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Temperament and Metaphysics:
A Study on James's Pragmatism and Plato's Sophistes (1)

Marije Altorf
University of Nijmegen

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ABSTRACT: In the first chapter of Pragmatism, William James outlines two philosophical temperaments. He argues that though one's temperament modifies one's way of philosophizing, its presence is seldom recognized. This statement by James led me to Plato's Sophistes, especially the relationship between temperament and being. Although Plato describes certain temperaments, I hold that the main topic is being. The ancients restricted All to real being, e.g., the tangible or the immovable. This reading of the Sophistes puts a different face on the first chapter of Pragmatism. However, if we allow James to speak to present-day philosophers as well as his turn of the century audience, then this reading of the Sophistes will clarify the current philosophical temperament. Neither James nor the contemporary philosopher is satisfied with any restriction on All; for this reason, both lack interest in being. Being, once the richest word, no longer satisfies the philosopher's greedy temperament.

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In the first chapter of Pragmatism (2) William James speaks about a rather unusual aspect of philosophy. He gives an outline of two prevailing temperaments in philosophy. 'Temperament', he argues,

'...is no conventionally recognized reason [in philosophy]... Yet [a professional philosopher's] temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly premises. ...

Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority.' (3)

James argues that, although one's temperament modifies one's way of philosophizing, its presence is seldom recognized. This statement by James prompted me to the reading of part of Plato's Sophistes, (4) shortly to be given. In this reading I focus my attention on the connection between temperament and being. The part of the Sophistes at issue consists of a description of certain temperaments, but its main topic is being. (5) The obvious similarity between the temperaments described in the Sophistes and the first chapter of James's Pragmatism forced this particular comparison on me and added a second topic to this paper as well. The reading of Plato's Sophistes puts a different face on the first chapter of Pragmatism (6) and if we allow James to speak not only to his audience of 1906 and 1907, but to present philosophers as well then the reading of Plato's Sophistes will also clarify present philosophical temperament and metaphysics. So, after the reading of the Sophistes I will discuss the first chapter of Pragmatism.

Before I start, however, I have to say a word on the coincidental character of the comparison. I came upon this similarity by coincidence and, for all I know, one can be rather sure that neither text is written with regard to the other. James did not directly react to Plato when writing his piece and Plato did not foresee James's text. The two texts are separated by more than two thousand years of philosophy. People might consider comparison of these two texts to be utterly arbitrary and they might even argue that the comparison is therefore illegitimate. Contrary to these criticisms I would like to show you in this paper that comparing texts based on a similarity with respect to contents only, can be valuable. It can clarify both texts and throw a light on the philosophical problem discussed.

Plato's Sophistes

Preliminary remarks

The main speaker in the Sophistes is not Socrates, but a guest from Elea. (7) He and young Theaetetus discuss the nature of the sophist in the presence of Socrates, Theodorus and young Socrates. Theaetetus and young Socrates are both students of the mathematician Theodorus.

By a certain method, known as diaeresis, the Eleatic Visitor starts the hunt for the sophist. As for now, I will not explain his method. It suffices to say that the method of the Eleatic Visitor fails. His method does not yield one, but several definitions and the final definition seems to be more of a philosopher than of a sophist. In fact, the definition describes the practice of a philosopher like Socrates.

'They cross-examine a man's words, when he thinks that he is saying something and he is really saying nothing, and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they collect by the dialectic method, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect.' (230 b) (8)

This passage is only one of the many from which might be concluded that the subject of the dialogue is not so much the sophist as the difference between sophist and philosopher. (9) The Eleatic Visitor and Theaetetus are at a loss for the definition of the sophist in the passage just now discussed.

At the very end of the dialogue the Eleatic Visitor will arrive at what he claims to be the final definition of the sophist (264c-268d), having taken a roundabout way. I will not discuss this claim here nor all the different aspects of his detour, but I restrict my remarks to the myths told about being. At a certain point the Eleatic Visitor finds out that he does not know what is meant by being. He recalls the myths about being told to him by ancient thinkers. He believed every single one of these myths upon hearing them, yet now he is confused and he likes to look at them more critically. Two of those myths show great similarity with the temperaments described by James and I will examine closely the part of the dialogue describing those two myths.

The battle of Giants: the Giants

When discussing these myths or stories of being the Eleatic Visitor and Theaetetus discuss those who seem to be involved in a battle of Giants. The first party, the Giants, are fighting the so-called Friends of Forms. I shall discuss both parties successively.

The Giants form `a formidable crew'. They are `utterly contemptuous' when anyone expresses an opinion about being different from their own ones and they will stop listening. Violently they hold on to their own beliefs: being is the same as body. They try

'... to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands; for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch.' (246ab)

The Eleatic Visitor and Theaetetus discuss the view of these Giants in the way they discussed other stories of ancient thinkers before, i.e. the Eleatic Visitor questions Theaetetus who will answer on behalf of these early philosophers. Rather easily (perhaps all too easily) the Eleatic Visitor makes the Giants admit that part of the bodiless ís as well. Firstly, he makes them admit that there are souls, just as well as unjust, wise as well as foolish. Now, the souls are called just or unjust by possessing justice or the reverse. So, justice ís (real). Something bodiless ís (real). The Giants are ashamed of their former obstinacy. Being at a loss for a definition of being they are offered the following mark which they accept since they have none to suggest themselves.

