Date of Degree
Peter L.P. Simpson
Ancient Philosophy | Classical Literature and Philology | History of Philosophy | Other Classics | Philosophy of Science
philosophy, classics, plato, whitehead, process, timaeus
This dissertation examines the presence of Plato in the philosophical expressions of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). It was Whitehead who issued the well-known remark that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato" -- the purpose of this project is to examine the manner in which Whitehead positioned himself as one such footnote, with respect to his thought itself, and its origins, presentation and reception.
This examination involves: first, an explication of Whitehead’s cosmology and metaphysics and their ostensibly Platonic elements (consisting chiefly in the Timaeus); second, investigation of what motivated his interpretation and appropriation of Platonic cosmology (I emphasize the influence of A.E. Taylor’s Commentary on the Timaeus); third, analysis of the aforementioned “footnote” remark, and of how Whitehead foregrounded Plato as symbolic of philosophy’s ideal goals and methodologies; fourth, discussion of the reception of Whitehead’s reading of Plato, and how in some connections it has impeded the reception of his thought, and in others (Process philosophy) has received further (especially theological) development; fifth, exploration of how Whitehead’s reading of Plato applies to philosophical interpretations of modern science (e.g. relativity theory, Big Bang cosmology, quantum physics).
Several themes emerge in these examinations. – One is that an assessment of the validity of Whitehead’s reading of Plato involves ambiguities that have their root in inherent ambiguities in the Timaeus, and Plato’s writing and Platonism at large. – Whitehead celebrates the Timaeus’ success in revealing the “forms” in the flux of cosmic process – but is a non-hierarchical Platonism with non-transcendent forms really a Platonism at all? Another theme is that just as there is an arbitrariness involved in Platonic interpretation, so is there arbitrariness in applying those interpretations (or those of other ancient philosophers) to modern science. Interpreting modern science through a Platonic lens may be at once helpful and illustrative, and problematic and unfavorable. More generally, presenting a novel system of thought as “Platonic” involves one in inextricable associations that may complicate and compromise the reception of that system, as has been, in some respects, the case with Whitehead.
Oglesby, Nathan, "Footnotes to Footnotes: Whitehead's Plato" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.