Thursday, March 22, 2007


It is not often noted (an exception is Hemmenway 1994, p. 265, note 12 [JSTOR]) that the Stranger’s top-most category in his divisions, the “original ancestor” in all his genealogies, is dunamis, power (Sophist 219a4-6). The reason for this neglect is probably that the Stranger does not bring the matter up in his summaries or discuss explicitly the powers that are not forms of knowledge.

Yet in the context of the dialogue, the idea of dunamis as the topmost category in every division makes good sense, since it is also used as an (apparently provisional) definition of being (247d8-e4), and never really retracted; see here Heidegger (1997/1924-25, section 68.b, pp. 328-330) and Dorter (1994, pp. 161-162). All the genealogies or divisions seem meant to begin from the original ancestor of everything, namely being.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Joke in Diogenes Laertius

From Diogenes Laertius VI.40:
Plato defined man as a featherless biped [Statesman 266e], and was much applauded [for that]. [Diogenes heard this and so] he took a plucked chicken into the school and said, "here is Plato's man." So Plato's definition was changed with the addition "with broad nails."

Get it? I didn't think so. Let's try it one more time in Greek:
Πλάτωνος ὁρισαμένου, Ἄνθρωπός ἐστι ζῷον δίπουν ἄπτερον, καὶ εὐδοκιμοῦντος, τίλας ἀλεκτρυόνα εἰσήνεγκεν αὐτὸν εἰς τὴν σχολὴν καί φησιν, "οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ Πλάτωνος ἄνθρωπος." ὅθεν τῷ ὅρῳ προσετέθη τὸ πλατυώνυχον.

Still don't get it? Well, it's not really a very good joke, but it's a joke. And perhaps it's worth ruining it with an explanation.

The introduction is classic: Diogenes walks into a bar and hears that Plato defined a chicken as a featherless biped. The detail about the applause is evidently intended to amuse us (who could applaud such a ridiculous definition, ridiculous even within the dialogue, as the Stranger notes in the Statesman?), not to report a fact. The punch line of the joke is that τὸ πλατυώνυχον “the quality of having broad nails” sounds in Greek much like τὸ πλατώνικον, “the platonic thing;” the “improved” academic definition is thus “man is a ζῷον δίπουν ἄπτερον πλατυώνυχον/ πλατώνικον,” a “‘platonic’ featherless biped.”

Ok, I said it wasn't a great joke, but I think it's nice to know that people in antiquity took that part of the dialogue with a sense of humor.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Functions and purposes

Among some commentators (e.g. Zuckert 2000, pp. 71-72) it has sometimes been argued that the difference between the Socratic and the Eleatic practice of philosophy lies in Socrates' attention to purposes. Thus, the argument goes, while the Stranger is busy creating purely "analytic" definitions of statesmanship, Socrates asks about the good to which statesmanship aims; and while the Eleatic casts around for "value-neutral" criteria for distinguishing sophist and philosopher, Socrates cuts to the nub of the matter by looking to the different motivations animating the practice of philosophy (the love of truth) and sophistry (a love of money, or reputation). The point is usually construed as a criticism of the Eleatic, and may support a view of the Eleatic dialogues in which the Eleatic is silently subverted: the failure of Platonic Eleatism serves to make Socratic philosophy all the more necessary.

It is true that the Stranger’s genealogies are unlike Socrates’ definitions of the arts in that they do not emphasize the ends to which the arts aim; the Stranger, for instance, in his definition of angling does not say why anybody would practice angling, or even explicitly say what is the end of angling, and in his last definition of sophistry he does not discuss why anybody would practice sophistry (since the references to money which were such an important part of the first four definitions of the sophist drop out in the sixth and seventh).

Nevertheless, these genealogies do incorporate the immediate function of the art (its ergon), a function which is naturally called an “immediate” purpose. What an art does – its ergon - is its end qua art, i.e., its function, though it may not be the ultimate purpose of the person practicing the art. The angler’s function, in this sense, is to hunt fish; and the function of sophistry is to seem wise, and these are things that the Stranger’s genealogies can inform us of. To ask why should anybody hunt fish or want to seem wise is to ask the question of the good of fish and that of wisdom, and this is a question that the Stranger certainly does not openly discuss, unlike Socrates.

