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Plato's Relations, Not Essences or Accidents, at Phaedo 102b2-d2

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Hector-Neri Castañeda*
Indiana University


For quite a long time now I have argued against the view, widely held, and forcefully expounded by John Burnet, that at Phaedo 102b2-d2 Plato is formulating the notion of essential attribute and contrasting essence with accident. I have claimed that the essence-accident contrast is absent from that passage. This is a view that others have also held. But I have since 1950 found in that passage (as well as in some preceding ones) a formidable theory of relations. Recently, Professor David Gallop has taken me to task for my heterodoxy. His reaction is overwhelming:

I confess that I do not see how such a theory, [A] even if the text were to embody it, [B] could be held to provide an adequate account of relational statements in general. (p. 156)

Gallop's paper is very tantalizing. Although he establishes neither A nor B, he does offer a series of very extraordinary arguments, whose examination reveals the depth of Plato's thinking on relations.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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1 Castañeda, H.N. “Nota sobre el concepto de relaciónen Platón,” Universidad de San Carlos (Guatemala), No. 25 (1951): 99-117Google Scholar.

2 Burnet, John Plato's, Phaedo, edited with an introduction and notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, note to 102b8-c9.

3 At least the following translations avoid attributing to Plato the essenceaccident contrast at Phaedo 102c1-2: Cope, E.M. Plato's, Phaedo (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1875)Google Scholar; Fowler, Harold NorthPlato's, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, with English translation (Loeb Classical Library, first ed., 1914);Google Scholar Woodhead, W.O. Plato's, Socratic Dialogues (London: Nelson, 1953);Google Scholar Hackforth, R. Plato's, Phaedo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955).Google Scholar Hackforth in his interspersed commentary explicitly denies that in that passage Plato is introducing the essence-accident distinction, which he says, correctly, “would, in my opinion, be irrelevant both to his immediate purpose and to the whole final argument for immortality, of which this section forms a part” (p. 155).

4 See H-N. Casta�eda, (a) “Plato's Phaedo Theory of Relations,” journal of Philosophical Logic, 1 (1972): 467-80Google Scholar, and (b) “El análisis de Platón de las relaciones y de los hechos relacionales,” Crítica, No. 14 (1971): 3-18, for both an improved formulation of the exegesis contained in the 1951 paper mentioned in note 1, and a mathematical proof of the logical adequacy of Plato's ontological view of relations. The proofs differ in the two papers. I will refer to (a), which is the one attacked by Gallop; see footnote 5.

5 Gallop, DavidRelations in the Phaedo,” in Roger A. Shiner and John KingFarlow, eds., New Essays on Plato and the Pre-Socratics (Canadian journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 2, 1976), 149-63Google Scholar. I thank Professor King-Farlow for his courtesy in sending me a copy of this anthology immediately upon its publication.

6 Gallop, David Plato: Phaedo, translation with Notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).Google Scholar The translation Gallop gives on p. 149 of the paper cited in footnote 5 and the one given in this book differ in the insignificant feature of having ‘short’ and ‘tall’ instead of ‘small and ‘big.’ My discussion in this paper includes, therefore, a criticism of his translation in his book of the passages here discussed, and a rebuttal of the relevant part of his exegetic commentaries on pp. 184ff, 192ff.

7 The traditional translation of in Plato's sentence has been ‘true,' thus the sentence is customarily rendered as“[That Simmias overtops (is larger than) Socrates] is not true in those words.” Yet this is not quite right. Plato is not denying that the ordinary Greek sentence expresses a truth. He is not proposing to change the syntax of ordinary Greek. What he claims is that the Greek relational sentences (as well as its English and Spanish counterparts) do not reveal the complexity of the states of affairs they truly (of course) formulate. Why not translate in this case as frank, which even some pocket Greek-English dictionaries list as a translation, together with ‘sincere'? This was suggested to me in 1973 (too late for my own good) by a former student, Joseph Chester. The whole sentence is rendered on the Chester proposal thus: “ … as said in those words is not [ontologically] frank, or perspicuous.“

