Alan Kim, Plato in Germany: Kant - Natorp – Heidegger
Alan Kim, Plato in Germany: Kant - Natorp – Heidegger, Academia Verlag, Sankt Augustin, 2010, 312 p.
1The subject of this important and much-needed study is the philosophical interpretation of Plato in Germany. This qualification is needed since the focus is not Plato scholarship, but rather the way in which eminent German philosophers interpreted Plato as an essential part of their own philosophical projects. Therefore, a central question raised by the book, as Kim notes near the beginning, is what constitutes a ‘philosophical interpretation’ (19). Some indeed might see an opposition between these two terms, insisting that interpreting Plato and making philosophical use of Plato are two completely and even incompatible projects. However, the present book shows the value, and perhaps even the necessity, of interpreting philosophically, i.e., creatively and with a focus on the matter itself, the Platonic eidê and the Platonic dialectic that corresponds to them. Given the suggestiveness and elusiveness of Plato’s treatment, a ‘literal’ and ‘objective’ interpretation risks being only an unthinking and unilluminating interpretation. In struggling with the philosophical significance and implications of Plato’s ontology and epistemology, the German philosophers considered by Alan Kim could be said to offer us a model of how to engage with Plato’s thought at the deepest level. If traditional scholarship is needed to correct the errors and distortions to which this philosophical approach is prone, it can also be said to be derivative in the sense of guided by the possibilities opened up by one philosophical reading or another. After all, are there readings of Plato that are not, at least implicitly, Kantian or Heideggerian or Analytic or Existential, etc.?
2The fundamental split in the philosophical interpretations considered in the present book is indeed one that can be seen to divide all Platonic scholarship as such: 1) are the Platonic eidê literally objects of intuition or are they methodological principles? (A question that can be seen to go back to Aristotle’s polemical question of whether they are substances or universals); 2) correspondingly, does Platonic dialectic represent a purely discursive conception of knowledge, or does it prepare for some sort of intuition that cannot be expressed discursively? What is the relation here between logos and intuition? As Kim states it at one point, the question is “whether for Plato dialectic is inherent in or merely preliminary to the ‘vision of the forms’” (171).
3Fully on one side of this divide are Kant and the Neo-Kantians. Kant saw his own Ideas of reason as capturing the true insight behind the Platonic eidê. The Ideas are needed according to Kant because the categories cannot supply us with standards or an ‘ought’ (37). Yet these Ideas are never objects of experience, but only ideals that demand the most complete application of the categories to the sensible manifold alone given to us in intuition; they are thus limit-concepts known only symbolically (24, 30-31). If Plato sometimes suggests that the eidê are themselves given in intuition and can therefore be objects of experience, that is the fault of a dogmatism still in need of critique.
4The Neo-Kantians depart from Kant’s reading in an important way: rejecting the notion of a thing-in-itself as well as sensible intuition (following in this respect German Idealism), they interpret the Platonic eidê not as ideals beyond experience, but as categories determining experience (see 80, 97, 115). Yet they can do so because for them, as Kim writes, “Objects are constructed and generated, not given” (82) and “can be no more than a goal or task (Aufgabe) of the understanding” (82). The eidos is a constantly developing determination of an experience never completed. Kim even speaks here of the ‘dissolution of ontology’ since ‘being’ becomes no more than a function of ongoing determination through the predicative judgment (85; see also 142-3, 178). This is how Paul Natorp can identify the eidê with hypotheses (99), turning them into a method for unifying the manifold of (scientific) experience (114-5, 147) and dismissing all description of them as objects capable of being intuited as merely metaphorical or as a symptom of residual dogmatism.
5Fully on the other side of the divide is Husserl; for him there is such a thing as a Wesensschau and the eidos is the object of such an intuition (160). For Husserl, “the ideal of philosophy is the vision or intuition of essences, not the construction or reconstruction of hypotheses à la Natorp. It is the clarification of concepts used by scientists in making these hypotheses in the first place” (153). If ‘being’ for Natorp means the copula in judgment, for Husserl it means maximum intuitive fulfillment (172-182). In the Husserlian approach, “the ideai or eidê are conceived as beings, not laws, as things, not methods. And as beings, they may be contemplated. Indeed, they are the purest objects of contemplation” (177).
