Sunday, December 29, 2002
I just finished reading Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato�s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry by Francisco J. Gonzalez. Other than the few exerts quoted in this book, I have never read any Plato. I have never before had the desire. Nothing I had heard or read about his philosophy gave me the desire. Objective idealism (�Forms�) is ludicrous from a skeptical, scientific point of view. And his political philosophy sounded even worse. A philosopher who writes an entire book declaring that philosophers should be kings? I bet my plumber thinks that plumbers should be kings. Weren�t philosopher-kings the scourge of the 20th Century? Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin and Mao all seem to fit that moniker very well. My second-hand sources all claimed that both halves of 20th Century Western philosophy, the analytic and Continental, had both in their separate ways spent the century scrubbing themselves clean of Platonic influence. Was I not better off just ignoring the guy?
Gonzalez presents what he claims to be a radically different interpretation of Plato, and it is indeed radically different from any other second hand descriptions that I have come across. My best attempt to summarize his thesis is as follows:
All attempts to describe �Platonic Doctrine� are misguided because Plato did not seek to convey doctrine through his writings. Philosophical knowledge for Plato is nonpropositional. Words, propositions, and images are all inadequate methods of truly knowing something. Words are simply random sounds randomly attached to their referent, and could be arbitrarily interchanged without affecting their truth. Proposition are built with inadequate words and divide the unity of an essence into a multiplicity of qualities. Images are built with inadequate propositions and are merely reflections of the truth rather than the truth itself.
However, words, propositions and images do have meaning, because they presuppose the truths that they obscure. Because all propositions are inadequate, they can always be refuted by proper logical questioning, known as �dialectic�. In order to properly refute or defend a proposition, the dialectician must access the truth that the proposition obscures. The dialectical process thus reveals knowledge of the truth by destroying the propositions. Since the process of obtaining knowledge destroys the propositions, the knowledge obtained is not a �true-as-opposed-to-false� proposition that can be transmitted to a student through memorization. It is rather a knowledge of degree, like a user�s knowledge or an acquaintance knowledge. The dialectician gains knowledge of the truth the way a person gains knowledge of their friend or the way a flute player gains knowledge of a flute, by hanging out with it and interacting with it in a friendly manner. A student seeking such truth must engage in the dialectic himself to become familiar with its use.
Once such knowledge has been gained, the dialectician can move from the dialectical method to the hypothetical method. Here he returns to make and defend propositional knowledge in the form of hypotheses. The hypotheses are useful because they are propounded by a dialectician who has gained insight into the truth behind them. But now the dialectician is aware of their inherent weakness. As propositions, they are still inadequate reflections of the truth, and can thus be reasonably refuted by others.
In the last chapter of the book, Gonzalez make use of the Seventh Letter to solidify his thesis, even presenting his own translation of the �Philosophical Digression�. Gonzalez spends most of the chapter interpreting the Philosophical Digression, but that is mostly unnecessary. The content of the Seventh Letter corresponds perfectly to the thesis Gonzalez advocates throughout the book. It even goes further, explaining why Plato never wrote a treatise. �If it seemed to me possible to write or speak about these things adequately before the public, what more noble deed could I have done in my life than to write about something that would be of such benefit to my fellow human beings, bringing to light the nature of things for all to see?� asks the Seventh Letter, which then answers, �But I do not think that any so-called �essay� on these matters would prove beneficial to others, with perhaps the exception of a few who can discover these things for themselves with minimal guidance. As for the others, however, it would wrongly fill some with an improper and ugly contempt and others with a lofty and empty hope, as if they had learned something high and mighty.� Latter, after discussing the weakness of language, the Seventh Letter states, �For this reason, no one with insight would dare fix his thoughts in [language], especially if [this language is] unalterable, as is the case with written words.� As Gonzales elaborates, �Spoken words can be explained, modified, or retracted, whereas none of this is possible with the words frozen in writing.�
Presumably it is the controversy over the authorship of the Seventh Letter that required Gonzalez to place it at the end of his book. If there were no doubts that Plato was the author, the Seventh Letter would more naturally be placed at the beginning of the book, with Gonzalez then using the various dialogues simply as examples of the process described in the Seventh Letter. With the controversy however, Gonzalez had to develop his thesis through the dialogues independent of the Seventh Letter, and simply use the Seventh Letter as a summary. It also allows him to provide support for attributing the authorship of the Seventh Letter to Plato by removing one of the main arguments that it is a forgery; namely that the philosophy described therein is inconsistent with the philosophy of the dialogues.
In judging Gonzalez�s thesis, there are two questions to ask. First, how well does Gonzales succeed at proving that the dialectic epistemology he describes is what Plato intended to convey through his dialogues? Obviously, it would take an expert to provide an inductively strong answer to this question. Having not read a single Platonic dialogue, I cannot evaluate the accuracy of the descriptions that Gonzales provides of the various dialogues that he examines, nor can I determine whether there are dialogues not examined by Gonzales that would provide counterexamples to refute his thesis. I read, write, and speak only English, which prevents me from judging his arguments in the many translation controversies that he cites in his extensive endnotes. And I have no familiarity with any of the other Platonic scholars Gonzalez spends much space refuting, so I cannot evaluate how successful his refutations are. The best I can do is to provide a plausibility evaluation based solely on a critical evaluation of the text itself.
