18 June 2007

Schofield on the 'Mouthpiece View'

Malcolm Schofield in Plato: Political Philosophy is so confident that the 'mouthpiece' view is incorrect, that he uses this as evidence against the authenticity of the Seventh Letter.

The author of the Seventh Letter writes:

I was compelled to say ... that the classes of mankind will find no release from their troubles until either the class of those who engage properly and truly in philosophy take on political positions, or the class of those who wield power in the cities engage in real philosophy by some dispensation of divine providence (326A-B).
Schofield points out that the passage is written in such a way as to intend to refer to the Republic. Whence his objection:
But in the Republic it was not Plato speaking in his authorial person who said he was compelled to argue for truly philosophical rulers. It was Socrates--Plato's character, 'Socrates'. If we are to believe that Plato himself wrote the Seventh Letter, it must follow that he is implying here that the Socrates of the Republic is him, or at any rate his spokesman. Is that credible?
Schofield then argues that it is hardly credible that (i) Plato "would speak as though the Republic were not a dialogue, but a pronouncement in his own person", or that, (ii) although recognizing that it was a dialogue, Plato nonetheless "saw Socrates as his spokesman" in the dialogue.

Against (i): Plato "might have expounded views in his own person in a continuous discourse" but instead "he invests huge energy and remarkable literary ingenuity in the creation of philosophical dramas--and dramatis personae to people them--in which he must in some sense be all and none of the characters whose voices are heard in the conversation." Schofield quotes John Cooper approvingly: "It is in the entire writing that that author speaks to us, not in the remarks made by individual speakers."

Against (ii): Schofield favors the view put forward by David Sedley (in his Cratylus book), who "has called attention to the analysis in several later dialogues of thinking itself as an internal dialogue of question and answer. [Sedley] suggests that the question-and-answer sequences in the dialogues constitute externalizations of Plato's own thought processes. That is how Plato maintains a 'dominating and inescapable presence' in the dialogues. An answer to the question of authorial point of view suggests itself. The dialogues are to be read as 'Plato thinking aloud'."

(Schofield distingushes (i) and (ii), but I don't see how he succeeds in keeping these distinct. His answers look like answers to the same question. "Does a dialogue say something; does it make a statement or pronounce something?" That's not answered by pointing out that the author took pains to write in dialogue form. Yet once one adds: "the author does not speak to us in the remarks made by individual speakers", one has moved on to answering the other question.)

17 June 2007

CBE for Burnyeat

Congratulations to Myles Burnyeat ("the foremost authority in ancient philosophy in the world") who has been made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) through the Queen's Birthday Honours of June 15, 2007.

14 June 2007

The Scottish Aristotle

He did write on Aristotle's logic; and he is perhaps as close to Aristotle in temperament as any modern philosopher.

The Universities of Aberdeen and of Glasgow--I discovered today--are planning a full-week conference on Thomas Reid in March 2010. "Reid in His Time and in Ours". Available information may be found here. With three years' advance notice, even extremely fussy and cautious writers will have time to contribute something.

12 June 2007

But What is Political Philosophy?

The most interesting replies to a question will reformulate that question.

This I find in Malcolm Schofield's answer to the question of whether the Republic or the Laws counts as the first work of political philosophy proper.

What gives life to the question, he allows, is that the Republic cannot be conceived to be a work in any branch of philosophy, not simply because at that time there simply weren't any departments within philosophy, but also because:

Philosophy as the Republic conceives it involves a passionate desire for unifying comprehension of everything there is. No doubt Plato could recognize points of view from which such knowledge might properly be parcelled out into different departments, but philosophy itself is basically undepartmental. Any reader who asked Plato, "But what sort of philosophy--moral, political, metaphysical--are you doing in the Republic?" would be entirely missing the point.
Nonetheless, the Republic is a work in political philosophy--among other things--because "a lot of philosophy in the dialogue is preoccupied with political questions" and "[m]any subsequent contributions to political philosophy in antiquity ... make the Republic their main point of reference".

But that is only a provisional answer. Schofield goes on to the suggest that the question itself is misguided, because it presupposes that the 'political' is a matter of the legal and the constitutional--and thus that a philosophical discussion could count only as a 'sketch' in political philosophy, if it failed to reach detailed conclusions about laws and constitutions.

