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Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 38, Number 2, April 2000
pp. 272-273 | 10.1353/hph.2005.0077

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.2 (2000) 272-273

Holger Thesleff. Studies in Plato's Two-Level Model. Helsinki: Societas Scientarum Fennica, 1999. Pp. vi + 143. N. P.

After some 30 years of incisive intervention in Platonic scholarship, Holger Thesleff here offers us "an attempt to elaborate and ground more firmly some basic theses which I have propounded in various contexts before," (1) a rather modest description of what he also describes as an attempt to contribute toward "a more general agreement on how to read and interpret Plato" (5). The richness of this book makes it impossible to describe in any detail, and I shall content myself with indicating some of what I take to be its principal points of view.

Thesleff"s concern for agreement arises from his perception of the vastly discrepant schools of Plato interpretation, of which the most important for him might be labeled esotericist, analytic, and "literary." The last, which can hardly be called a school at all, includes a variety of scholars who downplay "literal" interpretation and emphasize such things as "dramatic artistry, the structure of the dialogues, the characterization of settings and persons, shifts of style, allusions, play, and irony" (3). Thesleff's sympathies clearly lie with these people, perhaps to an extent which, as I shall suggest, will limit the effectiveness of his attempt to move toward a consensus.

As the title indicates Thesleff builds his reading around what he calls Plato's two-level model. This two-level model is not, as one might suppose, what has been called Plato's two worlds view, the belief in a world of pure being beyond the perceived world we inhabit. Indeed, it is not a doctrine or set of doctrines at all. Rather "it is an intuitive 'vision' which offers only crude basic patterns and frames for the structures of Plato's thinking, feelings, intuitions, and intentions, from his youth to his old age, and for our understanding of them" (123). Clearly one cannot expect a full and precise articulation of this vision. Thesleff proceeds by discussing in terms of their role in the earlier dialogues ten hierarchic pairs which form part of Plato's vision: divine/human, soul/body, leading/being led (particularly important in the conduct of a Socratic discussion), truth/appearance, knowledge/opinion, intellect/senses, defined/undefined, stability/change, one/many, same/different. These hierarchic or asymmetric pairs are contrasted by Thesleff with what he calls polar opposites like large/small and light/dark. He also stresses that the hierarchic pairs of Plato's two-level model involve no separation (chorismos), but rather a communion (koinônia).

As the words "from his youth to his old age" in the quotation of the previous paragraph indicate, Thesleff is a "unitarian" in his approach to Plato. His Plato is not a philosopher whose positions changed through time as a result of reasoned argument. What many scholars take to be doctrines later given up, e.g., the view that learning is being reminded (anamnêsis), are "thought experiments," which are not followed up, thought experiments made within the context of the unchanging two-level vision.

Although Thesleff is a unitarian in the sense I have indicated, he does believe that a kind of order of composition can be constructed for the dialogues. I say "kind of" because Thesleff's chronology involves assumptions of revisions over time, multiple authorship, and even dialogues "written down" by people other than Plato. The resulting chronology is complex, and I here only indicate it in rough form in a way which brings out what I take to be its major points. Leaving out of account those Socratic" dialogues which Thesleff takes to be latish and the posthumously completed Laws, we can say that a series of late dialogues starts with the Parmenides and includes the Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Politicus, and Philebus. All other dialogues, including the Theaetetus, were written prior to the Parmenides with the exception of the Republic, which Thesleff proposes is in its ultimate shape a late work, representing "only and purely Plato's 'own' and personal philosophy" (115). As for the other late dialogues, which have played an important role in many...



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