Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What's in it for Socrates?

image © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Wikimedia Commons
This post is part of a series on
Republic. It can stand
alone, but is
 intended to
continue the line of
 summarized here.
What kind of conversation are Cephalus and Socrates sharing at the beginning of Plato's Republic? Are they intently pursuing an abstract point of intellectual interest to both? Or just shooting the shit on a very high level?

The conversation features an oath (329a1), two references to poets (329b-c, 331a), and several fine distinctions (329b, 329e, 330b, and of course 331b-c) — all signs that something fairly serious is happening. On the other hand, the conversation strays rapidly from one theme to another: old age; wealth; inheritance and money-making; the afterlife; and finally justice. People who are taking a theme seriously do not usually so easily abandon it.

Also, Socrates and Cephalus clearly do not play equal parts in the conversation. Socrates poses questions and Cephalus answers. The questions leading up to the refutation are basically of a personal nature: they ask about Cephalus's experience of old age, the basis of his ease, the source of his wealth, and his experience of the usefulness of that wealth. This pattern more nearly resembles an interview than either a casual conversation or a joint investigation of a theme.

The common presumption about Socratic interviews is that they are aimed at a demonstration of the interlocutor's ignorance on a theme he thinks he knows about, and that he poses as a learner only out of irony. However, Cephalus never presents himself as an authority on justice, and the interview with him centers at first around themes with which we can presume Cephalus is intimately familiar: wealth and extreme old age, two things of which Socrates has no experience.

So it is best to assume that, at least in the present case, Socrates genuinely thinks he can learn something from his interlocutor, especially as he reports his own motivations as though this were the case, not only in his speeches to Cephalus but also in the narration accompanying it. ("I admired him for saying that," Socrates says in the narration, "and I wanted him to tell me more, so I urged him on" (329d-e).) Later, he indicates that he thinks Cephalus among all the wealthy is especially likely to see the truth about money because he does not love it too much (330b-c).

The final question before the refutation, then, seems to indicate precisely what Socrates thinks he might be able to learn from Cephalus: what money is good for. Whatever else we may say about him, we must admit that he occupies a unique position for seeing the answer to this question, because he neither lacks experience of wealth nor suffers the distortion which besets most of those who do have such experience. Even if he does not have knowledge (in the sense of being able to give an account) of the answer, at the very least his report will be useful, even indispensable, for those who wish to give thought to this question, and whatever he says will have to be remembered even if it is somehow refuted.

Now if what is to be gained from Cephalus's speech at 330d-331b is a reliable perspective on the usefulness of wealth, then anything which might skew this perspective or throw it out of frame has to be dealt with before Socrates can learn from it. It may be Socrates's greatest virtue is that he can see clearly when someone who would gladly teach is unable to do so without the assistance of his student. If the way in which the youths in the Republic treat Socrates is due to his example, we may say that he has even taught this art to the younger generation.

The question, then, is what obstructions does Socrates see in Cephalus's presentation, and how does this warrant the sudden shift of emphasis from wealth to justice?


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Summary of the Prolegomena to tomorrow's post (yes it's as boring as it sounds)

So, to sum up:
  1. The dialectic that Plato recommends must first be likened to the destructive, skeptical patterns of questioning and answering normally attributed to the Sophists, in order to be distinguished from them, since Plato himself represented dialectic in terms of this likening and distinction. (see "What is Dialectic?")
  2. The distinction in terms of which this dialectic shows up must be pried open at the point at which it seems least distinct: refutation, the activity in which Socrates is most easily confused with a Sophist. (see "Socratic Refutation")
  3. In analyzing an instance of Socratic refutation, the first step should be maieutic: it should deliver as fully as possible the reasons for the interpretation of the refutation as essentially identical with a sophistic refutation (as opposed to assuming that Plato is merely dramatizing the logical deduction of a proposition in opposition to other positions (see "The ductility of arguments and the futility of moral propositions")).
  4. In the case of the refutation of Cephalus, these reasons are:
    1. Socrates puts words in Cephalus's mouth, attributing a definition of justice to him which he never stated.
    2. Socrates may have an ulterior motive for destroying Cephalus's moral attitudes, since they tend to suggest that the Socratic way of life is imprudent. (see "Cephalus Confuted")
I should add above all that the textual structure of the refutation has roughly the form of what Aristotle will later call a hypothetical syllogism. The hypothesis that all acts of speaking the truth and paying one's debts, together with the observation that some acts of paying one's debts give power to friends who will use it to arm themselves, leads to the conclusion that sometimes it is just to help your friends harm themselves. Since, however, the opinion that harming your friends in this way would be unjust and bad is more firmly fixed than the hypothetical definition, the original assertion is destroyed, leaving its contradictory standing as an absolute certainty.

