By Danile Robinson. Harvard University Press. 311 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Hadley Arkes
Daniel Robinson, as I recall him, was a striking figure when he landed at Amherst in the late 1960s, and he was made all the more striking as he was viewed against the backdrop of this new setting. He was a brash Manhattanite, now suddenly delivered to a New England college town. He was in his early thirties, but he arrived with the largest grant on campus for an ambitious project of research on vision and the retina as part of the "neural sciences." His teaching was in the "hard science" part of Psychology with a course on Physiological Psychology, a bracing mixture of anatomy and pharmacology. Yet, he was one of the few psychologists--and for that matter, one of the few academics anywhere these days--who could work with texts in Greek and Latin.
Years later he would do a book on Aristotle's Psychology, drawing on the original texts. As he offered his courses in Psychology, he insisted that the empirical findings of his discipline were worth knowing only as they bore on the enduring dispute that we identify with Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hume, about the nature of knowledge. His work on the retina wondrously led back to Kant, just as everything in his work, so current, so up-to-date, always managed to lead back to some older questions, framed far more pointedly in an earlier age.
Robinson was also a serious theist, surrounded by the fashionable atheists of the academy. It became, in time, part of his routine to deliver his listeners and his readers from the prosaic to the sublime. Step by step, the audience would be led to the recognition that "understanding" could not be reduced to neural processes, and that the reach of the mind could not be reduced to the functions of the brain. Even if we could replicate the neural firings in the brain of John Marshall, nothing in that ensemble of electrical activity would necessarily yield the opinion in Marbury v. Madison. With a rivetting precision Robinson would lead truths, not bounded in space or time. And since the propositions were not material in nature, they would not decompose even with the death of the person who first announced them. Following in this path, the student would be led back eventually universe. It became clear that Robinson was not waxing metaphoric when he finally concluded, with Aristotle, that there really was something divine about reason--about the capacity to understand those propositions not bounded by space and time. In the hands of Robinson, the discipline of Psychology did indeed become the study of the "soul."
A body of work set in this cast would soon of course make its connection to politics and law. As Aristotle understood, a human being--that forked creature with...