and unusual insights. In this short review, let me concentrate on only one of the many groundbreaking positions that Sallis develops. Plato is widely regarded, both by continentalists and by analytic commentators, as a "metaphysician" (indeed, by many as the founder of metaphysics), and more particularly as a metaphysical dualist. Sallis shows convincingly that the cwvra...