Apr 28, 2009

Sometimes scholars of ancient Greek philosophy—perhaps unconsciously—substitute translation for explanation. This is particularly evident in translations of the language of what used to be called higher cognition. We read, for example, that nou'" for Plato is "mind" or "reason" or "intellect" and that the activity in which nou'" engages, namely, novhsi", is "intellection" or "intuition" or "thinking" or "understanding" or "knowing," and so on. One need not quarrel with these translations in order to point out they are just placeholders for a genuine account of Plato's intentions or meaning. This is particularly evident given that the linguistic and conceptual apparatus surrounding the use of such English terms have no clear Platonic application. To take one simple example, in English it is easy to suppose that understanding is often equivalent to cognizing a term or concept where the criterion of "cognizing" is success in their application. For Plato, by contrast, there are very good grounds indeed for thinking that understanding intelligible reality is not equivalent to understanding words or concepts. If that is so, then what is understanding supposed by Plato to be? Similar considerations could be adduced for virtually every English term used to translate nou'" and nohvsi".
In this paper, I want to advance one general and one specific claim. The general claim is that Plato's approach to cognition or, if one likes, to epistemology, is incomprehensible apart from his metaphysics. The specific claim is that Plato has something precise in mind when he is talking about novhsi". To put it emblematically and, I confess, anachronistically, he is talking about the cognition of material identity. In a way, this type of cognition is for Plato the daily bread of philosophy. In addition, as we shall see in a moment, its ubiquity and irreducibility to any other type of cognition is itself a powerful reason supporting of Plato's metaphysics.
I am henceforth going to use the placeholders "intellect" and "intellection" for nou'" and novhsi", respectively. I do this with a certain amount of diffidence and with no other intention than to preserve the etymological connection between the two terms and the terms for their objects, namely, ta; nohtav and ta; noouvmena, or "intelligibles".

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