Professor Vasilis Politis
Trinity College Dublin – Department of Philosophy
MY INTELLECTUAL FORMATION. Childhood. Born in Athens, Greece, in 1963, I was brought to Denmark by my father, the architect Yannos Politis, in 1970, where I went to school till 1981, before moving to Oxford in 1982. This meant growing up trilingual, in Greek, Danish and English. It also meant growing up with one foot in one culture and another foot in a very different culture, as I was travelling back and forth between Denmark and Greece (my mother never left Greece). Thanks to my father, it meant a rigorous discipline in the Greek language, Modern and Ancient.
Languages (in addition to Ancient Greek). I have, since my schooldays, acquired a reasonable proficiency in the French language, and, since my days as graduate student in Oxford, a high proficiency in Italian, the intensive study of which I resumed some years ago. I am fluent in German.
University education in Oxford. From 1982 till 1992 I was in Oxford (St. John’s College and St. Anne’s College), studying first for a BA (1986. First Class, following a Scholarship at the Preliminary Examinations); then for a BPhil (1989; Masters in Philosophy); finally for a DPhil (1994; PhD). I spent a substantial part of these years in Munich: first on a scholarship to the Stiftung Maximilianeum (1984–85); then engaged to be married.
Then as now, the Oxford training in philosophy is principally in analytic philosophy. But during my studies in the 1980s there was also a strong emphasis on the history of philosophy. Of this I availed myself intensely, especially the study of Kant (under Ralph Walker and Peter Strawson). My time in Munich was dedicated to the study of Kant, Hegel and Hölderlin (all under Dieter Henrich). I have retained the interest in Kant, on whose philosophy, both the theoretical and practical, I published early in my career.
Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, when I studied Aristotle under Jonathan Barnes and I studied Plato under Michael Frede and Lesley Brown, I became attached to Ancient Philosophy, and this was consolidated during the Masters and my study of Plato under John Ackrill.
My PhD and first publication. This led to my choice of topic for the PhD: The Possibility and Value of Altruism, in Thomas Nagel and in Aristotle. It led to my first publication: ‘The Primacy of Self-Love in the Nicomachean Ethics’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 11(1993), 153–174. For the PhD, I was supervised by Lesley Brown, whom I consider my academic mentor.
MY CAREER AT TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN. In 1992 I came to TCD, where I have been since: first (1992–1997) in a fixed-term position; and since 1997 in a permanent position.
Undergraduate teaching. TCD has afforded me the privilege of having been able largely to teach in the areas in which I am genuinely interested and seeking to publish. I have benefited from the quality of the undergraduate students. I have taught undergraduate students Ancient Philosophy at every level of the four-year programme. I have also taught other subjects, such as, some time ago, Kierkegaard and, for the past years, Nietzsche. I hope the students have been learning as much from me as I have from them.
Graduate teaching. I have built up a very considerable track record in supervising PhD students: I have supervised to completion twelve (12) PhD students, a number of whom are now in academic positions. I am currently supervising three PhD students: two are at an advanced stage and preparing to submit within the next six to eight months; the third has passed the Transfer onto the PhD Register very successfully a few months ago and is making good progress. I am looking forward to the arrival next month of an outstanding new PhD student, Ms Didi Dong (BA in Law, MA in Philosophy at Tsinghua and Stanford) whom I first met in Beijing some years ago and who will work for her PhD on Plato’s and Aristotle’s conceptions of reason in ethics.
Mentoring of Postdoctoral Fellows. I am currently mentoring two outstanding Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellows: Dr Giulio Di Basilio and Dr Margaret Hampson. (For their publications, see under section iv of Publications in document B2.) I have previously mentored five postdoctoral fellows. I was recently (2016–2019) external mentor of Dr Jens Kristian Larsen for his ERC Postdoctoral Fellowship on Dialectic in Plato (DICTUM). He spent six months working with me at the Trinity Plato Centre (Aug. 2018–Jan. 2019). He is now Associate Professor in Trondheim University.