What is at issue, rather, is what should properly be meant by the notion of the 'political' at all. Here Schofield centers his discussion on what Plato meant by the title, Politeia:
Translators of [Aristotle's] Politics have found that for Aristotle 'constitution' works fairly satisfactorily as an English equivalent for politeia, preoccupied as he is with the system of offices or positions of rule operative in a city. The politeia, on his definition, is a certain ordering of positions of rule, particularly the one that is sovereign over all the others ... Armed with this formulation, [Aristotle] is well placed to address the merits and demerits of monarchical, oligarchic and democratic forms of government and associated constitutional arrangements. In the Republic and much other writing on politeia, however, the focus is rather different.
Schofield then argues that Plato's Republic falls within a tradition of politeia writing, according to which "the core meaning of politeia is 'citizenship', 'the condition of being a citizen'":
Education, upbringing, rules governing marriage, the role of women in society: these are the subjects a contemporary reader would have expected to find discussed in a work entitled Politeia.
But then, from this point of view, the Republic and Laws are not to be contrasted, but are rather different attempts to address one and the same thing. On this, Schofield approvingly quotes Diskin Clay: "the greatest part of the Laws is devoted to acculturation rather than to legislation" .

11 June 2007

The Laws the First Work of Political Philosophy?

I was puzzled by the claim of Pradeau and Brisson that Plato's Laws, not the Republic, is the first work of political philosophy 'in the strict sense'.

Schofield points out (p. 7) that something similar has "recently been claimed" by André Laks, in his contribution on the Laws to the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. This is news to me, and a good example of why I wanted so much to read Schofield's book.

Laks' view is that the Laws "can be considered the first work of genuine political philosophy in the Western tradition" because (I give now Schofield's summary):

...it builds an elaborate legal and theologico-political superstructure on the foundations it discusses.
According to Laks, "the Republic is at best a sketch, whereas the Laws breaks ground for future political thought".

Admittedly the Laws executes something in the way the Republic does not, but still I think Laks' view should be rejected:
(i) If the Republic is not political philosophy because it is a sketch, then neither is Rousseau's Social Contract, Locke's Second Treatise, or Rawls' Theory of Justice--which is absurd. (Neither of these other works builds on foundations to any greater extent than the Republic does. They leave that sort of building to others.)
(ii) It's difficult to claim that future political thought is responsive to the Laws more than to the Republic. But if so, how is it that the former alone 'breaks ground for future political thought'?
Schofield has some counterarguments of his own, which I'll give in the next post.

But where do you stand on this question?

08 June 2007

A Standard of Importance

It helps to have a standard of importance, in deciding whether Plato's Laws is important. Malcolm Schofield articulates such a standard at the very beginning of his Plato: Political Philosophy. Quoting Jeremy Waldron, he describes political philosophy as "a dialogue across the centuries". Thus: the Laws is important, if it contributes importantly to this dialogue. --That would be the case one would have to make, to show its importance.

Here is how Schofield develops this point in the very first paragraphs of his Introduction, which begins:

