11 April 2005

Analysis in Context

From "arguments should not be considered in isolation but in their proper context", it does not follow, except perhaps incidentally, that "arguments should be considered in their historical or literary context".

Was the fault of the censurable approach to ancient texts by analytic philosophers anything other than taking arguments in isolation? (Annas talks repeatedly about how they 'lifted things out of context' and 'dealt with arguments in isolation'.) But then the remedy would presumably be to look at the broader argument and conceptual structure of which those arguments are a part. And this remedy would be continuous with what the censurable analyticians were doing, because it would have the same goals (is this argument sound? what's the truth of the matter here? what are we bound to count as existing?). More attention to literary devices or historical circumstances might be necessary to get straight about this broader, argumentative context; but still the point would be to figure out the soundness of the philosophical view being put forward.

I wonder if this isn't Annas' point, although she seems, in her essay, to express herself at times in such a way as to give weight to historicism.

This, for instance, seems right:

Once the [Third Man Argument] is taken out of its argumentative context and intellectual background, its significance becomes misunderstood and its importance overblown(33).
But the following remarks seem not quite right:
It is obvious, however, that our improvement in understanding both the argument and its role does not represent a falling-off from standards of analytical rigor in argument. It just makes it clear that carefulness and precision in dealing with arguments do not have to bring with them further, more locally modern assumptions, such as that a philosophical position must take the form of a theory which can in principle fall to a single counter-argument(33).
(Yes, but the view which is opposed gets overstated, as if to suggest that a philosophical position couldn't ever get pinned down and rejected in that way. Is there never any question of a refutation of a philosophical view in ancient philosophy?)

Those of us working in ancient philosophy no longer feel compelled to show that Plato is already of interest to people uninterested in the history of philosophy (40).
(I'm not sure I would feel compelled to show anything to people uninterested in the history of philosophy, but the sentence suggests that the study of Plato is history, not philosophy.)
What we do do, is to apply to ancient texts the concern, associated with analytic philosophy, for precision and rigour in argument (40).
(But if this is merely what we do, then we do no more than a good historian of ideas. Why wouldn't we say, rather, that we do exactly what analytic philosophers do, but we start from texts by Plato and Aristotle rather than Frege and Russell?--and because of the distance and subtlety of those texts, this requires more scholarship and interpretative skill.)

7 comments:

David said...

And by what rights are we allowed to do such things? Why are we allowed to ignore the myths in favor of the arguments? What do we do when an argument is obviously so ridiculous that it defies belief that Plato would ever have held such a thing (eg. Bk 5 of the Republic where female dog:male dog::woman:man)?

Anonymous said...

David, An argument is a 'reason'. You are proposing arguments (i.e. giving reasons) in your comments, and it would not be suitable for me to reply to you by telling you a myth (unless that myth involved or suggested reasons).  

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

David said...

Michael,

Soc does it all of the time, however. So are you going to apply modern, anglo-analytic standards to him? If you do then you consign the lengthy palinode in the Phaedrus to the dustbin along with the myth of Er, the final pages of the Phaedo, various parts of the Statesman, etc. How would you situate your own discussion of the myth of the underworld in the Phaedo within the practice you outline in this entry?

Anonymous said...

I would add that it makes no more sense to hold the myths up to analytic standards of precision than it does to ignore them entirely. Annas' talk of how things 'used to be' is, I think, an attempt to grant the points that scholars outside the mainstream of analytic philosophy have been making for several decades now. Unfortunately, though, her use of the past tense is more like wishful thinking than an accurate report of the state of the 'discipline,' if there is any such thing.

