Eric D. Perl, Thinking Being. Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition, volume 17. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. 216. isbn 978-90-0426420-5. €109,00 ($141.00).
Eric Perl (hereafter ep) offers us a lucid philosophical exposition of five exponents of what he labels “classical tradition”: Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Thomas Aquinas. Although the inclusion of Aquinas in the classical tradition may at first seem surprising, ep proves satisfactorily enough that he belongs to the same lineage as the other four. The fundamental insight of this lineage, that is, classical metaphysics, is the togetherness of thought and being, the indissoluble and necessary tie that links reality and intelligibility, namely “the law that to be is to be intelligible” (p. 7), first formulated by Parmenides, and reinterpreted by Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Aquinas.
The ambitious aim of the work is to contribute to a “‘paradigm shift’ in the study of the classical tradition” by providing “revisionist readings” (p. 5) of the selected philosophers and highlighting the continuity of such tradition. “Revisionist” here means a reading that does not follow superficial and stereotyped expositions of the philosophers in question. Examples of such stereotyping include the opposition between Plato and Aristotle, the presentation of Plotinus as an obscure mystic, and that of Aquinas as a mere Aristotelean commentator and thinker. ep prefers to understand Plato’s “two worlds” as one single world differently apprehended by the senses and the intellect; he sees Aristotle as a follower of Plato who identified being and form; he takes Plotinus to be the last and fullest flowering of the classical tradition; and he views Aquinas as being in continuity with Plotinus and Neoplatonism. Although ep modestly acknowledges that others have argued for such interpretations, he has a remarkable, not to say provocative, way of bringing these thinkers into agreement without ever obliterating their disagreements.
In the short chapter on Parmenides, ep identifies the tradition whose continuity he intends to demonstrate throughout his book. He analyses relevant fragments (especially B8), but concentrates mainly on fragment B3—τὸ γὰρ αὐτὸ νοεῖν ἐστίν τε καὶ εἶναι (“for the same is for thinking and for being”) as central to his interpretation: there can be no thinking that is not the thinking of some being, just as there can be no being that is not available to thought. Since Parmenides held that only that which is intelligible is being (and vice versa) and that the world of change is therefore neither being nor intelligible, Plato and Aristotle faced the problem of the “unreality” of change and difference. Remaining within the Parmenidean framework, they reacted by establishing grades of reality.
To interpret Plato, in the second chapter, ep adopts a unitarian reading of the dialogues, believing that they intersect and form a network “so that the corpus as a whole . . . has an integral unity and is more than the sum of its parts” (p. 22). Unsurprisingly, the Plato who emerges from ep’s analysis turns out to be very similar to the Plato of the Neoplatonists, who postulates the Good as the first principle above beings, a principle that is not one of them, but the cause of all unity and goodness and in virtue of which “there is any form, truth, or reality in anything”; in sum, a principle “on which all intelligibility, and thus all reality, depends” (p. 60). To support this, ep employs of course mainly the sixth and seventh books of the Republic. As to the main theme of the book, ep shows how Plato, while holding that reality is form and form the mainstay of all intelligibility, introduces levels of being to account for the difficulty raised by Parmenides: while the sensible world is less real, or has less being than the intelligible world, it is not entirely unreal. As mentioned earlier, ep rightly insists that the separation between the sensible and the intelligible is but a “spatial metaphor for the radical ontological distinction between identities [scil. forms] and the things that display, but are not, these identities” (p. 30).
In his Aristotle chapter, ep argues that there are no strong differences between him and Plato since both describe reality (ousía) as form (eîdos). Form, being the root of intelligibility, is prior to, and has “more being” than matter as well as the composite of form and matter. So, according to ep, Aristotle’s critique of Plato would actually originate from a misunderstanding of Plato as having actually believed in a spatial separation between the intelligible and the sensible. According to ep, what really sets the two philosophers apart is that Aristotle sees the first principle—unmoved mover, pure form and intelligibility—as also pure being, that is, one of the beings, whereas Plato exalts the Good beyond form, being, and intellect as the source of reality and intelligibility.
The fourth chapter is practically a full study of Plotinus’ metaphysics. ep shows how Plotinus’ ontology unfolds from the togetherness of thought and being, and from the resultant identification already made by Plato and Aristotle of being as form—that is, being as that which is given to awareness. At one extreme, matter is deficiency of being, and therefore is beneath awareness; at the other, the One is the cause of being, and therefore is beyond awareness. Intellect is being in the fullest sense, while sensible things are beings dimly apprehended by sense-perception.