6The first attempt in the book’s narrative at a reconciliation between the two approaches is found in the ‘archaist’ reading of Plato stemming from the Stefan George circle. On this reading the eidos is neither a transcendent object nor a regulatory principle, but a Gestalt hidden in sensible experience itself. “Now, on the archaist reading of Plato, the idea is the inner Gestalt of a thing, its inner ordered structure. This structure is perceived by the mind’s eye in an act of Schau, which vision is a moment of aesthetic constitution: the Gestalt appears in and through the act of Schau. Without the creative act of schauen or er-schauen, the world is disenchanted and dying; with and through Schau, it lives” (210-211). In showing that Heinrich Friedemann can nevertheless join Natorp in interpreting the ideai in Republic VI as hypotheses, Kim states what he sees as the problems with the alternative, traditional interpretation that sees the hypotheses as logoi and the ideai not as logoi, but as things: 1) how in this case can the dialectical descent be described as occurring in eidê alone? 2) how can the power of nous be characterized as itself dialectic? (219) These considerations in fact seem to support what Kim nevertheless calls Friedemann’s “idiosyncratic interpretation of an intuitive dialectic” (220) if neither Natorp’s interpretation of the ideai as only hypotheses nor the interpretation of the ideai as purely intuited objects is adequate. Kim indeed proceeds to provide some support for Friedemann’s position through a reading of the excursus on recollection in the Meno: there we see indeed what Kim calls “the intertwinement of seeing and saying in the dialectical process . . .” (221). We also see in this text how the idea as Gestalt can be uncovered and ‘seen’ within the sensible. There is nothing disingenuous in Socrates’ leading of the slave boy since “The slave is not told what to see or think” (222). Yet what emerges from Kim’s account of the ‘archaist’ interpretation is a reading that downplays the dialogical and logical dimensions of Plato’s work, though in doing so it emphasizes dimensions of this work completely ignored by the other readings: 1) the existential dimension (given the focus of the Georgeans on producing a beautiful life, 201) and 2) the mythical dimension (215-216; Kim offers some insightful observations here on the distinction between logos as something in principle infinite and myth as something in principle complete: 198-199). As Kim observes, “George’s stance was radically poetic and anti-philosophical. He set little store in arguments and eschewed dialogue” (194).
7If there is a hero in Kim’s narrative, it appears to be Heidegger. Heidegger provides a philosophical translation of the ‘archaist’ reading and one that reconciles the opposed readings of Natorp and Husserl. Since Kim characterizes the archaists as “giving a quasi-phenomenological reading of Plato” (228) and then describes Heidegger as siding also with what distinguishes the archaists from Husserlian phenomenology, one is left with the impression that the archaist reading is the closest to Heidegger’s own; indeed, Kim writes that we will find again in Heidegger that archaist fusion of language, vision and being, though “stripped of its magical enthusiasm” (229). Heidegger thus turns out to represent the final synthesis in the book’s dialectic of interpretations. Kim indeed criticizes Heidegger quite harshly, but not in the main for misinterpreting Plato, but rather for dishonestly failing to acknowledge his debt to Plato (17, 229-230, 281, 284). While there is much truth to this charge, however, one can question some of the ways in which Kim makes Heidegger the great reconciler as well as the one closest in spirit to Plato.
- 1 Rather than repeat all the references here, I can simply refer the reader to my “History of an Emba (...)
- 2 See Plato and Heidegger, p. 25-28, p. 267-269, and “And the Rest is Sigetik : Silencing Logic and D (...)
