31 August 2007

Marshall's Query on the Mouthpiece View

I resume blogging--in August, as promised!--by quoting from a thoughtful letter I had received earlier this summer from Mason Marshall, a graduate student at Vanderbilt, on the so-called 'mouthpiece view' of Platonic dialogues. This was in connection with an earlier thread on this blog.

I quote with Marshall's permission, who solicits readers' reactions to his argument:

In comments attached to that [earlier] post . . . Sam Rickless and others got into a conversation about the so-called mouthpiece view concerning the Platonic dialogues. In part, Rickless pointed out that Aristotle's writings represent strong evidence that Plato meant for Socrates to speak for him, say, in the Republic: Aristotle apparently thought that that was Plato's intention as author, and Aristotle apparently knew Plato personally. I realize that it's common to make the sort of point that Rickless made. And something puzzles me about how heavily he and many other interpreters want to lean on the evidence which Aristotle's writings represent. Terry Irwin, for example (Plato's Ethics, p. 6; The Cambridge Companion to Plato, p. 77), effectively says that in light of that evidence, the "mouthpiece" view should be a default in interpreting Plato: the evidence is compelling enough that the burden of proof rests firmly on opponents of the mouthpiece view.

But I keep wondering whether the Aristotle evidence isn't nearly counterbalanced by certain other evidence, and whether the other evidence isn't close enough to being a counterpoise that the Aristotle evidence isn't enough to make the mouthpiece view a default (even if something else should grant that status to the mouthpiece view).

Here's the other evidence I have in mind. Academic and maybe even some Pyrrhonian skeptics seem to have read Plato as a skeptic: they apparently rejected the mouthpiece view, in effect. Granted, in looking at the Platonic corpus, they seem to have focused far more on early, "Socratic" dialogues than on works such as the Republic. But they also seem to have identified themselves with Plato simpliciter. And at least as long as one of their critics at the time had access to enough of Aristotle's writings, and to versions that were similar enough to the most authoritative editions we now have, the critic could have, in effect, made the point which Rickless and Irwin make---viz., that Aristotle affirmed the mouthpiece view and that Aristotle knew Plato personally. That point about Aristotle seems obvious enough for these skeptics and their critics to have seen it in the 3rd century. Plus, if there was enough reason at the time to think that Aristotle was in significantly better position than the skeptics to tell what Plato's authorial intentions were, then in making the point about Aristotle a critic could have landed a particularly heavy blow against the skeptics' interpretations. And that, too, seems obvious enough for the skeptics and their critics to have seen it. Further, it looks likely that the skeptics had read enough of the Aristotle we're familiar with, and that they would think a potential critic could read enough Aristotle, to be aware that he affirmed the mouthpiece view.

So in short, it also seems likely that if there were enough reason at the time to think that Aristotle was in significantly better position than the skeptics to tell what Plato's authorial intentions were, the skeptics wouldn't have openly implied or claimed that the mouthpiece view is false. And presumably, there's no more reason now than there was then to think that Aristotle was. So all told, the evidence which Rickless and Irwin offer in referring to Aristotle's writings seems to tip the scales toward the mouthpiece view only a little, and too little for the Aristotle evidence to rightly make the mouthpiece view a default.

13 comments:

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

Mason makes an interesting argument, but I'm not convinced. There are all sorts of reasons to discount the Skeptic interpretation of Plato as a skeptic. (1) The Skeptics have an axe to grind. Namely, they are interested in reading any venerated philosophical ancestor as a skeptic. (Of course, Aristotle also had an axe to grind, but his own axe-grinding did not involve looking to interpret Plato as a proto-Aristotelian.) (2) The Skeptics were not nearly as close to Plato as Aristotle was. Aristotle knew Plato personally. The Skeptics didn't. Surely what Aristotle says about Plato must count for more than what the Skeptics say. (3) Much of what we know about the Skeptics themselves comes from Diogenes Laertius and Sextus. Now we're talking several centuries away from Plato.

To me it seems pretty clear that the evidence from Aristotle (who for methodological reasons was very interested in representing the thoughts of his philosophical predecessors accurately, who knew Plato personally, and was himself a philosophical genius) is far more probative than any other evidence we have, including the evidence of the Skeptics. Sheesh, if you're going to read Plato as a skeptic, you might as well read him as a mystical neo-Platonist! Heaven forfend!

cheers,

Sam

Mason Marshall said...

