04 February 2008

More on a Non-Review

I asked yesterday about the appropriateness of the strategy announced in the following paragraph:

It will not be necessary further to summarize Rickless's understanding of Parmenides' criticisms of Socrates' theory and of the response to them indicated in the dialectical exercise, for he has himself done so at length in his article on the Parmenides for the web-based Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Instead, since how one understands what Plato has to say about forms in previous dialogues will obviously determine to a large degree how one is inclined to respond to Parmenides' criticisms of young Socrates' theory, it will be worth concentrating first on some of the presuppositions that guide Rickless's reconstruction of the "high" and "higher theory of forms" before turning to some of the problems in his account of how the Parmenides indicates this theory needs to be revised.

Note that when Palmer writes, "It will not be necessary ... for ...", he is implicitly admitting that if an adequate summary were not available, then it would be necessary for him to say more -- and that's why the review is, as it were, condemned by the very words of the reviewer.

Note, furthermore, that Palmer did not write--waiving any reference to the SEP article--"It will not be necessary further to summarize Rickless' understanding of Parmenides' criticisms of Socrates's theory and of the response to them, because it's enough to examine the premises on which that interpretation depends". This is what he should have said, if he really did have criticisms of the presuppositions of Rickless' interpretation so thoroughgoing and devastating, that it made further direct examination of Rickless' interpretation unnecessary.

Of course criticisms of that sort are hard to come by (compare as an instance of that sort of thing G.E. Moore's painstaking explanations in "The Refutation of Idealism" of how he aims to remove a principle on which all arguments for idealism seem to depend); and the review does no such thing.

(Nor could it. The dialogues of Plato are separate works, and even if Rickless were markedly wrong about the Phaedo, he could be right about the Parmenides nonetheless; indeed, the inference might even go in the other direction, and the correctness of his interpretation of the Parmenides would, so far, count as evidence in favor of his interpretation of other dialogues.)

But I find that Palmer's review in several places puts something forward and then takes it back.

We saw already that "summarize at length" does not make a great deal of sense.

And then there are:

  • "determine to a large degree" (a fudge-- do the presuppositions determine or fail to determine?)
  • "the existence of certain imperceptible forms in which sensible particulars participate is typically presented as no more than Socrates' favored hypothesis" -- (if it's only 'typically' so presented, then sometimes it's not so presented )
  • and, perhaps most strikingly, in the last paragraph of the review Rickless is criticized for not following Meinwald, and yet the reviewer admits that, for all we know, Meinwald may not be right ("Even if one does not agree with her development of this distinction .... some distinction along the lines..." ).

Let me be perfectly clear that I fault the reviewer far less than the editors of NDPR. They should have sent the review back to Palmer with the instruction, "instead of an essay on your disagreement with Rickless over the middle-period dialogues, please give us a review of the argument of the book", and along the way they might have dealt besides with the review's various misspellings ('supercedes'); solecisms ('unargued hypothesis'); colloquialisms ('In actual fact'); and clich├ęs ('cashes out') .

4 comments:

Eric Brown said...

I fear we'll end up talking past each other again, but once more I think that more can be said in defense of Palmer's basic strategy.

You say (with apologies for the faux HTML):

[indent] Note, furthermore, that Palmer did not write--waiving any reference to the SEP article--"It will not be necessary further to summarize Rickless' understanding of Parmenides' criticisms of Socrates's theory and of the response to them, because it's enough to examine the premises on which that interpretation depends". This is what he should have said, if he really did have criticisms of the presuppositions of Rickless' interpretation so thoroughgoing and devastating, that it made further direct examination of Rickless' interpretation unnecessary."[/indent]

But I think that this confuses two functions of the review. The first function is to summarize what the book says. The second is to evaluate the book. After a broad overview, Palmer passed on a more detailed fulfillment of the first function, and instead referred readers to the SEP. Then, to discharge the second function, Palmer concentrated on the underpinnings of Rickless' interpretation, namely, his interpretation of the "Theory of Forms" that Rickless thinks is targeted for revision in the Parmenides.

So understood, Palmer does not limit his summary because of the critique he chooses to make, and there is no good reason to think that he should have said otherwise.

Of course, one could complain that Palmer should have provided a fuller summary instead of sending readers to the SEP article, which is, as you say, not brief. And one could complain that Palmer's criticisms of Rickless' interpretation of "the Theory of Forms" are not as damaging to Rickless' interpretation of the Parmenides as Palmer suggests. But the first of these complaints is hardly worth multiple posts, and the second requires some argument.

Perhaps you intend the following to be your argument? You say,

[indent](Nor could it. The dialogues of Plato are separate works, and even if Rickless were markedly wrong about the Phaedo, he could be right about the Parmenides nonetheless; indeed, the inference might even go in the other direction, and the correctness of his interpretation of the Parmenides would, so far, count as evidence in favor of his interpretation of other dialogues.)[/indent]

Perhaps. But does Rickless read the dialogues separately? Doesn't he claim that the Parmenides should be read as a response to a "Theory of Forms" that is introduced in other dialogues? If so, and if he misrepresents what the other dialogues introduce, then how could this not make trouble for his reading of the Parmenides? If the "Theory of Forms" is misrepresented, then it will be hard-to-impossible to represent correctly the criticisms and revisions of that "theory."

