Why a philosopher needs others: Platonic and Stoic models of friendship and self-understanding

Research output: ThesisThesis fully external


This dissertation is about two ancient models of the relation between self-understanding and friendship. Here ‘self-understanding’ stands primarily for the understanding that our understanding has of itself. ‘Friendship’ stands for positive human relations in general. I argue in this dissertation that the model that I call Platonic conceives of self-understanding as possible only through and in friendship. ‘Friendship’, in this model, is the cooperation by which two intellects aim to comprehend each other and so themselves. I argue that the second, Stoic, model allows the self-understanding mind such intrinsic completion that it constitutes all that is valuable, including even the primary case of what they call ‘friendship’. This is an attempt to reconstruct some significant lines of thought in Stoic and Platonic philosophy, but not an exhaustive description of everything there is to be said about the topic of self-understanding and the topic of friendship in Platonic dialogues and in Stoic thought. Chapter one of this dissertation is about Plato’s Charmides. This dialogue develops a puzzle about the possibility of an understanding of understanding. I argue that a central element of this puzzle is the characterisation of understanding as something that is to a certain degree undetermined if we isolate it from its object. At the same time, something is a proper object of understanding only if it is something determined. As a result, understanding, by itself, is not a proper object for itself, and so an understanding of understanding turns out to be impossible. In chapter two I argue that the Platonic Alcibiades offers a way in which understanding of understanding is possible after all. It is developed in the famous image of two eyes that look into each other and see themselves there. This stands as an analogy for the possibility that souls can get to know themselves through another. I argue that, through the language and theoretical framework of this analogy, its author conceptualises our power to understand as able to grasp that it is something essentially directed towards something else. It can do this in an interaction with another power to understand in which the result of their cognitive activities is something more than the mere sum of their separate cognitive activities. This interaction, this friendship, is therefore essential to our understanding of ourselves as understanding beings. A wholly different situation obtains in the Stoic model. In Stoic thought, we are constituted by a part of inert matter and a divine part that is quintessentially active. This last, divine, part is responsible for our being the way we are. Through an analysis of Stoic metaphysics I argue that this active part is also able to act on itself. In this way, there is no ontological bar to the possibility that our understanding understands itself, as I argue in chapter three. At the same time, this activity preempts the need for others to intervene to make such self-understanding possible. This raises the question whether a perfectly rational person would have a need for others at all, in Stoic thought. The fourth chapter discusses the role of this understanding – that also understands itself – with respect to other rational beings. Its focus is on the Stoic redefinition of friendship that makes it apply, in the first instance, to our understanding itself, rather than to any external bond between people. At the same time, as emerges from this chapter, the Stoics see perfect rationality as a condition for having any use for others at all. An overall aim of this analysis is to show that the two models’ different ontological characterisations of the human power to understand have their correlates in different assessments of the need for others in the process of perfecting it.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Algra, K. A., Supervisor, External person
  • van Ophuijsen, J. M. O., Supervisor, External person
Publication statusPublished - 17-Jun-2011
Externally publishedYes

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