The final chapter, on Thomas Aquinas, sees ep making two central claims. First, he contends that the most characteristic features of Aquinas’ thought reflect a Neoplatonic vision of reality, which, in turn, is the very same principle of the togetherness of thought and being of Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle. Second, he argues that Aquinas’ God is to a large extent the Plotinian, Procline, and Dionysian first principle, which is beyond reality and form, as expressed in Aristotelian and Augustinian language, in which the first principle is pure form. Aquinas’ distinction between essence and existence is fundamental here: the essence of a thing is what a thing is, while its existence is that by which it is; so God, as existence tout court, is not the existence of anything, but that by which all things exist.
All through the book ep adopts a direct approach to his five philosophers, without paying much attention to existing scholarship. As he is a very fine interpreter, the reader often comes across fresh and insightful pages. ep has an amazing ability to explain abstruse problems in plain language and without hermetic jargons. I was particularly struck by his exposition of Plotinus; the pages on the production of being (pp. 123-129) and the transcendence and immanence of the One (pp. 129-132) are among the most successful efforts to extract philosophical significance from Plotinus’ doctrine of the One that I have ever read.
I believe that no one would question the togetherness of thought and being in the “classical tradition” and, after reading the book, that it is brilliantly sustained by ep. However, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. In the present case, in the details that do not directly concern and do not harm the central claim of the book, but are serious enough to be overlooked as they expose ep’s disregard of textual difficulties and divergent readings. Here are some instances that caught my attention.
When presenting Aristotle’s theory of sensation (pp. 99-101), ep claims that it “should not be taken in a ‘representationalist’ sense, [for] Aristotle indicates that the very form of the thing itself, not a copy or effect of it, comes to be in the perceiver” (note 22). To support this, he quotes the famous passage at De Anima ii 12, 424a17-21 where Aristotle says that “sensation is receptive of the sensible forms without the matter”. I think that ep does have a good point here, but the passage is too debated to be treated so one-sidedly.1 ep’s explanation that, for Aristotle, “we are aware of a thing just in that the very same quality that is in the thing is in ourselves, as awareness” (p. 100), is not of much help for the understanding of how perceptions are remembered and become knowledge. In De Anima iii 3, Aristotle notoriously introduces his concept of phantasía to handle the contents of thought and memory, so that it is not without some reason that interpreters take his theory of sensation in a “representationalist sense”.
It is very strange to me that ep, in his chapter on Plotinus, says almost nothing about the soul’s role in the metaphysics of this philosopher. ep seems completely to efface her function in the making and governing of the sensible word, going as far as asserting that it is “misleading to suggest that the One . . . generates being or intellect, which in turn generates soul, which in turn produces the sensible cosmos” (p. 131); and that “the ‘making’ of the cosmos by intellect is not a process of construction”, so that “intellect makes all sensible things simply in that, qua form, it enables sensible things to have intelligible identities and so to be anything at all” (p. 139; see also 138 and 140). I think he makes temerarious statements like these because, in the section, he focuses on Enn. v. 8 ; there, Plotinus stresses so much the intelligibility of the sensible that he seems to suppress the soul. But this is not a reason for us, interpreters, to neglect that he repeats dozens of times elsewhere that the soul is the producer of all sensible things.2 Doubtful, though not serious, is ep’s certainty that the adverb ἐκείνως in Plotinus’ treatise v.2  1.2 means “transcendently, literally, ‘therely’, that is, in the mode of the One” (pp. 127-128; cf. 167). It is tempting, indeed, but it is not necessary to press the meaning of the word that much. We should not forget that ἐκείνως is a common adverb in Greek that appears nineteen times in Plotinus, usually not in relation to the One.3 It seems more natural to read ἐκείνως in the passage either as anaphoric,4 which is by far its most common sense, or as cataphoric.5
I am not going to take side in the debate, familiar to the readers of this journal, whether Plato conceived a transcendent Good or not, a debate which involves whether there were unwritten doctrines or not, and whether traces of these were to be found in the dialogues or not. I think there is strong evidence for both opinions, and it is for this reason that ep’s approach appears frustrating and unfair to me. It is frustrating because the reader of his book expects him to support his interpretation with the aid of more documents than disputed passages from the Republic. And it is unfair, both to scholars and laymen, because he never bothers to mention that his interpretations are just one of the sides in the debate. ep never warns the reader that there are conflicting interpretations of the passages and subjects he is treating. This was the case with Aristotle’s theory of sensation and the role of soul in Plotinus; and it is also the case with the Good and the doctrine of anámnesis in Plato, to which I now turn.
