Nicholas Denyer, Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.
William Jordan, Ancient Concepts of Philosophy.
London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
Reviewed in Philosophical Studies (Dublin) 33 (1991-92), pp. 238-46.
For some reason a deluge of little black volumes on every subject has been pouring out of Routledge. The two books reviewed here belong to a series, Issues in Ancient Philosophy, under the editorship of Malcolm Schofield. They deserve praise for the lucidity and thoroughness of their argumentation and for their pedagogic show of patience and orderliness. Denyer pursues the problem of how false judgment is possible through five Platonic dialogues (Euthydemus, Republic, Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist) and shows a virtuoso skill in argument and exposition, which sometimes risks becoming tangential to the central issue. Jordan faithfully introduces many schools and philosophers, but his discussion is not strongly unified, and often lapses into desultoriness.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had an insatiable appetite for logical argument, shared by the present authors, who seem however to carry disinterestedness to the point of aimlessness. Greek argumentation usually has a palpable bearing on life and civilization; but in these studies the arguments presented lack the chiaroscuro, the harmonics, that a firmer sense of historical context could provide. Like many logical analysts of Greek philosophy, the authors fail to quit the aseptic seminar rooms which set bounds to what they consider of philosophical interest.
Heidegger sought tremors of ontological wonder in Plato and Aristotle; at other times they have been interrogated in terms of the great themes of the hour: truth, beauty, the good, the soul. The Greeks seem to have nothing momentous to say to Denyer and Jordan, nor they to the Greeks. Could this be because the philosophers have yielded up all their ore and there is nothing new to be said? Or is it that our authors have failed to find any interesting questions to ask because of the smallness of their own philosophical world? Denyer - whose book is more original and more valuable than Jordan's - seems unable to take an interest in any topic except in terms of the logical problems it may suggest. Jordan - who essays a wider spectrum of humanistic reference - tends to be rather half-hearted in his argumentative engagement with his sources, while his allusions too often seem to be giving them a factitious topicality.
Both authors address the question, "why study ancient philosophy?" Jordan considers some views that would limit the value of the history of philosophy: the positivist notion that philosophy tends to contract, as the interesting problems are solved one by one or as domains of inquiry are ceded to science; Rorty's view that philosophy has no coherent history, either because its problems stem from extra-philosophical sources in society or the sciences, or because it undergoes paradigm shifts that make the philosophical questions of the past incommensurable with those of the present; Nozick's view that "the history of philosophy will consist of a growing stock of arguments about apparent excluders of scientific, or everyday, truths" (119). His own conclusion is that "we study past philosophers to gain some idea of what range of outlooks is possible in a given area." The notion of a "given area" in this context strikes me as unhistorical; "areas" of philosophical investigation are themselves historical constructs. The next sentence seems oblivious to the rich differences between one historical epoch and another: "And their arguments, when we accept them, yield something like data which we must organise into a unified philosophical theory." Sounds rather dreary, to be patching together the acceptable bits of Aristotle, Descartes and Hegel. Surely it is abusive to quote Wittgenstein in support of this view: "every new problem which arises may put in question the position which our previous partial results are to occupy in the final picture." Understanding of history means an ever deeper discovery of the strangeness and otherness of the past, something that cannot be attained by what Jordan calls the "recataloguing" of the ancient findings in light of new ones.
Denyer's theme consigns him to the strange past, in that no one any longer asks the question "How can one say something false?" since that problem has been definitively solved by Plato. (This is Denyer's view; but as a result of reading him I draw the opposite conclusion: that Plato has left the problem unsolved and that the ontology of false statements still remains enigmatic.) Why summon up this ghost? Because it shows us that "our 'truisms' have a great deal of philosophical bite to them, and that they are not quite so bland as they look"; because it is "a case history of philosophical progress"; moreover "we might learn something from ancient views about thought and language that will help us to solve what I have called our modern problems of truth" (6-7), i.e. the Problem of the External World, the Problem of Other Minds, the Problem of the Reality of the Past and the Problem of Induction. Certainly these problems deserve to be put as soundly to rest as Plato is claimed to have put the problem of falsehood to rest. I doubt, though, if straightforward logical argument can do anything to solve the first three of these. Rather the philosophical arguments may have to be referred back to their context - human, historical, social, psychological, political, cultural - for their full understanding and for the discovery of their effective solution. If so, the methods of analytical philosophy can never show us the way out of the fly-bottle.