Prof. Rickless,

Thanks for the response.

> Sheesh, if you're going to
> read Plato as a skeptic,
> you might as well read
> him as a mystical neo-
> Platonist! Heaven forfend!

Agreed.

> The Skeptics were not
> nearly as close to Plato
> as Aristotle was. Aristotle
> knew Plato personally. The
> Skeptics didn't. Surely what
> Aristotle says about Plato
> must count for more than
> what the Skeptics say.

To clarify: What I have in mind is that it seems likely that in the skeptics' day, a critic could make this very point in attacking the skeptics' interpretations of Plato. Now, the argument I'm proposing is not an argument from silence: I don't mean to suggest that because a critic at the time could make the point about Aristotle that you make, the problem is that we know of no critic back then who did. Rather, my thought is this: Suppose that in the skeptics' day, there was enough reason to think your point about Aristotle is correct. If there was, it looks likely that the skeptics would have known better than to endorse interpretations of Plato that are sharply at odds with Aristotle's reading of Plato: it seems likely that the skeptics would have realized that one of their critics could make the very point you make about Aristotle. Yet certain skeptics apparently did endorse interpretations of Plato that are sharply at odds with Aristotle's reading. And presumably, there's no more reason now than there was then to think that Aristotle was in significantly better position than the skeptics to tell what Plato's authorial intentions were.

Best,
Mason

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Mason,

I think the Skeptics SHOULD have known better than to endorse interpretations of Plato that are sharply at odds with Aristotle's interpretation. But from the fact that they SHOULD have known better, it doesn't follow that they WOULD have known better. After all, as I pointed out in my previous post, the Skeptics had a very particular axe to grind. The bias with which they read Plato was surely strong enough to blind them, even in the face of contrary evidence. They wouldn't have much CARED if some critic had pointed out that their interpretation of Plato conflicted with Aristotle's reading.

cheers,

Sam

Mason Marshall said...

Prof. Rickless,

This, of course, is true:

> from the fact that [the
> skeptics] SHOULD have
> known better, it doesn't
> follow that they WOULD
> have known better.

But I want to ask where the evidence for the following comes from:

> The bias with which [the
> skeptics] read Plato was
> surely strong enough to
> blind them, even in the
> face of contrary evidence.
> They wouldn't have much
> CARED if some critic
> had pointed out that their
> interpretation of Plato
> conflicted with Aristotle's
> reading.

Does the evidence come from the Platonic writings themselves? (That is, are the Platonic writings so clearly the work of a non-skeptic that we can only conclude that the skeptics I've referred to were this biased in deeming Plato a skeptic?) And if that's where the evidence comes from, then isn't the Aristotle evidence insufficient to rightly make the "mouthpiece" view a default---in other words, to put the burden of proof on opponents of the "mouthpiece" view?

(Maybe the reply, instead, is that because of how compelling the Aristotle evidence is, the skeptics must have been as biased as you say. But wouldn't that reply beg the question, since the conclusion of my proposed argument has to do with how compelling we should take the Aristotle evidence to be?)

Best,
Mason

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Mason,

Your argument relies on the claim (to use your words) that the Skeptics "WOULD have known better than to endorse interpretations of Plato that are sharply at odds with Aristotle's reading of Plato" [emphasis added]. Given what Aristotle tells us about Plato, and given how well Aristotle knew Plato, and given how much of a smart cookie Aristotle was, it seems to me that we should take the evidence from Aristotle as compelling unless we have very good reasons not to. As far as I can see, you haven't given us good enough reason not to take the Aristotle evidence as compelling. This is because you haven't backed up your claim that the Skeptics "WOULD have known better..." For the Skeptics MIGHT have been biased and their reading of Plato MIGHT have suffered from this bias. Certainly this is possible, and psychologically realistic. Do you think it's just an "accident" that the Skeptics read Plato as a skeptic? Do you think it's an "accident" that the Neo-Platonists read Plato as a Neo-Platonist, or that the Stoics read Socrates as a stoic?

cheers,
Sam

Mason Marshall said...