'... anything has real being, that is so constituted as to possess any sort of power either to affect anything else or to be affected, in however small a degree, by the most insignificant agent, though it be only once. I am proposing as a mark to distinguish real things, that they are nothing but power.' (247de)

I would like to take a more thorough look at this passage. Two points especially ask for a closer look: firstly, the shame of the Giants and secondly, the mark of being offered to them.

When confronted with an anomaly in their story of being the Giants are ashamed. This is the second time in the Sophistes that the Greek shame or to shame is used.(10) In an earlier part the Eleatic Visitor gives a lengthy description of the sophist. This description, however, does not match the sophist, but Socrates' maieutic way of educating. I described this way earlier on, when discussing the hunt for the sophist. Shame is an important feature in this form of education. A man feels ashamed because he thought he knew where he now realizes he does not know. The man is called purified. The Eleatic Visitor stresses the importance of purification (230de).

One may conclude that the taking away is more important than the replacement, more so, since the mark of being is said to be temporary. Being is literally taken out of the Giants' hands. It is no longer restricted to the bodily, the tangible, the visible alone. Yet with this extension the certitude of the definition, of deciding what is and what is not, is lost and replaced by a much less certain, much more fallible mark (not definition) of being. Being is the power to affect or to be affected.

This mark is not easily understood, due to the complex meaning of the Greek word for `power': dunamis. From a major work on the word dunamis in Plato's dialogues by Souilhé (11) one learns that the meaning of dunamis comes roughly down to the following. Dunamis means a property revealing the nature of a thing. A nature is only known in the manifestation of its properties and these properties are only known in action. So, like the words poiein and pathein (acting or affecting and being acted upon) also suggest, action is an important aspect of being. The being taken out of the Giants' hands is replaced by something less seizable and certain: properties only known in action.

The battle of Giants: the Friends of Forms

Fighting with these Giants are the Friends of Forms. These Friends fight the Giants from a high, unseen point. They maintain that certain intelligible and bodiless forms are true being. They are said to be more civilised than the formidable Giants and this may be the reason that the Eleatic Visitor does not attempt to converse them or to make them ashamed, where he did shame the Giants. The theory of the Friends of Forms is not refuted, because of its inconsistency, but it is put aside because the Eleatic Visitor can't stand one of its consequences. Let me clarify this point to you by shortly rendering the `conversation' with the Friends of Forms.

First of all the story of the Friends of Forms is thus rephrased by the Eleatic Visitor.

'... you say that we have intercourse with Becoming by means of the body through sense, whereas we have intercourse with Real being by means of the soul through reflection. And Real being, you say, is always in the same unchanging state, whereas Becoming is variable.' (248a)

For the problem presently concerned it is important to pay close attention to the following three remarks. Firstly, there is a sharp distinction between being and becoming. Secondly, one has intercourse with real being through one's thoughts. Thirdly, this real being is always in the same unchanging state.

The Eleatic Visitor questions the sharp distinction between being and becoming. Since the expression `intercourse' is applied to both being and becoming, the Eleatic Visitor wonders at the meaning of this expression. He offers the Friends of Forms the mark of being which the Giants accepted in the end: the power of acting or being acted upon. Yet, the Friends of Forms decline this mark. They will not accept that knowing is acting or being known being acted upon. In short, the Friends of Forms do not allow any alteration, change or movement in the realm of being.

As pointed out earlier, the Eleatic Visitor does not want to hold on to this strictly made distinction. `In heaven's name', he exclaims,

'... are we really to be so easily convinced that change, life, soul, understanding have no place in that which is perfectly real. that is has neither life nor thought, but stands immutable in solemn aloofness, devoid of intelligence ?' (248e - 249a)

The Eleatic Visitor tries to combine life intelligence, change. Yet, he does not succeed. He discovers both the necessity and the impossibility of uniting movement and intelligence. He cannot accept intelligence without life and life without change, yet without objects remaining the same intelligence cannot exist (249a-c). So, it turns out that all the different views about being have not brought positive knowledge on being and this will remain so since the meaning of being is not further discussed in this dialogue. The Eleatic Visitor ends this part not with an answer but with a remarkable appeal.

'On these grounds, then, it seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and the rest above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions either of the One or of the many Forms the doctrine that all Reality is changeless; and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent Reality as everywhere changing. Like a child begging for `both', he must declare that Reality or the sum of things is both at once. all that is unchangeable and all that is in change.' (249 cd)

To these words Theaetetus can only answer: `Perfectly true.'

Let me review my condensed reading of part of Plato's Sophistes. That what is taken away is more important than that by which it is replaced. What is taken away of being is certitude and an eternal, unchanging state. Being is taken out of the grip of Giants' hands and it is denied the unchanging state favoured by the Friends of Forms. The Eleatic Visitor is rather certain in his refutation of the myths of the early thinkers, but he is not successful in replacing these. Note that this outcome is in line with the characterisation of Socrates' way of philosophizing or educating where emphasis is laid on the refutation of would-be knowledge.