So the examination of the refutation of Cephalus will have to show two things

  1. what in the preceding conversation legitimately motivates the imposition of a definition on Cephalus's musings, and what interest Socrates has in the usefulness of money.
  2. what kind of conclusion Socrates thinks his counterexample produces.
The first of these goals I will undertake tomorrow.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

The ductility of arguments and the futility of moral propositions

It's the damnedest thing about Plato: so far are we from a consensus on the method of interpretation that we have to justify ourselves not only in our interpretations, but even in our identification of the essential interpretative problems. We have to do a fair bit of work just to have the right questions.

In suggesting that the core confusion preventing the interpretation of Socratic refutation is its similarity to contentious logic-chopping, I have ignored the most obvious interpretation—at least, what is most obvious to anyone who has been told by a book or a teacher, or simply heard it somewhere, that the Republic is Plato's philosophical treatise on justice. Its presentation as a conversation with a setting, characters, and even something of a plot surely means nothing more than that the Republic wants to charm us into listening to a series of thoughts which we might find too tedious if presented directly. In that case, it would really be splitting hairs to ask about what Socrates is doing, when all that really matters is that Plato thinks he can prove you wrong if you want to say that justice is paying back debts and giving what is owed, and that he has his own idea about what we should say justice is unconditionally. Socratic refutation is just a literary vehicle for philosophical debate.

Happily enough for me, this (stubbornly ineradicable) analytic reading of Plato the author transforms itself into the same problem as does the public reading of Socrates the historical man, the reading of his character which condemned him to death. To be sure, the hypothetical Plato Debate-o, as described in the preceding paragraph, is a nobler type than Euthydemus or Gorgias, since he at least thinks that what he is persuading you of is the sole truth of the matter, and that he could not equally easily persuade you of the opposite.

However, if the difference between White Hat and Black Hat debaters is that the White Hats will not allow their arguments to be overturned into their opposites, then not much can stand on this difference. The standards of debate are comfortable turf for the Black Hats, and they can easily demonstrate the fallacy of maintaining that a logically argued position cannot be overturned—it is their power of demonstrating precisely this point on which their whole reputation is founded.  Gorgias forcefully declare this supreme strength of persuasive speech in his Encomium of Helen:
Persuasion belonging to discourse shapes the soul at will: witness, first, the discourses of the astronomers, who by setting aside one opinion and building up another in its stead make incredible and obscure things apparent to the eyes of opinion; second, the necessary debates in which one discourse, artfully written but not truthfully meant, delights and persuades a numerous crowd; and third, the competing arguments of the philosophers, in which speed of thought is shown off, as it renders changeable the credibility of an opinion. (translated by Brian Donovan)
Indeed, aside from the examples he gives of the power of persuasive speech over opinion, Gorgias is his own most impressive example, since he affirms this point in the very act of demonstrating it by persuading his audience to admire someone whom the poets had made "a byword for calamities." If Gorgias can make you like Helen he must be capable of proving anything. So if the White Hats of logical debate are distinguished from the Black Hats only by their more honorable application of a naturally neutral instrument, they turn out to be nothing but dupes of conventional thinking who have allowed their rational powers to be subordinated to some extraneous authority. The success of the sophistical teachers and orators argues undeniably against any claim that logic lends itself to any given position more than it does the contradictory.

In that case, the White Hats could hardly be taken seriously as guardians of truth. They seem to have maimed themselves, cutting off half of their art of guardianship (the half that might be likened to an art of theft) and imagining that to do so makes them more capable defenders. This cannot stand as an interpretation of the origins of philosophy (which an interpretation of Plato and Socrates must be), unless by "interpreting" its origin we mean robbing it of its foundations.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Cephalus Confuted

As I tried to show in my previous two posts introducing the problem of dialectic in Plato:
  1. The correct understanding of what Plato means by "dialectic" hinges on a correct interpretation of Socratic refutation.
  2. The structure of refutation itself naturally encourages an interpretation of it in terms of conflicting propositions and personalities, and no alternative to this interpretation immediately presents itself.
Thus the interpretation of Socratic refutation must begin with a refutation of its own. The true nature of his elenchus will not be able to show itself as long as a more obvious form of refutation loudly declares itself, any more than, say, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" can be appreciated in all its deep wit while we continue to mishear the title as though it said "The Road Less Traveled."

