I have a few thoughts on the question of essentialism in Plato, pursuant to the discussion in the comments to my last post. They take the form of a very small argumentative knot. Because it is brief, it risks seeming glib. I do not believe it is some kind of magic bullet or gotcha. I do believe it is true to the spirit of Plato.
Alf argues that the Socratic opening moves by which he asks for a definition of X (piety, friendship, justice, imitation, love, etc) entails what he calls "essentialism." I think that this means, for Alf, that asking after definitions the way Plato shows Socrates doing it (i.e., trying out one after another, running with each until one bumps into a contradiction, then starting over, examining premises and so on), entails reifying the object of the word in question, so that there is imagined, or projected, a kind of perfect friendship (for example) that somehow in principle pre-exists all instances of actual friends Most classically, the Republic's account of art imitating an imitation courts disaster, Alf thinks:
The theory of mimesis -- in its *grammar*, not just its particular application or vocabulary -- can be a royal road to fascistic thinking because it privileges a hypostasized "one" over the many -- a rigid blueprint for what "qualifies" and what is marginalized, a logic of domination: origin/imitation or "authentic/perverse." Such thinking comes out in religion as "God's Plan," in science as "Natural Law" or "Evolution," in politics as "National Security," or many other versions of the "Big Other" that see multiplicity as threatening to "the plan."Now I frankly deny that the Republic presents us with anything like "Plato's ontology," but Alf contends that I am, in this, "too eager to pull Plato off the hook for the implications of essentialism and its accompanying theory of representation (and of being)," the implications being the afore-quoted "logic of domination." It is also true that I don't see these effects themselves following from the Socratic example with anything approaching rigorous necessity, and I believe the onus is upon those who do to demonstrate the necessity. If the case made is that it is consistent with Plato or (empirically, historically) correlates with apparent Platonic influence, that is fine, but one has not thereby demonstrated that these pernicious effects (we are stipulating the perniciousness, for the sake of argument) are Platonic. I, on the other hand, am arguing that the "logic of domination" is not Platonic; that it cannot non-tendenciously be applied to Plato; that in the dialogues, it is not accidental that for every quest for definition at the beginning there is aporia at the end; and that a crucial fact about all those "footnotes to Plato" for the last twenty-four hundred years is that this aporia tends to be lost in them while the definition-search is not. In brief, just as Kojève argued, more or less, that the political destiny of the West depended upon competing readings of Hegel, I believe that the "essentialism" of these abuses-of-power Alf lists -- and, hence, much of the political history of the West -- constitutes a mis-reading of Plato.
All of that by way of preamble. Now for the knot. Either the search for a definition, for a "what do you mean by that word you keep using," can be "worn lightly," or it cannot. Either it "in its grammar" gives rise to an imagined blueprint-in-the-sky, or it does not. In short, either it is of the "essence" of the definition-quest, or it is not. If it is, then it is; but this will be seen to be so because we have established, precisely, an essence of the definition; and so, discovering that essentializing is apparently inevitable, we will be in no position to fault Socrates for it. On the other hand, if our own critique here has not named any eternal necessity, no "definition-in-itself," well and good, but we can then not establish that Socrates also is not involved in this "looser" quest.
"Oh boy," I can hear the objections beginning. "Yeah, sure. What you're saying is, Yes, it's true and tragic that Plato, or Christianity, or Marxism, had all these sad accidental effects, but that isn't their fault! Don't blame them for the failures of their followers (or those who say they are their followers)! That wasn't "true platonism," or "real christianity," or whatever. All the anti-semitism was just the sin of the church, not the church. The gulag, that ain't Communism, that's "just" Stalinism. All that two-world schizophrenia is just an accident, a misunderstanding -- not "the real Plato" -- not the essence of Plato, huh? That what you're saying?"
Ah, special pleading. I am mindful, however, that many arguments in Plato as well seem, on the face of them, to be open to just such obvious objections. I'm also mindful of the fact that, when it comes down to it, it is not the exegesis of Plato that matters. In light of this, I am very tempted, in spite of every risk, to answer the question "is that what you're saying?" with "In essence, yes. But -- loosely."