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From the Phaedo to the Timaeus: The Continuity of Plato's Metaphysics of Causation



From the Phaedo to the Timaeus: The Continuity of Plato's Metaphysics of Causation


Michael H. Hannen

I argue for the basic continuity of Plato's account of causation, from the Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis of his middle period to the teleology of his late period. Against the prevailing view, according to which the Timaean teleology amounts to a retraction of the Phaedo's account of aitiai, I contend that in the Timaeus the metaphysical status of physical properties and processes remains essentially the same as it had been in Plato's middle period, when he first takes up the question of the relations among what Aristotle would go on to call "formal", "material", "efficient", and "final" causes. Against authors such as Gill, Annas, Fine, Mueller, Sedley, and Johansen, I argue that Plato has not elevated the explanatory status of efficient causes in the Timaeus, though he does, for the first time, take up the subject of natural philosophy and its epistemological status in a thorough way, which does mark a contrast with his middle period.

The discontinuity thesis, though it has always been influential in Plato scholarship, often rests, I find, on a certain interpretation of the Phaedo's Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis, an interpretation that is open to some significant objections. Against the interpretation of the Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis according to which Plato intends, in the Phaedo, to put forward Forms as efficient causes, Gregory Vlastos argued for a "deflationary" interpretation which,


arguably, better coheres with Plato's broad metaphysical premises. In Chapter Three I defend and extend Vlastos's argument, replying on Vlastos's behalf to later work on the topic. My aim is, as well, to place the debate over the Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis in the broader context of the long-standing debate over the place of natural philosophy in Plato's thought. To this end, in Chapter Two I explore some respects in which I believe it can be shown that the discussion of anamnesis at Phaedo 59a-95e sets the stage for the Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis. That discussion provides an account of how we can be justified in the belief that concomitance of properties in the natural world points the mind to an underlying, purposive order. Evidence acquired through the senses alone could not justify such an inference; the Phaedo's discussion of anamnesis emphasizes, however, concomitance of properties among certain kinds of geometrical objects, objects of pure thought. In the apprehension of these regularities, perception does not play a justificatory role, it only prompts the recollection. The Phaedo's discussion of the Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis then mixes a priori and a posteriori examples, in order to bring out the justification for teleological inferences to a rational order underlying the flux of phenomena. We know of regular connections among properties from a priori cases. In Chapter Four I explain how the understanding of the Forms-as-aitiai hypothesis fits into the teleological natural philosophy of the Timaeus, contrasting my own interpretation with those put forward recently by Sedley and Johansen, inter alia. In Chapter Five I take up the reconstructionist interpretation of Timaeus 49c7-50b5, as developed by Cherniss, Lee, and Silverman, and I argue that this reading, and it's import for the metaphysical status of particulars, helps us to understand the relation between metaphysics of causation and natural philosophy in Plato's late period.

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