Prof. Rickless,

My claim has been that if there was enough reason in the skeptics' day to think your point about Aristotle is correct, it looks likely that the skeptics would have known better than to endorse interpretations of Plato that are sharply at odds with Aristotle's reading of Plato. Here's the main reason I mention that. Certainly, the skeptics might, indeed, have been so biased as to be blind to the force of counter-evidence, as you point out. But to support your claim, don't you need to say more than that they might have been? On the one hand, (to respond to your question) I don't think it's an accident, of course, that they presented Plato as a skeptic. But in declaring Plato to be a skeptic, at the least they might have been mistaken-- or, for that matter, disingenuous-- without being stupid or so biased as to be blind to counter-evidence. And on the other hand, there's not much direct evidence of how extensively Aristotle and Plato talked with each other about how the Platonic writings should be interpreted. Now, by itself it certainly doesn't count for much that Aristotle and Plato might not have talked much with each other about that. But after all, what I've been wondering, again, is whether the Aristotle evidence is so compelling that it's enough to put the burden of proof on opponents of the "mouthpiece" view. And even if you can rightly say to me: "It looks likely that Aristotle and Plato talked with each other about how the Platonic writings should be interpreted," can't I rightly say back to you: "If there was enough reason in the skeptics' day to think your point about Aristotle is correct, it looks likely that the skeptics would have known better than to endorse interpretations of Plato that are sharply at odds with Aristotle's reading of Plato"? And in that case, isn't the Aristotle evidence nearly counterbalanced by the evidence involving the skeptics?

Best,
Mason

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Mason,

I think we're nearing the end of our productive exchange on this matter. Is it more likely that the Skeptics had a biased reading of Plato than that Aristotle had a mistaken reading of Plato? Absolutely. For one thing, the Skeptics were clearly MOTIVATED to read Plato as a skeptic. This already lays the foundation for a biased reading. (Do you think the NeoPlatonists are merely "mistaken" or "disingenuous", rather than biased, when they read Plato as a NeoPlatonist? If you think, as I do, that the NeoPlatonist reading is biased, then why not the Skeptic reading as well? What's the relevant difference?) For another, Aristotle knew Plato personally. He spent twenty years in the Academy during the time that Plato was there. The Academy wasn't as large as Ohio State. There was no way that Aristotle could get lost in the overall undergraduate population, especially given how smart he was. Surely, SURELY, Aristotle and Plato conversed. Or, at the very least, Aristotle saw Plato in action. Some of what Aristotle tells us about Plato (especially the stuff about the "unwritten doctrines") strongly suggests that he talked to Plato independently. There is NO WAY that Aristotle simply sat in a corner reading the dialogues on his own, or getting news about Plato secondhand.

cheers,

Sam

Mason Marshall said...

> There was no way that Aristotle
> could get lost in the overall
> undergraduate population [in
> the Academy], especially given
> how smart he was. Surely,
> SURELY, Aristotle and Plato
> conversed. Or, at the very
> least, Aristotle saw Plato in
> action. Some of what Aristotle
> tells us about Plato
> (especially the stuff about
> the "unwritten doctrines")
> strongly suggests that he
> talked to Plato
> independently. There is NO
> WAY that Aristotle simply
> sat in a corner reading the
> dialogues on his own, or
> getting news about Plato
> secondhand.

I've been assuming this, incidentally. (My claim was about how much direct evidence there is of [for example] how extensively Aristotle and Plato talked with each other about how the Platonic writings should be interpreted.)

> I think we're
> nearing the end of
> our productive
> exchange on this
> matter.

Enjoyed the conversation.

All the best,
Mason

Anonymous said...

In the thread that sparked this debate, Rickless had said, "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." I'm a little surprised that there was so much discussion in that thread and in this one, but virtually no citation of specific passages in Aristotle. In that other thread, there were references to book ii of the Politics. But from what can tell, Rickless never cites a passage that makes it clear both that Aristotle is discussing the actual views of the historical Plato and that Aristotle finds the view in quesiton in a dialogue by Plato. It's true that in Politics book ii Aristotle criticizes views aired in the Republic and the Laws. But it's not clear to me that Aristotle believes he's criticizing views that he thinks Plato actually held, as opposed to criticizing views that are aired in the dialogues. We do have vague expressions like "Plato in the Laws..." (1266b5). But that, I think, proves nothing. And even if it did, it would prove it about the Laws, which is a different case, I think, since the Athenian Stranger may well have been Plato himself. The Republic is another matter: I'm having a hard time finding any passage where Aristotle is talking about the views of that dialogue and clearly attributing them to Plato himself, as opposed to Plato's characters. In fact, I believe the evidence we have indicates that Aristotle was quite careful about this, preferring mainly to speak of "Socrates in the Republic" (as one of the Anonymouses in the original thread suggested). But maybe Rickless was thinking of passages in other works of Aristotle besides the Politics. If so, let's have them. Let's talk about specific passages and not talk in generalities. Otherwise, the present discussion seems mute.

