Sylvain Delcomminette, Platon. Philèbe. Introduction, traduction et commentaire. Paris, Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin (coll. “Les Dialogues de Platon”), 2022, 472 p.

  • Susan Sauvé Meyer

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  • Susan Sauvé Meyer
    University of Pennsylvania

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Couverture de Volume 80, numéro 1, 2024, p. 3-164, Laval théologique et philosophique

This volume is the third to appear in Vrin’s new collection, “Les Dialogues de Platon,” which has so far issued volumes on the Politicus (2018), Menexenus (2019), Philebus (2022), and Sophist (2022). Each “livre de poche” in the series presents a Platonic work in a new translation, with facing Greek text, followed by a substantial commentary that traces the lines of thought and argument across the entire work. Delcomminette’s translation of the Philebus is lively and idiomatic without sacrificing accuracy. His commentary invites us to read this notoriously difficult dialogue as an intricately constructed exercise of Platonic dialectic. The task of finding unity in the Philebus has challenged commentators since antiquity. While Socrates’ stated goal in the dialogue is to establish two anti-hedonist theses (that pleasure is not the good, and that knowledge is superior to pleasure in the contribution it makes to a happy life) long stretches of the dialogue address neither of these questions directly and pose substantial interpretive challenges on their own. For example, the “divine method” discussed at length early in the work (14c-19e) is recognizable as the “dialectical” method of collection and division invoked in other Platonic dialogues ; yet, it hardly seems to be the method by which Socrates establishes the anti-hedonist conclusions in the Philebus. Indeed, Socrates explicitly sets the divine method aside (20a-b) when he gives his opening argument that pleasure is not the good. We might suppose he has returned to the method in the extended discussion of pleasure that is the dialogue’s center of gravity (31b-55c) ; however, the various “divisions” of pleasure that he there proposes are hard to construe as support for his targeted anti-hedonist conclusions. A prominent strategy in Delcomminette’s approach to solving these and other interpretive problems is his proposal that there are two different directions in which the “divine method” of dialectic may be deployed. In the canonical case of an established science, a single genus is divided sequentially into its species and subspecies, and then into the manifold particulars that fall under them. We may call this the downward direction (from one/definite to many/indefinite). In cases of inquiry, by contrast, the genus (e.g., pleasure or goodness) is under investigation and its nature contested — and so a practitioner of dialectic is proceeding in the reverse direction (“à l’inverse”), starting with manifold particulars and proceeding upward towards the single genus, whose nature it seeks to elucidate. This is the direction in which the divine method is proceeding in most of the Philebus, according to Delcomminette. When Socrates distinguishes between true and false pleasures and between pure and impure pleasures, his point, according to Delcomminette, is not to demarcate the species and subspecies into which the genus pleasure will be divided (in the downward application of the method). The significance of these “divisions”, as elucidated by Socrates, is rather that, once Protarchus has accepted them, he is committed, on hedonist grounds, to agreeing that not all pleasures are good — a crucial premise he refused to concede in his opening skirmish with Socrates (13a-c) — and that pleasure is integrally involved with and subordinate to cognition. These commitments, Delcomminette proposes, entail the two theses that Socrates has set out to prove, and so the “division” of pleasure in the Philebus amounts to a successful dialectical argument (à l’inverse) for its anti-hedonist agenda. More broadly, Delcomminette proposes, the considerations about goodness deployed across the dialogue serve to elucidate the nature of the good itself. He invites us to read the Philebus as a whole as a dialectical inquiry into the nature of the …