28 March 2005

A Matter of Interpretation--Only?

Readers of this blog might reasonably worry--I worry about it myself--whether this discussion of Chris Bobonich's Plato's Utopia Recast has gone off the rails, on the grounds that it is so much focused on the interpretation of Platonic texts rather than philosophy. One might argue that this is to do an injustice both to Plato and to Bobonich. Aren't the philosophical claims that are being advanced more deserving of attention than small details in the text?

My reply would be mixed:

1. The contrast is a false one. An important task in philosophy is simply to understand a profound or subtle view different from one's own. This requires that our minds come into conformity--often against inclination--with a view that is alien to us. But this is impossible if we do not carefully and correctly interpret a philosopher's writing.

2. As I mentioned in one of my first posts on Plato's Utopia Recast, I study Bobonich in order to understand Plato, in order to grasp the philosophical truth that Plato might offer. If Bobonich gets Plato wrong, then the chain is broken, and--for my part--my interest in the book dissipates.

3. Bobonich's book is a developmental theory: it makes a claim about how Plato's views changed, and it aims to explain that change. But it is the constant temptation of developmental studies to draw one's attention to matters that, perhaps, ultimately have little philosophical importance. Why? Because change is one thing, and philosophical interest is something else.

4. It probably comes from my study of Hume, Wittgenstein, and Austin, but my preference in philosophy is to dissolve a problem as it arises--and attribute it to one's own folly--rather than let it arise and then try to 'solve' it. Similarly, my preference in studying a classical text is, if possible, to show that a problem simply does not arise--that it is itself a misunderstanding, or based on a misunderstanding. And yet this sort of dissolution can be achieved only through a careful attention to texts.