Wednesday, May 22, 2013

P{ost|ro}logue on Cephalus

image by LMRitchie
As you may recall, I had a series going for a while developing some thoughts on the character of Cephalus in Plato's Republic. The original intention of this series was to demonstrate and explain clearly some features of dialectic that would be helpful for someone trying to read the Republic. I see that as a matter of fact I had nothing clear and helpful to say. Rimwell's response especially indicates how far I was from cogency.

Let me start again with a few theses I would like to defend and develop:
  1. Cephalus and his sons are individualistic progressivists, not traditionalists
  2. Cephalus is morally engaged, if philosophically complacent
  3. Socratic irony is collaborative, not adversarial
  4. Dialectic is inclusive in intent, if exclusive in effect
I want to develop these theses against the background of some typical strains of interpretation: 
  1. The standard reading, according to which:
    1. The much-repeated and never-demonstrated premise that "helping friends and harming enemies" is a core precept of traditional Greek morality. 
    2. The narrative according to which prior to Plato, virtue is conceived externally, in terms of canons of behavior.
    3. The interpretation of Socratic irony as a clever argumentative tactic.
  2. The Straussian tradition, according to which:
    1. Interpretation of Plato depends on an interpretation of Socratic irony, and an exposition of the genre of Platonic dialog (a thesis I endorse).
    2. Socratic irony is a practice of treating different kinds of people differently (a thesis which Strauss advances on the basis of a reading of Xenophon, and tries to apply to Plato).
    3. Cephalus represents ancestral piety.
    4. Philosophy as advocated by Plato opposes itself to piety and tradition.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Just 57+68 minutes of your time please

Take any phenomenon, no matter how complicated, and you can reduce it to an application of a rule. Does this prove that somewhere in the Library of Babel there is a book that states the rule for everything? Or at least prove that it is impossible to prove that a given thing is not in fact the application of a rule?

On the other hand, I can take any notion and explain it as the product of any function. 57+68=5, if by + I mean , which for all I can explain "+" it very well might. That is, I can provide no principle according to which a given rule should not be applied in a special way in an unanticipated case, precisely because by hypothesis I have not yet considered this case. What this seems to prove is not that any conclusion really might be the correct application of a rule, but rather that it is useless to think about knowledge as application of a rule according to principles.

But perhaps I can still say that knowledge is having a rule which I know how to apply, if "knowing how" does not reduce to following a rule. It is experiential. I don't need a rule to tell me how to follow a rule, and if I could get one it wouldn't help me anyway, since I would need a third rule to tell me how to follow that one.

It seems paradoxical and anticlimactic to put "knowing how" at the heart of "knowing that." Can knowledge just be a highly recursive technique? But this would not explain what it means to "have" the rule in the first place, in order to know how to apply it. It is not enough to say that I have contrived a tool for referring out of arbitrary materials, since this would imply that I had some "private" feeling for the reference before I shaped the tool.

Anyway, I just started reading Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, and wanted to post my initial thoughts and expectations. I want to return later after I've finished the book.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Character of Cephalus, continued

My principal objection to Allan Bloom's interpretation of the character of Cephalus in Plato's Republic is that it presents dialectic as a calculated rhetorical strategy of exclusion, whereas the literary evidence suggests to the contrary that Socrates is really interested in hearing Cephalus speak about justice. (See my previous post for a more detailed explanation of this objection.) It may even be that conversation with Socrates would be morally superfluous for someone like Cephalus, but the point for us is not that Cephalus has or has not missed out on something, but that Socrates sees something to learn from him and has lost the opportunity.

Leo Strauss is of course at the source of this badly mistaken attitude towards Socratic dialectic. Whether he is guilty of it himself is another question (although according his own interpretive framework I suppose he should be held completely responsible for his legacy as well as his actual writings). A question easily answered by reference to The City and Man. He claims that Cephalus "stands for what seems to be the most natural authority. He posses the dignity peculiar to old age and thus presents the order which is based on reverence for the old, the old order as opposed to the present decay" (65).

Perhaps this kind of character analysis passed for careful reading in Strauss's day because it was so novel to pay so much attention to the characters at all. But surely Strauss's reasoning amounts to saying that if a character is old he stands for an old order, whereas Cephalus himself is characterized more by his differences from his ancestors than from any continuity. Strauss himself acknowledges that "assuredly, the metic Cephalus is not the proper representative of the old order, of the old Athenian order," without managing to draw the conclusion that Plato did not intend him to be such a representative at all.

This kind of allegorical reading (which would, one hopes, be unacceptable in the interpretation of, say, a modern novel) not only distorts Plato's attitude toward tradition and piety, it also obscures the real dramatic function of an elderly character, which is rather existential than representative: we, with Socrates, are interested in what it is like to be very old, not some presumption of what an old person supposedly thinks.

Julia Annas takes a position much closer to my own. Like me, she describes Cephalus as having a certain kind of "complacency." However, she too easily identifies morals as the dimension in which he demonstrates this defect. "Basically," she writes, "he does not care very much about morality" (Annas, 20). This judgment is no more warranted than Bloom's. Like his, it contradicts the obvious facts: Cephalus admires moderation and justice and thinks both of them more important than money (since money is actually subordinate to virtue); he thinks the most valuable thing his sons could gain from him would be refined moral judgment, together with the means to execute it. How does Annas come to the conclusion that such a man does not even care much about the very thing his life has been spent securing for his sons?

She soon makes it clear: "He has no intellectual interest in the matter at all. He enjoys a chat about it with Socrates, but as soon as the latter asks questions which force him to think, he loses interest and goes away with the polite fiction that he has to attend to the sacrifice (which is in fact over)." Leaving aside her contrived claim that Cephalus is lying about the sacrifices (as though he would, if he were so concerned with the external form of morality as Annas thinks he is!), she assumes that care and interest entail intellectual curiosity and fortitude. Cephalus should be a counterexample to this prejudice rather than just being summarily subsumed under it.

Next time, a few notes on Seth Benardete's unique interpretation.