"In seeing how there once was a workable philosophy [Aristotle's] which held truth to be the normal condition of our thoughts, we may be helped to identify those assumptions of modern times that have made truth seem so problematic," so that we can either abandon them or learn why Aristotle's epistemological optimism is no longer tenable. This is an attractive enough context for Denyer's inquiry (though a glance at the last page of his book shows that he does not deliver the goods promised here). But can the difference between Aristotle and Descartes be reduced to a matter of assumptions and problem-solving? Don't we need to open up the wider hermeneutical issue of their different understandings of being and truth, studying - a la Heidegger - the predominance of consciousness and the subject as the touchstone of the real in Descartes and the emergence of certitude as the essential mark of the true?
Jordan disagrees with a colleague's judgment that Aristotle's philosophy is "flat, tedious and underambitious," yet that is exactly the impression his own account of Aristotle leaves. What did Aristotle learn from Plato? Nothing less than the "important insight" that "there is a crucial difference between predications such as 'Socrates is a man' and 'Socrates is pale'" (122). Aristotle's own "new and interesting theory of being" is that unless we take substances (rather than nonsubstantial forms, now reduced to categories) as "metaphysically basic" we will have "great difficulty in coming to know or understand the world" (126). Did Aristotle offer only an elegant and sensible resolution of Parmenidean and Platonic problems? If one pursued the question whether the substance-ontology is an adequate account of the texture of being or reality one might find many suggestive undertones to Aristotle's inquiries. But Jordan proceeds: "no philosopher today, within the analytic tradition, is likely even to present a theory of being (though we should note that the concept of being is central to the philosophies of Heidegger and Sartre)." Jordan is under no obligation to read Heidegger or to deal with the questions raised by him. He is entitled to believe that philosophy is incapable of dealing with such elusive phenomena as existence or being and must treat them as "that whereof we cannot speak". But he claims that he has wrapped up the issue by dint of mere logic: "we think that there is identity, predication, and existence... There is also class inclusion... And we recognize that in Greek, einai also sometimes carries a veridical sense. This analysis of being is thought of as philosophical progress" (127-8). Both Denyer and Jordan seem happy to be fobbed off with semantics. Such grammatical notes leave untouched the questions raised by our talk of being and truth, however we analyse it. The reduction of philosophical inquiry to semantic clarification seems to close off awareness of the enigmatic and thought-provoking character of such expressions, taken not just as quirks of language but as namings of reality. It recalls the tag actually quoted by Denyer at the end of his study of Plato: Parturiunt montes; nascetur ridiculus mus.
The Sophists argued that false judgment was impossible, since what is not can neither be thought nor spoken of. Theaetetus 189-199 tries to explain false judgement as heterodoxia (taking one thing for another), but the analogies of the wax tablet and the bird-cage suffer from the defect of explaining how false judgment is possible by referring it back to prior false judgment, as Denyer shows (111-17). Then Socrates proposes "a distinction between a mere name and a full logos, a distinction which rests wholly on relative simplicity and complexity" (118-9) - the logos of something is an "orderly description in terms of its elements" (Theaet. 207 c). If falsehood can be located precisely, at the level of logos, the ontological problem it raises may disappear. Denyer elaborately demonstrates that this will work only if "the complexes which true logoi express are not complex objects [as Plato still thinks], but facts" (127). He will show in the analysis of Sophist that through clarifying the semantics of sentences Plato solves the ontological riddle of false statements.
This dialogue founds the reduction of negation to otherness in a general ontology of the five Great Kinds (being, same, other, motion, rest). Denyer argues well against the anachronism of interpreting the discussion of being in terms of the copulative and existential senses of "is": "Plato would acknowledge the difference between, for example, 'Cicero is Tully' and 'Cicero is an orator.' But he would not think that difference due to any difference in the meaning of the word 'is'. Rather, he would think it due to a difference in the expressions that go to the right of the 'is'" (135). Similarly: "When we negate a term by prefixing it with 'not' we thereby produce a new term, a term for what is other than what the original term was a term for" (137). So negation does not imply naming what is not. Not-red, not-Socrates are designations of things that are, i.e other-than-red, other-than-Socrates.
