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.)


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the mistaken conclusion is this: "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."

Assuming that Plato wrote the Seventh Letter, we can conclude that Plato shares (at least some of) the views Socrates elaborates in the Republic. To the extent that making Socrates express and argue for his own views, then Plato uses Socrates as a 'mouthpiece.' Do we really need to conclude from this, however, that depicting Socrates in conversation is just Plato's way of arguing for his own theories? What would prohibit us from saying that Plato also uses the dialogue form to make suggestions about philosophy as an activity and about the relationship between philosophical ideas and moral character, or that he wrote the dialogues in a way that should lead the reader to question some of what Socrates says? Or that he wrote dialogues in order to avoid adopting a more dogmatic, authoritarian stance towards his ideas? As far as I can see, nothing that literarily-inclined interpreters of the dialogues (except maybe some Straussians and others who want to attribute views to Plato that contradict Socrates' own) see in the dialogues seems prima facie inconsistent with Plato sharing the vast majority of Socrates' ideas. As recent discussion here has brought out, Aristotle's comments about Plato seem to compel us to believe that Plato did in fact share many of the ideas that he makes Socrates express in the dialogues. It does not follow from that, though, that Plato must not "in some sense be all and none of the characters whose voices are heard in the conversation" or that it is in not "in the entire writing that the author speaks to us." Perhaps the only qualification we need add to Cooper's claim is that Plato does speak to us through individual speakers, but not through individual speakers alone.

Am I missing something?

Would it help at all to distinguish between two kinds of anti-mouthpiece view? One strong version would say: we have no grounds for attributing any of Socrates', the Eleatic Visitor, or the Athenian's views to Plato, and to do so violates the principles of the dialogue form. A weaker version would say: our primary aim in interpreting a Platonic dialogue should not be to determine what Plato thought, but to determine what Plato is doing with this particular dialogue; the bulk of this task involves analyzing arguments and determining what is being said, but our task will be incomplete so long as we leave dramatic elements unaddressed. Is that helpful, or no?

Kmet said...

It might be that the problem will get some new faces if we focus on other dialogues where the figure of Socrates is in more complicated position.
In the Charmides it is Socrates who - although being the main speaker - does not present Plato’s views (pace McKim and others I believe Plato is actually criticizing Socrates’ position in this dialogue). The Timaeus on the other hand presents us with a stranger to whom Socrates only listens and who (I believe) explains Plato’s views.
Hard to say whether one could do the same with the Republic, but generally one could hold a difference between Schofield’s (i) and (ii): the Republic is actually only one type of dialogue (in respect to the figure of Socrates) Plato used.

Gabriel said...

I agree with the criticism of Schofield's position. While it is healthy to remain always sceptical about whether or not Plato agrees with anything said by a character, it is quite another thing to assume that he could not possibly do so. Ferrari has a review in BMCR in which he points to the existence of what he calls "committed" drama in which the author quite deliberately uses characters to express his or her views. Why in the world would that be precluded for Plato?