A.N. Whitehead once wrote that 'the safest general characterisation' of Western thought is that 'it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato'. This testy assessment of an entire tradition is often recited by Platonists and has earned for Whitehead the accolades of the aphorism crowd.
The great thinkers of the past certainly did not think that they were adding footnotes to Plato's text. Had Kant thought he was adding one, he would surely have kept the Critique of Pure Reason under 500 pages. And should Wittgenstein have suspected that he was producing scholia, he would have spent at least a little time reading the text.
Interestingly, those who say that all subsequent thought is a footnote to Plato or to ancient sages also complain of wholesale and lamentable modern innovations. Aside from the inconsistency, this raises the question what counts as a footnote. Does Descartes, who subverted the starting-point of ancient philosophy, constitute no more than an afterthought to it? Should Hume, who rejected both its premisses and its conclusions in favour of his own original views, get no credit beyond having discovered a new wrinkle on wisdom's old face? Can we even think that in his stunning synthesis of everything ancient and modern, Hegel rehearsed only what Plato had always known?
To be sure, sometimes those who wish to write footnotes to Plato manage to establish only a feeble connection with the original text. But this does not imply that philosophical works taking little or no account of anything Plato said are oblique or unsuccessful commentaries on his thought. Supposing that they are makes it impossible to appreciate their novelty and difficult to see their point. It amounts, moreover, to an affront to the integrity of philosophers and a cynical assessment of the significance of their field.
Possibly, howeverm Whitehead's statement was made in the spirit of rampageous over-generalisation one can expect from footnotes to Plato. If so, it must be taken with a grain of salt or greeted by rolling one's eyes. But even then, in one clear respect, the claim he makes is false. For the safest way to deal with the history of Western thought is not to characterise it in general terms at all.- Professor John Lachs, Vanderbilt University