‘Carving nature at its joint’: The Platonic method of division in Plato, Aristotle, and their Neoplatonic commentators

Gary Thomas Gabor, Fordham University


The Neoplatonists have been described as having a ‘perfectly crazy’ method of interpretation—crazy because it sought to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, two philosophers today thought to hold certain fundamentally opposed doctrines; perfect insofar as this interpretive thesis gave rise to surprisingly new and productive philosophical ideas and positions. I examine one instance of the Neoplatonists' scheme—their interpretation of Plato's and Aristotle's method of division. The method of division was a philosophically influential logical procedure first introduced by Plato in the Phaedrus which served as something close to a full-fledged theory of definition in his later dialogues. Aristotle later picked up, critiqued, and refined the method, first by codifying its terminology and by the introduction of a number of rules meant to ensure that the classes identified by the method were natural ones. The Neoplatonists, in their commentaries and other works, sought to incorporate the contributions provided by Plato and Aristotle. By and large, they accepted the mechanisms and terminology introduced by Aristotle, especially as they applied to the entities of the natural sensible world, while also accepting Plato's precept that division, as a dialectical method, applies primary to transcendent Forms. This attempt to reconcile and integrate Plato's and Aristotle's accounts of division into one single method gave rise to several contributions by the Neoplatonists not found in the works of either Plato or Aristotle. First, they sought to exactly identify the scope and nature of the method, including which entities it did and did not apply to. This led to heavy debate among them. It also led them to a consideration of several topics treated by neither Plato nor Aristotle, including the possibility of single-member classes, and the division of a higher genus into a single, subordinate sub-species. Finally, they articulated a few refinements of Plato's and Aristotle's own mechanisms for ensuring the naturalness of proposed kinds, and attempted to incorporate their various rules into a single, unified method.

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Recommended Citation

Gabor, Gary Thomas, "‘Carving nature at its joint’: The Platonic method of division in Plato, Aristotle, and their Neoplatonic commentators" (2011). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3466699.