Thursday, March 01, 2007

One, two, or three?

One of the most interesting moments in the prologue to the Sophist occurs after Socrates asks the Eleatic Stranger whether sophist, statesman, and philosopher are one, two or three (217a). The Stranger answers, without hesitation, that they are three. But his answer sits uncomfortably with what we might call "standard Platonism:" the view that the philosopher is the statesman. Shouldn't the Stranger have said that they are two?

Moreover, the Stranger will go on to suggest that the sophist has a techne, an art (221d), and that it is this possession of an art that makes him "countable:" it seems that it is because sophist, philosopher, and statesman have three distinct technai or three forms of knowledge that they can be said to be three. But in the Gorgias Socrates had not even allowed that the sophist had an art (Gorgias 463a6-b6). Shouldn't the correct answer to Socrates' question then be "one," namely, there is only one art, that of the philosopher, which is identical to the statesman's art, and the sophist has no real techne?

The problematic nature of the Stranger's answer has been noted by scholars in various ways. Notomi (1999, p. 22), for example, claims that the Stranger is not fully committed to the view that sophist, philosopher, and statesman are three distinct beings: the Stranger’s “answer is that they [the Eleatic school] assume (ἡγοῦντο) these three kinds, and he adds that it is nonetheless no easy task to determine what each of them is (217b1-3). The view that these are three kinds is presented as an assumption (not as fact), and remains such throughout the Sophist and Statesman. It really matters whether these three figures constitute independent, real kinds (γένη).” But the Stranger gives us no reason in either the Sophist or the Statesman to think that he eventually revises his answer: the assumption, if it is an assumption, is vindicated in the dialogues.

Most scholars seem to fall into two camps: those who argue that somehow the three must be two, and those who argue that the three are indeed three, but argue that this does not represent a departure from the traditional Platonic doctrine of the philosopher king. Here's a list:
  1. Skemp (1952/1987, p. 21) argues that philosopher and statesman are really one, but that the “specific activity” of statesmanship can be isolated from philosophical activity more generally. (It is not clear if this means Skemp thinks that the correct answer to Socrates’ question is two or three).
  2. Klein (1977, p. 200): the three are really two.
  3. Strauss (1989, p. 218): three. He thinks this answer is compatible with the Republic: “[t]he fact that the philosopher is not identical with the king was recognized in the central thesis of the Republic, according to which the coincidence of philosophy and kingship is the condition for the salvation of cities and indeed of the human race: identical things do not have to coincide.” Yet he also notes that the difference between statesman and philosopher is not made sufficiently clear in the Statesman.
  4. Lane (1998, p. 7, note 19): three.
  5. Griswold (1989, p. 263, note 13): three.
  6. Rowe (1995, note to Statesman 257b3-4) two, though he seems to suggest that statesmanship involves “special skills” that the philosopher by himself does not necessarily have (and so philosophy and statesmanship would really be three).
  7. Notomi (1999, p. 25, especially note 82): uncertain, but thinks the question is extremely important, and seems to lean towards the “two” answer
  8. Samaras (2002, chapter 8, especially p. 146): unambiguously two, though thinks that there are different conceptions of the statesman in the Republic and in the Statesman.
  9. Voegelin (1987/1956a, p. 150): unambiguously two
  10. Benardete (1984, pp. II.73-74), as usual, has the most interesting analysis, without settling on a specific number, though in his earlier piece (Benardete 1963 pp. 212, 223), he was much more explicit in thinking that philosophy and statesmanship were different.
We might also note that the Athenians in general might think that the answer to Socrates’ question is “one” – philosopher, statesman and sophist are all forms of sophistry. Wolff (1991, p. 25) also notes that “one” is the sophistic thesis (not so much that of the Athenian people).

What are the implications of answering the question with "two" or "three"? It would seem that saying that philosopher and statesman are distinct forms of knowledge should indicate that the thesis of the Republic is not really tenable in the form in which it is usually understood (perhaps Plato changed his mind?); and moreover, it would necessitate a ranking of philosopher and statesman (perhaps the philosopher is inferior to the statesman?). More dramatically, perhaps, a separation of philosophy and statesmanship might create a space within Plato's political philosophy for a different sort of relationship between philosophy and politics than the one Plato is usually identified with (i.e., the -prudentially qualified- imposition of philosophical principles on political affairs).

But in order to see whether philosopher and statesman are the same or not, we need to understand what it would mean to say that they are distinct. My idea is that what we have here three distinct relationships to wisdom, each of them associated with a particular form of knowledge: the pretend wisdom of the sophist (associated with an art of pretension, of making images), the search for wisdom of the philosopher (associated with a dialectical science that facilitates this search), and the actual wisdom of the genuine statesman (associated with an art of measure and a real knowledge of forms). Each of these can be understood as "images" of wisdom, but only one of them (statesmanship) really is actual wisdom. So I think that Plato really means to suggest that there are three (not two) different figures here, each distinguished by a particular art and a particular relationship to the possibility of wisdom.

1 comment:

  1. "The next question is whether the principles are two or three or more in number… It is clear then that the number of elements is neither one nor more than two or three; but whether two or three is, as I said, a question of considerable difficulty…
    The principles therefore are, in a way, not more in number than the contraries, but as it were two, nor yet precisely two, since there is a difference of essential nature, but three…"

    one two three... C A B... sophist statesman philosopher... icon index symbol... speech deed mediation... esthetics ethics logic