Gadamer and the Lessons of Arithmetic in Plato’s Hippias Major


In the Hippias Major Socrates uses a counterexample to oppose Hippias’s view that parts and wholes always have a “continuous” nature. Socrates argues, for example, that even-numbered groups might be made of parts with the opposite character, i.e. odd. As Gadamer has shown, Socrates often uses such examples as a model for understanding language and definitions: numbers and definitions both draw disparate elements into a sum-whole differing from the parts. In this paper I follow Gadamer’s suggestion that we should focus on the parallel between numbers and definitions in Platonic thought. However, I offer a different interpretation of the lesson implicit in Socrates’s opposition to Hippias. I argue that, according to Socrates, parts and sum-wholes may share in essential attributes; yet this unity or continuity is neither necessary, as Hippias suggests, nor is it impossible, as Gadamer implies. In closing, I suggest that this seemingly minor difference in logical interpretation has important implications for how we should understand the structure of human communities in a Platonic context.

Keywords: Plato, Gadamer, Socrates, Hippias, Arithmetic, Parts, Wholes

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