In his one-sided analysis of the Good in Plato (pp. 54-60), ep makes the extremely controversial recommendation (p. 60) that we should understand some superlatives in the Republic—i) 518c9: τοῦ ὄντος τὸ φανότατον; ii) 526e3-4: τὸ εὐδαιµονέστατον τοῦ ὄντος; iii) 532c5: τοῦ ἀρίστου ἐν τοῖς οὖσι—to be backing the view that the Good is above being and is not a being. It is not something simple to state that, in the former two phrases, “the singular rather than the plural form of ‘being’ (ὄν) may suggest that they mean not ‘the brightest or happiest of beings’ [sic] . . . but rather ‘that which is brighter and happier than (any and every) being’”. And, in the same spirit, that the third phrase (correctly translated) “need not mean ‘the best among beings’ but can mean rather ‘that which, in beings, is best,’ i.e., that in virtue of which beings are good”—thus suggesting that such principle is not a being. I am sure it is not unknown to ep, even though he does not mention it in the book, that several scholars6 have used these very passages to argue that the Good is a being—a being above other beings but still a being, like a king is above his subjects but still is human.
But can the superlatives in these passages express what ep wishes? I believe they cannot. In passages i) and ii) there is no grammatical sustention to the claim that τὸ φανότατον and τὸ εὐδαιµονέστατον may express a comparison with τοῦ ὄντος and so suggest that the Good is not a being. As a matter of fact, the phrases τὸ φανότατον and τὸ εὐδαιµονέστατον τοῦ ὄντος mean “the brightest and happiest [region, part] of being”, and not “the brightest or happiest of beings”—this could only be the case if we had the plural τῶν ὄντων instead of the singular, despite what ep thinks. The genitive τοῦ ὄντος is not a comparandum, but rather that to which τὸ φανότατον and τὸ εὐδαιµονέστατον belong. To support the “comparative use of the superlative”, ep refers to H. W. Smyth’s Greek Grammar, § 1434.7 But there is not such use in Smyth’s paragraph, who writes: “The comparative and the superlative idea are both expressed in ἀνὴρ ἐπιεικὴς υἱὸν ἀπολέσας οἴσει ῥᾷστα τῶν ἄλλων, a reasonable man will bear the loss of a son more easily than other men (and most easily of all men), Plato Resp. 603e”. There is no question that the superlative is a kind of comparison, namely, the comparison between one thing and all the others in a given set. This is the reason why the superlative is never compared with something in the singular.
Passage iii) is even less useful for ep’s purpose than the other two. His claim that τοῦ ἀρίστου ἐν τοῖς οὖσι means “that which, in beings, is best” is correct. It is also acceptable that, in the Republic, that which is best in beings is the the Good, which is “that in virtue of which beings are good”. However, it is grammatically impossible to get from this passage any suggestion that the Good is not a being. The superlative ἀρίστου is not the only one here; there are other three, and the chiastic construction of the sentence makes plainly clear that what is ἄριστον among beings remains within the region of beings: “. . . to lead the best in the soul (τοῦ βελτίστου ἐν ψυχῇ) up to the contemplation of what is best among beings (τὴν τοῦ ἀρίστου ἐν τοῖς οὖσι θέαν), as in our parable the clearest [organ] in the body (τοῦ σαφεστάτου ἐν σώµατι) was turned to the contemplation of what is brightest (τὴν τοῦ φανοτάτου) in the corporeal and visible region” (532c5-d1).
I was surprised, still in the Plato chapter, by ep’s understanding that anámnesis in the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus is not “a theory or a doctrine”, but “a myth” (p. 47). ep argues (pp. 47-54)8 that the soul’s recollection and pre-existence are “not literal”, but rather “myths or metaphors” for her intrinsic possession of divine, intelligible being, a view that left this reader with the impression that the immortality of soul, one of the cornerstones of Platonism, was reduced to nothing. It is hard to deny that, from our point of view, “the story of pre-existence and recollection is altogether grotesque” (p. 49), but it is a logical consequence of Plato’s assumption of the soul’s immortality, an assumption which by no means can be regarded as a myth or metaphor either in Plato’s philosophy or in the Platonic tradition. One of ep’s arguments (p. 49) is that, in order to imagine soul’s pre-existing in time, it is necessary to imagine that she is in some place at that time; and since “the spatial location of the soul and of the forms in ‘the place above sky’ (Phdr. 247c3) or in ‘Hades’ (Phd. 80d6, 81c11, 83d9) is clearly mythical in that it represents soul and the forms as bodies”, the temporal location of the soul and forms must also be so. It is undeniable that the immortality of soul brings forth numerous incongruences that Plato does not satisfactorily solve. However, to reject it and its consequences is not only to deny ancient Platonism, but also to deprive Plato of an important part of his religiosity. ep also asserts (p. 108) that Plotinus “acknowledges the true meaning of Plato’s myth of recollection”. Plotinus is conceptually prepared to maintain that the soul is immortal, intemporal, and incorporeal, but even he still struggles to explain the transmigration of souls9 and the kind of memory souls have after their departure from bodies,10 a serious aporia for him.
