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Payne A., The teleology of action in Plato’s Republic

Carolina Araújo
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A. Payne, The teleology of action in Plato’s Republic, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN: 9780198799023, 256 p.

Texte intégral

1Andrew Payne’s key concept is the functional teleology of action. An agent carries out an action (or a series of actions) with one intentional end E. These actions have a characteristic activity or a function (ergon). While the actions are intended to obtain E, they also obtain F, the result of their function, which is an unintended end of the action. The agent is neither required to know, nor to have beliefs about, nor even to desire F, but F results from the agent’s beliefs and desires about E. This functional teleology is applied to different Platonic arguments. I shall discuss the most important of them.

The scala amoris

2Payne believes that the ascent passage in the Symposium provides a less controversial case of the functional teleology of action, and uses it as his explanatory model. The lover seeks beautiful bodies; souls, laws and sciences in order to give birth in the beautiful (E) without either knowledge or belief about the Form of Beauty. In all these actions, Eros performs its proper function, which is fully successful if and only if it results in the vision of the Form of Beauty (F). The lover always accomplishes E for the sake of F even if she has no intention of F. “For the sake of” is Payne’s standard expression for unintended teleological end.

3Three objections are analyzed: (i) If all action is intentional, an unintentional action is simply a description mistake. Payne responds that actions have more ends than those intended by the agent. (ii) All we find in the ascent passage is either intentionality – the lover who pursues beautiful bodies does act for the sake of an insight into the Form of Beauty – or natural teleology – the actions in earlier stages of the ascent result in seeing Beauty itself. Payne answers that the lover neither aims at this insight, for she intends to beget in the beautiful, nor achieves it by chance. (iii) The text explicitly mentions a guide giving instructions to the ascent. Payne says that this does not change the fact that the learner is personally committed to her actions as she follows the instructions.

4I do not think that the second and the third objection are sufficiently answered. If the lover follows instructions, she is committed to the end designed by the guide, she believes that it is in her interest not only to obtain E, but to do it according to the instructions (orthos, 210a4). The instructions aim at turning the accomplishment of E into a stage in the ascent to F and by following them, the lover intends to obtain E as the ergon of Eros. If this is correct, then F is not an unintended end of the agent.

5Another objection can be raised regarding Payne’s metaphysical premises. He says: “One result of the strict separation that Diotima enforces between the many beautiful things and the Form of Beauty is that the lover does not have experience of or beliefs about the Form prior to the vision” (p. 24). Without further explanation, a Platonist reader is allowed to consider “the belief about the Form” an oxymoron, for she is entitled to expect Forms to be objects of knowledge. Even if one may concede that there are beliefs about Forms, Payne has to assume that they are indistinguishable from the knowledge of these Forms, for he assumes that both result from the vision of them. Payne also implies that the Form of Beauty cannot be an intentional object if the agent has no belief or knowledge of the Form of Beauty and this is why the approach to the Form of Beauty must be teleological and not intentional. This means that the functional teleology of action depends on a radical separation between Forms and sensible particulars. By “radical” I mean: it is not only the case that forms and particulars are different objects; the beauty of particulars – which the lover desires – is something different from Beauty.

6A reader more charitable to Platonism could argue that the Form of Beauty is the being of beauty; that the being of beauty is unchangeable and eternal and that the particulars take part in beauty by being transitorily or relatively beautiful. She could also argue that whenever the predicate “beautiful” is applied to something, some belief about Beauty is involved. This Platonist could agree with Payne that the ergon of Eros is to generate immortality in beauty. She could, however, argue that when the lover desires beautiful bodies what she intends is immortality in beauty, found only in the Form of Beauty. The lover may be mistaken in taking the beautiful bodies as the object that will enable her to achieve this, but this is simply a matter of having a (mistaken) belief about what beauty is rather than knowledge of it. Of course, Payne might think this is not a good metaphysical theory, and therefore not a good one to ascribe to Plato, so it may be pointless to pursue this any further. Let us then analyze the application of the functional teleology of action to the Republic, which is the main topic of Payne’s book.

