From Skygazing Souls to Ideas in Ashes

Professor Rachana Kamtekar did not choose Classical Philosophy. Classical Philosophy chose her. She first encountered Ancient Greek philosophy as a Freshman in a Western Civilizations Class, in an argument, from Plato’s Republic V, that some objects are opinable and others knowable. On the grounds that whether a subject knows or has an opinion lies in the subject herself, she dismissed the idea as ridiculous and stayed away from Ancient Philosophy for years. However, the subject area called her back when she was working on a dissertation on political friendship, when she stumbled onto Plato’s Lysis. The dialogue contained so many questions regarding friendship that it drew her into Plato’s world again, and since then she has never wanted to leave it.

What attracts Kamtekar to ancient philosophy is how distinct their socio-intellectual tradition is from ours. Kamtekar says, “I think of philosophy as a kind of human impulse. It seems like children engage in philosophy until they’re told there’s no way to answer their questions.” The divergent insights from the Greco-Roman tradition are still valuable to look at today, not despite their distance in time and context, but because of it.

Early in her philosophical career, Kamtekar focused mainly on Plato’s political philosophy. When asked about an academic work she was particularly proud of, Kamtekar discussed an essay she had written in the 2000s, on Plato’s conception of political agreement on government. Unlike the liberal tradition, where consent is the litmus test for a government's legitimacy, in Plato’s tradition, a good government necessarily generates something consent-like. This consent-like thing is called ‘homonoia’, or like-mindedness. It arises from a just government because a good political system will necessarily enlighten its people and thereby make them aware of how the government is good for them. Kamtekar found it interesting how this conceptualization of consent avoids some of the traditional issues with consent’s legitimating role: problem of indoctrination, of how old somehow should be to politically consent, and of how much education is necessary for legitimate consent.

While Kamtekar was working on Plato’s politics she came to believe that Plato had constructed his political system on the foundation of his ideas about human nature, and that understanding Plato on human psychology was prior to understanding Plato’s politics. Thus, she started her foray, what she jokingly called her “long detour”, into moral psychology.

Professor Kamtekar’s monograph, Plato's Moral Psychology: Intellectualism, the Divided Soul, and the Desire for the Good, puts forth an interpretation of Plato’s moral psychology that radically diverges from the traditional intellectualist view, the school that dominated the Anglophone world starting in the 20th century. The intellectualist view characterizes Plato as a philosopher who initially thought all humans were rational actors, and then discovered irrational motivation in his later dialogues. That seemed implausible to Professor Kamtekar. First, we don’t have detailed evidence of the order in which Plato wrote his dialogues. Second, “Plato is a very exploratory philosopher, not a dogmatic philosopher who keeps changing his mind, and he gives us a lot of indications that he is exploring.” Her own account of Plato’s moral psychology is that human desires are always good-oriented. That doesn’t mean that they are always rational, as non-rational parts of the soul, such as appetite and spirit, can similarly push us toward different genres of good.

She also put forth a certain way of reading Platonic dialogues: “dialectical dependence.” Kamtekar maintains that “very often, not always, authors will tell you how they want to be read.” Many other Anglophone philosophers look at the dialogues either as just a means for Socrates, and thereby Plato, to monologue his views, the interlocutors being mere decoration, or as Socrates being a psychotherapist diagnosing and treating sick interlocutors. Kamtekar rejects both views, believing we should track the ideas put forth in the dialogues in relation to a position (represented by an interlocutor) and the questions put against that position. The dialogues should be looked at as exploratory, where the positions contained there within are to be played with.

Currently, Kamtekar is working on a project entitled “Human Agency and Cause from Aristotle to Alexander,” which is a set of reconstructions of ancient anti-determinist arguments. While investigating antique anti-determinist arguments, Kamtekar found a surprising argument against determinism from one of Epicurus’ books, On Nature, which had been buried in the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius. Epicurus claimed that the determinist misuses the concept of cause when they cry out that “all causation is causation by necessity,” because their concept of cause necessarily contains a distinction between voluntary and compelled actions. Kamtekar likened this maneuver on Epicurus’ part to a response Thomas Reid gave against David Hume in the 18th century. Hume put forth that we come to believe in cause and effect by noticing patterns of correlation. Reid rebutted this by pointing out that although day follows night, and night day, no one thinks that one causes the other even though they are constantly conjoined. Thus, Hume’s view of how we come to be aware of causality is missing a key component: our experience of agency. This train of thought is similar to Epicurus’, as both point out their opponents’ conception of cause is self-defeating.

Kamtekar also highlights that the Ancients had a very different conception of cause than us (post)moderns. In the Classical world, Kamtekar points out, “They think of cause as a power to produce something, but you can have the power to produce something while still not being sufficient to produce it… [For example,] if I’m a doctor and you’re a patient, I cannot make you well by art of medicine or by my drug unless your body is constituted in a certain way.” The fact that cause isn’t sufficient allows non-deterministic philosophy to still make causal arguments. 

When asked which Platonic interlocutor she would most like to get coffee with, Kamtekar lamented the fact that we have no preserved writings of Classical women philosophers. She named Aspasia, who is the main speaker in Plato’s dialogue Menexenus and the lover of Pericles. If the parameters for a coffee chat weren’t just constrained to Platonic interlocutors but opened up to all philosophers, Kamtekar would join Hipparchia the cynic for coffee. Hipparchia was a scandalous upper-class philosopher in the late fourth and early third century, who was part of an intellectual tradition radically divergent from ours. The cynics lived without private property, disdained monetary transactions, and flaunted most social norms. Kamtekar values how distinct their intellectual milieu is from ours. Kamtekar reminds us to look to the ancients for a radically distinct intellectual cosmos, one that rotates around the same essentially human questions but navigated from under the guidance of a completely different starscape of ideas.

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Professor Rachana Kamtekar