Plato and Plotinus in contemporary theology and philosophy


Nerd that I am, I recently posted a question at the University of Sheffield’s website Ask A Philosopher.

I’m a nerd, but with context. My scattered reading habits have recently included the book Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition (2005), in which Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith wrote a chapter entitled “Will the Real Plato Please Stand Up?” The chapter reflected the importance of Plato in contemporary theology and in philosophical discussions within some Christian circles. The chapter began with a pro-Plato quotation from John Calvin.

So I was curious if Plato and Plotinus (founder of neo-Platonism; two interesting quotations here) have much traction in broader swaths of academic philosophy today. What follows is the question I posted to Ask A Philosopher and David Robjant’s answer, for which I am very grateful.

Who are some of the contemporary philosophers who generally accept Plato’s metaphysics? Who are some who generally accept neoPlatonic metaphysics? Are these philosophers in the minority today?

Not that they mightn’t exist, but I can’t think of any contemporary followers of Plotinus within academic philosophy – assuming that is what you might mean by ‘neoplatonic’. I’ve a feeling – and it is no more – that I’ve heard of Plotinus’ One being taken seriously by the occasional theologian.

Plato, on the other hand has had atleast one rather illustrious minority follower who, if not contemporary, is at anyrate deeply engaged with the giants of the contemporary scene and very recent: Iris Murdoch.

I should add, however, that it is not universally agreed what ‘Plato’s Metaphysics’ amount to, and if you want to know what Murdoch agrees with, you will have to read Murdoch. You will get very little idea of what Murdoch is for by reading any of the widely cited commentaries on The Republic.

My own opinion is that Murdoch is right about Plato, so that if one understood Plato aright, one would understand him as Murdoch does, rather than as do Ryle, Popper, Vlastos, Annas, etc. As I see it, it is a tremendous help to Murdoch’s discovery of Plato’s good sense that she is actually looking for it.

We tend to distinguish Plato scholarship from mere Platon*ism*, as if distinguishing the professional from the mere amateur. My sense however is (and this is an important thought backed up in Murdoch by a great deal of influential argument concerning Mother in Laws and the Ontological Argument) that to understand someone aright it may be necessary to attend to them with love.

David Robjant

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One response to “Plato and Plotinus in contemporary theology and philosophy

  1. Pingback: Trippy news about Plato — yes, news about history and philosophy « Liturgical