07 June 2007

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?


Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

If Plato's view is not the view expressed by any particular character in the dialogue, then we're going to have terrible trouble identifying what Plato's view actually is. Another thought. Would those who so breezily dismisss the mouthpiece interpretation please explain Aristotle's numerous remarks about the historical Socrates and the historical Plato? If you analyze Aristotle's claims about the historical Plato, you will find that many of them are actually made by the character Socrates in the middle dialogues. How much more evidence would one need to conclude that the character Socrates speaks for the historical Plato in the middle dialogues?



Michael Pakaluk said...


Blondell says merely that a proponent of the 'mouthpiece' approach needs to justify the use of that method.

deBlas goes beyond this and suggests that the method is untenable and distorts one's conclusions.

Blondell in a footnote summarizes Brisson's defense of the method: "He argues that we must treat the visitor as Plato's mouthpiece, otherwise we cannot tell what Plato thinks and cannot trace the development of his thought". She dismisses this as circular. But I think only her adding "...and cannot trace the development of his thought" makes the defense seem circular.

Roderick Firth once said to me that one shouldn't try to win a philosophical argument by the choice of a label. He said one should never, therefore, use a label for an opponent's position, which one's opponent would not accept himself. In my view, the term "mouthpiece theory" offends against this principle: it is a caricature.


Anonymous said...

Nonetheless, the idea (Blondell attributes it to Kraut, I think, who makes it in his editorial contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Plato) that we can't know what Plato thinks if we don't attribute the views of some character to Plato is just nonsense. It makes two mistakes: 1) assumes that there is no way to determine what Plato is doing in a dialogue other than simply to read one of the characters as 'Plato'; but there are no good reasons to suppose that this is the case, and plenty of examples to refute it; whatever one thinks of his conclusions, John Ferrari's work provides a perfect example of an interpretive mode which doesn't just read Socrates as a stand-in for Plato yet also thinks he can say things about what Plato is trying to do and what Plato thinks. 2) The bad pro-mouthpiece argument just assumes that the aim of an interpretation of a dialogue is to arrive at a view of 'what Plato thinks'; that goal certainly makes sense, but it is not at all obvious that it is what we should be trying to do. One thing that Plato definitely does seem to be trying to do is to keep readers from thinking about what he thinks and to think about the problems and issues raised in the dialogues.

As for Aristotle, Sam, I think it's up to you and others who lean on the Aristotelian evidence to explain why Aristotle was such a horrendously bad reader of the dialogues. Alternatively, you might want to explain why you think his reports are reliable even when he is such an obviously bad reader of the dialogues. The criticisms of Plato in Bk. II of the Politics are a great example. Aristotle plainly does not engage with the dialogues as such.

Anonymous said...

In defense of de Blas, he never set out to explain why the Laws was worth studying. All of the points that Michael makes are part of his summary of Brisson and Pradeau's introduction, not part of an attempt to defend the relevance of the Laws to contemporary political philosophy. So Michael's criticisms are entirely misplaced.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Anonymous,

What is your evidence for the claim that Plato was trying to keep his readers from thinking about what he thinks? That he wrote dialogues? But the dialogue was a familiar genre in Plato's day, a genre that allowed for a stylistically sophisticated way of conveying the author's position, much in the way that Berkeley's Three Dialogues did in 1713. Or are you suggesting, post-modernistically, that we can't even tell what Berkeley thought?

Aristotle takes for granted that the things Socrates says in the Republic should be attributed to Plato himself. Are you saying that Aristotle got it wrong?

Well, you say, Aristotle was a horrendous reader of Plato's dialogues. Wow. Aristotle was a genius who spent years in Plato's academy. You would think that he would be more likely to get Plato right than you or I. Are you privileging your own interpretation of Plato over Aristotle's? That takes real chutzpah.