One more suggestion: taking arguments out of their original context to analyze them is not objectionable per se; it is regularly among the most interesting things that scholars do with ancient philosophical texts. The problem arises when we think that, by doing that, we're doing everything that needs to be done. This is obviously more of a mistake for Plato than for Aristotle, though it's true of Aristotle, too. Plato's texts are obviously a whole lot more than arguments, and the dialogue form cannot be adequately explained merely as serving the epistemological purpose of making the readers pay attention to the arguments 'as arguments.' The dramatic and 'literary' aspects of the dialogues are simply not secondary to the 'philosophy.' Plenty of scholars have been making this point for plenty of years now, and while analytic philosophers in Annas' vein have been compelled to admit their importance, they continue to treat them as secondary . That's fine, if one's only interest is in the arguments. But then one ought not to pretend that they've got Plato.

There's quite a massive bibliography on these matters. And none of them are 'hostile to philosophy,' unless the Heideggerian influences of people like Klein and Sallis count as 'hostility to philosophy.' A good sample:

Commentary on Plato's Meno, Jacob Klein

Being and Logos, John Sallis

Platonic Writings/Platonic Readings, Charles Griswold (ed.)

Plato's Literary Garden: How to Read a Platonic Dialogue, Kenneth Sayre

The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues, Ruby Blondell

None of these commit the sins of 'Straussian' interpretations or of purely 'literary' treatments that ignore the arguments completely. But compare these appreciations and interpretations of the dialogues to, say, Annas' Introduction to Plato's Republic, where she admits that Book 1 makes the issue exciting but proceeds as though the rest of the dialogue were in fact an Aristotelian treatise. In contrast, the other interpretive approaches variously recognize the importance, not just of the 'literary' elements of the dialogues, but also of the historical elements as well.

I don't mean to disregard Annas' work; she is, by any sane estimation, a great scholar of ancient philosophy, especially in her efforts to keep the ancients in dialogue with contemporary philosophy.
That, of course, is something that no amount of literary-historical reading can do on its own.  

Posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Last Anonymous: I'm not sure how you are using 'secondary' and (by implication) 'primary' here. Let's grant that the character, outlook, and actions of Plato's interlocutors are all extremely important. Let's even grant that what Plato is especially interested in (and what makes him so distinctive, I think) is the relationship between what one says, and what one's character is. But would it follow from these concessions, and other reasonable ones, that there is no ordering whatsoever , as regards reasons for what we believe, and everything else? Or, let's put the question this way: Socrates (as Plato portrays him, and whom Plato so evidently admired) evidently takes virtue and reasonability as what we should be concerned with above all. Do you think an ordering like that is abandoned by Plato? But then, if Plato accepts this ordering, shouldn't we bring that to bear, also, in interpreting his dialogues? 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

David said...

Michael,

In any great work of art there are depths and surfaces. What makes them great is the interplay between then. One cannot, however, ignore the surface in favor of the depths and still retain the work of art. The chiaroscuro in a painting is as important as the prominent figures in the foreground. Any acceptible account of a Platonic dialogue must take all of it seriously, even if some of it is ultimately more important to our interpretation of it. Our analytic friends seem disinclined to accept this thought.

Anonymous said...

David said it better than I could put it, but Michael's comments merit further response, I think, because they seem to indicate a continued misunderstanding. He asks, in particular, whether rejecting the idea that arguments are primary and everything else secondary entails rejecting that there is any ordering whatsoever between our reasons for what we believe and everything else. That's an excellent question to take with you to the dialogues, but you won't find any simple answer to it in anything that Socrates says explicitly anywhere. You might think, of course, that you have a straightforward answer when you observe Socrates talking about truth and our attitudes toward it, but if you simply take what he says and perhaps try to make it all fit into a logically tidy format, you'll miss quite a bit. What does one really do with the Gorgias, for instance, where Socrates fairly obviously has not provided Callicles or us with the arguments of iron and adamant that he talks about. Is that because Plato is a logical adolescent? Is it because Plato wants Socrates to seem like a logical adolescent? Or is it perhaps intended to show, rather than tell, us something about the 'ordering' of our reasons for believing things and the beliefs themselves?  

Posted by Anonymous