Thursday, March 23, 2017


The Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier apparently coined the term 'epistemology' in 1854, as a translation of Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre. I had mistakenly said 1820, but I can't think why, since the book was originally published in German in 1794-5, and the standard edition 1n 1804. The vagaries of memory.

Neoplatonism and Plato

Here is a down payment on my promissory note to say what I meant about Neoplatonism deriving as much from Aristotle as from Plato. I wrote something about this a long time ago, and had to re-read it to remember why I thought that. More concisely, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

" contrast to labels such as “Stoic”, “Peripatetic” or “Platonic”, the designation “Neoplatonic” is of modern coinage [early 19th century, probably coined by Schliermacher] and to some extent a misnomer. Late antique philosophers now counted among “the Neoplatonists” did not think of themselves as engaged in some sort of effort specifically to revive the spirit and the letter of Plato’s dialogues. To be sure, they did call themselves “Platonists” and held Plato’s views, which they understood as a positive system of philosophical doctrine, in higher esteem than the tenets of the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, or any other subsequent thinker. However, and more importantly, their signature project is more accurately described as a grand synthesis of an intellectual heritage that was by then exceedingly rich and profound."

In my much more long-winded treatment, I opined that the tradition of reading Plato doctrinally, as for example subscribing to the divided line and theory of Forms as dogmas, may be partly attributable to Aristotle, who in my reading is of a much more literalist turn of mind than Plato. Thus Plotinus' reinterpretation of the divided line five or six centuries later is more in the spirit of Aristotle than of Plato.

Education no bar to genocide

I want to clarify the point I made in class, that contrary to what we might naturally suppose, societies with widely distributed and sophisticated literary, musical, and linguistic educational systems are not immune to paroxysms of xenophobia and mass killing. Germany under Nazi rule is a striking, though not the only, example of this (see Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, first published in 1997, which documents in detail that tens of thousands of ordinary and otherwise decent Germans participated vigorously in the holocaust, in an atmosphere of eliminationist antisemitism that their educations did not protect them from).

My point is about the unfortunate limits of learning, not about Germany as such; I don't think Germans are or were different from other people in this respect; in fact to the contrary I think their experience illustrates a difficulty we all face: none of us is ever too learned or sophisticated to presume we are exempt from the danger of being drawn into evil. On Clara's point that many Germans at the time may not have understood the genocidal scope of what was going on, I take no position one way or the other. The extensive documentary evidence shows that many did understand it, and participated anyway, which is what worries me about us, now.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Brilliant Blogging

This week's blog discussions were the best yet. Except for those few who aren't participating, the process is everything I could hope for. Keep it up!