8Kim’s discussion of the Sophist lectures completely ignores Heidegger’s sharp and persistent critique of Plato’s dialectic there in favor of what he considers the superior position of the Aristotelian nous without logos. While Kim must acknowledge that Heidegger speaks as if noein could occur without legein, he insists that this noein is nothing superior to logos. What leads him to this conclusion is, first, his view that “Since nous is equiprimordial with logos, there can be no question for Heidegger of intuition of eidê unmediated by logos . . . It is in this precise sense that for Heidegger all noein is dia-noein” (257). Indeed, Kim claims that “the real importance of Heidegger’s reading lies in his interpretation of logos as an equiprimordial, i.e., essential and inseparable aspect of nous, for Aristotle as well as for Plato” (260). Yet on the other hand, Kim must acknowledge that “Heidegger’s discussion sometimes seems unclear on a key point: is pure noein a possible hexis for Dasein, i.e., for the zoôn logon echon (the animal with logos), or does its characterization as divine signal that it is merely a conjectured ideal?” (261). Kim’s solution to what he characterizes as the ‘confusion’ on this point in Heidegger is to suggest that pure noein either “is pure only in its disinterestedness, not in being free of logos” (262) or, if actually decoupled from logos, “this decoupling is not an advance to a higher, more authentic form of nous, but a privation” (262). This suggestion is untenable: if there is in Being and Time an inauthentic form of disinterested seeing, throughout the Sophist lectures Heidegger maintains the superiority of an authentic nous aneu logou and it is from this perspective that he critiques Plato’s dialectic.1 The effect of Kim’s reading is to bring Heidegger’s interpretation implausibly close to Natorp’s precisely by downplaying the phenomenological commitments of the former. Kim does acknowledge the following differences between the two: Heidegger interprets logos as Rede rather than Aussage (thus privileging an existential perspective over a scientific one) and he reconciles the analytic description of dialectic in Plato with the visual terminology, rather than dismissing the latter as mere metaphor (256). Yet on p. 264 we read this baffling sentence: “There is no given, either sensible or intelligible. Thus all objectivity is generated through predication. ‘Being’ is objectivity, and so itself the product of thinking. Heidegger grants all of this.” Heidegger would grant none of this, as is suggested by Kim himself when in the very next paragraph he observes that “Heidegger appears once more to legitimate a kind of intuition or Schau as co-original with and not reducible to the discursive power of concepts” (264). Furthermore, this section of the book concludes with the following critique of Natorp in favor of Heidegger: “Natorp, with no theoretical purchase on givenness, cannot say this [i.e., that the sophist distorts what is given to him]. His scientistic approach lacks the resources to grasp falsehood-as-lie, since it conceives of the object as generated by the thinker. For all its flaws, Heidegger’s critique exposes this weakness in Natorp’s reading of the Sophist” (269). But if Heidegger’s reading is judged superior here, that must be because he in contrast is committed to a certain sort of givenness and does not conceive of the object as generated by the thinker. If for both Heidegger and Natorp “there can be no final or redeeming vision” because both reject “the Husserlian faith in a pure moment of total evidence” (286), Heidegger is nevertheless committed to some sot of intuition that transcends logos and that Platonic dialectic therefore cannot, according to Heidegger’s critique, achieve. Kim’s decision to deny Heidegger’s commitment to an authentic nous aneu logou and his suppression sometimes of the phenomenological commitments undergirding Heidegger’s reading result in a rather confused account, to say the least. It should also be noted that Kim seems unaware of Heidegger’s effort during this period (and later) to discover a type of logos that does not have the as-structure (Heidegger finds this pure non-assertive, non-predicative saying, for example, in the Aristotelian categories and in the Aristotelian horismos) and that therefore would not stand in the way of a pure noein.2
9This downplaying of Heidegger’s phenomenological commitments in order to bring him implausibly close to Natorp is hard to square with Kim’s own characterization of Heidegger earlier in the book as even more strictly a phenomenologist, and therefore more opposed to Natorp, than Husserl himself since Heidegger refuses to follow Husserl’s own later move towards ‘genetics’ and thus to a position closer to Natorp’s; Kim even speaks here of a “reactionary fundamentalism . . so typical of Heidegger” (179). It is indeed Kim’s thesis that “Heidegger’s reading of Plato is motivated, if not necessitated, by his phenomenological commitments” (148). How, then, is this claim compatible with Kim’s later attempt to bring Heidegger closer to Natorp and to make of him a mediator between the Neo-Kantian and phenomenological readings? As Kim also notes, “for every neo-Kantian interpretation of a Platonic notion or theme, Heidegger gives a phenomenological one” (183). There may, in short, be some truth in Natorp’s reading of Plato that Heidegger, far from appropriating and making his own, cannot do justice to. If Heidegger hid his debt to Plato, this may in part be due to a genuine incompatibility between his own phenomenological methodology and Plato’s dialectic, as I have myself argued in the texts already cited.
- 3 Vom Wesen der Wahrheit : Zu Platons Höhlengleichnis und Theätet, Gesamtausgabe 34, Vittorio Kloster (...)
- 4 Significantly, these two criticisms apply much more to the 1942 essay than they do to the earlier l (...)