Now, with that conditional, Palmer's modus ponens could become Rickless' >modus tollens, as you say. But again, that would take more argument.

I'm not sure how that argument would go. But even a strong case against Palmer on this substantive matter does not show that he has somehow failed to review Rickless' book. It just shows that it is possible to disagree with the substance of his review.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Hi Eric,

I wouldn't have said that "talking past each other" was a good description of our interchanges, but I allow that we risk talking past each other about talking past each other, which would really be fruitless.

My own view about reviewing a book is that it's inappropriate to draw a sharp distinction between (i) exposition of the arguments of a book and (ii) criticisms.

The word 'summary'--which I followed Palmer in using-- is perhaps not a good word for referring to an exposition. The difference, I think, is this: an exposition aims to give enough of an account of the motivation of, and reasons for, a view, that the reader can appreciate that view's force.

A side point is of course also that an exposition demonstrates the reviewer's appreciation of what is valuable in a view, whereas a summary may not.

After reading your last comment, I looked again at Palmer's review from start to finish, asking myself this question: Where does he give any account of Rickless' reasons? From reading the review, are we in a position to assess the rational force of Rickless' view?

Perhaps you will agree with me that this is attempted in only one sentence in the entire review, and on an almost incidental point, where Palmer states one of Rickless' reasons for a thesis called "Impurity of Sensibles". It's in the sentence beginning "He claims to find direct evidence..."

I would also wish to emphasize the following. If Palmer had merely ignored the arguments of Rickless' book, devoting his review instead to some related side points, while saying something innocuous about the book's merits, then it would be unreasonable to single out the review for special discussion, since perhaps 99% of reviews miss the mark in that way.

But, as you know, the review passes a poor judgment on Rickless' book, and, I think, the review was precisely intended to lead others to draw a similar conclusion.

It uses some fairly harsh language. Among other things, Palmer says openly that Rickless' interpretation is "flat-footed"; that he "dumbs-down" Plato's views; and he suggests that Rickless is somehow remiss in not accepting the views of Irwin and Meinwald.

To my mind, a reviewer's use of such language immediately shifts the burden of defense. The question no longer is (which it seems to me your comments have been presuming), "Has this reviewer done a decent job with a difficult and thankless task?", but rather, "Has the reviewer written in such a way as to be entitled to such language?"

I think the answer to that second question is very clearly a negative one.

MP

P.S. As for substance-- I don't wish to give the impression that I'm avoiding that. I simply didn't think there was much of substance in the review. Showing that that is the case seemed to me the tedious task. But maybe I'll post on that also.

Eric Brown said...

It appears that you are considerably more sympathetic to Rickless' approach than I, that I am considerably more sympathetic to Palmer's criticisms than you, and that these sympathies are contributing to our contrasting evaluations of Palmer's review.

You seem to make two different charges now. The first is that Palmer failed to engage Rickless' book. Now this takes the form of saying that Palmer did not engage Rickless' reasons. I thought that the first two paragraphs of Palmer's review characterize Rickless' project and his motivation. Palmer could have said more about Rickless' reasons for the individual points that he attributes to Rickless, I suppose. But I don't really expect that in a review. I expect an account of the book's claims and a critical evaluation. Is this the root of our disagreement?

I suspect that it actually turns on the second point. I'd be upset if I thought that Palmer's criticisms were obviously unfair, as you seem to think. You conclude, "The question no longer is (which it seems to me your comments have been presuming), 'Has this reviewer done a decent job with a difficult and thankless task?', but rather, 'Has the reviewer written in such a way as to be entitled to such language?' I think the answer to that second question is very clearly a negative one."

But I think that the answer is affirmative. (So much for what's very clear.) Palmer characterizes several particular ways in which he takes Rickless to have misread the Phaedo and Republic because he is looking for one grand "Theory of Forms," and Palmer shows how these limit our understanding the Parmenides.

These are reasons. Are they enough to show that Rickless' interpretation is "flat-footed" and "dumb-downed?" No doubt, opinions can differ about the application of these terms (as you and I differed earlier about the use of the word 'examine', where I thought it plain that Palmer's last two paragraphs had constituted an examination of something outside of chapter one of Rickless' book and you thought otherwise). No doubt, as well, Palmer's argument is enthymematic insofar as it does not, e.g., spell out what makes an interpretation "flat-footed" and "dumb-downed." (Wouldn't it be flat-footed and dumb-downed to spell that out?)

There's an additional point to consider. Like all reviewers, Palmer is stuck giving (what he takes to be) representative details to justify his sweeping judgments. He cannot easily avoid sweeping judgments without shirking his duty to evaluate the book under review. But he cannot give a comprehensive reckoning of the grounds for his sweeping judgments without shirking his duty to be concise. That is why it is so often easy to say of a review that it does not say enough to justify its conclusions.

Sorry if I don't respond further, Michael. I've spent too much time on this already, and I doubt that I'm adding anything of value for prospective reviewers or readers of reviews, much less for readers of Plato.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Hi Eric,

My view remains basically the same--that a review of a book giving an interpretation of the Parmenides should discuss that interpretation.

However, I'm not sure about one thing that I said before, when I said that a reviewer might be entitled to use language such as "flat-footed" and "dumbs down".

On further reflection I tend to think not, because, besides giving offense, that sort of thing seems to be no more than an appeal to the authority of the reviewer.

Regards,
MP