Is Plato our contemporary? Well, yes and no. When he philosophized about politics, he was thinking of the long-vanished Greek polis or 'city-state' of ancient Athens and Sparta.
(Small Quibble Allowable in a Blog: I don't think I like that last sentence. Doesn't 'long-vanished' naturally fall within the scope of 'thinking', and thus what the sentence suggests is that these city-states were long vanished when Plato was thinking? Perhaps better: "When he philosophized about politics, he was thinking of the Greek polis or 'city-state' of ancient Athens and Sparta, now long-vanished." But to continue:)
Democracy for him meant the direct participation of all adult male citizens in the decision-making processes of the popular assembly and the courts of justice, not the representative systems of today.
(True, but do those systems of today preserve the spirit and point of representation? Is the distinction between pure and representative democracy even understood today by most citizens? Thus it may not be entirely true to say that:)
The intensity of his obsession with political rhetoric as an inbred democratic disease is intelligible only against the background of an interpretation of fifth-century Athenian imperialism and its downfall in the Peloponnesian War that he probably borrowed (not without twists of his own) from the historian Thucydides.
(But one might accept this as a concession that Plato's political theory is embedded in history, as Schofield next emphasizes:)
One particular event dominated Plato's conception of politics: the trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC. So this book will begin by immersing the reader in the historical contexts of Plato's writing; and there will be recurrent re-immersions.
(Then comes a very clever argument, ad homines and a fortiori, that we can't but regard Plato as a contemporary--which Dissoi Blogoi now "brings to you without commercial interruption":)
When Nietzsche spoke with enthusiasm of Plato's 'genuine, resolute, "honest" lie' (he had in mind the Nobel Lie of Book 3 of the Republic), however, he was thinking abouit general questions to do with morality, and more specifically of a contrast with the 'dishonest' lying--as he took it to be--of Christian morality. Similarly Hegel thought 'the Idea' of Plato's Republic contained 'as a universal principle a wrong against the person, inasmuch as the person is forbidden to own private property'. Hegel, of course, believed like Nietzsche that a philosophy such a Plato's could appear only at a particular moment in the historical process. Nonetheless in these remarks about lying and property Plato is treated not as a writer simply of a certain time and place, but someone still to be disputed with or invoked in aid. The assumption is obviously that at a certain level of generality there are themes and questions in moral and political philosophy, as in other areas of philosophy, which stay close enough to being the same over the centuries for a conversation of some sort between us and Plato to be possible and profitable.

That at any rate is an assumption I shall be making in this book.

07 June 2007

For French Horn Fanatics Only

If you are a French horn fanatic (like myself), you'll love this--extremely impressive, if you know about the perils of the "Vienna horn".

But if you want to see someone really showing off, watch this.

Three Reasons Why the Laws is Important

I had asked why Plato's Laws is important, and Pedro de Blas, in a pleasing coincidence, gives four distinct answers. I mean his review today in BMCR of J-F Pradeau and Luke Brisson's annotated translation.

(1) The Laws is not important at all, but "the late work of a worn-out mind".

Admittedly, I don't know anyone who has actually read the dialogue, who thinks this. On the other hand, by a well-known law of psychology, anyone who had expended the time and effort necessary to study the Laws, would be disposed to presume that his, and Plato's, effort was not wasted.

(2) (a very common view) The Laws is important, because of what it tells us about the unity or development of Plato's thought.

de Blas expresses a certain disdain for this approach, which he traces to the "mouthpiece" method of reading a Platonic dialogue, viz. the approach which "seeks to attribute to Plato himself what is said by Socrates, or the main speakers of the dialogues in which Socrates is merely an onlooker or is altogether absent":

This ["mouthpiece"] theory, despite its obvious textual hurdles, has nevertheless governed the interpretation of the Platonic dialogues for a long time, and has arguably forced Plato students to approach the study of the dialogues in a way that constantly requires the explanation of different and contradictory philosophical positions between dialogues. Even though Plato does not give conclusive evidence for the "unity" or "development" of his thought, the grip of the theory on many scholars is so strong that it can still be considered mainstream. I can only reference again, as Blondell also did in her review cited above [ BMCR 2003.07.02 ], some of the recent attacks on that theory that deserve urgent consideration [e.g. Press, G. A. (ed.) Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity]. Perhaps the "mouthpiece" theory is responsible for the problem that B-P themselves allude to concerning the apparent obsession with the general aspects of the Laws and with the question whether or not this dialogue "fits" with the previous ones, especially with the Republic and the Statesman.
I can't accept de Blas' attempt to blame the "mouthpiece" theory for developmentalism: surely one might hold that Plato's view is something other than that expressed by any character in a dialogue, yet still wonder whether that view changes or develops. (Or does de Blas hold that we should resist attributing any doctrine to Plato at all?)

de Blas' real objection, I take it, is against developmentalism itself: a concern with developmentalism, he wishes to say, naturally leads one to consider the dialogue above all in relation to something else--other dialogues--rather than as a worthy object of study in its own right, and therefore to consider only the "general aspects" of the Laws, because its points of overlap with other dialogues are relatively slight.

