Steinhart and the Platonic Cowbell

Last August, I published “Polytheism: A Platonic Approach.” Last December, Eric Steinhart published “Atheistic Platonism: A Manifesto.” At first pass, it might seem that Eric and I are doing the same thing: constructing a Platonic worldview with an eye toward its implications for the philosophy of religion. This in turn might give the impression that ‘Platonism’ is a sort of religiously neutral, philosophical base on which one may add her religious beliefs — whether polytheist or atheist, in this case.

Indeed, you might even think this is typical of philosophical “schools.” Thomism, for example, is known to have Reformed and Roman Catholic champions. Why couldn’t there also be Muslim, Jewish or even Pagan adaptations of the Thomistic system (there are)? After all, Aquinas himself forged his worldview out of pagan systems (Plato and Aristotle’s). And taking this line of thought to its logical conclusions, why couldn’t an atheist be convinced of, say, Aquinas’ metaphysics and epistemology? Why should these purely philosophical descriptions of the world be persuasive only to theists? That is, why couldn’t there be Atheistic Thomism (or any other school)? Thomas Nagel is an example of an atheist who believes there are final causes immanent to Nature.

What do I think of this as a Platonist?

Well, I am trying to construct a Platonic worldview with an eye toward its implications for the philosophy of religion. In particular, I want to bring the radical polytheism of the ancient Platonists to the table of today’s philosophy of religion. But I am not reinventing any wheels here. I am consciously placing myself within the historic Platonic tradition, and trying to modernize and popularize some of its most recondite elements.

By contrast, Eric looks to this ancient school for inspiration, but is constructing his own worldview out of abstract objects with an eye toward replacing God(s) as an explanation. That is, he is deducing a formal description of reality from a first principle without ever appealing to a God.

Certainly, in the modern sense of ‘Platonic Realism’, Steinhart’s proposal is ‘Platonic’, because he affirms the reality of abstract objects such as numbers, sets and propositions. And this title is bolstered by his use of ancient Platonic thought; such as the top-down method of deriving a formal description of reality from a first principle by letting that first principle proceed according to its own inner logic.

But, his system is not Platonic in the more historic or normative sense.

In this sense of the term, to be a Platonist was to have a shared vision of reality through the lens of the One, or Unity. The implications of this vision for every area of life were considered and gathered century after century into a systematic view of the world. This Platonic school of thought included a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, an..everything. They had things like a normative practice of interpreting Plato, a corresponding curriculum for studying his dialogues, and an extremely sophisticated jargon to accommodate the nuances their centuries long investigations discovered.

In short, they had an identity; their social group had a unity with an integrity significant enough to last over a thousand years!

Of course, individuals within this school disagreed with one another not only over how to systematize the implications of the Platonic vision, but over what those implications even were. Nevertheless, it was clear to them who belonged to the Academy and who did not.

Atheism was an absolute no go for them.

And even if it wasn’t, adhering to a different First Principle than the One was.

For them, it was not enough to agree with them on some point or other, such as that there are abstract objects: many ancient schools of thought had significant overlap on these and many other areas. Nor was it enough to run with Platonic ideas and develop them in one’s own creative way (and, aren’t all our schools of thought just a series of footnotes to Plato anyway?).

Otherwise, the Platonists would actually be Pythagoreans, and the Peripatetics would be Platonists. By extension, so would the Stoics and Epicureans. In fact, much later views satisfying these criteria would be Platonic as well, such as the Augustinians and even Thomists.

By taking “the Zero,” or absolute non-being, as his first principle, Steinhart’s system is not a form of Platonism, though it may be Platonic or Platonically inspired in other senses.

I hope this does not seem like pedantic gate-keeping: this is one of the most ancient and influential schools of thought in history; it has more than earned the right to its identity, and it’s important not to blur the image of reality that it declares.

Now, that said, I am actually all about what Steinhart is doing! And I want to close this post by explaining two ways in which I am, and two ways I think those can be improved.

First, I want to encourage others to philosophize more Platonically. Identify your First Principle! Let it unravel its formal description of reality by the logical trajectory it sets. Let’s move passed the nonsense of nominalism, and consciously share a domain of discourse that respects the objects that make it intelligible in the first place. This is the sort of convergence by which progress is made.

On this point, I learned a number of things from Steinhart’s presentation, and was inspired to think of my own project in more mathematical terms.

Second, I want us all to move beyond the reductive theories of divinity that have plagued the philosophy of religion. So, on this front as well, I want to encourage others to move passed thinking of Gods as just superhuman creatures, running around the universe, leaving cosmic footprints behind. We need to move beyond cryptozoology folks! We need to get back to thinking in terms of First Principles.

How do I think these can be improved?

Well, as far as others thinking more Platonically, I think we should come to a point where we share the same First Principle. So, for example, while Steinhart teaches us all how atheists can think systematically in Platonic ways, he begins with the Zero instead of the One. In fact, he mischaracterizes the One of Platonism as Being Itself.

But, as Plato himself said, “the One neither is, nor is one,” (Parm. 141e). And this is reiterated in resounding chorus through the tradition. So, you’ll find Plotinus going to great lengths, for example, trying to show that the One precedes Being, and that even Number is subsequent to the One, and later Platonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus were even more explicit about this.

For the Platonist, the One is what makes things to be ‘countable’, or ‘unique’; to be individuated as one thing, and so the One is not itself a one, countable or unique thing. In and of itself, it is not anything. It is purely negative. It’s like a façon de parler, or an arbitrary object, in logical terms.

Insofar as the Zero is anything whatsoever, in literally any sense at all, it will like everything else derive from the One. Insofar as the Zero is not, it is not a principle in any sense. I take his argument from non-being to being to show the necessity of Being, via the contradiction of non-being, rather than that there is some principle prior to the One. “Preceding” the One is like “happening” before time.

Because Eric does not start with the One, it seems to me that his system is like non-Platonic systems in general in that it does not theorize about the stratification of the totality of all things, but its causal order. In this respect, I take the Platonist to be doing something much deeper and indeed different.

As far as moving beyond anthropomorphic theism goes, I think he is absolutely right to call us all out for being chained to it as normative and so formative of our concepts and philosophical directions. However, it seems to me that Steinhart does not go far enough, and ends up operating under the shadow of the concept of theism he seeks freedom from. That is, he makes it out to be normative, granting it the claim it makes.

But, on a constitutive model of the First Principle, a God can constitute the more personal presence encountered in religious experience without being reducible to that limited moment. The problem, I submit, is not in conceiving of deity in personal, limited terms, but in reducing it to them.

It is because of this that we find the Platonists talking about the Gods in abstract and concrete terms. So, it is not, as Steinhart suggests, that Plato thought of Gods merely as celestial bodies, but that Plato thought of the Gods as, Aristotle’s terms, ‘encompassing the whole of Nature’ (Metaphysics 1074b). I cannot recommend Gerd van Riel’s work on Plato’s Polytheism enough.

In the end, I encourage people to think more in these Platonic terms, and make these attempts to derive everything in formal terms from a First Principle. But I also caution against blurring lines and forging associations where there are none.

My project is to popularize, modernize and advance the ancient Platonic school of thought. Eric’s is to create a new school of thought inspired by this one, but for atheists, by transforming Platonic Realism about abstract objects into a formal account of reality as derived from a First Principle.

I hope this post served to clarify some things, and in the constructive, collaborative way that I try more everyday to embody!


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