That question, however, is implicit in the Stranger's depiction of a web of arts that are all connected in the Statesman. The good of an art can only be understood in reference to the function it plays in society; hence we cannot understand the problem of sophistry well until we come to understand the place it takes (or rather usurps) in the web of arts that constitute the city. In this sense the Stranger's and Socrates' methods seem more complementary than contradictory; we need not see in the Stranger's apparent lack of interest in the question of whether the sophist's motivations are good an actual disinterest in the goodness or badness of sophistry. On the contrary: as we learn (291aff), sophistry is genuinely dangerous to the polis insofar as it attempts to substitute for statesmanship. We might say that Socrates adopts the perspective of the individual, while the Stranger adopts the perspective of the "social system."

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.

Images I

The question of images is central to the interpretation of the Sophist, as I indicated earlier. Indeed much of the dialogue is concerned with establishing that images and image-making are possible, against the sophistic argument that they are not possible, since the sophist is identified as a kind of imitator or image-maker, and in particular as an imitator of wisdom, i.e., somebody who in his performance gives the misleading impression of being wise (268c). Yet for all this the discussion of images in the dialogue remains marginal and misunderstood in the scholarly literature on the Sophist, in part because the passages on images and imagemaking in the dialogue have appeared rather puzzling to interpreters.

The Stranger discusses images explicitly beginning at 235b8ff. The relevant passages are worth quoting in full (235d-236c). In Fowler's translation, from Perseus:
I see the likeness-making art as one part of imitation. This is met with, as a rule, whenever anyone produces the imitation by following the proportions of the original in length, breadth, and depth, and giving, besides, [235e] the appropriate colors to each part.

Yes, but do not all imitators try to do this?

Not those who produce some large work of sculpture or painting. For if they reproduced the true proportions of beautiful forms, the upper parts, you know, would seem smaller [236a] and the lower parts larger than they ought, because we see the former from a distance, the latter from near at hand.


So the artists abandon the truth and give their figures not the actual proportions but those which seem to be beautiful, do they not?


That, then, which is other, but like, we may fairly call a likeness, may we not? [236b] And the part of imitation which is concerned with such things, is to be called, as we called it before, likeness-making?

It is to be so called.

Now then, what shall we call that which appears, because it is seen from an unfavorable position, to be like the beautiful, but which would not even be likely to resemble that which it claims to be like, if a person were able to see such large works adequately? Shall we not call it, since it appears, but is not like, an appearance?


And this is very common in painting [236c] and in all imitation?

Of course.

And to the art which produces appearance, but not likeness, the most correct name we could give would be “fantastic art,” would it not?

By all means.

These, then, are the two forms of the image-making art that I meant, the likeness-making and the fantastic.

Here is part of the Greek:

μίαν μὲν τὴν εἰκαστικὴν ὁρῶν ἐν αὐτῇ τέχνην. ἔστι δ᾽ αὕτη μάλιστα ὁπόταν κατὰ τὰς τοῦ παραδείγματος συμμετρίας τις ἐν μήκει καὶ πλάτει καὶ βάθει, καὶ πρὸς [235ε] τούτοις ἔτι χρώματα ἀποδιδοὺς τὰ προσήκοντα ἑκάστοις, τὴν τοῦ μιμήματος γένεσιν ἀπεργάζηται.


οὔκουν ὅσοι γε τῶν μεγάλων πού τι πλάττουσιν ἔργων γράφουσιν. εἰ γὰρ ἀποδιδοῖεν τὴν τῶν καλῶν ἀληθινὴν συμμετρίαν, οἶσθ᾽ ὅτι σμικρότερα μὲν τοῦ δέοντος [236α] τὰ ἄνω, μείζω δὲ τὰ κάτω φαίνοιτ᾽ ἂν διὰ τὸ τὰ μὲν πόρρωθεν, τὰ δ᾽ ἐγγύθεν ὑφ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁρᾶσθαι.