You say that Book II of the Politics shows what a bad reader of Plato Aristotle was. Really? What did Aristotle get wrong? The bit about holding wives and property in common? No. The bit about there being three classes in the ideal polis? The bit about the transposition of ranks? No. The bit about guardians not engaging in farming? No. The bit about how it isn't clear whether the famers are supposed to hold property individually or collectively? No. That only the guardians are to be educated? No. That one body of persons are made permanent rulers (thereby denying the principle of ruling and then being ruled in turn)? No. That it's OK if the guardians turn out unhappy as long as the polis itself is happy? No. What, then? How exactly did Aristotle MISREAD the Republic?

Or are you saying that Aristotle's criticisms of the Republic are unconvincing? But even if they were, that wouldn't show that Aristotle attributed views to Plato that Plato did not hold. Help me out here. I really don't get it.


Anonymous said...

The dialogue form was a conventional genre? That's news to me. Can you give me evidence for that? At any rate, the form itself is structured in a way that suppresses authorial voice; there were dozens of other genres out there which allowed for a strong expression of authorial voice with various degrees of authority. If Plato had wanted to write in quasi-Parmenidean verse or to compose treatises, his audiences would have understood what he was doing. He didn't. The dialogue form was not at all conventional when Plato took it up (unless you're counting Sophron's mimes as dialogue). Even so, the other authors whose dialogues we do have, in particular Xenophon, do not appear to use their characters as mouthpieces standing in for their own views. Xenophon clearly presents Socrates as a positive figure whose views he approves, but he isn't just giving us Xenophon's ideas. There is at the very least a pretension to representing Socrates faithfully, since his goal in writing Socratic discourses is to clear up Socrates' reputation. He couldn't possibly do that if his audience would have generally interpreted his Socrates as his spokesman.

As for Aristotle, it isn't nearly so arrogant to reject Aristotle's views of Plato as it is slavish and cowardly to conclude that he must be right because he was Plato's student and smarter than me.

Nor can you show that Aristotle was a good reader of Plato simply by pointing out that he got the basic claims of the argument right. If he didn't do that, he'd have been an idiot, not a bad reader. You try to distinguish between making unconvincing criticisms and misreading the texts, but one of the easiest ways to make an unconvincing argument is to interpret an opposing argument uncharitably, as you should well know.

Worse for your argument is that Aristotle is not at all consistent about how he talks about the dialogues. So, in Politics 5.12, he says: "In the Republic there is a discussion by Socrates about changes..." with no mention of Plato. So, by your assumptions, we should assume that Aristotle is awfully clever and conclude that this part of the Republic must not express Plato's own thought?

The rest of 5.12 gives a pretty good example of how little Aristotle can engage with the text when he doesn't want to. Consider this argument:

"The same argument applies also to the other changes. For he says that change from the Spartan regime is into oligarchy and from oligarchy into democracy and from democracy into tyranny. Yet changes can also be the other way around, as from rule of the populace to oligarchy, and to this more than to monarchy."

Is this an unconvincing criticism, or a case of sloppy reading? Well, if it's good reading, then it's a convincing argument. If it's good reading, though, then Socrates (or is it Plato?) must be a complete idiot. After all, Athens had gone from democracy to oligarchy to democracy to oligarchy again in his own lifetime. Am I still supposed to bow down to Aristotle's interpretation because he was so much smarter and closer to Plato than I am? Or am I to conclude that Aristotle didn't really engage with the text and then try to figure out what's really going on there? I think you'll find that most scholars, even those who more or less accept the 'mouthpiece' view, do not think that the regime change story in Rep. 8 is supposed to be a chronological theory of the inevitable historical development of politeiai. Are all those scholars guilty of privileging their own interpretation of Plato over Aristotle's? Or are they just trying to be good philosophers instead of antiquarian idolators?

