Footnotes to Plato
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This remark from Whitehead’s Process and Reality (Pt. II, ch. 1, sec. 1) is frequently cited, either as a tribute to Plato’s greatness or as an indictment of the stasis, and hence poverty, of European philosophy. The suggestion is that philosophy (of the Western variety) has not substantially progressed beyond the seminal work of Plato. It is not often contested. But even a casual examination of the history of the subject shows that it is quite mistaken. The main reason it is mistaken is that a footnote must be consistent with what it is a footnote to, but philosophy subsequent to Plato has been anything but consistent with Plato. So it is not plausible to suggest that this philosophical tradition is merely a series of footnotes to the work of Plato. The bulk of Western philosophy has, in fact, been in contradiction to Plato—a rejection of his central tenets.
Take Aristotle, Plato’s most successful pupil: his philosophy is built around a rejection of Plato’s philosophy. The theory of forms is Plato’s most distinctive contribution, and Aristotle denies it. That’s not a fawning footnote; it’s a critical response, an outright repudiation. And most later philosophers sided with Aristotle—the theory of forms found few adherents in subsequent centuries. In fact, it was Aristotle, not Plato, whose corpus was heavily footnoted by posterity: medieval philosophy in Europe was a series of footnotes to Aristotle. He was loyally, not to say slavishly, followed. Nor did Socrates, Plato’s hero, have much of a following during this period. His skepticism was not admired and imitated, while Aristotle formed the basis of medieval scholasticism. Plato is really quite a subversive philosopher, not one for pious repetition. The forms don’t invite footnotes, but frowns; they can be seen as rivals to the divine. And people don’t want to be told that their ordinary view of the world is a complete illusion: that they live in an epistemic cave.
Nor was modern philosophy much influenced by Plato, beginning with Descartes. Apart from the doctrine of innate ideas, there is nothing distinctively Platonic about Descartes’ philosophy. The same is true of the other modern philosophers. They broke out in new directions; they hardly seem to have read Plato. How is British empiricism a footnote to Plato? And more recent philosophy is likewise quite anti-Platonic: how on earth can we view the movements of twentieth century philosophy as footnotes to Plato? Where is the theory of forms in positivism, ordinary language philosophy, logic, semantics, materialism, and so on? I am more inclined to say that recent philosophy has been disdainful of Plato (wrongly so, in my opinion). Quine—a writer of laudatory footnotes to Plato? Wittgenstein—a devoted Platonist?
So Whitehead’s oft-quoted remark is egregiously false. Why then do people keep repeating it? Well, it sounds clever, and it saves you from having to read anything since Plato. But perhaps there is a more charitable reading of it: not that post-Platonic philosophy is slavishly Platonic—a mere accretion of obsequious footnotes to the Great Man—but that European philosophy consists of a series of comments on Plato. That is, it consists of critical responses to Plato. If we take it that way, then talk of footnotes is quite misleading, since (as I said) footnotes have to be consistent with what they are footnotes to. It is quite another thing to say that European philosophy consists of a series of rejections of Plato. That has the look of something with a decent claim to truth, though very broad-brushed (not exactly “the safest general characterization of European philosophy”). On this interpretation, philosophy consists of a series of reactions against Plato.
The trouble here is twofold. First, it ignores the steady stream of Platonists and neo-Platonists that flowed from the original font: it may not have been wide, but it existed. Second, it is really not true that philosophy has consisted of commentary on Plato, either pro or con. Granted, some of it has taken this form, though largely via the influence of Aristotle–not surprisingly, since Plato’s works constitute the founding texts of European philosophy (anyone who gets there first will inevitably form the foundation of the tradition). But it is an exaggeration to suggest that philosophy since Plato has not gone beyond his concerns, intellectual framework, and conceptual apparatus. Aristotle certainly did, adding quite new topics and avenues of inquiry; he is not stuck in a Platonic universe, making small emendations to the master’s system. Nor is Descartes limited by Plato’s outlook, most obviously because of his interest in the new science. And twentieth century philosophy quite clearly expands well beyond the Platonic conception of the subject: it ignores Plato rather than dissents from him (compare the influence of Kant). He is regarded as distinctly passé. Even to take Plato seriously as an adversary, as Aristotle did, is alien to the spirit of recent philosophy.
It is hard, then, to find any merit in Whitehead’s pronouncement. It is like saying that modern philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Descartes—at best an exaggeration of the influence of a philosophical giant. So far from philosophy being a series of footnotes to Plato, I would say that subsequent philosophy should have footnoted Plato more. He should have figured more prominently in the discussions of the philosophers who followed him. It was probably the influence of Aristotle that kept Plato from his proper place in the footnotes of European philosophers. Gazing down from Platonic heaven, he is not so much gratified by all the footnotes extolling him as irritated at his lack of citation. After all, he was a very singular philosopher, by no mean a popularist.