Administration. I have demonstrated a commitment in full to this academic duty. I have been Head of Department twice. The first time (2006–2007), I initiated, with my colleagues in the Department, the overhaul of the Undergraduate Programme. The principles and the structures of the programme that we then introduced are still in place today. The second time (2012–2015), I initiated, with my colleagues in the Department, the preparation for the introduction of an MPhil Programme in Philosophy, for the first time in the Department’s history. This was implemented after my term as Head of Department, and it has now completed its fourth year very successfully.
At College level, I was elected to Fellowship in 2004, and have since been active as a Fellow. In 2008–2009 I was elected Secretary to the Fellows, and again in 2010–2011. I have served on a number of senior College committees, including (twice) the Standing Committee of the Fellows, and I am currently serving on the Central Fellowship Committee.
Initiative in PhD student recruitment. I have taken very seriously, and have acted upon very successfully, the College’s exhortation and request that we, the staff at TCD, go out in the world and recruit excellent PhD students. In the summer and autumn of 2016, I was invited to Wuhan University as Guest Professor, and Liming Jiao, whom I met there, is now in the process of completing his PhD with me on Plato. In the winter of 2016, I was invited to Renmin University (Beijing) as Guest Professor, and Jiayu Zhang, whom I met there, is now in the process of completing his PhD with me on Aristotle. In the winter of 2016, I was invited to present seminars at Zhejiang University, and Tianqin Ge, whom I met there, has now completed an excellent PhD thesis with me on Aristotle, and has just been appointed junior professor at Southeast University, Nanjing, China. This follows my first Chinese PhD student, Jun Su, who came to work with me in 2013 on Aristotle. He completed an excellent PhD thesis on Aristotle and is now junior professor at The China University of Political Science and Law (Beijing). We have co-authored a paper on Aristotle together, published in 2017.
The Trinity Plato Centre, directed jointly by Prof. John Dillon and myself. I want to offer a brief account of what, undoubtedly, has made a very major difference to my academic formation, profile, and track-record. This is The Trinity Plato Centre, initially set up in the late 1990s by Dillon and operating initially from his small office in the Arts Building. Since 2004, and thanks to the generosity of the then Provost, John Hegarty, The Centre has been operating, under the joint direction of John Dillon and myself, from its premises on the lower level of the 1937 Reading Room. These include: a 3,500 strong open-shelf library in Ancient Philosophy; eight desk-spaces for PhD students; two offices, one occupied by myself and the librarian, the other currently occupied by my two Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellows, Drs Margaret Hampson and Giulio Di Basilio.
The Trinity Plato Centre has since 2004 provided the physical, intellectual and social environment that has supported my incentives and activities as individual researcher and working together with a wide variety of other people very closely and on a near daily basis. This has included: PhD students; Postdoctoral Fellows; staff at every stage of their career, from TCD, Dublin, and Ireland; international academic visitors visiting for one or more months; a regular weekly seminar during term, in which we alternate between reading Plato and another ancient philosopher, typically Plotinus or Aristotle; a regular weekly seminar, in which PhD students and Postdocs especially, and staff too, present their latest work in progress; regular visiting speakers; an annual or bi-annual workshop; a number of major conferences; and an annual lecture for the wider public, The Stephen MacKenna Lecture.
Important in the mission of The Centre has been to promote the study of Plato outside academia, and Dr David Horan, who completed his PhD under my supervision in 2014 (on Plato’s Parmenides), has played a central role in this. Dr Horan studied Chemistry (First Class BA) at University College Dublin and worked many years in a pharmaceutical company.
Conference organisation. Among the many workshops and conferences that I contributed to organising in the Plato Centre and the Department of Philosophy, I would like to mention three: (1) The conference on Berkeley (Apr. 2014), organised on my initiative as Head of Department and having led to a publication of a collection of research papers edited by Stefan Storrie with Oxford UP (2018). (2) The conference on The Aporetic Tradition in Ancient Philosophy (Nov. 2014), which led to a publication of a collection research papers edited by George Karamanolis (Vienna) and myself with Cambridge UP (2018). (3) The conference on Plato’s Theory of Forms (Feb. 2020), which prepared for my monograph on Plato’s essentialism now in production with Cambridge UP.
