25 February 2005

Les Preludes

It's curious what counts as a contribution to scholarship in different cultures. A good instance of this is J-F Pradeau's lecture at Boston College last night, in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy.

Pradeau thought it sufficient to sketch a conception of law according to Plato in fairly general terms and then cite in footnotes scholarly papers (esp. of F. Lisi and L. Brisson, but presupposing his own work as well), which he took to provide the evidence for his view.

Pradeau's talk could be boiled down to two claims:

(1) "There is indeed a coherent conception of the law in the Platonic corpus" which is stable across the Republic, Statesman, and Laws: law is "reasoning imposed on the city", addressed to the souls of its citizens, to "forge human morals".
(2) The 'preludes' or 'preambles' in the Laws "do not transmit a teaching" and do not aim "to set forth rationally the appropriateness of such-and-such a conduct" but rather to persuade with "a form of parental admonition."

Pradeau understood these claims to be directed at the views of both at G. Kosko (The Development of Plato's Political Theory) and C. Bobonich (Plato's Utopia Recast).

One might want to ask: How is this an original contribution to scholarship?

I think Pradeau might reply: simply to summarize and state succintly (what he regards as) the sound and sensible view is to do a service.

I don't regard this as an indefensible position. There is room in academia for attempts to articulate, synthetically and with some subtlety, a particular conception, such as "Plato's conception of law." Without doubt, Pradeau is qualified to do this. He might justifiably rely on his great familiarity with the Laws from the translation he's just completed. And he's published a couple of books on the subject.

Yet, again, it's curious. In U.S. academic culture, one would definitely present such a paper precisely through criticizing Bobonich, or through the careful exegesis of one or two key texts. The paper would need to be adversarial, and it would have to contain all the relevant evidence for its claims.


Victor Caston said...

Perhaps M. Pradeau simply understood the purpose of the invitation to give a "public lecture" differently (as opposed to the seminars that BACAP also invites), and did what a professor is supposedly supposed to do: profess.

This needn't involve a light-handed attitude towards evidence, or a high opinion of your own grasp of the truth. Suppose you were invited to address a broad public audience, in a TV or radio interview. Wouldn't you do something very similar?

Now, of course, that's not what was intended by the invitation -- even in some of the grander passages of the founding documents, John Cleary clearly expected to engage "the public" dialectically, through argument and debate. Hence the format of the event and the publication. And sitting in the old debating hall at Boston College, surrounded by about fifty philosophers and grad students, you would be unlikely to mistake it for a media event.

But perhaps it would be less misleading to rename the events as "public disputations." In fact, I would go further and suggest they be organized the old-fashioned way, publishing the results in Latin, as Quaestiones disputatae. (They really knew to do things then!)

From sunny California, where it is currently in the low sixties,


Sam Rickless said...

There is a long history in French scholarship of summarizing one's own research and failing to engage *critically* (at least in public) with the research of others. This refusal to duel publicly with one's opponents is probably a by-product of strong cultural influences, most notably the conventions of French etiquette, according to which public criticism would be understood as a sign of disrespect. Norms of public discourse in the US are not hemmed in by such conventions, perhaps because one's theories are not here taken ( in the way they are in France) as an expression of one's identity.

In my view, these kinds of conventions are not conducive to intellectual progress, since so much is to be learned from the criticism of one's peers. But things are changing for the better, to be sure. The number of French scholars who engage in the public give-and-take that characterizes Anglo-American scholarship is growing. In a few years, this kind of public reticence will be a thing of the past.

Michael Pakaluk said...

The difficulty with someone's simply 'professing', is that one doesn't know whether it is well-grounded. For instance, Pradeau claimed that the 'preludes' of Plato's Laws "do not transmit a teaching" and do not "set forth rationally the appropriateness" of certain conduct. This is view directly at odds with Bobonich's carefully argued view. Did Pradeau have replies to Bobonich's arguments, or was he ignoring them? One couldn't tell. And I still cannot tell, comparing the text of Pradeau's lecture against Bobonich's book.

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