The distinction the Stranger makes here between likeness-making ("eikastic" imitation) and the making of appearances ("fantastic" imitation) has been the source of endless confusion. Among earlier interpreters, Philip (1961, p. 459, JSTOR), for instance, makes the strange suggestion that “[e]ikastike would appear to be a class without members, serving only a purpose of symmetry.” His argument relies too much on the Cratylus, where the distinction does not appear, though Socrates does discuss images. Cornford (1935, p. 198) makes the equally misguided suggestion, under the influence of arguments in the Republic (where, again, the distinction does not occur) that “[b]oth here and in the Republic the whole of fine art, considered as ‘imitative’, falls under the art of making ‘semblances’, not ‘likenesses’. Plato does not mean that there is a good and honest kind of art which makes ‘likenesses’ reproducing in all three dimensions and the natural colors of the original” – something which in fact he must mean.

More contemporary interpreters do better, though there is still no consensus regarding the meaning of the distinction. Blondell (2002, pp. 365ff.), for example, argues that εἰκόνα are “analytic images,” but she mars her argument by suggesting that only eikastic imitation is pedagogically beneficial. Like her, most interpreters of the distinction (so Notomi 1999, Palumbo in the Proceedings of the III Symposium Platonicum) operate under the assumption that Plato must obviously value eikastic imitation more than fantastic, or clearly identify philosophy with eikastic rather than fantastic imitation (Nightingale 2002 is an exception: she argues that Plato could have used both forms of imitation for pedagogical purposes, though her views are dismissed by Rutherford in the same volume). But the assumption is unwarranted; the Stranger says little about whether we are to consider eikastic imitation the sole province of the philosopher, or to value it always more than fantastic imitation.

What, then, is the Stranger trying to say with this distinction? I draw here on Benardete 's somewhat opaque, but useful interpretation of this passage (1984, pp. II.105-112). I take it that the Stranger is suggesting that there are two ways in which images can represent objects, and that both of them are flawed, though in different ways. Let's take, for example, the image of a straight road:

This is a "fantastic" or distorted image of the original: in order to represent the road so that it looks like a road, the picture had to distort the actual proportions of the road, primarily by making the parallel lines of the road appear to converge. The image's summetria or proportions are thus different from the summetria of the original, or more precisely, the image and the original do not have a common measure (a summetria). This was necessary because the road is "too large," as the Stranger notes, to be eikastically represented and still look like the road looks.

But what would an eikastic image of the road "look like"? Here is one (not, of course, of the same road):

Though this particular image is not eikastic in every respect described by the Stranger, it is eikastic in the sense that the image preserves the proportions of the original: the sides of the road really are parallel to each other, and they are depicted as parallel in the image. But of course, because from our normal point of view the road does not look like that, a fantastic image is required - a perspectivally distorted image - if we want the image of the road to look the way in which a road would normally look to us.

Fantastic images are distorted - and thus flawed as representations of their originals - precisely in order to account for our flawed perspective. Eikastic images are not distorted from the point of view of the original (that is, they preserve the original proportions of the object) but they appear flawed because they are not well adapted to our point of view. The relationship between an eikastic image and its original is like the relationship between the central circles in the Titchener circles illusion:

Both red circles are in fact identical in size, but they look different to us given the limitations of our perceptual apparatus.

In the Greek context it seems likely to me that the Stranger is referring to a form of perspectival painting, where figures have to be systematically distorted in order to look right to us. The point of this distinction, however, is the subject of an upcoming post...

Theodorus' judgement and the art of measure

I mentioned earlier that we can see a tension between Socrates and Theodorus in the dialogues of the trilogy. Socrates and Theodorus, despite superficially friendly relations, seem to be fundamentally at odds, with Theodorus in expressing or implying doubts about Socrates' philosophical proficiency at several points (e.g. Theaetetus 169a6-b4). I also indicated that if we take this tension seriously we might read the dialogues in part as a critique of the limitations of certain mathematical modes of thinking. Here's a small example of what this could mean.

When Socrates expresses the fear that Theodorus might have brought a refuting god who has come to punish them to their gathering, rather than a mere "stranger," Theodorus ambiguously reassures him: this is not the way of the Stranger; he is more "measured" than those who take disputation too seriously. There is a more than a hint that Theodorus includes Socrates among the latter, i.e., somebody who takes disputation too seriously (Theaetetus 169a6-b4). As Seth Benardete (1984, p. II.70) puts it:

Theodorus, ... [w]ith his usual rudeness, tacitly agrees that Socrates is poor in speeches ... The Stranger is not another Socrates, whose “love of naked exercise in speeches” lets no one get away from him without first rendering an account of himself.