At p. 61 we find another instance of how ep furtively introduces disputed issues as unquestionable facts. In the very beginning of this interesting section on the forms and the Demiurge, he tells that in the Timaeus Plato offers a story of the construction of the sensible cosmos “by a God who is identified as intellect (νοῦς, Tim. 39b7, 47e4)”, and moves on. This, again, is not so easy. The first passage adduced by ep, 39b7, does not contain anything related to the question. At 47e4, however, Timaeus says that his story, so far, had been an account of “the things constructed through intellect” (τὰ διὰ νοῦ δεδηµιουργηµένα). The phrase seduces us to identify the Demiurge with intellect, as the Neoplatonists will do. But it is not entirely safe to take διὰ νοῦ as the agent of the passive voice; so literally it would not be intellect, but God who constructs through intellect. Be that as it may, nowhere in the Timaeus Plato explicitly identifies the Demiurge with intellect,11 and this sole passage is not enough to assert that God is intellect in this dialogue.
The clearest example of ep’s uncompromised methodology appears to me to be in the chapter on Parmenides, in which he establishes very easily the place12 and the meaning of fragment B3 (and, as a matter of fact, the entire poem of Parmenides) despite its utter obscurity13 and the numerous interpretations to which it has given rise.14 It is possibly unanimous that Parmenides has somehow proposed the togetherness of thinking and being (regardless what he might have actually meant by these). But unanimity, if it exists, stops here. It is true that ep looks exactly for such link and this suffices for his purposes. But as his eyes are Plotinian, so is his Parmenides, and thus the Neoplatonic interpretation of B3 rules the understanding of the poem. In sum, Parmenides’ teaching in ep’s phrasing is that “thinking is, wholly and solely, the apprehension of being, and being is wholly and solely, that which is given to thought” (p. 14). And that this being that is thought is (in reference to B85-6) “all together as one, not spread out over an extent of time. Nothing is past or future because all is included together in the apprehension of being. To think that-which-is, all together at once, is to think it without temporal extension” (p. 16).
I will limit myself to only two points in ep’ account. The first is that, although he does not discuss it, ep seems to agree that Parmenides’ being is spatial, refusing only that it has temporal determinations, for he describes it as anything that is available to thought. However, it is not certain as ep makes it appear whether Parmenides did conceive being as rigorously timeless or merely as changeless for an everlasting time.15 The second is that the kind of the “thinking” implied by νοεῖν and cognates, and to which being is available, is completely opaque to me. Throughout the chapter ep speaks of “think”, “be given to thought”, “apprehend”, “have a content of thought”, “thinkable”, “intelligible” as if these notions had an unambiguous meaning in Parmenides’ poem—or even for us. ep does not specify if he takes νοεῖν to denote i) a form of purely intellectual knowledge of true being, or ii) a form of propositional knowledge concerning the truth or falsity of a proposition, or iii) a form of realization that implies the simple observation of the being of things and of the sensible world.16
These criticisms notwithstanding, ep has written a rich and stimulating book, in which excellent sections are to be found. The problems noted above do not much diminish the value of the book, which I believe is likely to become obligatory reading for all those interested in “classical” metaphysics—be it to agree or to disagree with him.17
1 See, for instance, the discussion between M. Burnyeat (“Is Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible? A Draf”) and S. Marc Cohen (“Hylomorphism and Functionalism”) in A. O. Rorty & M. C. Nussbaum (ed.), Essays in Aristotle’s De Anima, Oxford: oup, 1995 (pp. 18-29 and 61-76, respectively), which also involves the interpretations of Sorabji, Barnes, and Nussbaum among others.
2 E.g.: v. 1  2. 1-9; v. 2  1. 18-21; iv. 3  10. 20-22.
3 i) Almost all instances have anaphoric sense; e.g.: ii. 4  11. 38 (“it is by imagination that one conceives matter this way”, i.e. in the aforementioned way); ii. 9  10. 14; iii. 2  15. 29. ii) In a few occurrences it is coupled with οὕτως to form phrases like “somethings in one way, somethings in other way”: iii. 1  1. 7; ii. 7  1. 47; vi. 8  1. 7; i. 1  3. 21. iii) There is also at least one clearly cataphoric usage of the adverb: vi. 6  6. 20 (“we must understand this in following way: not that . . ., but that . . .”). The latter sense is also supported by the cataphoric usage of ἐκεῖνο; e.g.: v. 1  2. 1; ii. 6  1. 49; vi. 4  12. 13; ii. 3  11. 1.