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Anonymous,

1. It's news to you that the dialogue was a conventional genre for expressing the author's views. So here's a quote from Diogenes Laertius that might help (it's from his Lives II.64): "Panaetius thinks that, of all the Socratic dialogues, those by Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, and Aeschines are genuine; he is in doubt about those ascribed to Phaedo and Euclides; but he rejects the others one and all." So there were clearly lots and lots of dialogues. In fact, not only dialogues, but SOCRATIC dialogues. DL also reports 9 extant dialogues by Stilpo, 17 dialogues by Crito, 33 dialogues by Simon, 9 dialogues by Glaucon, 23 dialogues by Simmias, 3 dialogues by Cebes, a bunch of dialogues by Speusippus, and on and on. Here is DL on the dialogue genre (Lives III.48): "They say that Zeno the Eleatic was the first to write dialogues. But, according to Favorinus in his Memorabilia, Aristotle in the first book of his dialogue On Poets asserts that it was Alexamenus of Styra or Teos." So the dialogue form was common, and commonly taken to be one way to represent an author's views. Here is DL again, this time on Plato (III.52): "[Plato's] own views are expounded by four persons, Socrates, Timaeus, the Athenian Stranger, the Eleatic Stranger. These strangers are not, as some hold, Plato and Parmenides, but imaginary characters without names, for, even when Socrates and Timaeus are the speakers, it is Plato's doctrines that are laid down."

2. You say that the form [of dialogue] itself is structured in a way that suppresses authorial voice. On what grounds? Sure, the form can be used by an author who wants to suppress his own voice. But, of course, it NEED NOT be used in this way, as the example of Berkeley (or Leibniz in the New Essays, and many others) shows. Aristotle and others simply take for granted that Plato speaks through various of his characters. The point here is that suppression of authorial voice is not an essential property of the dialogue genre.

3. In what way is it "slavish and cowardly" for me to conclude, on the basis of the fact that Aristotle was a genius and Plato's pupil, that it is very likely that Aristotle got Plato right? The fact that Aristotle was a genius suggests that he was not the kind of person who would mishear or misinterpret what Plato said. He had plenty of opportunity to interact with Plato. As far as I can see, only pure speculation about motives (e.g., some desire to make himself look better than Plato) would justify the claim that Aristotle just got Plato wrong.

4. You have yet to tell me what it is about Politics II that suggests that Aristotle misread the Republic. I looked, and all I could find in Politics II were accurate statements. Which statements of Politics II are inaccurate?

5. It is true that Aristotle attributes views to the character Socrates in the Republic. He also attributes views to Plato, on the strength of what the character Socrates says. You say that this suggests inconsistency. But there is no inconsistency here. Aristotle is simply operating with the mouthpiece view, moving easily between attributing X to the author and attributing X to one of the author's characters.

6. The example of Plato's description of the change from one form of constitution to another is very interesting. Perhaps you are right that Plato is not proposing an account of the standard historical development of city-states. But, if so, then what is he doing? Is it crystal clear from the text, which uses the language of chronological development, that he is doing something else? If the answer to the latter question is NO, then it wouldn't be unreasonable for Aristotle to read the text as proposing a thesis about historical development, and then bring historical counterexamples to bear against it.

I can imagine a perfectly reasonable debate between Plato and Aristotle on these issues. In response to Aristotle's criticisms, Plato might say: "Look, I see why you read Republic 8 in the way you did. So let me try to be clearer than I was. When I said, e.g., that oligarchy turns into democracy, I simply meant that oligarchy is strongly disposed to turn into democracy, i.e., that the social forces are such that an oligarchy will turn into an democracy, other things being equal."

As far as I can see, there is nothing here to justify the claim that Aristotle was a "horrendous reader" of the Republic.


Anonymous said...

Good show, Sam.

To anonymous' credit, however, Diogenes Laertius is notoriously unreliable on historical details. It seems pretty obvious that other people were writing dialogues, but it isn't obvious that the dialogue was already a well-established conventional genre when Plato took it up. It seems equally, if not more, likely that Plato and the other 'Socratics' took it up at more or less the same time.

Moreover, since we don't know much about what was in those dialogues, we shouldn't conclude straightaway that they were fancy ways of expressing the author's own views. Given what we do know about them, it seems more plausible to say that they were ways for authors to explore questions through the character of Socrates engaging in conversation with others. Whether what Socrates says in those dialogues expresses the views of the author is an open question, but far from obvious.