Before I go on to discuss James's Pragmatism, I have to add the following remark to my reading. One may doubt that the views of the Friends of Forms are truly refuted for their views about being show their indebtedness to Parmenides (12) and they are refuted by `... a native of Elea; [who] belongs to the school of Parmenides and Zeno ...' (216a). It is most likely that Plato chose his main characters with care and (notwithstanding later developments in the dialogue (13)) it is always wise to be suspicious when teachings of an Elean oppose the lessons of Parmenides. The Eleatic Visitor will be using being in the pursuit of the dialogue, but it is not at all clear what meaning he attaches to the word.

James's Pragmatism

First chapter

After reading part of the Sophistes I will turn to the first chapter of Pragmatism. As I indicated in the introduction the reading of the Sophistes puts a new face on this chapter and even, perhaps, on present philosophical temperaments. Let me briefly discuss the chapter of Pragmatism.

James discusses temperament. He provides the two prevailing temperaments in philosophy with the now famous denominators of tough-minded and tender-minded. These two temperaments match the temperaments of the Giants and the Friends of Forms respectively, as becomes clear from he synonyms with which James clarifies the distinction between the tough- and tender-minded.

Tough-minded are empiricists. With the Giants, who `... literally grasp[] rocks and trees in their hands ...'(246a) they share a materialistic and sensationalistic attitude. Empiricists are more interested in parts than in wholes and universals. They are as pluralistic and irreligious as the Giants, `...trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen ...' (246a).

`Rationalistic' is the most important word describing the tender-minded. Rationalistic is, according to James, closely allied to intellectualistic. Rationalistic minds start from wholes and universals. In these respects the tender-minded look decidedly like the Friends of Forms, who prefer their realm of Forms above all. Both the tender-minded and the Friends of Forms can be called idealistic and monistic.

James continues by giving a rather lengthy exposition of the short-comings of the two positions, which roughly come down to the following. James expects his audience to be lovers of facts and therefore on the side of the tough-minded. Yet these empiricists, the philosophical lovers of facts, cannot cope with another need James expects his audience to have: the demand for religion. The matter of fact, determined, fatalistic world conception of the tough-minded, the empiricists cannot cope with this need and one is forced to turn one's back tot the facts and toward the idealistic realms of the tender-minded. One has to loose facts in order to win religion.

Final remarks

I think James will heartily agree with the Eleatic Visitor's appeal for a proper philosophical temperament, i.e. to beg for both, to beg for all and not to restrict oneself. His aversion of definite answer shows his sympathy for Socrates' way of educating. James, however, differs from the Eleatic Visitor in his more explicit showing of the limitations of both temperaments. Moreover, James seldom discusses being, in spite of his large metaphysical interests. This last remark is not only true of Pragmatism, but of his other works as well.

I know of only one discussion of being by James, namely in Some Problems of Philosophy (14), yet this discussion does not yield any positive knowledge on being. James announces the chapter with the following remark:

'... in order not to conceal any of the skeletons in the philosophical closet, I will start with the worst problem possible ...' (15)

In the chapter James discusses important positions in the discussion on being, but ends with remarking that the question of being is very obscure and not so much our business. (16)

James clearly lacks interest in being. Talks of being are talks of restriction. The ancient thinkers in the Sophist restricted All to Real being, e.g. the tangible or the immovable. Averse from any restriction James will understand the Eleatic Visitor's appeal in a much more radical way and so will the present philosopher, addressed to by James. Neither one is satisfied with any restriction or definite answer and their dissatisfaction explains their lack of interest. Being, once the richest word, no longer satisfies the philosopher's greedy temperament.

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(1) The author acknowledges the financial support of the Stichting Doctor Catharine van Tussenbroek (the Netherlands).

(2) W. James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green and co., 1908)

(3) James (1908), p.7-8

(4) Platonis opera, I. Burnet (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899) and F.M. Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato translated with a running commentary (London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979)

(5) The Greek words on and ousia are both translated as real, real being or reality.

(6) Not surprisingly, in the Sophistes as in Pragmatism the fight between the temperaments is claimed to be of all times.

(7) His name is not mentioned in the dialogue.

(8) Cf. Apology 23c, Theaetetus 168a.

(9) Cf. 216a-c, 224e-226a, 233a, 249cd, 253a-254b, 259d.

(10) Cf. ai)sxu/vh 230d, ai)sxu/nein (247bc)

(11) J. Souilhé, Étude sur le terme ΔΥΝΑΜIΣ dans les dialogues de Platon (Paris: Librairie Félix Alcon, 1919) cf. p. 36, 112, 154 ff..

(12) `Real being ... is always in the same unchanging state ....' (248a)

(13) Cf. 258c-259b.

(14) W. James, Some Problems of Philosophy: A beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green adn Co., 1924)

(15) James (1924), p. 37

(16) James (1924), p. 46


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