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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 115-116
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Plato and His Predecessors:
The Dramatisation of Reason
Mary Margaret McCabe. Plato and His Predecessors: The Dramatisation of Reason. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. viii + 318. Cloth, $59.95.
This book originated with the W. B. Stanford Memorial Lectures delivered at Trinity College, Dublin in 1996. In it Mary Margaret McCabe considers a "late quartet" of Platonic Dialogues: Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus, Philebus. Her main task is expressly to consider how Plato viewed his philosophical predecessors, particularly Protagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. McCabe argues that the key to understanding how Plato viewed his predecessors lies in the way they are presented dramatically in her late quartet. There they appear as "shadowy figures" with no voice of their own, unable to defend themselves against the arguments put to them by the main speakers, and it is by dramatizing their self-refuting position (for that is what their inability to defend themselves reveals) that Plato develops his most mature account of the principles of reason. In this way, McCabe argues, the dialogue form remains significant to Plato even in his latest works. The dramatic presentation of the dialogues in the late quartet only appears unnecessary if we focus on the relation between the main speaker and interlocutor. If we focus instead on the discussions between Plato and his predecessors, and understand the dialectical role of self-refutation, we can see how the dialogue form remains important. McCabe thus shows how her three main themes--Plato's relation to Presocratic philosophy, his use of the dialogue form, and his views about the principles of reason--are interrelated. It is not clear, however, whether she achieves the full integration of these three themes. McCabe attends much more diligently and thoroughly to the theme about the principles of reason than to either of the other two themes. In this respect her work fits better into the context of philosophical analysis of Plato's views, rather than, say, into the context of historical or hermeneutical approaches.
McCabe's analysis of the dramatic elements of the late quartet is, in fact, somewhat narrow. There are extant commentaries on all the dialogues of her late quartet that examine in far greater detail their settings, characterization, dramatic structure, dialectical development, and so on. To judge from these commentaries, it is not clear that the late quartet is dramatically inferior to Plato's early and middle dialogues or that the discussions between the main speaker and interlocutor take a back seat, aesthetically or philosophically, to the dialectic between Plato and his predecessors. But McCabe's aim is the more limited one of finding at least one philosophically compelling reason to favor the dialogue form. She finds it in the way that the "mean-spirited opponents" of Plato--Protagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus--show up holding theories that are incompatible with more general views they themselves hold about reason. The only way to defeat such an opponent, one might suggest, is dialectically, by getting them to refute themselves. This is indeed one of the things the late quartet of dialogues shows, and through it McCabe forces us to see the dialectical tactics of refutation that are prevalent in Plato's late dialogues.
It is not clear, however, that the positive "principles of reason" Plato is reputed to be developing--"that we are persistent, continuant entities, whose intellectual concerns focus on consistency with oneself and thus disagreement with others; whose autonomy depends on our beliefs belonging to us . . . and whose best life is constituted by the proper structuring of those beliefs into the single and complete structure of systematic understanding" (289)--require a dramatic presentation, or why Plato should think they require such a presentation. Plenty of philosophical arguments have been made, and were made in ancient [End Page 115] times, about personal identity, rationality, autonomy, and eudaimonia entirely outside of the context of dialogue or drama. Here, in the case of positive advocacy of his principles of reason, it is more difficult to see a...