Upcoming Ethics Review Forum: Kamtekar’s Plato’s Moral Pyschology, reviewed by Smith

We’re pleased to announce our next Ethics review forum on Rachana Kamtekar’s Plato’s Moral Psychology (OUP 2018), reviewed by Nicholas Smith. Excerpts from the blurb and the review are below, but you can read both in their entirety via OUP’s website and Ethics, respectively. (You are welcome to participate in the forum even if you haven’t read either. Though as you’ll see below, if you believe it is best to read both, you will read both.)

The forum will start on the morning of Friday, January 11.

The book abstract:

Plato’s Moral Psychology is concerned with Plato’s account of the soul insofar as it bears on our living well or badly, virtuously or viciously. The core of Plato’s moral psychology is his account of human motivation, and PMP argues that throughout the dialogues Plato maintains that human beings have a natural desire for our own good, and that actions and conditions contrary to this desire are involuntary (from which follows the ‘Socratic paradox’ that wrongdoing is involuntary). Our natural desire for our own good may be manifested in different ways: by our pursuit of what we calculate is best, but also by our pursuit of pleasant or fine things—pursuits which Plato assigns to distinct parts of the soul, sometimes treating these soul-parts as homuncular sub-agents to facilitate psychic management, and other times providing a natural teleological account for them. Thus PMP develops a very different interpretation of Plato’s moral psychology from the mainstream interpretation, according to which Plato first proposes that human beings only do what we believe to be the best of the things we can do (‘Socratic intellectualism’) and then in the middle dialogues rejects this in favour of the view that the soul is divided into parts with good-dependent and good-independent motivations (‘the divided soul’). PMP arrives at its different interpretation through the methodology of reading dialogues with a close eye to the dialectical dependence of what the main speaker says on the precise intellectual problem set up between himself and his interlocutors.


From the review:

Kamtekar begins her exploration of Plato’s moral psychology by observing that Plato seems to commit himself to several theses with respect to moral psychology:

  1. Virtue is knowledge.
  2. Wrongdoing is involuntary.
  3. We always do what we believe is the best of the things we can do.

She then goes on to note that many scholars at least used to suppose that these three theses implied a further thesis, namely:

  1. There are no nonrational or good-independent motivations.

These theses generate problems of interpretation. So, for example, while (1) seems to be the view given in several of Plato’s so-called “early” or “Socratic” dialogues, it seems to be rejected in, for example, the Republic. There, justice is explicitly identified with the harmonization of the three parts of the soul and therefore cannot plausibly be understood in wholly cognitive terms. The same inconstancy in Plato’s support seems to apply to (3), as well: whereas the early dialogues indicate support for (3), the case of Leontius in Republic 439e–440a is often regarded as evidence that Plato moved away from this view.

Kamtekar recognizes that scholars have often tried to explain the apparent inconsistencies in Plato’s support for positions such as (1) through (4) by invoking what has come to be known as a “developmentalist” reading of the dialogues. Roughly, developmentalists have argued that a number of the positions supported in the “early” or “Socratic” dialogues are modified or rejected in later dialogues. […]

Traditionally, opposition to developmentalist readings has tended to come from so-called “unitarian” scholars who have argued that the apparent shifts in Plato’s views—which developmentalists have understood as changes in his philosophical development—are only apparent and can be explained away. […]

Kamtekar appears to call for a different interpretive approach, which does not make the assumptions common to both developmentalist and unitarian practices. Her own method, as she characterizes it, recognizes the “dialectical dependence of what is said, especially by principal speakers, in order to determine Plato’s relationship to various substantive theses p that are presented and argued for in the dialogues.” “Dialectical” here requires explication, which Kamtekar is careful to provide: “The basic idea is that the interpretation of sentences that seem to express psychological doctrine should be informed by an understanding of what role these sentences play in the dialogue: for or against what are they used? Are they adopted because the interlocutor, or most people, or the main speaker himself, believes them? Or because they explain something that one of the parties believes?” (11).

[M]any will find Kamtekar’s nondoctrinal readings appealing. She does not, however, offer any explanation for the fact that none of Plato’s ancient readers had any problem with attributing to Plato the views (or “doctrines”) for which his main characters argue. Aristotle, for example, reads Plato as a developmentalist (including the additional historical claim about the view of the historical Socrates being represented in the early dialogues). In reporting Plato’s views, Aristotle unabashedly identifies them with the arguments of Socrates in later dialogues, such as the Republic (see his critique of Plato in bk. 2 of the Politics). Strong support for the unitarian approach, by contrast, can be derived from the fact that all of the later members of Plato’s Academy did not seem to recognize any instances of inconsistency in the view Plato presents in his works.