Justice and goodness

7Payne convincingly shows how in the Republic Socrates is willing to argue that justice is a self-transmitting power whose characteristic activity is to promote associations and partnerships. Against the vulgar conception of just actions depicted by Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus, he is ready to respond to the challenge that this characteristic activity is the most valuable good. This argument, according to Payne, involves the functional teleology of action. Just actions are those purported to generate or preserve internal harmony, i.e., the partnership among the different parts of the soul (E). This harmony in the soul is a benefit great enough to make being just always preferable and should be taken into account in every action. In other words, it is what Glaucon calls second kind good: something that is beneficial to us both because of its possession and of consequences deriving from it. On the other hand, while they are intended to obtain psychic balance (E), just actions also obtain as an unintended end the result of the function of justice (F), i.e., to form different partnerships and associations within the city, and finally to build up a just city. A just agent intends to promote her internal harmony and, while doing it, fulfills the ergon of justice by generating concord and friendship with other citizens.

8This is a powerful argument against those who see an equivocation in the general argument of the Republic. These critics claim that while Socrates may argue that we should act for the sake of internal balance (psychic justice), he fails in showing why we should practice actions that are vulgarly considered just, i.e., those that benefit others. Payne’s response is that the self-transmitting justice is not an egoistic theory of motivation, quite the opposite. As long as the good of others is the unintended end of psychic justice, it allows for the prescription of duties to citizens as a result of the activity of creating the city as a pool of partnerships and associations. So every citizen takes upon him/herself a job, a good Glaucon would classify as type 3: an effort that pays because of the benefits of its consequences, in this case, the wages. But as they perform this task, they also produce – once again in another case of functional teleology of action – a second type good: they promote a good political environment, by way of generating psychic harmony in the souls of the youth. I see this argument on justice and its cooperative function as the highlight of the book and a very important contribution to a vexed question.

The tripartition of the soul

9Payne considers his key concept fruitful not only to explain the relation between just agents and justice in the city, but also to explain the relation between the parts of the soul. Each part of the soul is the cause of some activity (desiring, becoming angry, learning). They do so by evincing beliefs in order to describe a particular external object under the type that characterizes the end of this activity (E). Conflict between parts occurs when the same external object receives different description types from different parts. So far; so good. What is much harder to understand is that, according to functional teleology of action, while pursuing its particular end, each part of the soul is unintentionally acting for the sake of the unity of the soul (F). I certainly see no problem in defending that in a harmonious soul the appetite would be restrained and promote the good of the whole soul as a way of promoting its own good. But I do not see how this can explain internal conflicts.

10For instance, about Leontius Payne says : “The appetitive and spirited parts in this example take up opposing stances of assent and dissent toward the action of gazing at corpses” (p. 114). First I must say that Leontius seems to me to be a case of conflict between reason and desire, in which the defeat of reason causes the protest of the spirited part (see 440a9-b2). Then I must say that if Payne is right, I cannot see how both desire and spirit can be unintentionally acting for the sake of the unity of the soul while simultaneously disputing what is the action to take in relation to the corpses. It does not suffice to justify the contradiction between intended and unintentional goal on the account that these are irrational motivations. If individuation of a part involves an unintentional end of the unity of the soul, the conflict between parts simply will not happen.

11Things become yet more controversial when Payne claims that the rational part is characterized by the activity of distinguishing courses of action and foreseeing their consequences, for example drinking or not this water, as well as by having as its proper end the benefit of the whole soul, for instance, defining that it is good to drink when thirsty. If this is so, two consequences seem to follow, neither considered by Payne. The first is that the rational part must have a second characteristic activity – ruling others – for its ergon depends on other parts carrying out its decisions. The second is that the functional teleology of action does not apply to the rational part, for there is no distinction between the intended end and the unintended end: it is all about pursuing the good of the whole soul. The problem now is that previously this distinction was crucial to individuate parts. This not being the case, it is not so clear why we should consider reason as a part of the soul rather than the soul as a whole. I suppose that the difficulty about the rational part comes with Payne’s resistance to identify the end of the rational part with knowledge, and I hope it will be easier to make this point about the next argument.