8 On the ontological development in Phaedo 100-106, see Castañeda, H-N. La teoría de Platón sobre las Formas, las relaciones, y los particulares en el Fedón (Mexico: University of Mexico Press, 1976),Google Scholar which is a translation by Margarita Valdés of the 1970 unpublished Plato's Main Phaedo Theory of Relations, Forms, and Particulars. I want to take advantage of this occasion to express my gratitude to Marc Cohen's stimulation: discussions with him in 1970 led me to return to the paper mentioned in note 1 and to write this monograph, only part of which is in the papers mentioned in note 4. I received valuable comments on the manuscript from Marc Cohen, lan Crombie, Charles Khan, Gareth Matthews, Kenneth Sayre, Gregory Vlastos, and Anthony Woozley, their criticisms sharpened by exegesis. I wonder how much of the theory of relations they now see in the Phaedo.

9 Burnet's interpretation of is even more misleading than the standard one. Surely, that Simmias is taller than Socrates is not for Plato just a farçon de parler: it is true. There is a sort of usemention confusion in Burnet's comment. See note 7.

10 I must confess that the persistence of the essence-accident interpretation of Phaedo 102c1-2 in Gallop's writings as well as in other recent papers shook me. (After all I am a frustrated Plato scholar, who believing that to understand Greek philosophy one must know both Greek and philosophy, has remained stuck with philosophy.) I thought that perhaps I have been the victim of a long standing illusion. I decided to consult a linguist classicist, in the hope that a person with no philosophical axe to grind could provide some independent evidence. I called Fred Householder, Distinguished Professor of linguistics at Indiana University, and I asked him three questions: (a) Is the focus of the negation in that passage the because relationship announced by the dative (b) part of what is negated? (c) Does it make any difference whetheris taken impersonally or as havingas its subject? On March 16, 1977, I received from Householder a memo that starts as follows: “You are quite correct, the scope of the negative is the phrase Whether is impersonal or not makes little difference” (quoted with Householder's permission).

11 Clearly, it makes no difference whether we take impersonally or not. Furthermore, the introduction of the adverb ‘naturally’ as the translation of is of little force. Thus, Phaedo 102c1-2 seems like one example that Lidell and Scott in their Greek Lexicon could very well have used to illustrate the use, which they register, of as meaning simply to be [the case]. Hence, the word can be regarded as simply emphatic and can, without loss, be left untranslated. This is precisely what Fowler and Woodhead, mentioned in note 3, did, quite properly.

12 That has in Plato's Phaedo nothing to do with accident is clear from Gallop's own translation of it at 72e6 ('actually’), 103e7 (this is just after 102c1-2, and Gallop translates ‘must’), 109d4 ('really’), 110b2 ('actually’), 111c2 ('really’), etc. The first two are particularly interesting in that he is dealing with obviously necessary truths involving the Forms. That was not a verb used by Plato to signify accidents even as late as the Sophist is clear from 258d6-7: But this is another thing.

13 I was fortunate in that the first version of this paper received friendly and useful comments by Gregory Vlastos, Alexander Nehamas, Paul Eisenberg, John Cooper, Michael Morgan, and the referee for the Canadian journal of Philosophy (in temporal order of response). I have tried to follow their advice fully in matters of English style or grammar. None bears any responsibility for the philosophical views or grammatical analyses deployed in this paper. All, especially Vlastos, Eisenberg, and Morgan, are to be credited for the elimination of some of the roughness of the original version. Cooper, Nehamas and Morgan raised an important question. Agreeing with me that Gallop errs in his translation of 102c1-2, they all quite properly query whether the essence/accident polarity is not still lurking there in the contrast Plato makes between Simmias being Simmias and Simmias having tallness towards Socrates’ shortness. I have discussed this query in La teoria de Platón(see note 8), pp. 82f. Obviously, the contrast must not take Simmias being Simmias as a trivial logical truth. With some hesitation, my view is that Simmias being Simmias refers to all the monadic non-relational properties that simmias exemplifies by himself. Some might think that “Simmias being Simmias” refers to Simmias having the soul or aliveness whose possession makes Simmias alive and which is the final argument of the Phaedo attempts to prove immortal. This should not be ruled out right away. However, it must be examined in all its conceptual implications. For one thing, it requires an ambiguity in the use of the names of persons: as referring to persons or composite of soul and body, and as referring to souls. Clearly, the subject of “Simmias is taller than Socrates” is the former. But perhaps in “Simmias being Simmias” the first occurrence of ‘simmias’ refers to the person, and the second occurrence to the corresponding soul. Obviously, the matter must be pursued further. I am pleased to report that not one of the above mentioned six persons defended the erroneous view that 102c1-2 must be interpreted in view of the final argument for immortality. They all insisted that the passage must be understood for what it says, and clearly it says something about the relation taller-than (and shorter-than), regardless of whether it contributes to the final argument or not: it contributes to the theory of Forms.

