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.