Furthermore, it does seem right to say that the dialogue form does suppress the authorial voice per se simply by virtue of its form. I don't know Berkeley's dialogues well, but I do know that if Berkeley had not written anything else in his own voice, you would not be so secure in saying, "Ah, well, clearly Berkeley's own views are expressed by this character." The best you could do would be to say that a certain character pretty obviously expressed the author's views, but you would have to appeal to some features of the work itself, e.g., the amount of attention given to the view, whether or not a character's arguments 'win' or not, etc. Nonetheless, when an author produces a dialogue that does not feature himself as a character, he creates a distance between himself and the ideas expressed by his characters. Some arguments can be made to bridge that distance, but the distance is there, and it's a formal one. Since it's formal, we don't need to appeal to some evidence outside of the text in order to establish it. It's just there. To my mind, Plato's dialogues work awfully hard to maintain that distance, and we shouldn't go around saying things like "Plato says..." just because some character does.

The fact that later philosophers or biographers tell us that some characters in Plato's dialogues express Plato's own views is not especially good evidence, to my mind. By the time philosophy had become an established practice, there was a serious incentive for everybody to be able to say what the master's views were. Moreover, it seems pretty clear from what we can tell that later writers like Aristotle and Zeno just did use dialogues as vehicles for their own doctrines, so the assumption would have seemed fairly obvious to later readers.

The evidence from Aristotle himself is, as you suggest, the best evidence for the so-called 'mouthpiece' view. I don't think it's anywhere near decisive, though, if we take it to mean that Plato's main characters voice his own doctrines. Aristotle's way of talking about the dialogues seems consistent with an interpretive mode that does not reduce the dialogues to a set of arguments by Plato for conclusions that he takes as doctrines (however revisable). Even if Plato did mean for his readers to appreciate the dramatic layer of his dialogues as something with philosophical value and not mere window dressing (a conclusion which seems inescapable to me, unless we throw out the door assumptions about the importance of being charitable and the aim of accounting for the text as it is instead of those parts of us that interest us the most), he might also have considered the ideas of Socrates, the Eleatic Stranger, and the Athenian Visitor his ideas. I still don't see how we can avoid concluding that Plato wanted to dissociate himself from those ideas as doctrines, but I don't think it would have been inconsistent for Aristotle to use Plato's name when talking about the dialogues.

As for Aristotle's quality as a reader of Plato, we'd have to write a book on that one, wouldn't we? I suspect that the reason why Aristotle seems like a sloppy reader is that he didn't really care about the dialogues as dialogues. He knew the ideas as they were found in the dialogues, and probably referred to them that way so that his audience could go and look if they wanted, but he also no doubt knew the ideas as Plato expressed them in live conversation. So of course he wouldn't bother to sit down and engage very carefully with the dramatic aspects of the dialogue to determine whether or not they were philosophically relevant.

Of course, we have no business concluding that those aspects of the dialogues aren't relevant just because Aristotle didn't talk about them. If Aristotle had actually written interpretations of the dialogues, then what he has to say about them would be more illuminating. Since he refers to them only in passing when largely interested in getting at the truth of some particular ideas, his way of talking about them is only of limited value.

Or so it seems to me.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Anonymous,

A couple of thoughts. First, Socrates was an object of veneration. An author would WANT to be associated with what his character Socrates says.

Actually, Berkeley leaves us with all sorts of clues that he identifies with the views of Philonous rather than with the views of Hylas. There are the names of the characters, for one thing. It's a dead giveaway. And, as you say, there are other clues that help identify the character through whom the author speaks (who wins the arguments, for example). By all accounts, the available clues in the Platonic dialogues simply confirm the mouthpiece interpretation described by DL (and taken for granted by Aristotle).

Sure, let's give you the idea that you cannot AUTOMATICALLY infer from the fact that @ writes a dialogue that @'s views are put in the mouth of any one of the characters. But, likewise, there is no AUTOMATIC inference from the fact that @ writes a dialogue that @ is trying to hide @'s own views. Berkeley and Leibniz are clear counterexamples. By all means, let's look at what happens in the dialogues themselves. For example, as you suggest, there is good reason to believe that the author identifies with the character who wins the arguments. Doesn't this suggest that Plato uses the character Socrates to push his own views?