In order to achieve this necessary refutation as completely as possible, we should follow the pattern of refutation of Socrates himself. That is, instead of throwing ourselves directly into disputations, we should first let the very thing which is to be refuted show itself in its entirety. Socrates called this practice of attentive drawing out of a hypothesis the "maieutic art." The son of a midwife, Socrates claimed to have a kind of art of midwifery himself, by virtue of which he could positively contribute to conversations despite his own ignorance of anything worth knowing. He knew how to ask questions in just such a way that a thought could come out entire, in all its dimensions, without anything held back. Only after this complete publication or externalization of the thought would he inspect it to determine whether it was a real understanding or only "a phantom" (a problem his mother never had to deal with, unless maybe she did some work in L.A., circa 2000, via time machine1). A thought has to be delivered in its most comprehensive form before it can be decisively affirmed or dismissed. In the same way, we should try to see as fully as possible why Socrates might seem to be playing the sophist or setting up counter-positions and paradoxes when he proves Cephalus wrong. 

The refutation is as follows:
A fine sentiment, Cephalus, but, speaking of this very thing itself, namely, justice, are we to say unconditionally that it is speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred? Or is doing these things sometimes just, sometimes unjust? I mean this sort of thing, for example: Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks for them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn't return them, and wouldn't be acting justly if he did. Nor should anyone be willing to tell the whole truth to someone who is out of his mind. 
That's true. 
Then the definition of justice isn't speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed. (331b-c)
But Cephalus never claims that "speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed" is the definition of justice. In fact, he never makes any claims about the definition of justice at all. He hardly even mentions it. He refers to "injustices" (330e) and being "unjust" (330d) and once to a "just and pious life" (331a), only in order to explain what he thinks money is useful for. Socrates seems to be pouncing on the opportunity to prove someone wrong, even if he has to put words in Cephalus's mouth to do it.

Furthermore, on a literary level, Socrates seems to have some motivation for showing Cephalus up. He has just been told that his way of life is a sure path to misery, since "a good person wouldn't easily bear old age if he were poor, but a bad one wouldn't be at peace with himself even if he were wealthy" (330a).

So is Socrates just jamming some dialectic sauce down an old man's throat for thrills? We'll see next week.


1HOLY CRAP everyone let's write a fanfic where Dr. Who takes Socrates's mom to… um, you know what let's finish this post first)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Socratic Refutation

So I owe you an analysis of Socrates's refutations of Cephalus and Polemarchus in Book I. Now if I were the type to put noble things to paltry use, as someone with no sensibility might use a heartfelt letter as scratch paper, I might say that justice, not being identical with paying one's debts, does not require me to do so — and that I could prove it. Because I, Sam-I-am that I am, being clever as clever as clever can be and having read Plato's Republic know Socrates's argument against Cephalus's definition of justice by heart.

And I could very well stoop to that, because I do think very much of how clever I am. But above all I want to show you that Socrates would not do so, that his form of refutation is completely different from this kind of artful dodge that "takes refuge in words." A Platonic dialectician is not a debater. He does not refute to hide from the obvious, nor to display his wit, nor even simply to prove a point (as one does for whom refutation just means proving the contradictory of the position to be refuted). He refutes as one who, knowing that he does not know, pursues wisdom.

But what do these high-sounding words actually mean? How do we see this knowledge and this pursuit in the refutations of Cephalus and Polemarchus — particularly as they may seem to us to be far from artless, and that they may seem to disclose Socrates as a teacher rather than a learner? This question sets the task of an analysis of these refutations, and with it, this analysis begins. In other words, the first step in understanding Socratic refutation is the refutation of the way in which Socratic refutation appears.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What is Dialectic?

This post is the beginning of a series on Plato's Republic. For those of you reading along with the Syllabus of Sam, I'll be writing about the first few pages (327a1-336a8) all this week, as well as on other topics (maybe?)

Throughout his dialogs, Plato praises something called "dialectic" as the highest form of reasoning. As the name suggests, it takes place by way of conversation. More precisely, it takes place through skillful questioning and answering aimed at refutation, and it tends to break up into a rapid back-and-forth pattern rather than long speeches.

