Plato and Wittgenstein on Generality, Essence, Conceptualization, and the Methods of Philosophy.
From Anand Vaidya (my colleague at SJSU who is teaching a course on Wittgenstein this semester). Prompt for a discussion of Plato and Wittgenstein.
"The point of this symposium is to put an end to the classical view of positioning Plato and Wittgenstein as two Book Ends for Western Philosophy who did not share a lot in common with respect to the goal, method, and substance of philosophy.
In this discussion Dr. Leddy and Dr. Vaidya will discuss various passages from both authors concerning the nature of language, logic, forms, concepts, and methods with an eye toward bringing forward a new kind of harmony between the two."
When I first read Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, particularly the material on family resemblances, I thought that here we have a final refutation of Plato. But over the years I have come to believe that Plato and Wittgenstein are closer than that. Here are some initial thoughts along those lines. These thoughts will involve a somewhat unorthodox reading of Plato.
Perhaps the central problem with Plato is how to deal with the theory of Forms. If Plato had been someone like Aristotle he would have set forth a series of pronouncements about the Forms in his first-person voice. But this is not what happened at all. Here are the factors that pose problems for the Forms: (1) Plato wrote in dialogue format. Although Socrates is often the lead speaker it is not entirely clear even that Socrates' views are Plato's own. (2) Many of the early dialogues and some of the later ones are aporetic. Plato does not provide us with any one answer that the end of the dialogue. (3) The Parmenides seems to raise problems with the Forms than cannot be answered. Parmenides ends the first part of dialogue by arguing that the Forms must exist otherwise dialectic would not make sense. But this hardly refutes the third largeness problem or the problem of how we can know the Forms while not having the eternal Form of Knowledge itself. (4) Sometimes Plato treats the Forms as hypotheses: which shows that he is not sure of their existence himself. (5) The Seventh Letter, if authentic, shows that Plato believes that his doctrine has never been expressed. This nothing in his dialogues gives us doctrine. The end path of dialectic is ineffable. This is also suggested by the Symposium where Beauty itself does not get a definition. Nor is the Good every defined in the Republic: we just get an analogue to the Good. (6) Plato's attitude towards metaphor, analogue and myth is deeply ambiguous. On the one hand these would seem to be at the furthest remove from the Forms. They would be if they were merely imitative. But they can also be understood as providing various alternative access points to the Forms. Could the Forms also be constituted by them? This is not suggested by Plato himself but perhaps by Kant when he discusses what he calls "aesthetical ideas" in section 49 of the Critique of Judgement.
An obvious similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein would be in that (1) Wittgenstein also has mini-dialogues (2) these are similarly aporetic (Wittgenstein seems more interested in getting the fly out of the fly bottle than in trying to actually define key philosophical concepts). (3) The injunction to silence at the end of the Tractatus may be similar to Plato's talk of ineffability in the 7th Letter and elsewhere. Of course neither Wittgenstein nor Plato were able to stop talking.
Wittgenstein seems to be interested more in concepts than forms. However, analytic philosophy can mainly used the notion of "concept" as a replacement for "Form" with the idea that in analyzing a concept one is trying to figure out something that goes beyond merely giving the dictionary definition of that thing,. Some philosophers hold to the idea that analysis of concepts involves trying to get at the essence of that thing, for example the essence of art. One of Wittgenstein's followers, Morris Weitz, held that the attempt to define the essence of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions will ultimately fail since "art" is not that kind of concept. Yet Weitz also argued that art theory is important because of the debates we have over the nature or essence of art. Definitions of art should be seen as honorific definitions in which we set forth some property as essential to art, one that we think should be especially attended to. Thus, for Weitz, Clive Bell's definition of art as significant form really should be taken as an honorific definition that calls on us to pay attention to significant form in art. Although some philosophers have read Weitz as calling for a definition of art that treats it as a cluster concepts, where there are many conditions none of which are necessary or sufficient, others have felt that he is simply calling on us to continue doing what philosophers have done in the past, defining art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but recognizing that these are really honorific definitions offered as if they were "real" definitions of the sort that we get legitimately for such things as "triangle" and "water."