Anonymous said...

...I meant "moot" of course, not "mute". Though, I suppose, this entire online discussion is technically mute; no?....... ;-)

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Anonymous:

You are right that there is very little in Politics ii that suggests that Aristotle is attributing views to Plato rather than to the character Socrates in the Republic. However, you do accept that in the very same book Aristotle does attribute views to Plato himself, views that Plato does not express in his own voice in the laws. So, on the basis of Aristotle's testimony, do you accept that, at least sometimes, Plato puts his own views in the mouth of his protagonist? So why not think that Plato is doing exactly the same thing in the Republic?

You say that the case of the Laws "is a different case" because "the Athenian Stranger may well have been Plato himself". But what are your grounds for this? Sure, the protagonist of the Laws speaks for Plato. But why suppose that the case is any different in the Republic?

There is some indirect evidence from Politics ii that Aristotle assimilates the Socrates of Republic II-X to Plato himself. In ii.3, Aristotle talks about "how much better it is to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after Plato's fashion". If, as you suggest, Aristotle is being careful about not confusing Plato with the character Socrates, why doesn't Aristotle talk about how much better it is to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after SOCRATES'S fashion? In ii.7, Aristotle says that "other constitutions have been proposed...which all come nearer to established or existing ones than either of Plato's". Notice the "either" here. The context of the passage clearly indicates that Aristotle is speaking of the constitution of the Republic and the constitution of the Laws. So here too Aristotle attributes to Plato the constitution proposed by the Socrates of Republic II-X.

There is, of course, the explicit evidence of Metaphysics I, where Aristotle distinguishes between the metaphysical views of the historical Socrates and the metaphysical views of the historical Plato. The theory of forms Aristotle attributes to Plato is the same as the theory proposed by Socrates in the middle books of the Republic and by Socrates in the Phaedo. For example, Aristotle makes a big deal of the fact that Plato separates the forms, while Socrates doesn't. But it is one of the major themes of the Phaedo and of the Republic that the forms are separate (at least in the sense of being numerically distinct from any sensible thing). So here again we have Aristotle attributing to Plato views proposed by the Socrates of the Republic.

It seems to me that you have to WORK HARD to dismiss all these passages. Why work so hard? It's not difficult to see why Plato would use a character called "Socrates" to present his own views. It's the ultimate gesture of respect of a pupil for his mentor. As I said in a previous post, the Socratic dialogue was a virtual "genre" in Plato's time and later, a genre defined in part by the convention that the character Socrates speaks for the author of the dialogue. So why is it SO IMPORTANT to read Plato as hiding behind his characters?

Anonymous said...

First of all, Sam, I'm happy that you responded. I had feared this thread dead.

I wouldn't say I accept that Politics ii clearly attributes views expressed in the Laws to Plato himself. The phrase "Plato in the Laws" could suggest this; but it's not unambiguous. We may similarly say "Shakespeare in Hamlet" as shorthand, just to refer to something Shakespeare wrote in the play, whether or not we think the playwright himself endorsed it. I don't think the "Plato" in "Plato in the Laws" is (clearly anyway) to be identified with the Athenian Stranger, any more than "Shakespeare in Hamlet" is (clearly) to be identified with Hamlet (the main character). It's a possible interpretation; but I think other evidence would be needed to make it the interpretation to be preferred.

But even if we were to grant that interpretation, I do think the Laws is different from the Republic. (One reason of course is that Aristotle, I don't think, ever says "Plato in the Republic".) The main reason is that the main character of the Laws is a flat, unidentified character called simply the stranger from Athens, whereas the Republic's main character is not only called Socrates but is characterized in much the same way as he is in any other Socratic dialogue, giving the reader every reason to think it was supposed to be the historical Socrates (and not Plato, for example). The Laws certainly lends itself to the filling in of the blank "Athenian Stranger" with possible candidates - i.e., philosophers from Athens.

Actually, my real feeling is that we have as much reason to think that Aristotle believed the Athenian Stranger was supposed to be Socrates, as to think that he supposed the character to stand for Plato. In fact, maybe more, given how often Aristotle seems to call the character "Socrates". Perhaps this was not simply a slip of the pen, as many commentators have supposed, but something well-understood in the Academy. But I can't say for certain; maybe no one can.