10I wish to conclude, however, by highlighting one important lesson Kim draws from his study. Central to Heidegger’s self-definition and that of many of those who have followed in his footsteps is the characterization of the Western philosophical tradition starting with Plato as a ‘metaphysics of presence’. Kim’s book shows, however, that the Neo-Kantians not only had already challenged such a metaphysics of presence but that they found the ideal ally for such a challenge in Plato (182-3, 281). Furthermore, in pitting Natorp against Heidegger and showing also the convergences between the Plato interpretations of both philosophers, Kim demonstrates convincingly the untenability of Heidegger’s attempt to saddle Plato with a metaphysics of presence. Specifically, he shows how the interweaving of eidê in the Sophist, as interpreted by Natorp and Heidegger himself, makes the ‘pure presence’ of the ideai impossible in principle (281). Furthermore, subsequent to his discussion of Heidegger’s interpretation of the Cave allegory, which unfortunately follows the trend of focusing exclusively on Plato’s Doctrine of Truth and ignoring what Kim himself characterizes as the “longer, more detailed reading” in the lecture course of 1931/323 (270), Kim criticizes two important pillars of this interpretation: 1) Kim rightly charges Heidegger with misrepresenting the Sun analogy in ignoring its explicit comparison of truth with light, a comparison that bears a clear affinity to Heidegger’s own notion of Lichtung (281-2); 2) noting that “Heidegger’s criticisms all depend on the notion that Plato conceives of the Good as a thing” (282), Kim rightly challenges this reading by stressing the characterization of the Good as epikeina tês ousias (282-3).4
11The more general lesson here is how inseparable the task of interpreting Plato is from the task of interpreting the goals and method of philosophy itself. Indeed, it is striking that for all of the philosophers considered here, the very identity of philosophy as a discipline is at stake in their reading of Plato, even if this is especially evident in the case of the Neo-Kantians (65-66). In this respect the German philosophical tradition can serve as a valuable paradigm for a philosophical reading of Plato. All of these German philosophers interpret Plato in doing themselves what Plato was doing. Kim’s study also illustrates well the dangers of such an interpretation, specifically, the excuses it provides for misreading or simply not reading Plato’s texts. Given that a non-philosophical reading of a philosophical text is an absurdity, there are only two real alternatives: one interprets Plato’s texts either 1) in actively philosophizing with Plato or 2) passively and unreflectively through the lenses of a philosophy one has imbibed through one’s educational training and formation. Much Platonic scholarship today falls into the second category and can be, despite the lack of philosophical reflection, extremely useful and important. Kim’s book, however, alerts us to the virtues of the first approach while also not concealing its pitfalls. From the examples it presents we can learn, positively, how to be more philosophically self-conscious and creative in our readings and, negatively, how to be more faithful to the texts. This is especially important in the case of Plato where we have texts that are both extensive and elusive when it comes to the ultimate questions.
1 Rather than repeat all the references here, I can simply refer the reader to my “History of an Embarrassment : Heidegger’s Critique of Platonic Dialectic”, Journal of the History of Philosophy 40, 2002, p. 361-389, as well as Plato and Heidegger : A Question of Dialogue, Penn State Press, Philadelphia, 2009, ch. 1. It must be said that Kim for some reason ignores most of the now fairly extensive secondary literature on Heidegger’s reading of Plato.
2 See Plato and Heidegger, p. 25-28, p. 267-269, and “And the Rest is Sigetik : Silencing Logic and Dialectic in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie”, Research in Phenomenology 38, 2008, p. 368-369.
3 Vom Wesen der Wahrheit : Zu Platons Höhlengleichnis und Theätet, Gesamtausgabe 34, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 1988. Kim seems unaware of the 1933/34 version of this same course : Sein und Wahrheit, Gesamtausgabe 36/37, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2001. As I have attempted to show, the later essay departs significantly from the earlier lecture courses (Plato and Heidegger, ch. 3). To continue, therefore, to focus on the 1942 essay in lieu of the earlier lecture courses is no longer acceptable.
4 Significantly, these two criticisms apply much more to the 1942 essay than they do to the earlier lecture courses : in the latter Heidegger does acknowledge, even if to the detriment of his own argument, the description of the Good as epikeina tês ousias and the central role of ‘light’ in Plato’s analogy. In 1942 Heidegger makes his life easier by suppressing everything in the courses that was in tension with his thesis of a Platonic transformation of truth into correctness.Haut de page
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Francisco Gonzalez, « Alan Kim, Plato in Germany: Kant - Natorp – Heidegger », Études platoniciennes, 8 | 2011, 219-224.
Francisco Gonzalez, « Alan Kim, Plato in Germany: Kant - Natorp – Heidegger », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 8 | 2011, mis en ligne le 16 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/496Haut de page
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