(3) (de Blas' own view) The hidden assumptions and limitations of the legal code of the Laws are worth investigating:
... we should be less concerned with other dialogues, and we should stop trying to elucidate any Platonic system or unity of thought (tempting as it may be in the case of the Laws because of the thoroughness of the material, which seems to relate to so much else that Plato wrote). In my view the most productive reading of the dialogue would be a study the legal code itself that asks questions about its normative topics out of the order in which they are presented, in order to reveal its hidden assumptions and its limitations. It is not really possible to elaborate further on this point within the scope of this book review.
Yet de Blas doesn't tell us why it would be important to uncover these "hidden assumptions and limitation". (And did you note the contradiction?: de Blas now concedes that a developmental study of the Laws need not, after all, confine itself merely to "general aspects" of the dialogue.)

(4) (Pradeau and Brisson) ??

Here de Blas' review falls short, as he does not succeed in telling us what Pradeau and Brisson think. He states a few themes from the introduction, but without enough precision for us to assess their merits:

"...the dialogue evinces a strong theoretical ambition and is in fact the first work of political philosophy stricto sensu (pp. 13-14)" --It's strange to learn that Republic is not strictly a work in political philosophy. I'd like to hear more about this. (And in using "first", is de Blas committing himself to developmentalism after all?)

"...the law is for Plato a means to regulate life to its most minute detail, and in this sense it is both a prescriptive and a pedagogical discourse (p. 18-19)" --Okay, and why is this important?

"...Book V is a treatise on practical ethics that seeks to establish virtue in a political community in an enduring manner by means of human intellect alone, as shown by the rest of the dialogue (p. 23-26)". --Is "intellect alone" meant to be contrasted with "force" or "emotion"? (I haven't a clue what de Blas means.)

"...the preambles to the laws seek to enhance compliance with the law by creating an inner conviction in the citizens about the goodness of the norms and the unavoidable harm that will ensue from their contravention, thereby combining persuasion and compulsion in a new way, according to the Athenian (pp.45-50)". --This point I appreciate and accept, yet how is it important other than as a reply to Bobonich?

06 June 2007

A Youthful Desire to Know

"Can we do chemistry today?" A question I hear every day after dinner from my seven year-old, Joseph, since I purchased on ebay the Smithsonian Micro-Chem XM 5000 chemistry set.

And then, "I love science!", said with a big grin, as we do the first elementary experiments on surface tension and paper chromatography.

Why does he love science? --Above all, I suspect, it's because he's spending time with his father when he does science.

But that is accidental to it. In itself, he loves that we use special equipment; that we measure and need to be precise; that 'science' is something that is evidently beyond him, for adults. He loves the wonder of it, the surprises: You mean the dyed water in those thin tubes won't fall out when you turn the tubes upside down? You mean the color of that brown marker really consists of three colors, orange, blue, and green? He loves that it is arcane: no one else among his friends knows about these things, or takes any thought about them.

Of course, he knows no more of science than these few simple experiments. How, then, can he say that he loves science? He's learned what the word 'science' means, in the way that Hilary Putnam has described our learning of any natural kind word, such as water. 'Science' is what we are doing here, and whatever is like it. On trust, he accepts that science is good. But not only on trust.

"Joseph," I said, "would you believe there are men who started studying science just like you when they were boys, and by the time they were men they used their science to build bombs to destroy cities?" (Yes, I said this. I don't know what possessed me to say it. I think I wanted to test his natural love of it, and maybe also to put him on guard a bit.)

"That would be very bad," he replied. Then, later, "Did men really blow up cities with bombs?" --And, very sadly, I gave a brief description of the Manhattan Project, and I had to explain how it was our country which had done this very bad thing.

Another remark I had in mind but left unsaid: "Joseph, do you realize that there are men who began studying science just as you are, but by the time they were men they came to think--because of science, they thought --that they were just like this water or these dyes that you are studying?--that they were simply hunks of flesh, without souls or minds?"

I didn't say it because it would be incredible, much more so than bombs that destroy cities. And then I thought to myself: If science were like that, I would no more introduce my young son to it than give him a Ouija board to play with, or a scorpion.

Homo sapiens

05 June 2007

Why is Plato's Laws Important?

I raised the question earlier: When is a mistaken interpretation fruitful, and when not?