Certainly the best part of Kamtekar’s book is her careful review of the various expressions of the view that wrongdoing is always involuntary. […]

As she notices near the beginning of chapter 3, there is actually only one text that seems to indicate that Socrates recognized the possibility of voluntary wrong-doing. In the Apology (26a2–8), Socrates scolds Meletus, “If I corrupt them [the youth] unwillingly, the law here isn’t to bring people to trial for errors of this sort, namely unwilling ones, but to take them aside in private to teach and admonish them. For it’s clear that once I learn, I’ll stop what I’m doing unwillingly. But you’ve avoided associating with me and you didn’t want to instruct me, and instead you bring me here to trial where it’s the law to try those who need punishment, not instruction”.

Kamtekar avoids concluding that Socrates is simply misleading Meletus or the jurors here, which he would be doing if we simply assume that it is his (and/or Plato’s) view that all wrongdoing is unwilling, full stop. Instead, she notices that in this argument “ignorance of the fact that corrupting one’s associates makes them vicious, and so such as to harm one, is what would make it possible for one to corrupt them willingly” (72; emphasis in original). Such actions thus allow that there is a sense in which one can do wrong willingly insofar as one forms and acts successfully on the intention to harm others. Even so, such actions count for Plato as unwilling insofar as they also always harm those who perform such actions, and such self-harm is always unwilling.


4 Replies to “Upcoming Ethics Review Forum: Kamtekar’s Plato’s Moral Pyschology, reviewed by Smith

  1. I’d like to begin this discussion by saying a little bit about ways of reading Plato—this will be preliminary to discussing the philosophical claims in the book, but is called for since Nick Smith’s review spends quite some time on the topic.

    In our primary source for the philosophy of Plato—his dialogues—nothing is said in Plato’s own voice, and the main speakers of the dialogues—usually Socrates, but also Timaeus, unnamed visitors, etc.—do not speak with one voice. Readers therefore have to come up with a way of determining what Plato thought. If you suppose that what Plato thinks at any time is what his main character says at the time of writing, you end up with a Plato who changes his mind a lot (and to make matters worse, we have only a very rough idea of the order in which the dialogues were written). The “developmentalists” Smith mentions in his review try to explain some of these changes of mind in terms of Plato’s philosophical development; the “unitarians” try to show that the changes of mind are more apparent than real once we take into account the different contexts (problems, interlocutors, etc.) of the different dialogues.

    I don’t identify myself with either of these camps, but I do pay attention to the contexts in which the different dialogues’ main speakers express or argue for views, and in particular, to the dialectical contexts. Plato’s dialogues are dialogical: what the main speaker says depends on what the interlocutor has said, not only when the interlocutor has given an unsatisfactory definition (e.g. “justice is truth-telling and repaying what you owe”), but also depending on what precise question or challenge he has raised (e.g. “show that it’s better, in all circumstances, to be just rather than merely to appear to be so”). And the main speaker has many modes of replying: refuting, investigating on a hypothesis, demonstrating how to persuade, giving a likely account about things he doesn’t know. Paying attention to dialectical context makes it harder to conclude, “Plato thought P” just on the basis of the main speaker’s statement that P, or even argument for P, but makes it easier to understand what Plato thinks are the relationships between P, and other statements Q, R, S, in the dialogues. And what really pops out if you do pay attention to dialectical context is that Plato’s greatness as a philosopher lies not just in his powerful ideas, but also in the adroitness of his arguments. Readers of my book have remarked on how much argument they find in it; this is at least in part a function of how many arguments in Plato I have found to be better than is commonly recognized.

    Smith notes that I don’t “offer any explanation for the fact that none of Plato’s ancient readers had any problem with attributing to Plato the views (or “doctrines”) for which his main characters argue”, and cites the example of Aristotle, who, Smith says, “reads Plato as a developmentalist . . . [for whom] the historical Socrates . . . [is] represented in the early dialogues . . . [and Plato] in the arguments of Socrates in later dialogues, such as the Republic (see his critique of Plato in bk. 2 of the Politics”. But unlike many of Plato’s ancient readers, historians of philosophy today care about the difference between “Plato believed P” and “Plato tried out P”; Aristotle, by contrast, is interested in the views found in Plato’s texts. As for the claim that according to Aristotle, the voice of Socrates in the early dialogues is that of the historical Socrates and in the later dialogues of Plato, this claim would need to be squared with the fact that in Politics 2, Aristotle suggests that the unnamed Athenian who is the main speaker of Plato’s last work, the Laws, is ‘Socrates’, and why the Phaedo, which is by objective measures early, lays out the metaphysical views that Aristotle attributes to Socrates rather than Plato (Metaphysics 1).

