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.