Here's a dilemma for ancient philosophers: We wish that our scholarship be fruitful. Some of us therefore wish that it be 'relevant'. But then in arguing that it is, we risk imposing an alien set of questions and concerns.

(An aside: Suppose we show that something in ancient philosophy is relevant to contemporary philosophy. That only postpones the problem, since it remains to be shown that that bit of contemporary philosophy is itself in the right way 'relevant.')

(Task: Show that most expressions of more recent philosophy depend upon the presumption that philosophy derives its worth from something other than itself, such as mathematics, natural science, the hope of political progress, or the promise of resolving ethical cases.--The suspicion is that, if we limit our consideration to the question of whether some philosophical activity is itself valuable, then ancient philosophy will fare as well as anything else.--"But surely recent philosophy is better off by way of truth!" --Yet recent philosophy can hardly give an account of what it is true of; and its account of truth itself is empty.)

Now as regards Plato's Laws, an interpretation is likely to be fruitless, I think, to the extent that it distracts from our discovering and attending to what is important about the work.

And so my question becomes: Why is the Laws important? What valuable lessons does it teach? What should we above all hope to gain from a careful study of it?

How would you answer that question?

Malcolm Schofield has some interesting remarks along these lines in his Plato: Political Philosophy, which arrived yesterday. I'll share these with you in subsequent posts.

04 June 2007

Citizenship, Virtue and Fraternity

Perhaps this does have something to do with fraternity--that is, a third interesting objection that Luc Brisson raises against Bobonich.

In an earlier post, I had emphasized that, as a matter of method, when one proposes a developmental explanation of some change, it is crucial first to describe that change correctly. The explanandum will not be correct, if the explanans has not first been given correctly.

Bobonich maintains that a crucial change between the Republic and the Laws is that in the former only philosophers can be virtuous and happy, whereas in the latter apparently all citizens can be so.

Now, is this change as great as it appears? One way to argue that it is not, is to suggest that 'virtue' (or 'true virtue') gets used in different senses in the two works. For instance, in the Phaedo (and presumably in the Republic), true virtue is salvific: it liberates the person who has it from cycles of reincarnation. The difference between true and false virtue, is the difference, really, between eternity and transience. Now: does Plato in the Laws come to believe that all citizens in a well-governed city are liberated upon death from cycles of reincarnation? If not, or even if his discussion prescinds from that question, then evidently the meaning of 'true virtue' has changed across the two works, and therefore we cannot yet speak of a change in doctrine (as opposed to emphasis or purpose).

But another way is to argue that the subjects to which virtue is attributable or not differ, so that what appears to be a wider extension of the term really is not so. This is the approach that Brisson takes, thus:

In the Laws, Plato replaces the functional class of producers in the Republic by metics and slaves, responsible for taking care of agricultural and manufacturing labour (5, 741 E) and commercial exchanges (ibid.). There is no money in the city of the Magnesians (5, 742 A-B), and no one must seek to become wealthy (5, 741 E). There can be no place for poverty and wealth (5, 728 E-729 B) in a city that seeks virtue in its totality. One might say, then, that with regard to production and the exchange of wealth, the city of the Laws is much more strict than that of the Republic. Here the economy is completely set aside. In theory, therefore, the Republic is less radical than the Laws, for in the former we find a place for a class of producers who can possess land, a workshop, or a business, who may have a wife and children, and who do not seem subject to any particular constraint. But we must qualify this last assertion, in so far as the producing class is under the domination of the military class, who subject it to constant control (4, 421 D-422A), which would probably not be tender, although practically nothing is said on the subject. Ironically, it seems that the major work of making all citizens happy is done by taking those people who are lower-class citizens in the Republic, and denying them citizenship in the Laws. These people lack happiness, and they still inhabit the territory of the city, but because they are not citizens they are not part of the city (emphasis mine).

02 June 2007

Autonomy without Equality?