Now, when Theodorus says that the stranger is "more measured" than somebody like Socrates, he uses the word μετριώτερος, which evokes the notion of measure, τὸ μέτριον, discussed much later in the Statesman (beginning at 283c). There, the Stranger distinguishes between two arts of measure: one kind that measures things in relation merely to each other (as bigger or smaller than each other), and another kind that measures them in relation to a mean (as too much or too little in relation to it). The Stranger puts all the arts of measure that have to do with number, length, depth, and surface, i.e., the mathematical arts, among the arts of measure that do not measure "against the mean" and hence cannot find the proper measure (the neither too much nor too little) of things (284e4; for a fuller argument on this point, see my paper here). Mathematicians, in other words, are not qualified by virtue of their mathematical art to say whether someone is "too preoccupied" with disputation. But that is precisely what Theodorus is claiming by saying that the Stranger is "more measured" than somebody like Socrates; he is trying to measure against the mean.

Thus, to the extent that we can refer forwards to the discussion of measure in the Statesman when thinking about Theodorus' subtle put-down of Socrates, we can see that Socrates has the last laugh: Theodorus is not qualified, according to the implication of the Stranger's argument, to judge whether the Stranger is more or less measured than Socrates in the matter of disputation, except in the purely mathematical sense that the Stranger engages in less disputation than Socrates. Whether the Stranger engages in the right level of disputation is something that Theodorus cannot judge.

To be sure, all of this is somewhat speculative. Others see less of a tension between Socrates and Theodorus (e.g., Miller 1980, pp. 11-12), and most see no tension at all (most agree with Campbell 1867, note to 216a5, who long ago argued that Theodorus' reassurance merely shows that Socrates expressed an “ironical fear” of having the “Zenonian negative dialectic to bear on his own (i.e. Plato’s) mode of reasoning”). The point, however, is that if we take seriously both Theodorus' status as a mathematician and the apparent downgrading of a purely mathematical art of measure in the Statesman, then Theodorus' judgment about the Stranger and Socrates is put into question: he cannot tell us that the Stranger is a better philosopher than Socrates by engaging in a less disputatious form of philosophy.

The Charge Against Socrates

I mentioned earlier that the Sophist and the Statesman can be understood as a sort of philosophical trial of Socrates. But what is the charge against Socrates in this philosophic trial?

The only plausible charge is an accusation of sophistry. This charge is not so different from the actual charge leveled against him by Meletus, namely, that he introduced new gods into the city and corrupted the young; both Aristophanes in the Clouds and the Platonic Socrates in his defense in the Apology (18b) understand the accusation to be that he is somebody who makes the weaker argument appear stronger and thereby corrupts the young, an activity associated with the sophists. The Sophist, with its concern for the correct definition of the sophist, can then be understood as a methodical attempt to figure out whether there is anything to the charge.

To be sure, the Eleatic Stranger never makes this accusation. He and Theaetetus simply develop various definitions of the sophist, never explicitly connecting them with Socrates. The fifth definition of sophistry, however, beginning at 226a and ending at 231b8, is, as scholars have long recognized, alarmingly close to Socrates' own practice as described in the "Socratic" dialogues. The sophist that the Stranger and Theaetetus describe engage in the refutation of the ignorance that does not know it is ignorance, as a form of education, which certainly seems to be much like what Socrates does in many "early" Platonic dialogues. Here's the Stranger's final summary of their definition (231b, Fowler translation in Perseus):
... let it be agreed that part of the discriminating art is purification, and as part of purification let that which is concerned with the soul be separated off, and as part of this, instruction, and as part of instruction, education; and let us agree that the cross-questioning of empty conceit of wisdom, which has come to light in our present discussion, is nothing else than the true-born art of sophistry.
Is the Stranger indicting Socrates by this definition of sophistry? Though Theaetetus is ready to describe the master of the cathartic art as a sophist, the Stranger seems uncertain (230e-231b):
Well then, who are those who practise this art?
[231a] I am afraid to say the sophists.

Why so?

Lest we grant them too high a meed of honor.

But the description you have just given is very like someone of that sort.

