Monday, July 21, 2008

Plato's Evasiveness

Plato can be a sometimes evasive philosopher to treat of. His thoughts are presented in dialogue and never in his own voice, which always leaves the interpreter the option of claiming that any weak argument was made deliberately weak by Plato. This might be giving too much credit to Plato, but there may be some validity to arguments like this.

Plato’s early works are described as aporetic, meaning they are intended to bring one to a state of aporia. This is a Greek word meaning going no further, and a good example of it is in Plato’s dialogue Meno, when Socrates, discussing whether virtue can be taught, leads Meno to a point where he no longer knows how to respond to Socrates questions, and Meno feels like he’s been numbed, as if by a torpedo fish (80a). In other words if you were talking to Socrates, through his leading questions, he would take apart your philosophical reasoning and all subsequent attempts to try and refine your ideas to avoid his critiques, until you felt like you had nothing left to argue. You would feel like all your arguments have been demolished and you don’t know what to think any more. You wouldn’t know how to go any further with your arguments.

This tendency to bring interlocutors to aporia, seems to be something that Plato picked up directly from Socrates. As Plato records Socrates saying in his Apology, when his friend Chaerephon visited the Delphic oracle, it told him that Socrates was the wisest of men, which Socrates could only interpret as himself being the only man aware of his own ignorance. In other words, we humans are all ignorant in comparison to the gods, but we make ourselves even more unwise by thinking that we are not ignorant. As Socrates says: “it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know”(Grube trans, 21a-e). Socrates thereby makes it his divine mission to expose people to their own ignorance and thereby make them wiser. Thus, this is the relevance of bringing people to a state of aporia. When you have demolished their arguments, they become aware of their own ignorance and thereby become wiser.

Concerning Plato’s dialogues, as I said his early dialogues are described as aporetic, because they are dialogues in which Socrates debates with people and frequently simply undermines their arguments in the course of discussion. Plato’s so called “middle dialogues,” (people aren’t always in agreement exactly which dialogues these are) are usually considered to be presenting positive ideas instead of just critique of other’s ideas. Nonetheless, there might be reason to think they too are aporetic. They not too seldom present multiple strong arguments which disagree, they make allusions to myths and stories, and they have many dramatic elements. And though these dialogues clearly have a central argument made by Socrates which is given priority, this other elements, don’t always agree with this main argument and may undermine it. In the Symposium, the story is in the context of a celebration after a night of heavy drinking in order for some more moderate drinking and philosophical talk and they all give speeches in praise of love; Socrates goes last and his speech is immediately followed by the entrance of a drunken Alcibiades, in the embodiment of Dionysus, who gives a speech in praise of Socrates and forces everyone to drink excessively. Socrates speech incorporates elements from the previous speeches, but disagrees with all, it is spoken in the voice of a priestess named Diotima of suspect authenticity, it includes a myth of the birth of love from Abundance and Poverty, when Abundance is drunk on nectar wine, Aristophanes’ who had tarnished Socrates’ reputation with his play The Clouds, is given a beautiful and amusing story about love being the desire of incomplete individuals to complete themselves in another. I could go on. The closer and closer one looks at these tangled messes of ideas, the more overwhelming it becomes and the more seemingly inconsistent Plato seems to be. One is led into confusion about what Plato is trying to say, if he is trying to say anything or whether he is in fact intentionally undermining his own ideas. It might be in this sense that the middle dialogues are aporetic, that they are self-undermining and confusing. There’s also the late dialogues, of course, which can be even more difficult and confusing, but we won’t talk about those.

In short, this aporetic element of Plato’s dialogues can make his arguments difficult to treat of, since he can be a slippery thinker. Thus, even when I criticize some of his arguments (which I will), we can’t really say whether Plato took those arguments seriously himself.

P.S.: This idea of aporia and aporetic philosophy appeals to me. It can be a good way to bring other’s to wisdom by undermining their ideas, and it also does have a self-satisfying gravitas to it. Thus, there’s a danger of becoming full of yourself. Nonetheless, it’s a good way to go.

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