On William H. F. Altman’s Plato and Strauss

Note: This text assembles a facebook posts and some of my own comments on it from Dec 2018.

Here is an interesting paper on the post-war reception of Plato by William H. F. Altman, on “The Heideggerian Origins of a Post-Platonist Plato.” It builds towards a case for the thesis that the main strands of both analytic and continental post-war Plato reception converge in the picture of a post-Platonist, one-world Plato of immanence vs. the more traditional two-world idealist Plato.

This paper focuses on the continental post-war reception and Heidegger’s role in that. What continental Plato readers of three kinds — deconstructionists (Derrida, Irigary), hermeneuticists (Gadamer), and esotericists (of the Straussian or Tübingen variety) — learned from the master, even as they allegedly turned against his Platonist Plato, was to approach Plato through Aristotle. (Indeed, the real culprit of detranscendentalizing Plato is Aristotle.)

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An interesting suggestion at the end is that (as Nietzsche knew) the transcendental two-world Plato of old was, in his fight against the Sophists, “a Jew”. Ergo, all the Heidegger students, in their rejection of transcendence and metaphysics are somehow philosophically antisemitic. Or so seems to be the suggestion.

I don’t know how he squares that with Derrida’s Judaism. I know that in the case of Strauss, in a different paper, he argues that, his Judaism notwithstanding, Strauss was simply and truly a Nazi. Altman’s theses on Strauss in this euqally fascinating, dense, and impassioned paper on The Apline Limits of Jewish Thought are, as far as I can see, twofold:

(1) Strauss was a fascist when he wrote to Löwith in 1933 that “only on the basis of right-wing principles—on the basis of fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles—is it possible with integrity, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to the “the unwritten rights of man” [French in the original] to protest against the money-grubbing bedlam [das meskine Unwesen]” (that last item being an antisemitically-coded reference to liberalism. Bracketed remarks by Altman);

that (2) Strauss never became a liberal democrat but just adopted the facade of a “benign, if self-critical liberal” in America out of fear of persecution. However, no smoking gun there in Altman, I think, who himself relies on a quasi-Straussian hermeneutic here, stressing all the things that Strauss *didn’t* say.

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Be that as it may, and not being an expert at all, I’m still sympathetic to the idea that Aristotle got us all on the wrong track — but by taking the dialogues so damn literally, as if artistic form didn’t matter, rather than by any metaphysical mistakes! What I’d ask for, contra Aristotle, is that if you “refute” Plato on anything you ought to establish first that the character who says it can be equated with Plato at that moment, and that requires some story about what this character, at this moment of the dialogue, talking to these people is up to and how that is related to what Plato is up to in the dialogue in question and (ideally) in all of them together. I’ve never seen Aristotle separate voices. It’s like they don’t exist. Personally, I think the whole immanence vs transcendence thing is the least interesting thing going on in the dialogues and can only hope that doesn’t make me a Nazi.

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A succint statement of Altman’s overall project can be found in this paper, “Why Derrida is Right About Timaeus and Wrong About Plato”: an account of the proper reading order of the dialogues against post-Schleiermacher developmentalists and Straussian internal chronologies based on a certain view of how Plato’s pedagogy works:

“Plato’s technique is … : first, confuse them about the subject you intend to teach them, then reveal the truth about that subject in a way that depends on the student’s capacity for recollection, and finally expose them to a false account of that subject to test whether the truth you have taught them is truly their own. I call the three moments of this pedagogical tri-ad: proleptic, visionary, and basanistic.”

Not sure what to make of that in particular but I like that he wants to restor the ‘spurious’ texts to their rightful place and to hold that some conception of teaching is central to it all seems right to me, too.

Several friends voiced strong doubt about Altman’s intellectual history of 20th-century Plato scholarship (pointing to the influence of Medieval Arabic and Jewish philosophers on Strauss, for example). Perhaps they are right.

What I’m still curious about is Altman’s Plato. How many people are there on the globe who (1) read sources in Greek, Latin, German, French, English, (2) have some kind of big picture idea about how all the dialogues hang together that they (3) defend by offering a reading of *every* dialogue through a multi-volume book project (in progress) and (4) demarcate their own position against the major trends of 20th-cent. Plato scholarship?

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