Broadly, Gonzalez�s thesis appears highly plausible. Primarily, his thesis explains very clearly what are otherwise two great mysteries about Plato�s work. The fact that he wrote philosophy in the form of dialogues starring his mentor Socrates is not a mystery. My second-hand readings have informed me that many of Socrates� followers did this, although only a few dialogues of only one other writer than Plato survive. Plato (like, presumably, many of Socrates� disciples) must have been motivated at least in part by the desire to mold the historical reputation of his mentor who had been sentenced to death by the citizens of Athens. But, and here is mystery number one, why did Plato never write a philosophical treatise? Why would Plato attribute all of his own ideas to Socrates in a setting where many of these ideas are refuted by others? This last point leads into mystery number two. If Plato had the dual goals of explaining his own ideas while making Socrates look good, then why do so many of the dialogues end inconclusively, with Socrates failing to answer the question explored in the dialogue?
Gonzalez�s thesis provides ready answers to these mysteries. The reasons for never writing a thesis are described above in the discussion of the Seventh Letter. The reason for writing inconclusive philosophical dialogues is that, as he had no intention of writing a treatise of his beliefs, his main goal was likely to convey the dialectical method which Socrates taught through his practice (and possibly, thereby to make Socrates look good). He could have simply written an essay describing the method, but as is described above, he was adverse to writing a treatise in that manner (although he may have eventually did so inadvertently in the Seventh Letter). A better way to convey the skill than to describe it is to show it. The dialogues end inconclusively because there simply are no propositional answers to the questions examined by the dialectic. However, even this inconclusiveness is only propositional. Socrates never answers the question, �What is courage?� in the Laches, but he is courageous in his search for this knowledge. He never answers the question, �What is temperance?� in the Charmides, but he is temperate in his claim to this knowledge. Thus Plato does not tell the reader what these virtues are, but he shows the reader what they are.
Still, I did find aspects of the book that inspire skepticism of its thesis. Throughout the book, Gonzalez presents his thesis as if it is the obviously correct one, nowhere in the book does Gonzalez suggest that Plato was wrong about anything, and he denies throughout the book that Plato ever presents inconsistent views in separate writings. This pose reminds me of sectarian Christian writers explaining why their denomination�s interpretation of Christian beliefs is the obviously correct one that is expressed without contradiction throughout the Bible. Although they claim to be the only ones faithful to the sacred text, it seems more like they are imposing their own alien ideas onto ancient foreign stories. Gonzalez never clearly differentiates where he is explaining Plato�s philosophy, where he advocating for Plato�s philosophy, and where he is advocating for his explanation of Plato�s philosophy. Is Gonzalez simply putting his own philosophy into the mouth of Plato? Is he doing to Plato what Plato did to Socrates?
Gonzalez also seems too had the varieties of proponents for the view that Plato believed in propositional knowledge. For example, he characterizes the �developmentalist� position as being that Plato originally believed in nonpropositional knowledge but later replaced it with the better hypothetical method that leads to true propositions. Even if Gonzalez is correct that Plato considered the hypothetical method to be inferior to and dependent on dialectic and that its propositional results are no better than tentative, it still could be possible that the hypothetical method was something that Plato developed later in his career. How could someone have as long of a career as Plato�s, regularly engaging in the refutation of his ideas that Gonzalez describes, and not have his philosophy grow and develop?
Gonzalez makes a compelling case for Plato�s intentions, but skepticism is warranted.
The second question to ask in judging Gonzalez�s thesis is, is the dialectical epistemology it describes sensible? Regardless of whether this method was invented by Socrates, Plato, Gonzalez, or some anonymous forger who may have written the Seventh Letter, is this a good description of what philosophical knowledge is and how it should be obtained?
With caveats, I think it is. Indeed, I think it is what most people already do, at least with �soft� issues like ethics and politics. The proper analytic answer would be to say that you must begin by determining the first, most basic principles of self and reality, and then work up from there to determine whether or not there are objective answers to ethical and political questions and what those answers might be. The relativist would give up and say that there is no right or wrong, only what you chose to believe. Most people, however, believe that there are objective answers to what is right and wrong, that they decide for themselves what those answers are by reflection and discussion, but they are unsure what basic principles they believe in. I also think that, in general, people who make it their vocation to think about and discuss ethical and political questions tend to do so using rational argumentation, they do tend to be closer to real knowledge of these subjects than the masses, but they are in general no closer to first principles than the masses. This could explain the paradox of expertise, where as an individual becomes more of an expert in a field, and is able to do more tasks more efficiently and accurately, he tends to lode awareness of what he knows. Although the expertise may be gained through analytic procedures in the beginning, it becomes intuitive and nonpropositional.
Further, while Gonzalez confines this way of learning to the individual, I believe it can apply to social epistemology as well. The United States in the 20th century engaged in a huge cultural debate about civil rights. Reasoned arguments were made and refuted on all sides. By the end of the century, the society broadly agreed that racism and segregation were wrong. America�s culture was probably the most intellectually diverse in history, and everyone had a different reason for reaching the same conclusion about racism. Some reasons were religious, some were scientific, some were political, some were economic, and some were psychological. Americans had held a giant debate using reasoned argumentation, and almost everyone came to the same conclusion, although they could not agree on why they had done so.
If Gonzalez�s thesis is correct, then Plato�s legacy may be similar to Freud�s. His specific doctrines and beliefs may be discredited and ridiculed, but the methodology he popularized might become the standard used by all, even and especially by those who ridicule him.
Note to self: investigate how Plato�s methodology can be reasonably adapted to materialist metaphysics. Re-reading Charles Sanders Pierce�s essay on the difference between pragmatism and pragmaticism may be useful here.