    Socrates’ famous professions of ignorance across the dialogues are a specific sort of dialectical context that lead me to pay attention to the modes of argument—refutative, protreptic, hypothetical—instead of assuming that Socrates simply states and argues for what he believes in the dialogues. Among ancient readers of Plato, the Academic Skeptics also took these professions seriously, reading Plato as a skeptic (rather than distancing his voice from Socrates’); for example, Cicero says in Academica: “In his [sc. Plato’s] books nothing is affirmed, there are many arguments on either side, everything is under investigation, and nothing is claimed to be certain.” [1.46]). Reading Plato as a skeptic is a different solution to the problem of voice in the dialogues, but it is also made more plausible by noticing the variety of modes of argument in the dialogues.

    Now to some philosophy. In the book I argue that the so-called ‘Socratic intellectualist’ thesis that everyone does/wants to do only what they believe to be the best of the things they can do is not the basis for the so-called ‘Socratic paradox’ that all wrongdoing is unwilling because due to ignorance. Instead, I argue, the basis for the unwillingness of wrongdoing is that everyone has a natural desire for their own good, and wrongdoing, because it is bad for the agent, impedes the fulfillment of that desire. As a result, ignorance is not what makes wrongdoing unwilling, although ignorance may explain why someone who desires their own good ends up doing wrong, when that is contrary to their good.

    In the argument from the Apology Smith mentions, Socrates actually distinguishes two kinds of ignorance, one which does make an action unwilling—we can call this ‘ignorance of what one is doing’ and one which does not make the action unwilling. This is one of those adroit arguments in Plato that I mentioned above, so let me sketch it out. The argument is Socrates’ response to Anytus’ charge that he corrupts the young. Socrates argues:

    (A1) The vicious harm their associates while the good benefit theirs (25c).
    (A2) If I corrupt my associates, then I make them vicious (25d).
    (A3) No one wants (bouletai) to be harmed (25d).
    (A4) If I corrupt my associates willingly (hekonta), I must (by A3) be ignorant of (A1) and (A2) (25e).
    (A5) It is not plausible that I am ignorant of (A1) and (A2) (25e).
    (A6) Therefore, either I do not corrupt my associates, or if I corrupt them, I do so unwillingly (26a).
    (A7) If I corrupt my associates unwillingly, I should be instructed and exhorted, not taken to court (26a).

    In A4 ignorance is a condition of Socrates corrupting his associates willingly. The content of this ignorance is that those who have been corrupted are vicious and harmful to their associates (A1, A2). If (implausibly, A5), Socrates were ignorant of this, he would corrupt his associates willingly. Here, in accepting that ignorance of the harm to himself of corrupting his associates wouldn’t make his action unwilling, Socrates must be simply setting aside the philosophically ambitious Socratic paradox—which seems to me appropriate for argument in a court of law. However, there is a kind of ignorance which would make Socrates’ corrupting his associates unwilling, according to A7, since the response to it recommended by Socrates is instruction and exhortation. In the book I suggest that the content of this ignorance would be something like ‘inquiring jointly into virtue with others corrupts them’. While it’s implausible that Socrates would be ignorant that corrupting one’s associates makes them worse, hence harmful to oneself, it’s not implausible that he would be ignorant that inquiring into virtue with one’s associates corrupts them. In the latter case there is a (plausible) mismatch between what he thinks he is doing, or the description under which he is acting intentionally (inquiring into virtue with his associates) and the action-description under which he is charged (corrupting his associates). This mismatch is ‘ignorance of what one is doing’, and it makes his corrupting his associates unwilling. But this is not the unwillingness of the Socratic Paradox; it is the unwillingness of unwitting, or unintentional, action. (It is also the kind of ignorance that Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics III.1, describes as ignorance of the particulars of the action: what one is doing, to whom, with what, etc.)

    In the book I argue that Plato distinguishes between these two kinds of unwillingness in Laws IX, where he argues that the Socratic Paradox notwithstanding, a penal code that aims to improve wrongdoers and restore their victims needs to distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions to know when to impose corrective, deterrent and restorative penalties because a wrong, expressive of an unjust character, has been committed, and when only to restore a harmed party to their original status because the harm was not the result of any wrongdoing. Plato argues that one should pity rather than blame wrongdoers (their condition is unwilling; they suffer from ‘diseases of the soul’), but at the same time impose corrective penalties on them.

  2. Rachana:

    I learned a great deal from your book and will be continuing to think about it for a long time!

    For now I just have a couple questions related to your treatment of tripartition.