Could it be that Plato is papering over an ontological gulf at this point, stifling the uncanny thought of non-being? Denyer does not pause to consider such murky questions, but proceeds instead to clear up what seems a minor point of Plato's logical grammar: Plato "was under a misapprehension about otherness, and indeed about relations generally" (139). Distinguishing the domain ['north' as all points on earth except the South Pole] and the extension [ordered sets of the type <Belfast, Cork>] of a relation he asks "what belongs to the kind Other? Do I belong? Do you? Or should we say rather that the members of the kind Other are such ordered pairs as <I, you> and <you, I>" (139-40). Denyer argues the domain of each of the Great Kinds is simply everything there is. If Plato had identified membership of the kinds with extension then each kind - with the exception, presumably, of the non-relational kind, being; or does Denyer see that as relational too? - would comprise a different set of ordered pairs. Ordered pairs are "less straightforwardly ingredients of reality than the individuals that they are now to replace" (145). This eliminates the problem of the existence of forms for relations and corrects "Platonic conjunctivitis" ("that the nature of the other is all cut up into little bits," Sophist 257 c). The division of a relational proposition into two conjuncts (Philip as father, Philip as belonging to Charles) leads to an infinite regress and to unacceptable extensions of the relational elements: Philip also belongs to William, and since he is a father, it transpires that "Philip is not only William's grandfather but his father as well: and the House of Windsor is no less incestuous than the House of Laius" (143). This grooming of ancient texts by ironing out logical confusions is surely of immense value; would that someone would do it with the same sureness of touch to the texts of the theological tradition! In any case, "even though it is expounded within the context of a poor theory of relations, Plato's otherness theory of negation remains unrefuted by our recent discussions" (145).
But a blemish remains: the theory takes expressions as terms for things, when in fact expressions must be differentiated into names and verbs. As stated thus far the otherness theory can account for talk of what is not: not-Socrates is an expression for things other than Socrates. But it cannot account for the possibility of false statements: in "Socrates is not-mortal" the shadow of non-being arises not in the negative expression after the copula but in the false conjunction of subject and predicate. "By Sophist 258 b 7 he has legitimated talk of what is not. It is not however until Sophist 263 d 4 that he takes himself to have legitimated talk of falsehood" (146). 263 d 1-4 reads: "Now when things are said about you, but things other are said as the same and things that are not as things that are, it appears that when such a combination is formed of verbs and nouns we have really and truly false discourse." Denyer's comments focus exclusively on the combination of verb and noun (name) and avoids talk of same and other, are and are not. Are the latter presumed to be tacitly carried over from the foregoing discussion of talk of what is not? But why does Denyer not articulate the connection between the name-verb discussion and the otherness theory? He shows that the interweaving of noun with verb is not a mingling of forms. But the laws of that interweaving do not seem to be what essentially makes possible the occurrence of falsehood; rather this depends on the mingling of being and otherness. What of the issue of correspondence between statements and facts? Is this passed over as another of the mystical ideas about which philosophy should be silent? Denyer does get as far as saying that names designate objects and that verbs are true or false of objects, but beyond this, it appears, there is nothing to be said. Plato's ontological conditions (the great kinds) dissolve without residue into the semantics of sentences.
A false statement requires that one be able to say what is not in a more special sense than what has been legitimated so far. To say "Theaetetus flies" requires the existence of his flying so that it can be spoken of and its non-existence so that the statement can be false. But the problem of how false statements can be made is not resolved by distinguishing different senses of "existent". Denyer amusingly notes the quandaries to which this would lead: "Would the nonexistent fact of the kiss that Gladstone gave Disraeli be identical with the nonexistent fact of the furtive kiss he gave him?... But if they are two distinct nonexistent facts, then should we not count as a third the nonexistent fact of Gladstone's kissing Disraeli furtively on the cheek? And then where will it end? How many nonexistent kisses will the two great statesmen have exchanged?" (148). Such examples, unlike Jordan's allusions, make abstract lines of argument memorable.
Brooding on those nonexistent kisses one might gives Plato's problem a new lease of life. For are not those kisses as vivid and memorable as any historical fact reported of the statesmen? And will not any historical report contain an element of the fictive, if only in the choice of words? Each such report is a new presentation or interpretation of the fact. Even if the kisses report is falsified and the historical report verified, the former retains a certain fictional truth and the latter cannot be purged of an element of fiction. It is impossible to make a purely true or a purely false statement. Even if one goes out of one's way to say what is not, the result is a new fictional creation which may tell as much truth in its own way as the most scrupulously exact report. Perhaps Plato's predecessors were fascinated by just this shimmering interplay of fact and fiction, and Plato broke the fascination with the same puritanical rigour as he brought to the fancies of the poets.