Are you talking to me? 'Cause I don't see
anyone else here, so you must be talking
to me. But on the other hand you are
speaking very disrespectfully and no
one disrespects Euthydemus, so you
must have been wrong when you agreed
that you were talking to me.
If that doesn't make you think of Socrates, you…I don't know, maybe you haven't heard of Socrates? (Here's a good introduction for you.) But we shouldn't conclude too easily that "dialectic" just means what Socrates does, since the word was in Plato's time broadly applied to a whole range of public activities involving questions and answers. The average Athenian reader of Plato would not necessarily have seen a distinction between Socrates's patterns of questioning and those of, say, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, two brothers who built up an enthusiastic following by twisting arguments cleverly back and forth between the two of them, making it appear ridiculous even to think of arriving at truth through speeches.

That is, it is not immediately clear that dialectic is not what most people today think philosophy is: a systematic deployment of bullshit in an unprincipled campaign to undermine common sense and morals. Without this caveat we will not be able to appreciate the extent to which Plato's praise of dialectic addresses itself precisely to this confusion.

The most precise account of the dialectic praised by Plato, then, will compare it to those destructive, skeptical, patterns of questioning and answering. But this will seem too subtle, since I have already said that the dialectic praised by Plato is aimed at refutation. How can something aimed at refutation fail to be skeptical and destructive of the starting points (which will naturally be common sense and morals)? How, that is, can a practice of refutation possibly cohere with a love of truth?

To answer this question, I will analyze Socrates's refutations of Cephalus and Polemarchus in the first half of Book I of the Republic. Tomorrow. Here. Tell your friends.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

All Quiet on the Macroeconomic Front

It's a good time of year to read John Locke. One can't help but think that political discourse would go better if we could
set down any Measures of the Certainty of our Knowledge, or the Grounds of those Perswasions, which are to be found amongst Men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted some where or other with such Assurance, and Confidence, that he that shall take a view of the Opinions of Mankind, observe their Opposition, and at the same time, consider the Fondness, and Devotion wherewith they are embrac'd; the Resolution, and Eagerness, wherewith they are maintain'd, may perhaps have Reason to suspect, That either there is no such thing as Truth at all; or that Mankind hath no sufficient Means to attain a certain Knowledge of it.1
One might infer two dangerous consequences of excessive assurance on controversial matters:

  1. that erring partisans, happening to have the upper hand, might act too precipitously on their errors.
  2. that witnesses of the contention might conclude that no well-measured action is possible, and adopt an even more reckless quietism.
Locke is more concerned about the latter danger. I am, too.

But I am not so optimistic as he that the matters about which we are told we ought to weigh and to decide can be measured at all, even if we do not "intemperately require Demonstration, and demand Certainty, where Probability only is to be had, and which is sufficient to govern all our concernments" (46).F

Show me the measure according to which we can accurately (even probabilistically) prognosticate and manipulate macroeconomic affairs, and I will begin considering the economy a legitimate issue on which elections should be decided.

1Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 44.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


The syllabus of Sam! (Sam I am.)

Every month or so I'll update this reading list. Read along if you want!

Right now I am about to begin reading:

  • Aristotle, Ethics and Metaphysics
  • Plato, Republic
  • Locke, Essay Concering Human Understanding (selections)
  • Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Now is a good time to read one or all of these books: reading books is better with Sam.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A picture of piety?

It is possible while waiting to learn the truth to let the crucial moment for action slip away. But it may also be possible that this very waiting is in some cases the most essential action.

The eponymous agonist of Plato's Euthyphro tells the story of his father's crime:
The victim was a dependent of mine, and when we were farming in Naxos he was a servant of ours. He killed one of our household slaves in drunken anger, so my father bound him hand and foot and threw him in a ditch, then sent a man [to the king-archon] to inquire from a priest what should be done. During that time he gave no thought or care to the bound man, as being a killer, and it was no matter if he died, which he did. Hunger and cold and his bonds caused his death before the messenger came back from the seer.
Well, Euthyphro, what ought he to have done? Perhaps it was not the god's will that this polluted man be fed and sheltered.

Suppose that someone dearer to you than a household slave—say, a great teacher and pious man—were killed by your city, if not in drunken anger then under the influence of distorted ideas of the good. How might you then treat this city? Could you do worse than to let it lie in bondage to its own madness while you turn away and wait for the good itself to reveal itself to you?

Perhaps this treatment would be only just. The city that killed Socrates deserves what it gets. But such a judgment could only be made after the messenger returns.

On the other hand, what is one to do in the meantime in such a case? Is there a pious waiting in contrast to an impious presumption on the message yet to be delivered (as perhaps we must attribute to Euthyphro's father)?

These times in which no action is possible—perhaps they are the most crucial times. It may be that the one who acts most piously is the one who may later say, "I refrained from action, waiting for the proper time" (Plato, Seventh Letter, 326a).