Major collaborators during the past five years: James Allen (Toronto). Lesley Brown (Oxford). Friedemann Buddensiek (Frankfurt). Damian Caluori (Edinburgh). Luca Castagnoli (Oxford). Jessica Gelber (Pittsburgh). Verity Harte (Yale). George Karamanolis (Vienna). Inna Kupreeva (Edinburgh). John Palmer (Florida). Ronald Polansky (Duquesne). Christof Rapp (Munich). Jan Szaif (California at Davis). William Wians (Merrimack).
Ten Year Track Record
MY TWO MAJOR RESEARCH PROJECTS. During the past ten years, I have completed two major research projects. Each has led to a monograph (published by Cambridge UP) and several papers in top journals and university presses, including three papers in the top journal in Ancient Philosophy, Phronesis (the first was published in 2008), and one paper in the top journal in Classics, The Classical Quarterly. The first project led to a collection of research papers (published by Cambridge UP) with fourteen distinguished international experts. (See below for these publications.)
MY FIRST MAJOR RESEARCH PROJECTis the combination of two hypotheses. The first hypothesis of this projectis that, in both Plato and Aristotle the practice and activity distinctive of philosophy takes a form of enquiry that is based in radical aporiai. This is an aporia, understood as a conflict of reasons within one and the same person, that can be resolved, if at all, only through philosophical enquiry: no amount of everyday intuitions, or common sense, or our use of language, or the findings of the special sciences, can resolve it, though they can assist in the search for its resolution. The second hypothesis is the result of taking up and answering the important critical question: Why is the ti esti question so important in Plato’s philosophy? This is the question ‘What is it?’, e.g. ‘What is justice?’ The project shows that this critical question has not been properly posed, or answered, in the literature on Plato, and it demonstrates the following answer: for Plato, the one and only way of seriously engaging with and properly attempting to answer a radical aporia is to pose and engage with the relevant ti esti questions and to require that these ti esti questions be answered by an answer that, whatever else it may also involve, is: general, unitary, and explanatory.
MY SECOND MAJOR RESEARCH PROJECT is on Plato’s theory of Forms. The hypothesis of this project is that Plato’s metaphysical project, which we refer to as the theory of Forms, consists in following through on the commitments arrived at by posing and taking seriously the ti esti question (‘What is it?’) and doing this in a logically rigorous and coherent way and without unmotivated or unargued gaps or leaps. This shows that Plato’s Forms simply are essences, not things that have essences, and that Plato’s theory of Forms is, through and through, a theory of essence. Essences understood in a minimal sense: that to which we are committed by the supposition that the ti esti question (‘What is it?’) can be posed and that we can search for an answer to it.
MY CONTRIBUTION TO PHILOSOPHY THROUGH THESE RESEARCH PROJECTS. The two research projects answer an important philosophical question: Why should we, as philosophers and as humans, want to pose and take seriously this form of question—the ti esti question—lest posing it should be a dogmatic commitment to a questionable form of essentialism? They demonstrate that we have a real and serious interest in posing and taking seriously ti esti questions, because doing this is the one and only way of seriously engaging with and trying to answer radical aporiai. The sum total of these two research projects presents a challenge to those philosophers today who think that essentialism is an optional item on the philosophical menu. Furthermore, it presents a challenge to the tendency, typical to the essentialists of today, to think that the only option is Aristotelian essentialism, and that Platonic essentialism, if it can be made out at all, is simply Aristotelian essentialism with the addition of certain Platonic commitments that are both unattractive and optional. The projects demonstrate that Plato’s essentialism is a well-argued, rigorous and coherent theory, and a viable competitor to Aristotle’s essentialism.