Plato approaches his solution through a distinction of names and verbs, which make meaningful sentences when combined. This is "a contribution to syntax, because it makes assertions about how expressions can be combined" and "a contribution to semantics, because it makes assertions about which expressions mean what" (150); Denyer detects some subtle errors in both aspects. It is not true that every sentence must contain a name (e.g. "No one admires everybody"); moreover, verb-free and name-free notations can be artificially constructed. This kind of criticism seems rather otiose; it were better simply to clarify the domain of normal language in which Plato's observations make perfect sense. Denyer spends a lot of time showing that Plato's analysis also applies to his artificial notations; it is not clear how this deepens the insight that "we should say that verbs and names are interwoven. For nothing less will do justice to the intimacy of their connection, the connection of objects to the characteristics that they have and to the relations in which they stand" (158). The name and the verb are kinds of a rather special sort interwoven to make the sentence. Plato muddies things by speaking of names and verbs as "designating" reality (Sophist 261 e): "The difference between names and verbs is far greater than any that Plato allows" (164) - names designate objects but verbs do not. Plato commits a variety of the "Fancy Goods Fallacy" just as do those who see adjectives as denoting universals or "I" as denoting not "the human animal Nicholas Denyer" but "a self which I use it to name" (165). There follows an elaborate discussion of Frege and Dummett which does not seem to me to favour engagement with the texture of Plato's thought. The logical refinements are in excess of the relatively simple issue under discussion and distract from other intrinsic complexities of Plato's text. A sharper differentiation between the dialogue with Plato and the general logical issues would be welcome.
The conclusion that "whereas names designate objects, verbs by contrast stand to objects in the quite different relation of being true of them" turns out in any case "to be more or less present in the Sophist" in references to "things that are said to 'be concerning (einai peri) Theaetetus' in such sentences as 'Theaetetus sits'" (173); the phrase can also be translated "be true of". Dealing with the thesis that verbs can be false of objects, Denyer launches on another of his logical descants. If one says the verb in "Neil has visited Mars" plays the role of "being true of all and only those who have visited Mars" one runs into trouble. The reasoning is quite rarefied: "Since no one has visited Mars, any expression whatsoever that is not true of anything will be true of an object if and only if that object has visited Mars. A name is such an expression [for the syntactical reasons analysed above]... Yet if we try to replace the verb in our sentence by the name 'Yuri', we reduce our sentence to the list: Neil Yuri" (174). The point of this is that a verb may be true of nothing but still be "false of things, and thus make that contribution to the significance of the sentences in which is occurs" (176) whereas "names have no such thing as 'being false of'" (175). The conclusion then is as follows: "A basic sentence gets its significance from being made up out of a significant name together with a significant verb. Names in turn get their significance from designating objects; while verbs get their significance from the objects of which they are true and from the objects of which they are false. In none of this is there any relation of sentences to facts, still less to facts that do not exist. And in none of this is there any suggestion that a sentence will have one meaning if true, and another meaning, or no meaning at all, if false" (181). This is presented as the "crashingly banal" solution to the problem of falsehood. Yet I am left wondering how a verb in a sentence can be false of the name without by the same token the sentence as a whole being in a false relation of some kind to the facts. Moreover, can a verb get all its meaning from the objects of which it is true or false? Does this grammar, Denyer's and the Stranger's, really touch the issue of falsehood at all? Surely the five great kinds continue to preside over the issue of false statements, however they are to be articulated with the noun-verb analysis. The heart of the solution is the reduction of negation to otherness; one can say what is not only in the sense that one can say what is of what is, but of the wrong what is.
If Denyer knows the philosophical secret whereby the lofty issues of being and truth have been finally dispelled by a stroke of semantics, he has kept it from this reader, leaving me with the impression that in the end he has talked past the real problem, with a calm assurance suggesting that this procedure is habitual in his philosophical circles.
My impression that there has been a failure to engage with the historical and ontological texture of Greek philosophy can be rounded out by a glance at other aspects of the works before us.
Parmenides is an author who tests one's historical and ontological sensitivities to the utmost - unless he was a hollow sham, which is how he is made to seem in many peremptory accounts. How does he fare here? Jordan sees him as a proto-Cartesian seeking secure epistemological foundations. "Descartes finds what he is looking for in the thought cogito, ergo sum'. Esti plays the same role for Parmenides" (30). He is also a proto-Kantian: "he is intent on exploring the conditions of successful knowing and indicating, in the manner of Kant... Parmenides may be offering here the first example of a transcendental argument in philosophy" (31). These references to Descartes and Kant are too facile and show little historical sensitivity. Parmenides is praised for an interesting attempt, but the foundation he established is so much at variance with our everyday view of the world that if he believed in it himself he must have been mad (34-5). There is good classical precedent for such dismissiveness in Aristotle. But is Parmenides primarily an epistemologist? Is there no room for a hermeneutical retrieval that could explain the awe in which Plato held him? Rather than being a mere problem-poser and problem-solver might he not have wanted to say something about the nature of being and the nature of thinking? For Denyer the spell cast by Parmenides reveals that "many found the very idea of speaking or thinking what is not intolerably paradoxical" (26). Again the focus is on a negative logical problem, with no attempt to retrieve the positive ontological vision.