Mathematics and Dialectic

12Payne argues that the education of philosopher-kings in mathematics is a case of functional teleology of action. Their intended end is to learn mathematics (E), and their unintended end is to understand the Form of the Good (F). Framing the study of mathematics within the practice of the 5th century BC, the dramatic date of the Republic, Payne describes mathematical procedures as deductions from definitions through the use of diagrams. The diagrams allow the mathematicians to infer properties and theorems about intelligible objects, such as squares, diagonals and, most importantly, ratios and commensurability. Mathematicians are not concerned about examining these objects. So their intention, Payne concludes, is to demonstrate, and the unintended end involved in this inquiry is to gain understanding about commensurability, which is an important aspect of the Form of the Good.

13How dialectic works after this mathematical propaedeutic is a more controversial stand. Payne suggests that it amounts to a critical examination through elenctic discussion of mathematical definitions, more specifically, the definitions of commensurability and ratio. Discussion goes on until the dialectician is able to relate these mathematical forms to the first unhypothetical principle, the Form of the Good. Payne thereby describes dialectic as beginning with partial definitions of commensurability (mathematical definitions such as numbers, squares, other plane figures) and ending with a synthetic understanding of commensurability able to correlate it with justice and ethics. For my part, I find no evidence in the text that commensurability is the main object of dialectic; nor that it is restricted to mathematical definitions. Quite the opposite: at 534b3-c5 that Socrates says that the dialectician should be able to give an account of what each thing is (see also 533b1-2). Moreover, dialectic is introduced at 532a5-b as a motivation to grasp the being of each thing through reasoning, an inquiry that will not stop before reaching an intellectual account of what the good is. If we are to apply the functional teleology to this definition, we should say that the intended goal of dialectic is the being of each thing and that its unintended end is what the good is. Were this the case, the being of each thing should be a better candidate for the unintended end of mathematics, leaving the good of each of these things (see 523c6-7) as the purpose of dialectic. But I am still not persuaded about this possibility.

14I find it difficult to accept that in their propaedeutic study of mathematics philosophers-to-be have the same intentions as professional mathematicians. For this reason, I am skeptical about the idea that they do not aim at learning what the good is, i.e., that they have the good as their unintended end. If the characteristic activity of one part of our soul is to discern what is good for the whole soul, it seems that trying to understand the good is congenial to us. Moreover, the Republic states that love for wisdom is an intrinsic feature of the soul (611d8-e2) and in this scenario the thesis that an agent does not intend to understand the good implies a strong distinction between the agent and her soul. From my perspective, the functional teleology of action works very well with justice, because justice is not an intellectual virtue. Whenever reason is the case, things get more complicated. In his last paragraph Payne says that “wisdom is required for us to attain a happy life (...), and the pursuit of wisdom in philosophic life is a case of acting for the sake of the Good itself” (p. 223). I could not agree more. But then he proceeds – “Even if the Good itself turns out to be something remote from the ordinary objects of desire and intention” (p. 223) – and that I doubt. If the Good itself is what enables us to make the right choices and be happy, it is a prime candidate for the first and most fundamental object of our desire.

15This conclusion seems to confirm my view that the functional teleology of action depends not only on a strong separation between forms and sensible particulars, but also on the idea that the Form of the Good is not a good we pursue. I am afraid that this metaphysical premise leaves us with a very mysterious account of how we seek to understand morality: what is it – the Form of the Good – that we pursue without any beliefs or intentions about it even when we are devoted to rational inquiry? Are Forms so ethereal that we are never to intend to investigate them? Are we so obscure to ourselves that we can never grasp what are our intentions when we think? Can the pursuit of such an obscure goal really bring us closer to happiness? These are very important questions raised by Payne’s remarkable contribution to understanding Plato’s theory of action.

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Carolina Araújo, « Payne A., The teleology of action in Plato’s Republic »Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 16 | 2021, mis en ligne le 06 février 2021, consulté le 27 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Carolina Araújo

Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa

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