TEN SELECT PUBLICATIONS OF THE PAST TEN YEARS, with brief commentary
1. Plato’s Essentialism. Reinterpreting the Theory of Forms. Cambridge UP (2020; in production). MONOGRAPH. This is the fruit of my second major research project.
2. The Structure of Enquiry in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Cambridge University Press (2015). MONOGRAPH. This is the fruit of my first major research project. It has just been published in Chinese, with Peking University Press.
3. The Aporetic Tradition in Ancient Philosophy. Cambridge UP (2018).Co-edited with George Karamanolis, Vienna. EDITED BOOK. This is the collaborative fruit of my first major research project. It is the result of a conference, held in TCD in November of 2014, which brought together fourteen distinguished international experts. It is the first systematic and comprehensive study of the place of aporia in Ancient Greek Philosophy, and it has been very positively received by, among others, Lloyd Gerson (Toronto).
4. ‘Note on Plato’s Statesman 275d8–e1’, The Classical Quarterly, (forthcoming 2021). JOURNAL ARTICLE. This takes up a question that has dominated the scholarship on Plato’s Statesman: whether Plato, mid-way into the dialogue, gives up on the model of the statesman as a nurturer of the human herd, or, on the contrary, intends this model to remain in place and to be supplemented by the model of the statesman as a weaver of a social fabric. 275d8–e1, as traditionally read by all critics and all translators, ought to have established that Plato gives up on the nurturing model of statescraft. But I show that this reading and translation of these lines is objectionable, and I provide an alternative account of the grammar and syntax of these lines. This allows Plato to retain the nurturing model of statescraft.
5. ‘Plato’s Geach talks to Socrates. Definition by example-and-exemplar in the Hippias Major’, Phronesis 63 (2018), 223–228. JOURNAL ARTICLE. This article addresses an important question: Why does Plato not allow one to answer the question ‘What is F?’ (e.g. ‘What is beauty?’) by appealing to an exemplary example of a thing that is F (e.g. a particular person of exemplary beauty)? It is generally recognised that this restriction is very important in Plato’s philosophy, but the article shows, against the standard and mainstream critical consensus, that Plato is aware that this restriction is objectionable. The article provides a distinctive and new analysis of Plato’s argument for the restriction.
6. ‘Aristotle’s second problem about the possibility of a science of being qua being: a reconsideration of Metaphysics Gamma 2’, co-authored with Philipp Steinkrüger. Ancient Philosophy 37, 1 (2017), 59–89. JOURNAL ARTICLE. This demonstrates that, in Metaphysics IV. 2, Aristotle identifies not one problem for the possibility of first philosophy understood as the science of being (this being the scholarly consensus), but two very different problems. The first problem articulated by Aristotle is rooted in his own view that being has many senses, but the article shows that Aristotle also articulates a second problem, and this problem is common ground to him and Platonists: why first philosophy should be any more about being than about unity and about any other property shared by all beings.
7. ‘The concept of ousia in Metaphysics Alpha, Beta, and Gamma’, co-authored with Jun Su. In R. Polansky and W. Wians (eds.), Reading Aristotle. Argument and Exposition, Brill, (2017), 256–275. BOOK CHAPTER. This demonstrates, against the standard view, that Aristotle’s account of first philosophy in Met. IV. 1–2, as the science of being and the essence of being, is argumentatively continuous with his original account of philosophy in book I, as the search for the ultimate causes of all things. It shows that Aristotle’s transition from that original account of philosophy in book I to the account in book IV is motivated by two of the aporiai that he articulates in book III.
8. ‘How Good is that thing called Love? The Volatility of Eros in Plato’s Symposium’, Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 31 (2016), 1–34. JOURNAL ARTICLE. This demonstrates that, in Symposium and especially through Diotima’s speech, Plato poses the question, How good is erōs for us humans? It shows, against a mainstream view, that, for Plato, erōs is not, by itself, good-directed. Rather, erōs has the potential of being good directed, and which way it turns out, good-directed or bad-directed, depends on whether it comes to form part of the virtue of the soul, sophia.
