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New book examines Plato's view of human motivation

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Jeff Tyson

Twenty-five hundred years after they were written, Plato’s dialogues continue to yield insights that resonate with current philosophical discussions. In her new book, “Plato’s Moral Psychology: Intellectualism, the Divided Soul, and the Desire for Good,” Rachana Kamtekar, professor of philosophy, examines Plato’s approach to human motivation.

According to the mainstream interpretation of Plato’s psychology, in the early dialogues Plato proposes that human beings only do what we believe to be the best of the things we can do, so that all wrongdoing is due to ignorance and is therefore involuntary (“Socratic intellectualism”). Then, it is supposed, he upends this proposal in the middle dialogues, to account for the fact that we sometimes eat more than we know we should, or vent our anger when we know we shouldn’t, by introducing a “divided soul,” some parts of which have good, independent desires and can take control of our actions.

Kamtekar departs from this mainstream interpretation. Pointing out that Plato calls wrongdoing involuntary even after he has divided the soul, she argues that across the dialogues Plato posits a natural desire for our own good, and calls actions and conditions that inhibit the fulfillment of this desire ”involuntary.” In this respect Plato is following his intellectual predecessors and contemporaries, who excuse bad behavior when they see it as due to a person’s being compelled by an outside agent or a passion. Although Plato is distinctive in emphasizing that ignorance is a condition that makes us vulnerable to such compulsion, he does not treat ignorance by itself as making our actions involuntary. Instead, the latter is a view he depicts Socrates as tempting the sophists – his rivals – with.

While Kamtekar agrees that human beings’ natural desire for our own good manifests when we do what we believe is best, she argues that it also manifests in our pursuit of fine or pleasant things in actions directed by nonrational soul-parts, and even in the way our divided soul is embodied so as to divide mental labor and thereby facilitate our doing philosophy, in which Plato believes human happiness is to be found.

Kamtekar’s approach emphasizes both the historical context of Plato’s thought and the fact that in his dialogues the arguments advanced by the main speaker are highly responsive to the positions advanced by the other characters. The Plato that emerges is less dogmatic than in the mainstream view, but one brimful of ideas and arguments about human psychology.