21 October 2005

The Challenge Reiterated

Since I'll be traveling the next couple of days, I have no confidence I'll be able to post. Yet I do not wish to reveal yet my thoughts on the Polus refutation. So let me restate the challenge.

The central part of the Gorgias, Socrates' refutation of Polus, is one of the most attractive passages in the Platonic corpus and indeed in all of philosophy. It clearly expresses Plato's confidence in the ultimate coincidence of goodness and reasonability.

I speculated that this passage had played an important role in drawing many of us, and many readers of Dissoi Blogoi, to the field of 'ancient philosophy'; and, indeed, a blog reader has already commented, saying that this was in fact true in his or her case.

There are two 'refutations of Polus'. In the first, Socrates gets Polus to agree that it is always worse to do wrong than to suffer it; in the second, that it is always better, if someone has done wrong, that he be punished justly than go unpunished. It is the first refutation that we are concerned with here.

It is widely thought or suspected--perhaps Vlastos' 1967 article is the reason--that that first refutation is flawed. Vlastos in fact says that it is a fallacy. He calls it a 'hollow' argument: the refutation, he says, is ad hominem; it is a victory over the man or character, Polus, not over the view that he holds.

If Vlastos is right, then that passage we all love and admire amounts to a fraud. Furthermore, we as it were commit a fraud against our students, if we continue to present it as though it really does vindicate a high ethical ideal. If Vlastos is right, we definitely ought not hold out that passage as providing a good reason for anyone's devoting himself to ancient philosophy (at least, as being reliable or true).

So we really should have a reply to Vlastos. My question to blog readers was: Do you have a reply? What do you say about Vlastos' criticism?

And my suggestion was that there was a good reply. The refutation is not invalid, I maintain. However, as I said, I do not wish quite yet to say why I think this. Instead, I'll give some reasons why I think as I do. And in the next day or so, perhaps as late as Sunday, I'll tell you my whole view.

The two ideas I think are crucial for responding to Vlastos:

1. Socrates might reasonably have presumed that the only two grounds for someone's being drawn to something are that it is in some way pleasant or good; he might reasonably have presumed that the only two grounds for someone's being repulsed by something are that it is in some way painful or bad. Good, pleasant; bad, pain--these exhaust the grounds for attraction and repulsion, respectively.

2. The reasons why someone might be led to assent to a premise in an argument need not be the best reasons for assenting to that premise. Considerations that make a premise seem plausible may be therefore be ad hominem, without the argument's being ad hominem.


Anonymous said...

As long as you're discussing Plato, I'd like to make some comments on one of your BMCR reviews, of Jacob Howland's Paradox of Political Philosophy.


I agree with most of your eight criticisms, and the flights of interpretative license you cite are embarassing. I haven't read the book, but I have read a similar book by Joseph Cropsey on the same theme, and I found the approach, treating the dialogues as an "octology," to be helpful.

Why do you take issue with the premise of the book, that the eight dialogues chronologically preceding Socrates' death are linked? Isn't the fact that they are explicitly set by Plato between Euthyphro and Phaedo (and preceded by Theatetus) sufficient reason to believe they serve as a defense of Socrates?

You seem to consider two objections to this approach to be persuasive, that the dialogues are out of order (defense before prosecution), and second, that the dialogues come from different periods of Plato's "development." But are these objections persuasive? First, one doesn't have to arbitrarily identify the "prosecution" and "defense" to realize that the dialogues constitute a defense of Socrates. True, every dialogue is a defense of Socrates, but it is an interesting question why Plato sets these specific dialogues around the trial and death of Socrates. What does the Statesman, for instance, have to do with Socrates' trial, which immediately follows in the dramatic order? To ignore that question would be like ignoring why the Critias comes after the Timaeus, or ignoring the fact that Richard II preceded Henry IV. Likewise, it makes sense that we should pay attention to the connection between the Theaetetus and the Euthyphro, or the Theatetus and the Sophist/Statesman, considering that Plato goes out of his way to connect the dialogues. It be irresponsible to ignore the connection.

Second, you seem to assume that Plato would have to have written the dialogues in the order of their dramatic chronology, and further, that if they were an octology they would have a homogenous style. Ok, why? Plato can't choose the style and order of composition as he pleases? In general, it makes more sense to pay attention to Plato's explicit hints than to rely on the necessarily hypothetical results of stylometry. In fact, I can't think of another author where the results of a pseudo-science like "stylometry" are given so much weight as in the interpretation of Plato. And even if we knew the order, what would that change? Would it license investigations into Plato's "development"? Well, no. That seems like a rather obsolete relic of 19th century science, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I can't really judge how well your review represents Howland's arguments, since I've never read his book. What I can say is that of all the reviews I've read, yours are the most consistent in their tendency to represent strong disagreement or even disdain without indulging in critical hyperbole and vaguely ad hominem attacks. Whether one ultimately agrees with your objections or not, your negative reviews provide a model for their genre.

But anyway, this post was supposed to be about the Gorgias, right? I should really go look closely at Vlastos' original article. I more clearly recall his treatment of the issue in Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, but in neither case can I bring the details of his argument to mind. One thing that I can say with a fair amount of confidence, though, is that provided that the argument is not simply invalid in its form, I see no reason why we should treat it as fallacious. The alleged equivocation is not actually an equivocation, in my view. The suppositions that you mention are perfectly legitimate suppositions. Most important, I would think, is the dialectical context of the argument. Polus does in fact agree to the premises, and whether or not he 'really' believes them or merely professes to believe them out of shame, as Callicles says (is there a significant difference? what would it be?) makes little difference. If you accept the premises he accepts, then you validly reach the conclusion that Socrates draws for him. The argument may be weak in the sense that we would want to challenge any number of its premises even if we accept its conclusion, but that does not make it fallacious. Yet that describes perhaps a majority of the positive arguments that we find in the 'dialogue heavy' dialogues. The arguments take place in the context of a conversation, and Plato has not constructed those conversations solely to serve as a vehicle for the expression of what he considers to be the best arguments that he has for a conclusion. If we take the dialogues in that way, then we'll be disappointed with the Gorgias. If we look at the argument in the context of the conversation between Socrates and Polus, we're less inclined to treat any weakness of argument as a Platonic sin. Why should we, if what we are looking at is an elenchic discussion in which Socrates refutes Polus, but it's Polus as a person who holds and professes certain beliefs, who is refuted. If there are logical errors involved, that is one thing (sometimes). If there are not, then I don't see the problem. The argument would certainly be ad hominem in a sense (as you suggest, I think), but not in the manner of the fallacy that goes by that name.