You are willing to accept that Aristotle used dialogues as vehicles for his own doctrines. But Aristotle was not a "later" figure. He was Plato's pupil. How do you know that he wasn't just imitating Plato's style?

I'm afraid I just don't understand the paragraph that begins "The evidence from Aristotle..." Aristotle attributes to Plato the things that the character Socrates says in the middle dialogues (Phaedo, Republic). Of course, it's LOGICALLY POSSIBLE that Aristotle got it wrong. But my point is that it's hardly LIKELY.

If Aristotle doesn't engage with the dramatic aspects of the Platonic dialogues, it's because he thinks that they are philosophically irrelevant. And why isn't this excellent evidence for the claim that, by and large, the dramatic aspects ARE philosophically irrelevant? Your hypothesis that Aristotle referred to the dialogues just so his audience could go look if they wanted is pure speculation. Where is your evidence for this?

If you want to write a book on how Aristotle was such a sloppy reader of Plato, please go right ahead. I'd love to read it. But telling me that you could provide the evidence of Aristotle's sloppiness isn't actually providing me with the evidence. For one, I am still waiting for your answer to my questions about Politics II.

Anonymous said...


There are too many anonymi here; I, the author of the last post, am not the person who claimed that Politics II proves that Aristotle was sloppy. I think that the earlier anonymous had some good points, but I certainly don't agree with all of them! I hope you don't think I'm hostile to you like the previous commentator was. At any rate, I don't mean to be.

Also, I didn't intend to suggest that Aristotle was obviously a sloppy reader of Plato. What I wanted to say, rather, is that if we want to know how good a reader of Plato Aristotle was, we need to go through and do some very careful work, at least a whole book's worth of work. So I wasn't trying to substitute assertion for evidence; I'm entirely agnostic on how well Aristotle read Plato.

That said, your comments suggest that I wasn't clear enough about how the dialogue form works. You say, for instance, there we cannot infer directly from the fact of dialogue that an author is trying to 'hide' his own views. Yet that isn't quite what those of us who claim that the dialogue form inherently distances its author's views from it's character's views are saying. What we are saying is pretty obvious, which is why it frustrates us to no end when smart people like you seem to reject it. So, to be very clear: when an author writes a dialogue in which he is not a character, this automatically (yes, automatically) creates a distance between the views of the author and the views of the characters. This is just how dialogue works. It does not follow from this that the author is trying to hide his own views. In fact, nothing necessarily follows about the author's intentions at all. Any number of relationships between the author's beliefs and his character's beliefs are possible. Because the form itself suppresses the authorial voice, however, the author has to do things to make clear that some character's views express his own if that's what he wants. Unlike a treatise or a philosophical poem, the author's view is not already established.

Now, you say that Plato's dialogues just do suggest that he uses Socrates to 'push his own views.' It seems obvious to me -- and I don't think that most opponents of the 'mouthpiece' view would object -- that the ideas that Socrates and the other major figures express are ideas that Plato thinks are extraordinarily interesting and possibly true. What does not seem at all obvious to me is that whatever one of these characters thinks is just what Plato thinks, and that the only important philosophical points made in a dialogue are what comes out of the mouths of one of these characters. I have two basic kinds of reason for rejecting that sort of view, one negative and one positive. Negatively, such a view makes far too much of the dialogues entirely extraneous fluff. Why does Plato bother with characters at all if all he really wants to do is make the argument of the Republic? At best, the 'mouthpiece' view treats everything that is not reducible to formal argumentative analysis as of merely instrumental value. Which brings me to my positive argument: the dramatic aspects of the dialogue just are of more than instrumental value. Can you really read a dialogue like the Gorgias with the thought that the only important part of it is the particular arguments that Socrates makes?

