Plotinus (review)
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Reviewed by
Lloyd P. Gerson. Plotinus. The Arguments of the Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1994. Pp. xviii + 338. Cloth, $59.95.

This challenging account of Plotinus’ philosophy is appropriately published in a series called The Arguments of the Philosophers. Professor Gerson confronts Plotinus’ position on some major issues in the history of philosophy with an array of counterarguments, ancient, medieval, and modern. More often than not, Plotinus’ position is presented cogently and sympathetically, refuting the notion that Plotinus is merely a philosophical lightweight. The book is rigorous, demanding more than passing knowledge of the history of philosophy and its current trends, especially the Anglo-American. It will thus serve to establish Plotinus as a reputable philosopher among analytic philosophers. Students of Plotinus will find it controversial. Both results will enhance the scholarly work on Plotinus that has flourished recently, indicated in Gerson’s extensive bibliography, although less apparently utilized in establishing his account of Plotinus’ philosophy.

The author himself admits that the book is difficult and he indicates where he thinks Plotinus is to blame (225). It thus falls to the reviewer to indicate difficulties traceable to the author. The symptoms are easily seen in the portrait of Plotinus that emerges from these pages. It is a strange one indeed: a Plotinus who is scholastic in organization, Thomist in holding the real distinction and post-Cartesian in epistemology. The Platonic character of Plotinus’ Neoplatonism is not merely absent, but positively excluded by Gerson’s insistence on fitting Plotinus to the Procrustean bed of modern logic, eliminating experience as of dubious philosophical worth. This is most noticeable in his treatment of mysticism, but occurs also when he considers the social or intersubjective dimension of human life and, more crucially, the methodological starting point of Plotinus’ philosophy. Gerson’s method proceeds, in scholastic fashion, from the First Principle to those ontological and logical principles that are deduced from it, coming finally to consider the soul and its capacities. This inversion of Plotinus’ [End Page 128] position entails constant difficulties as Gerson drives his logical engine to make deductions where none are necessary.

Attention to Plotinus’ Platonism entails two interlocking assumptions excluded in the above portrait. One concerns the nature and limits of language itself. Language and discursive thought in general are essentially images of what in some way is and they are thus subordinate to the more direct contact of experience, whether sensible or intelligible. The other concerns the nature of experience itself as the starting point of Plotinus’ reflection, moving from the immediate awareness of the empirical self (Gerson’s “endowed self”) to those conditions that make such awareness possible in the dependence both of the soul and the sensible world on the intelligible world, and ultimately on the One. That Plotinus begins with the human situation can be seen in V 3[49] 6,1–11, where he contrasts precisely the necessity of Intellect with the persuasion possible for the soul. He recognizes that whatever the allure of logical thought it is not sufficient to convince the soul. It does not take into account the status of language as an image and the experience of the soul as essentially embodied. It is characteristic of post-Cartesian philosophy, on the contrary, to read necessity into the soul and to assume that propositional thought is identical with the real and brings certitude with it. This denies the analogous character that human knowledge has for someone like Plotinus. Similar problems arise about the nature of intellect.

Within the logical parameters that Gerson has set for his interpretation, the influence of Plotinus on and the claims made about him with regard to religion (203–12) and mysticism (218–24) fall by the way. This may please those who would otherwise ignore Plotinus’ philosophy, but it will not persuade people on either side of the religious divide. The issue, however, is less about a specific kind of experience than about any kind of experience that cannot be reduced to logical categories. Ultimately, the claim being made is that what cannot be captured in logical categories is no more than an empty surd. Gerson, in fact, reverses what Plotinus states in V...