4 “The One is all things and none of them: for it is principle of all, not all, but is all in that way”, that is, as their principle.
5 “. . . not all, but all in this way: they, so to speak, occurred there [in the One]”.
6 See especially L. Brisson, Lectures de Platon, Paris: J. Vrin, 2000, p. 86 (at pp. 83-87 Brisson discusses Rep. vi 509a9-c10 to reach a conclude that is the exact opposite of ep’s); cf. also M. Baltes’ influential article, “Is the Idea of the Good in Plato’s Republic beyond Being?”, in DIANOEMATA. Kleine Schriften zu Platon und zum Platonismus, Stuttgat/Leipzig: Teubner, 1999, pp. 351-371.
7 ep refers to the 1956 edition. In addition to Smyth, he also refers to C. de Vogel, Philosophia I: Studies in Greek Philosophy, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1986, p. 185; but I was not able to consult this book.
8 With K. Dorter, “Equality, Recollection, and Purification”, Phronesis 17, 1972, pp. 198-218.
9 Cf. iv. 7  14.1-8; iv. 3  9; ii. 9  6.10-28; iii. 4  2; i. 1 11-12.
10 See his lengthy discussion of soul’s departure from body, her memory when embodied and when disembodied etc. in iv. 3  24-iv. 4  17.
11 We may rely on the Laws (875c-d; 897d-898a; 966e) or elsewhere to identify the Demiurge with intellect, but there remains the fact that Plato, in the Timaeus, is extremely cryptic, even contradictory. If we take the identity for granted in this dialogue, how are we to understand a passage like this, for instance: “After reflecting, therefore, he [Demiurge] found out that, of the things that are visible by nature, a non-intellective totality (ἀνόητον ὅλον) would not be fairer than a totality that have intellect (τοῦ νοῦν ἔχοντος ὅλου), and also that intellect could not belong to anything without a soul. So because of this reflection he put intellect in soul and soul in body, and then constructed the universe (νοῦν µὲν ἐν ψυχῇ, ψυχὴν δ’ ἐν σώµατι συνιστὰς τὸ πᾶν συνετεκταίνετο; Tim. 30b1-5)”? For a detailed discussion, see L. Brisson, Le même et l’autre dans la structure ontologique du Timée de Platon, Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 1998, pp. 76-84. It must be noted that Brisson would agree with ep that the Demiurge can only be an independent intellect, but he does not say that they are identified in the text of the dialogue.
12 ep admits that placing B3 after B2 is controversial, but he immediately solves the quarrel by saying that “[B3] clearly belongs here because it completes B2 not only metrically but also philosophically . . . by explaining why ‘you could not know what is not’” (p. 13, note 3). As usual, he does not care to tell who the extravagant people that do not accept the placement are and why they do so. See W. H. F. Altman, “Parmenides’ Fragment B3 Revisited”, Hypnos 35, 2015, pp. 197-230, for a detailed and well-documented history of the placement of B3. In his paper, Altman questions not only the placement of B3 after B2, but also boldly defends that it belongs to the “Doxa” section of Parmenides’ poem, rather than to the “Truth” one.
13 Compare for instance to the caution of A. Mourelatos (The Route of Being, Las Vegas/Zurich/Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2008, p. xxi), who declines to interpret the fragment B3 (along with B4 and B6 1-2), given its “irremediable syntactic ambiguity”.
14 A very good summary of the multitude of interpretations of fragment B3 can be found in G. Stamatellos, Plotinus and the Presocratics, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007, pp. 72-74.
15 For eight different interpretations of timelessness in Parmenides, see R. Sorabji, Time, Creation, and the Continuum, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983, pp. 98-108. Cf. also D. O’Brien, “One Man’s Parmenides”, The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 7, 2013, pp. 108-109, for whom it is not safe to affirm that Parmenides’ being is non-temporal and non-spatial.
16 I take these three interpretative options from F. Fronterotta, who analyses each one of them and favors the latter meaning (“Il verbo Noein nem fr. 3 DK di Parmenide”, Methodos 16, 2016 [URL: http://methodos.revues.org/4355; doi: 10.4000/methodos.4355]).
17 I have found about twenty harmless typographical errors in the book, most of them consisting in the repetition of words (e.g.: “at at”, p. 32; “is is”, p. 35; “be be”, p. 148), but also a few problems with Greek words (e.g.: θεωοῦσα, p.45; ἴδἤ, p. 133).