Another ingenious line of criticism offered by Luc Brisson, very much worth mentioning, proceeds as follows:

1. Autonomy (in the sense in which we value it) implies equality.
2. Plato in the Laws shows no concern for equality.
3. Thus, Plato in the Laws shows no concern for autonomy (in the sense in which we value it).
As regards 1., Brisson contends that autonomy is properly speaking a characteristic of the will (as in Kant), but:
First, it is practically impossible to speak of 'will' in Plato's time. Second, unlike will, reason varies from individual to individual, which implies hierarchy and dependence: for instance, when it comes to steering a boat, the pilot is not on the same level as the passenger, which implies that the passenger is dependent on the pilot. Plato consistently applies the consequences of this viewpoint throughout both the Republic and the Laws (117)
As regards 2., Brisson claims that the basic approach of both the Republic and the Laws is "to reserve power for those who know":
...the principle of autonomy implies an equivalence between all citizens in terms of rationality. Yet in the Laws, Plato never believes in arithmetical equality among citizens, which is the presupposition on which universal suffrage is based. For him, equality is proportional (6, 756E-758A). This is natural in a political context where power is assigned to those who possess knowledge (118).
Brisson concludes with a global rejection of any attempt to find a notion of 'autonomy' in Plato:
The historical context of Plato's work being what it is, it seems to me dubious to wish to find in it similarities to our own time. On the contrary, it is by measuring the profound differences that separate us from it that we can appreciate the specificity of our own situation (119).
So much, then, for autonomy in its relation to liberty and equality.

Now wouldn't it be appropriate if Brisson also had an argument that it requires fraternity....

01 June 2007

Autonomy without Liberty?

Does moral autonomy for individuals imply also their economic, social and political autonomy? Must a concern for the first carry with it a concern also for the others? Luc Brisson would answer "yes" to both of these questions--which then provides the basis for an ingenious critique Bobonich.

Bobonich holds (in Plato's Utopia Recast) that Plato's political thought undergoes a radical shift between the Republic in the Laws. In the Republic, Plato is concerned simply that citizens (i.e. besides the Guardians) do what is right, regardless of whether they understand the reasons for what they do, and regardless of whether this makes them virtuous and happy. In the Laws, he is concerned, rather, that all citizens understand and rationally embrace the reasons they are doing what they do, so that thus they will be both virtuous and happy. Bobonich characterizes this as Plato's newfound concern for "autonomy", and he says that this new concern brings Plato much closer to us, in our political thoughts and aspirations.

Brisson replies first that it is anachronistic to attribute a concern for "autonomy" to Plato. He's right about that, of course (see this earlier post). But I find Brisson's second argument more interesting.

Brisson reasons that autonomy is a kind of self-determination: it's good that someone grasp for himself the reasons for his action, precisely because he can thereby structure and determine his own actions. Thus, autonomy requires that a person be given scope to structure and determine his own actions in matters of importance. And thus also: we should be reluctant to attribute a concern for autonomy to a political theorist who did not allow citizens scope to structure and determine their own actions in matters of importance.

Brisson then carefully examines Plato's provisions for the economy, the family, and political authority in the Laws and concludes that the economic, familial and political life of the society envisaged by the Laws is so tightly constrained by the imposition of ideal policies, that it allows almost no scope for individual decision or self-determination. And certainly Plato shows little concern for allowing that sort of scope; that is not what is of interest to him.

So then, what is the sense of attributing such a concern to Plato? Some representative remarks of Brisson:

As regards economic life:

It is the allocation of a share that makes a person a citizen. This share can therefore not be considered private property, but rather the undivided and inalienable property of the city; the citizen is only the smallholder of the share that has been allocated to him; that is, he is a sharecropper. He can neither sell his share, nor exchange it, nor even replace it with another one (98).

As regards social life:
...society in general and the family in particular are strongly hierarchical... As far as the family is concerned, it is valued only as a means for preserving the share.... The individual, then, definitely lacks genuine indpendence in the context of the family, and the family itself is not independent with regard to the city (105-6).

As regards political life:
...in the Laws the Assembly and Council are deprived of their legislative and judicial role, as well as their power of control, in order to transfer these powers to the magistrates. In addition, and above all, the Assembly and Council have nothing to say on the definition of the city's goals. ... In short, power no longer resides in the discourse which, particularly at Athens, unfolds at the Assembly and the courts, but in the knowledge possessed and cultivated by the members of a Council established by law, which escapes all control (107). Etc.