So, when you argue that the dramatic aspects of the dialogues are probably philosophically irrelevant since Aristotle paid no attention to them, I'm inclined to say that Aristotle just must have not paid too much attention, or not cared, or missed it altogether. By analogy, if Aristotle says something about Greek politics that contradicts our best judgment of how Greek politics worked, we would be awfully silly to reject our judgment just because Aristotle was closer to the phenomenon than we are. Similarly, if fuller readings of the dialogues do more justice to the dialogues than Aristotle does, then we're being awfully silly (maybe not 'slavish,' as the previous anonymous suggested, but definitely silly) to reject those interpretations just because they diverge from Aristotle's practice.

Of course, I've merely asserted that interpretations which abandon the 'mouthpiece' mode are better. I'm not going to argue for it here, because the only way to do that is to go and read different interpretations of the dialogues, or to engage in each kind of interpretation oneself. It's silly to spend too much time arguing about this issue in abstraction from any particular dialogue. Ultimately, we just have to ask whether we understand a dialogue or a set of dialogues better through the kind of analysis that Terry Irwin does, where particular texts sometimes seem to disappear entirely, or the kind of interpretations that John Ferrari produces, where dramatic details are of crucial importance. I doubt whether anybody will want to give up either of them, but it seems pretty plain to me from my own reading of the dialogues that they are a whole lot more than cute treatises, or essays with an 'inspirational' and protreptic layer, and that when we do nothing more than analyze arguments and reconstruct theories, we're missing quite a bit even when we aren't blatantly distorting the texts. To reject that judgment on the grounds that it diverges from Aristotle's practice or that we can only determine what Plato thought if we take up the 'mouthpiece' view seems just about as silly as the aprioristic foreclose of empirical possibilities -- it may even be an aprioristic foreclosure of empirical possibilities! The issue can't be settled apart from actually reading and interpreting the dialogues.

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Anonymous II,

I'm sorry for not having distinguished between the two Anonymi. Let me try to address some of the points you make.

I did say in a previous post that one cannot automatically infer from the fact that an author writes a dialogue that the author's vews are put in the mouth of any one of the characters. So I am not rejecting what it frustrates you no end that smart people seem to reject. What frustrates ME no end is when smart people like you seem to make the opposite mistake, which is to endow the "formal distance" between author and character with much greater significance than the actual dialogues reveal. It seems to me that many of those who think that the dramatic features of Plato's dialogues come first assume WITHOUT ARGUMENT that the mere fact that Plato wrote dialogues PROVES that he intended the dramatic aspects of his works to provide the key to his philosophical intentions.

You provide two arguments against the mouthpiece view.

The first is that the mouthpiece view makes far too much of the dialogues entirely extraneous fluff. After all, one could make the arguments of the Republic without employing the dialogue form. One could just write a treatise.

I find this argument unconvincing. Take Berkeley, for example. B wrote the Principles in his own voice. No characters. The Principles was not well received. Folks thought Berkeley was a sceptic because he denied the existence of matter. It irritated him no end that he was misunderstood. So he wrote the Three Dialogues, repeating most of the arguments he had made in the Principles, in part because he thought that the dialogue form would help avoid misunderstanding and encourage his readers to accept his views. In doing so, he put his own views in the mouth of his character, Philonous.

Why write a dialogue to make exactly the points that could have been made in a treatise? The answer is simple: to capture and convert the reader. Here is one thing that the dialogue form does better than the treatise: putting objections to the author's views in the mouth of a character makes it seem as if the author is treating those objections more seriously. If the character who speaks for the author answers those objections well, then the reader who was initially drawn to object to the author's views will be more likely to accept the author's replies. Here is another thing that the dialogue form does better than the treatise: it makes the subject matter come alive, and so draws the reader in.

The second argument is that the dramatic aspects of the dialogue are of more than instrumental value. This is not an argument, but an assertion. The assertion is followed by another assertion (about the Gorgias), couched in the form of a rhetorical question. What I would like to see is a reason for accepting these assertions.

For my part, I have absolutely no trouble reading the Gorgias primarily as a means of conveying arguments. For example, one of the main purposes of the dialogue is to provide arguments against hedonism. This is EXTREMELY important, in light of the fact that hedonism is one of the basic premises of the final argument for moral intellectualism in the Protagoras. If hedonism is shown to be false, one of the main arguments for moral intellectualism turns out to be unsound.