When you say that in Politics ii.7 (and maybe in ii.3 too) Aristotle "attributes" to Plato the Republic's constitution, I can't really argue with you. But is it clear that Aristotle is not attributing it to him as the craftsman (as it were) who devised it or brought it to light, without suggesting that he endorsed it? - just as I may understandably attribute to Coppola the mafia that we find in the Godfather films: I may even speak of "Coppola's mafia", or say "how much better it is to be a real godfather of somebody than to be a godfather after Coppola's fashion"?

As for Metaphysics, your interpretation is just plain controversial. Harold Cherniss has said, "There is a fundamental discrepancy...between the theory of ideas as it appears in Plato's writings and what Aristotle represents as being Plato's theory of ideas" (The Riddle of the Early Academy). I believe Julia Annas has defended a similar view in her Aristotle's Metaphysics. (I won't mention John Burnet. Whoops, I just did!...Sorry!) But even if there weren't such voices, surely the Metaphysics is open to wide interpretation: Parts of the theory Aristotle attributes to Plato can surely be found in certain passages of the dialogues; but that does not mean - nor does Aristotle ever say or clearly suggest - that he believes the "theory" endorsed by Socrates in Plato's dialogues is or was meant to be Plato's. (It's not even terribly clear to me that Aristotle believed that the historical Socrates did not except the theory Plato makes him express in the dialogues; but that may be just my problem...See John Burnet too. Whoops; did it again!) I don't think the Metaphysics provides very clear support for the "mouthpiece" interpretation.

I would not dismiss any of the passages you mention, Sam. I only wonder whether yours is the best interpretation of them. I don't know that you must work any less hard in maintaining yours than someone else must in maintaining an alternate interpretation. So I think suspending judgment may be preferable. So my view isn't that it's important to read Plato as hiding behind his characters; I just think that there's little weighty evidence for rejecting the idea that the characters are simply characters (as they are clearly presented to us readers).

By the way, I don't think it's uncontroversial that "the Socratic dialogue was a virtual 'genre' in Plato's time and later, a genre defined in part by the convention that the character Socrates speaks for the author of the dialogue." I know that folks like Charles Kahn argue for this (my personal opinion is that Kahn, at least, does little more than beg the question in this matter). But I believe our evidence concerning the "genre" is very slim - especially concerning the "genre" in Plato's time (or earlier, if there was one earlier). We have precious little to go on aside from Plato's works.

Thanks again for the prompt - and extended - response!

Sam Rickless said...

Dear Anonymous,

On the question of whether there was a genre of Socratic dialogue in Plato's time, we actually have quite a bit of evidence (from Diogenes Laertius and elsewhere). This is something I've posted on before, so I won't repeat the references.

On the question of Metaphysics interpretation, the existence of controversy proves nothing, especially given that reputations are often made on the strength of controversial views. Again, it seems to me that those who would discount this sort of evidence need to work hard to do so. I wouldn't treat anyone as authority on this. What I mean by the theory of forms defended in the middle dialogues is something quite specific. For details, see the first chapter of my book, Plato's Forms in Transition (CUP, 2007). It is difficult in the extreme to hold that Aristotle is not referring to THAT theory and attributing it to the historical Plato in the Metaphysics. (I don't have the space to go over the details here.) With all due respect to Burnet and Cherniss, I don't think they had a good grasp of the middle period theory of forms. This is not exactly surprising. There's been an awful lot of work on the theory of forms since Cherniss's and Burnet's contributions.

Sure, "Plato in the Laws" COULD be read in the same way as "Shakespeare in Hamlet". But that's a real stretch. The Laws is not a play. It is a work of philosophy and would have been understood by Plato's Academic readers as such. The dialogue form was well entrenched as a conventional means of getting across the author's views through the mouth of the protagonist, and the evidence of Aristotle (from Politics ii and Metaphysics I) simply confirms this.

You say that when Aristotle attributes the constitution of the Republic to Plato he may be attributing it to him as the craftsman who devised it without suggesting that he endorsed it. Sure, that's possible, but is it likely? Surely not. If Aristotle is being careful (as you argue in your first post), why would he even RISK being read as attributing to Plato something that he doesn't think Plato himself held? To me, your proposed reading just defies common sense.