Jordan's volume ranges too widely and treats each of its topics in terms of interesting arguments it may provoke. This argumentational focus is not guaranteed to bring out the essential concerns of the philosophies treated. Take the account of how Plato "formulates new ideas about philosophical method, new philosophical doctrines about the nature of knowledge and reality, and a new conception of the philosophical way of life" (70). Philosophy differs from eristic by its openness to truth and readiness for self-correction, and differs from rhetoric – "a mere knack that panders to the worst in human beings" (76) – by its emphasis on care of the soul. The latter point is developed in a rehearsal of arguments in the Gorgias: "Plato's position on vulnerability is that it is indeed possible to become invulnerable by becoming a powerful orator; but that all powerful orators have paid a price for their invulnerability - they are all unjust" (78). Ethical musings of this sort do not take us very far towards a keen grasp of Plato's "concept of philosophy". Nor does the leisurely discussion of Plato's criticism of art that follows. The topical reference does not increase the urgency or pertinence of such remarks as the following: "the place of art in the state is not nowadays a burning topic in political theory (at least it was not, prior to Iran's death threat against Salman Rushdie)" (82-3). Jordan is always ready to stop and murmur "I wonder" in a manner that is peculiarly ingenious and desultory: "This poses the question whether it is enough to say, of art, 'I enjoy it'? It suggests that we need to be able to say, at least, what sort of enjoyment it gives us, and where this enjoyment fits into our lives" (85). This is briefly aired with reference to Rousseau, Jane Austen, Lionel Trilling. Conclusion: "The self must remain within its own bounds if it is to preserve its integrity. Of course, it could be argued that it is beneficial to act alien roles." Such pleasant, but feeble and banal reflections shed little light on the topic of the book. Jordan goes on to talk about philosophy as preparation for death and queries Plato's stark claim that "we must either practise life, accept the reports of our sense and pursue bodily pleasures, or practise death and lead the life of the philosopher focusing on the soul's view of the world" (89). "Plato's case against bodily pleasures," he lamely remarks, "certainly has its strengths as well as its weaknesses... It is hard to see how we could hope to derive any meaningful overall life-plan simply from devoting ourselves wholly to bodily pleasures" (91). He comes close to his theme in dealing with Plato's suspicion of the senses, raising the question of "how effective Plato is in giving substance to his own conception of the objective standpoint" (93), that of philosophy. But this peters out in remarks on the immortality of the soul. Next, Jordan discusses Plato on love. Plato is accused of using the beloved as a mere stepping-stone towards love for the Form of Beauty, but in measuring the beloved against that Form he is able to see him in a non-idealized way. Freud, Hardy, Melanie Klein and Proust are invoked on lovers' idealizations. Lacan's commentary on the Symposium (in the recently published Volume VIII of the Seminaire) is a more effective engagement with Plato on these themes and shows a keener sense of the subtlety of Plato's genius. And what has all this to do with Plato's concept of philosophy? Well it shows "how a set of beliefs in metaphysics and epistemology can bear directly on the conduct of our everyday lives" and moreover "we have perhaps learned something about the scope of philosophy" (if so, why was the discussion conducted entirely in terms of psychoanalyis and literature?). A concluding discussion of political philosophy fills out the picture of Plato. The topic of ancient concepts of philosophy merits a more rigorous and focused treatment.
Denyer's closing chapter on Aristotle - a discussion of his theory of perception and intellection, with an exposition of his theory of causation as background - has nothing to do with the foregoing discussion. His philosophical method is then shown to rest on this "innocent optimism about the powers of the human mind" (212). The book ends with a rather sudden declaration of how hard it is for us today to believe that "the natural condition for our thoughts is truth". This tangential ending hardly does justice to the sense of the fragility of the mind's hold on truth in such post-Aristotelian authors as Sextus Empiricus or Plotinus. The limit of Denyer's grasp, I feel, is marked by his avoidance of the obscure ontological issues in favour of masterable logical ones. A gifted logician will always find something to dance pirouettes on, but for that a toothpaste label might be as convenient a launching-pad as the texts of Plato and Aristotle. Logic must be at the service of a coherent hermeneutic project; otherwise, though it may clarify limited issues, it leaves one in the lurch when one seeks a really penetrating grasp of what Plato or Aristotle thought.