    (1) First, I’m not entirely clear on your position on the good-directedness of non-rational desires in the Republic. Initially you seem to describe them as good-directed in a rather cognitively rich sense. On p. 149, for example, you comment, ‘If one agent-like part, believing that the good is pleasure, pursues the greater pleasure, and another, believing that the good is wisdom, pursues greater wisdom, and both are members of the same larger entity (the soul whose motions move the body), then, in cases of conflicting evaluation, we may well need to appeal to the respective strengths of the parts to explain which of the two, wisdom or pleasure, the person goes for’. Elsewhere you speak of each of the three parts as ‘determining’ what the good is in potentially competing ways. Language like this suggests that each part is cognitively autonomous from the others and engages in reasoning or thought of some kind about the good.

    Later, however, you gloss the claim that ‘every soul pursues the good and does everything else for its sake’ as meaning that each soul-part pursues the good ‘under a more-or-less adequate conception (pleasure, honour, overall goodness)’ (155). This suggests something a bit weaker: that the non-rational soul parts do not necessarily have any conception of the good, but merely some conception of the characteristic objects of their pursuit.

    Then you consider an objection, though: ‘Surely Plato can’t think it’s literally the case that lower soul-parts represent their objects of pursuit as pleasant or honourable’. This objection leads you to discuss the Timaeus, which you take to offer a ‘different but compatible’ account of how all three soul parts are good directed—namely, given the teleological nature of our creation by the gods, even our non-rational soul parts are designed to achieve some good. You conclude, ‘It seems possible that every action’s being done for the sake of the good is compatible with different action’s being motivated differently than by the agent believing that it is good or representing it to herself as good. Even soul-parts that pursue and act for the sake of achieving bodily pleasure, we can now see, are pursuing and acting for the sake of some good’ (157). This now sounds *much* weaker than where you started, in that it no longer requires conceptualization or sophisticated cognition—and perhaps even requires no cognition *at all* (Do our lungs, for example, aim at a good in this same weak teleological sense, in virtue of their design by the gods?).

    So, what I’m wondering is this: Do you mean to say that this weak teleological sense of good-directedness could be the one operative in the Republic as well, or are you committed to some stronger version of good-directedness in that text? (One reason this comes up is that you provide an extended discussion of the Republic’s ‘dual talk’ of soul parts’ judgments on the one hand and their forces on the other, and that distinction seems much less pronounced if the ‘judgments’ in questions just turn out to be something like good-directed behavioral dispositions, as your interpretation of the Timaeus’ teleological account suggests.)

    (2) I also have two questions about your discussion of 436b-c on pp. 131-132. There you pose the question, ‘Why does it matter whether we are “one or many”?’ and you suggest that one reason it matters is that it provides a response to Glaucon, who in his earlier challenge to Socrates claimed ‘that to have more and more, and more than others, is what every nature naturally pursues as good … Glaucon’s challenge supposes that human nature is not many, but one, oriented toward having more’. My question is this: In what sense do Glaucon’s remarks actually commit him to a unitary, non-many conception of the person? If Socrates’ claim that all soul pursues the good is compatible with his commitment tripartition in the text, then why couldn’t Glaucon’s similarly structured assertion be compatible with it?

  3. Thank you for this excellent book, Rachana. I’m afraid (though I believed it best?) I haven’t had the chance to read through it all, so what I ask here may already be addressed somewhere.

    I have a question similar to Josh’s (1). One way to put it is that I didn’t quite feel the pull of the objection voiced on 155, before the Timaeus discussion (the objection that lower soul-parts couldn’t be said to represent things as honorable or pleasant).

    I guess if `representation’ is taken in a sense that requires conceptual work, or some other intellect-involving apprehension of certain objects, then yes. But why think this? To my ears, it’s plausible to say that nonrational animals perceive (perceptually represent?) pleasant and painful objects as such—at least in the sense that they respond coherently to certain sorts of things as pleasant or painful, for instance by reliably taking them (and things they associate with them) as objects of pursuit or avoidance. Or we might think of pleasures/pains themselves as representations of certain things _as_ pleasant/painful: to be pleased by something would then just be to take it to be pleasant, where the `taking’ need not involve the intellect (a view we arguably in the Philebus—here I’m taking my cue from Marechal’s recent dissertation on these topics, but I recognize the interpretation is contentious).

    My question is whether there is a reason to avoid the more cognitively ambitious readings of the work of the lower soul-parts. Is the thought that there is no account of nonrational representation in Plato to do the sort of work suggested above? Or is there a specific kind of representation Plato’s views would require that could only be fulfilled by more robust, reason-involving forms of representation? There seems to me to be a lot of room between being good-directed in a merely dispositional sense (plants tracking the sun) and being good-directed in a sense that requires our rational capacities.

Comments are closed.