What is it about?

Following the introduction in section one, section two indicates the importance that the British idealists attached to the careful study of Plato. Section three begins to address the misconceptions which pervade the current historiography of the British idealists’ reception of Plato, by arguing against its fundamental assumption: namely, that the British idealists are best understood as dogmatic Neo-Platonic Hegelians. Relatedly, it establishes that while the British idealists did recognise the dogmatic elements of some of Plato’s formulations of his theory of the forms, they saw greater philosophical value in his more searching texts. It will be shown that the British idealists recognised the provisional and frequently inchoate character of all actual conceptualisations of the forms and the associated responsibility of every agent to test their particular conceptualisations. Section four demonstrates that the British idealists insisted that, given the provisional nature of all attempts to conceptualise the forms, Plato’s writings should be read in cognisance of the fact that he used literary techniques to encourage his audience to engage with the texts philosophically. Building on this acknowledgement that, ultimately, absolute certainty regarding the forms is unwarranted, section five demonstrates that, far from endorsing Jowett’s benevolent dictatorship, in ethical, civic and political matters the British idealists were egalitarians who prioritised personal virtue, decentralised democratic debate and local self-determination wherever possible. The article concludes that, contrary to the view that is dominant among historians of the nineteenth-century reception of Plato’s philosophy, the British idealists interpreted Plato in ways that differed markedly both from Jowett and from the current historiography, and that each of them endorsed some aspects of what they read in Plato and rejected much else.

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Why is it important?

This article fundamentally undermines the current picture of Plato's reception in the English-speaking world that occurred in the nineteenth-century. It shows for the first time that despite the regret voiced regarding the British idealists’ alleged influence, intellectual historians with an interest in Plato’s reception have written very little on the details of the British idealists’ reception of Plato. Moreover, beyond chapters by J.H. Muirhead primarily regarding F.H. Bradley’s metaphysics and W.J. Mander’s recent brief analysis, no intellectual historians with a detailed knowledge of British idealism have considered the movement’s debts to Plato and Platonism. This article seeks to address that significant lacuna, considering the claims mentioned above regarding the forms, and the relationship between the just polis and the modern healthy community.

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This page is a summary of: Forms, Dialectics and the Healthy Community: The British Idealists’ Receptions of Plato, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, March 2018, De Gruyter,
DOI: 10.1515/agph-2018-0004.
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