9. ‘What do the Arguments in the Protagoras amount to?’, Phronesis 57, 3 (2012), 209–239. JOURNAL ARTICLE. This article followed my 2008 article in Phronesis, on the place of aporia in Plato’s Charmides, and together the two articles cemented by first major research project. The main thesis of the article is that, in the coda to the Protagoras (360e–end), Plato tells us why and with what justification he demands a definition of virtue: namely, in order to resolve a particular aporia. According to Plato’s assessment of the outcome of the arguments of the dialogue, the principal question, whether or not virtue can be taught, has, by the end of the dialogue, emerged as articulating an aporia, in that both protagonists, Socrates and Protagoras, have argued equally on both its sides.
10. ‘Explanation and Essence in Plato’s Phaedo’,in D. Charles (ed.), Definition in Greek Philosophy, Oxford UP (2010), 62–114. BOOK CHAPTER. It is familiar that, in Phaedo 95e ff., Plato argues that causation requires Forms and that Forms are causes. According to the standard and mainstream view, Plato’s argument for this view relies on the view that Forms are self-predicative (i.e. the Form of F is itself F) and that the cause transmits its character to the effect. The article demonstrates that Plato’s argument depends on neither of these views. It shows that what the argument relies on is the view that, first, Forms are essences (i.e. the Form of F is what it is to be F), and, secondly, causation/explanation is uniform (i.e. same cause if, and only if, same effect).
DISTINCTIONS. I was Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2009–2010. This followed a one-year Irish Research Council Fellowship in 2007–2008. In the winter of 2018, I was Fellow at the Durham Institute of Advanced Study. During the past ten years, I have held visiting professorships in: Leiden University (2007). Wuhan University. Renmin University. Uppsala University. China University of Political Science and Law. Tsinghua University (scheduled for winter 2021). I have presented many papers in Europe, China, the US, Canada, and Brazil. Upcoming keynotes include The Kirchberg Symposium 2020 (postponed due to Covid) and Villa Vigoni in October.
31. (Forthcoming, 2021). ‘Note on Plato’s Statesman 275d8–e1’, The Classical Quarterly. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
30. (2020) ‘Is Plato’s Theaetetus an Exercise in Epistemology? A Granite Epitaph Erected also on the Strength of the Parmenides’, in D. Zucca (ed.), New Explorations in Plato’s Theaetetus. Leiden: Brill. BOOK CHAPTER.
29. (2020) ‘Knowledge and Inquiry in Plato’, History of Philosophy & Logical Analysis 23(1). Special issue, J.K. Larsen and P. Steinkrüger (eds.), Ancient Modes of Philosophical Inquiry. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
28. (2020) ‘Epistemic Wonder and the Beginning of the Enquiry: Plato’s Theaetetus (155d2–4) and Its Wider Significance’, co-authored with L. Candiotto, in L. Candiotto and O. Renaut (eds.), Emotions in Plato. Brill Plato Series. Leiden: Brill, 17–38. BOOK CHAPTER.
27. (2020) ‘Metametaphysics in Plato and Aristotle’, in R. Bliss and J.T.M. Miller (eds.), The Routledge Handbook to Metametaphysics. London: Routledge, 13–22. BOOK CHAPTER.
26. (2018) ‘Plato’s Geach Talks to Socrates: Definition by Example-and-Exemplar in the Hippias Major’, Phronesis 63(3): 223–228. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
25. (2018) ‘Aporia and Sceptical Argument in Plato’s Early Dialogues’, in G. Karamanolis and V. Politis (eds.), The Aporetic Tradition in Ancient Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 48–66. BOOK CHAPTER.
24. (2017) ‘Aristotle’s Second Problem about the Possibility of a Science of Being qua Being: a Reconsideration of Metaphysics Gamma 2’, co-authored with P. Steinkrüger, Ancient Philosophy 37(1): 59–89. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
23. (2017) ‘The Concept of ousia, and Aristotle’s Problems Involving this Concept,in Metaphysics Alpha, Beta and Gamma’, co-authored with J. Su, in R. Polansky and W. Wians (eds.), Reading Aristotle: Argument and Exposition. Brill, 256–275. BOOK CHAPTER.
