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Plato's tripartite analysis of the soul


To: Harri K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's tripartite analysis of the soul
Date: 13th January 2010 13:05

Dear Harri,

Thank you for your email of 5 January, with your first essay towards the University of London BA in Philosophy. The essay is for the Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Assess the principles that Plato uses to divide the soul in the Republic.'

This is a very good essay. You show a good grasp of the material, and succeed in making telling points about the basis for Plato's tripartite theory of the soul.

It is tempting, in answer to this question, to resort to a detailed exposition of Plato's ideal republic, with its three classes of citizens, following this up with analogy with the rational, spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. However, the question (as I think you have at least partly seen) isn't so much about the details of Plato's theory as about the 'principles' on the basis of which he makes the division.

Alongside the question of the principles underlying the tripartite theory is the question about what Plato really intends by making the distinction: are we talking about identifiable aspects of the soul, or autonomous subjects, or something else?

As you argue, there are two main routes to the tripartite theory: the analogy with the ideal republic and the analysis of psychological conflict.

With regard to the analogy, you make a valid point in observing that there is a potentially fatal circularity in identifying the three classes by the part of the soul which is dominant in each case. However, in defence of Plato, one would point out that the fundamental principle which Plato appeals to concerns the proper function of the city/ state, and the structure required to realize or achieve that function. So Plato could argue that it is a kind of 'discovery' that each of the three classes has the kind of soul suitable for a member of that class.

At this point, as with the argument from conflict (which we will look at in a moment) one can legitimately ask, Why three? Why not two, or four? Plato's answer would be that this is the 'best', i.e. most explanatory, illuminating account of how a state ought to be structured and organized. The reader can disagree, but then one has to come up with a better alternative. But, remember, we are not in the business of assessing the details of the tripartite theory, only the principles underlying the division.

The next question would therefore be, How strong is the analogy between the city and the soul? Here, there is a point to make about the idea of functional analysis, whereby the city as an entity which persists over time and pursues a purpose (the well being of its citizens) shares at some abstract level the same function as the soul.

With regard to the argument from the analysis of psychological conflict, there does seem to be an initial intuitive appeal to the idea that the self or soul has three basic parts. I refuse a drink because of doctor's orders (rational over appetitive); I'm too angry to enjoy the concert (spirited over appetitive); I'm too lazy to fill in the tax-form which was due today (spirited over rational). And so on.

Your proposal of a possible fourth part, the 'caring', with its corresponding class of citizens in the ideal state, the carers (mothers etc.) represents a significant challenge. How would Plato respond? Caring is clearly not analysable as a form of rationality or as a merely appetitive impulse. Examples of spirit such as anger, enthusiasm, etc. are in a sense reflexive. Whereas care is a spirited feeling for another person, as indeed is love: a topic which Plato has much to say about in Symposium. That's where the answer to your question is to be found.

But why stop there? If I have a desire to eat something savoury which conflicts with my desire to eat something sweet, why isn't that a basis for distinguishing parts of the appetitive part of my soul? Plato's answer would be that there is no real conflict here, because the bottom line is a sheer calculation about pleasure. I may be too confused to calculate (because I am in the happy position of being able to choose from a multitude of possible pleasures) but confusion isn't the same as conflict. Either savoury will please me more at this precise moment in time, or sweet.

In a similar way, one can account for apparent conflicts in the rational part. E.g. I am 'in two minds' with regard to my view about Plato's tripartite theory. That's confusion or ignorance, rather than conflict. From this point of view, the spirited part seems somewhat the 'odd man out'. Spirit is more akin to a force which can have complex components. However these components combine the result will be an impetus in a particular direction, even at the 'limiting case' where two strongly conflicting feelings or emotions result in paralysis.

Plato does seem to be onto something. The problem is that the model he is using seems too simplistic. But, then, how literally did he intend it to be taken? Accepting that there are good reasons to identify three fundamental kinds of 'reasons for action' (to use contemporary terminology), why is it necessary to posit three 'agents' within a single person? But, then again, is that what he really intended? How much is metaphor, and how much is intended to be taken literally, at face value?

All the best,