Notice that I am not saying that the DRAMATIC elements of a dialogue are INSIGNIFICANT. What I AM saying is that one cannot understand the dramatic elements without understanding, on the basis of what you call "formal argumentative analysis", the author's philosophical intentions. Here's a good example. After Socrates' speech in the Parmenides, Parmenides and Zeno look at each other and smile. Why? Without conducting detailed argumentative analysis, we don't have a prayer of answering this question. After the analysis, we can see the smile as a knowing smile, a smile that comes from knowledge of the fact that there are real problems for the theory of forms Socrates proposed in his speech.

You say that it would be silly of us to reject interpretations that do more justice to the dialogues than Aristotle does. But by what criteria do you judge that an interpretation of a dialogue "does more justice to it" than Aristotle's? Aristotle was there then, he was very smart, he spent oodles of time with Plato, and his own philosophical method required that he represent the views of his predecessors as accurately as possible. (Those views were important data for his own theories.) This is where I see an awful lot of chutzpah on the part of smart people like you. For my part, I am extremely diffident about any interpretation of Plato that conflicts with what Aristotle tells me Plato thought.

You have misunderstood me if you think that I am aprioristically forcelosing the possibility that Ferrari-type readings are better than Irwin-type readings. I base my own judgments on my own reading of the dialogues, and I have actually done quite a bit of work on this score, most recently providing a complete logical reconstruction of the arguments of the Parmenides. As I argue in Plato's Forms in Transition, logical analysis (a la Irwin, a la Vlastos) reveals the point of the Parmenides, and makes sense of the (few) dramatic aspects of the dialogue. So I've actually tried hard to put my money where my mouth is. As I read Plato, scholars like Irwin, and Fine, and Dancy, and Vlastos, and many others, have helped us tremendously get a better grip on the dialogues. Of course, I disagree with what many "analytic" interpreters say about the dialogues, but it is absolutely crystal clear to me that they are on the right track.

Anonymous said...

I am not the same as any of the above Anonymouses, but I have a response to one of Rickless' questions. He wanted the first Anonymous to tell him "what it is about Politics II that suggests that Aristotle misread the Republic. ... Which statements of Politics II are inaccurate?"

For whatever it's worth, I have found a fairly stark misreading (though I don't know if Rickless would consider it an inaccurate statement per se): In at least 2 places in Politics II Aristotle objects to the ideal states we find in the "discourses of Socrates" (as he oddly calls both the Republic and the Laws) on the grounds that certain features of them are not "practicable" (1261a14) or not "possible" (1265a17). Now the specific impossibility Aristotle has in mind in the latter passage has to do with the ideal state of the the Laws; Aristotle nonetheless is (evidently) there voicing a standard by which to judge the ideal state found in either of these "discourses of Socrates" (1265a5): they should remain within the bounds of possibility. And this - I think it's safe to infer - reflects a general attitude he seems to have toward both ideal states found in these dialogues: he interprets them each as a serious attempt to describe an ideal, yet "practicable" state. But this involves a serious misreading of Plato's Republic. The relevant passages from that dialogue are perhaps so well known that they need hardly be cited. I shall anyway: Glaucon raises the same problem for Socrates' ideal state that Aristotle does: viz. "whether it's possible for this constitution to come into being and in what way it could be brought about" (471c). (Socrates himself had actually (mischievously?) prompted Glaucon to wonder this at 466d.) Socrates responds: "...It was in order to have a model" that we were seeking the perfectly just person and perfectly just city (472c): "But we weren't trying to discover these things in order to prove that it's possible for them to come into being" (472d). If it were thought that this passage was obscure enough for a careful reader like Aristotle to have missed, we need only be reminded that immediately following it is the surprising claim (surely even more surprising for a reader of Plato's time than for us who are used to such claims by now) that no constitution even approximating this ideal will come about till philosophers become kings or kings philosophize (473c-d), which for Socrates in the dialogue (if not Plato) was practically hopeless.

But perhaps I don't recall some passage where Aristotle makes it clear that he understands all this.