Could Plato and Wittgenstein be synthesized? This could be done partly through a modification (or another reading) of Plato, pulling him back from hypostatizing the Forms, and by modifications (or another reading) of Wittgenstein, allowing for a realist interpretation of how the human/language/world relation actually, in general, works. Instead of seeing the Socratic quest (the quest of philosophy exemplified by questions that begin "What is...?" and continue through contested theories about the subject under consideration) in terms of a resolution that involves cluster concepts the quest is understood as seeking for ongoing resolutions in terms of honorific definitions in which the essence is increasingly revealed in all of its complexity, each definition replacing the previous ones in a dialectical and not merely cumulative fashion.
Wittgenstein thought that philosophy neither deduces nor explains anything. One would think at first that Plato was the opposite. Yet, again, Plato does not provide final accounts, except on a couple occasions (for instance with Justice in the Republic), and although the talks about deduction, it does not really play a significant role in his thinking. Sure, he makes inferences, but his method is not deductive in the manner of Descartes. One might say that Wittgenstein is anti-theoretical. But Plato is too, in a way. He provides us with many theories. Towards the end of his career he seemed more interested in methodology than in theory itself: more interested in the method of division than in any theory that method might generate. Wittgenstein says “The work of the philosopher consists in marshalling reminders for a particular purpose” (PI 127). Couldn't be said that the doctrine of recollection in Plato reminds us that knowledge is just a matter of marshalling reminders. I am not talking here of the mythologized versions of that theory but of the version we find in the Symposium as described by Diotima in her discussion of the "lesser mysteries." Wittgenstein held that philosophy was a kind of therapy, and Plato held that philosophy is mainly a matter of improving the soul. Wittgenstein stresses multiple methods: so too did Plato. Could Plato too be said to want to show the fly out of the fly bottle?
Wittgenstein stresses language games. But what of the language-games of philosophy itself. Witttgenstein invented some new language-games in philosophy. Plato used a number of different language-games in philosophy. The idea of language-games does not replace philosophy.
Again, on the face of it, one might want to say that Wittgenstein rejected definition, and replaced definition as a project with finding interweaving similarities, family resemblances. But one might also say that Plato and Nietzsche were both interested in the role of language and analysis in the pursuit of the best life and that this involves, ultimately, a kind of therapy.
One other thought. Wittgenstein places a lot of emphasis on the concept of "seeing as." Seeing as can be seen as a kind of imaginative seeing. Wittgenstein in his usual manner goes over many meanings and uses for "seeing as" and yet it is quite plausible that imagination plays an important role as providing the glue that holds together the different uses of a concept.
Rowe provides an excellent overview of the similarities between the lives of Socrates and Wittgenstein (notably not talking about Plato in this regard). Plato is often seen as opposed to the arts, but there is a poetical aspect to Plato's thinking, for example in his use of dialogue and mythology as well as in his use of metaphor and analogous thinking. Wittgenstein also seemed somewhat like a poet, as Rowe observes. Perhaps aesthetic and conceptual problems are closer together than we often think. Rowe quote Wittgenstein: : 'Scientific questions may interest me, but they never really grip me. Only conceptual & aesthetic questions have that effect on me. At bottom it leaves me cold whether scientific problems are solved; but not those other questions." CV 91. M. W. Rowe "Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates," Philosophy, Vol. 82, No. 319 (Jan., 2007), pp. 45-85.
It is noteworthy that Catherine Rowett argues for just this position with regards to the Meno: that it shows that to grasp a concept is to be able to apply it and we do not need to name some single common feature. "What we usually do is appeal to normal practice" Plato, Wittgenstein and the Definition of Games. in Luigi Perissinotto and Begoñia Ramón Cámara (ed) Wittgenstein and Plato,Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Find it: here