14 Gallop's arguments against my attribution of a theory of relations to Plato at Phaedo 102b3-c8 are at least based on a discussion of this text. They contrast sharply with Nicholas White's parenthetical attack: “(It is the failure to notice Plato's view about Forms that damage the sophisticated attempt by Castañeda to show that Plato had a good grasp of relations.)” This is from White's Plato on Knowledge and Reality (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976), p. 79, note 16. The extraordinary thing about White's claim about 102b3-c8 is that he makes it based solely on his discussion of Phaedo 74a9-c5! Apparently, the fact that Plato has changed the topics of discussion several times between 74c5 and 102b2 does not justify attempting a direct interpretation of 102b2-c8; nor does justify the direct exegesis of this passage the fact that at 100c1 Plato makes a new start, engaging himself in the official and final ontological discussion of the Phaedo. Now, if White is correct about what he reads into 74a9-c5, he could at most claim an inconsistency between 74a6-c5 and 102b3-c8, since, as we have shown in the above examination of both the latter text and Gallop's translation, there is obviously a theory of relations in the latter passage. But is White correct? He reads 74a9-c5 as discussing equality as just one Form (p. 67). His contention seems to be that if equality is just one Form, Plato cannot have the relation tallerthan as the pair Tallness-Shortness. This is correct. Being equal is also a dyadic relation, and it must be, on the basis of what Plato says at 102b3-c8, a pair of Forms. Has Plato contradicted himself? Well, perhaps we can put it more nicely by saying: has Plato improved his view in his development from 74a9- c5 to 102b3-c8? This is the more charitable interpretation. But must we be charitable? Given that at 102b3-c8 Plato is definitely offering an account of dyadic relational facts as involving two Forms, one (certainly White and I) expect him to take Equality to be a pair of Forms, namely, the Form the subject x has and the Form the term y has when it is true that x is equal to y. In short, given what Plato says about dyadic relations at 102b3-c8, one expects him, if he earlier had, already, the later view, and if he is consistent, and if the occasion needs it, to speak at 74a9-c5 of Equality as a plurality. This is quite a conditional. Yet, interestingly enough, at 74c2-9 Plato both speaks of the Equals themselves, in the characteristic official way he speaks of Forms, and equates them with equality. He contrasts those equals, like equal stones, and equal’pieces of wood, with equality itself, and he explains how we are “reminded,” by two equal pieces of wood, of equality itself, the one present between, because composed of, the Equals themselves. In short, it seems that Plato does not need our charity: he does not seem to change his view of relations from 74a9-c9 to 102b3-c8: there is a development of the view from one text to the other, and there is an adumbration of the developed view in the earlier text. Hence, White's interpretation of 74c2-9 is not only not relevant to the interpretation of 102b3-c8, but it has to be refurbished in order to fit the very text 74c2-9. (By the way, Gallop's own translation of Phaedo 74c2-9, about Equals themselves, in his book mentioned in note 6 above, is also in error.)

15 Schopenhauer, Arthur The World as Will and Idea (New York: Dover), vol. 1Google Scholar, p. xvii. I owe this splendid reference to Alberto Coffa.