22. (2017) ‘The Ontology of Plato and Aristotle’, in G. Karamanolis (ed.), Companion to Ancient Philosophy. Herakleion: Panepistimiakes Ekdoseis Kritis, 217–269. In Greek. BOOK CHAPTER.
21. (2016) ‘Plato’s Ontology’, China Scholarship (中国学术) 38. In Chinese. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
20. (2016) ‘How Good is that Thing Called Love? The Volatility of Eros in Plato’s Symposium’, Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 31: 1–34. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
19. (2015) ‘Aristotle on Being as Activity’, co-authored with J. Su, Metascience 24(2) (2015), 213–218. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
18. (2012) ‘What do the Arguments in the Protagoras Amount to?’, Phronesis 57(3): 209–239. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
17. (2012) ‘What is Behind the ti esti Question?’, in J. Fink (ed.), The Development of Dialectic from Plato to Aristotle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 232–260. BOOK CHAPTER.
16. (2010) ‘Explanation and Essence in Plato’s Phaedo’,in D. Charles (ed.), Definition in Greek Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 62–114. BOOK CHAPTER.
15. (2008) ‘The Place of Aporia in Plato’s Charmides’, Phronesis 53(1): 1–34. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
14. (2008) ‘Invoking the Greeks on the Relation between Thought and Reality: Trendelenburg’s Aristotle, Natorp’s Plato’, The Philosophical Forum 39(2): 191–222. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
13. (2007) ‘The Aporia in the Charmides about Reflexive Knowledge and the Contribution to its Solution in the Sun Analogy of the Republic’, in D. Cairns, F.-G. Herrmann, T. Penner (eds.), Pursuing the Good. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 231–250. BOOK CHAPTER.
12. (2006) ‘The Argument for the Reality of Change and Changelessness in Plato’s Sophist’, in F.-G. Herrmann (ed.), New Essays on Plato. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 149–175. BOOK CHAPTER.
11. (2006) ‘Is Socrates Paralyzed by his State of Aporia? (Meno 79e7–80d4)’, in M. Erler and L. Brisson (eds.), Plato: Gorgias-Meno. St. Augustin: Academia Verlag, 268–272. BOOK CHAPTER.
10. (2006) ‘Aporia and Searching in the Early Plato’, in L. Judson and V. Karasmanis (eds.), Remembering Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 88–109. BOOK CHAPTER.
9. (2006) ‘Non-Subjective Idealism in Plato (Sophist 248e–249d)’, in S. Gersh and D. Moran (eds.), Eriugena, Berkeley, and the Idealist Tradition. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 14–38. BOOK CHAPTER.
8. (2005) ‘What Enables Us to Search for the Essence of Things?’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 13(2): 245–269. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
7. (2003) ‘Aristotle on Aporia and Searching in Metaphysics’, Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 18: 145–182. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
6. (2001) ‘Aristotle’s Account of the Intellect as Pure Capacity’, Ancient Philosophy 21(2): 375–402. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
5. (2001) ‘Anti-Realist Interpretations of Plato: Paul Natorp’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 9(1): 47–62. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
4. (1998) ‘Aristotle’s Advocacy of Non-Productive Action’, Ancient Philosophy 18(2): 353–379. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
3. (1997) ‘Reasons and Values’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 5(3): 425–448. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
2. (1997) ‘The Apriority of the Starting-Point of Kant’s Transcendental Epistemology’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 5(2): 255–284. JOURNAL ARTICLE. 1. (1993) ‘The Primacy of Self-Love in the Nicomachean Ethics’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 11: 153–174. JOURNAL ARTICLE.
1. (1993) ‘The Primacy of Self-Love in the Nicomachean Ethics’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 11: 153–174. JOURNAL ARTICLE.