Yes, and a wolf is very like a dog, the wildest like the tamest of animals. But the cautious man must be especially on his guard in the matter of resemblances, for they are very slippery things. However, let us agree that they are the sophists; for I think the strife will not be about petty discriminations [231b] when people are sufficiently on their guard.

It is not clear here whether the sophist they have described (and hence Socratic practice) is the wolf or the dog in this analogy, and hence whether the Stranger is indicting or absolving Socrates.

Scholars disagree as well: some feel compelled to deny that the image of the “cathartic” sophist really applies to Socrates at all (Bluck 1975, pp. 40-46; Diès 1925, p. 272; Kerferd 1954), even if the similarities must be acknowledged as part of the philosophic “trial” of Socrates (Friedländer 1964, p. III.237); others argue that Plato himself is in doubt (Campbell 1867, p. li); yet others deny that the Stranger “disvalues” this sort of sophistry, though they acknowledge that it is a sort of sophistry that needs to be superseded, perhaps by by the positive method of the latter Plato (Cornford 1935; Dorter 1994, pp. 131-134; Heidegger 1997/1924-2, p. 263; Kerferd 1954), pp. 85-97); some see here a kind of (ambiguous) indictment of Socrates (Benardete 1984, p. II.99; Howland 1998, pp. 203-206; Notomi 1999, section 2.3, pp. 64-68); finally others see here an association between Socrates and sophistry, but think that this implies that sophistry is necessary and universal, and so see no real "indictment" of Socrates (Wolff 1991, esp. p. 51). The very variety of scholarly reactions to the question testifies to the ambiguity of the passage and the stakes of the issue: scholars feel compelled to take sides on the matter, to decide whether Socrates should be indicted as a sophist or not, and if not, why not.

If Socrates appears as a sophist, it should be noted that the Eleatic Stranger does not escape suspicion either (Lassègue 1991, in a weak sense; Scodel 1987; Tejera 1999, chapters 10 and 11). As Notomi (1999, p. 72) notes, it is only Theodorus “who introduced and regarded him as a philosopher;” and certain features of the definitions of the sophist (primarily the second, the itinerant merchant of learning, and the last, the human producer of distorted images of wisdom [such as the Statesman’s myth] in an intelligible medium, ironically, in private with short speeches that can produce contradiction) seem applicable to the Stranger even more than to Socrates. One could also add that at one point the Stranger does imitate a sophist fairly explicitly (239e1-240c3), a passage commented on by Campbell (1867, p. xxii): “The Eleatic Stranger is like the Sophist he describes, whose “sense is shut” to everything but the dry light of reason.”

This confusion of appearances is simply a restatement of the problem posed by Socrates at the very beginning of the dialogue (216c-d): the philosopher sometimes appears as a statesman, sometimes as a sophist, sometimes as a madman, and are therefore hard to make out clearly. Plato seems to leave it as an exercise for the reader to distinguish Socrates from the sophist or else to indict him and find a new philosophical path; we are invited to take sides. It is never absolutely clear whether Socrates is a sophist; at any rate, he is perilously similar to the sophist, like a dog to a wolf, and pinpointing the essential difference is not easy from a distance.

In order to see the difference between them we have to understand images - what they are and how they work; and so the dialogue moves on to a thorough consideration of images. More on images this week...

Socrates' awe and the Stranger's awe

I earlier posted about the Stranger's αἰδώς (shame or awe) on responding to Socrates' request that he use a vaguely "Socratic" approach to the conversation, with short exchanges rather than long speeches. It is worth noting also that the Stranger’s αἰδώς mirrors Socrates’ own remembered αἰδώς at encountering Parmenides as a young man (Theaetetus 183e6), an encounter that Socrates just recalled (217c5-7).

There, Socrates showed himself as an overconfident young with much to learn yet from a more experienced philosopher. As we learn from the Parmenides (127eff), Socrates thought he could easily refute Zeno's paradoxical arguments about the many and the one by introducing a version of the theory of forms. But the aged Parmenides himself refutes Socrates' arguments, leaving him at a loss. It is this that seems to be the source of Socrates' reverence or awe; not Parmenides' age by itself, but the fact that Parmenides showed him the difficulties with his own position.

Now, the Stranger must have heard of Socrates’ fearsome powers of refutation before meeting him; otherwise his αἰδώς could only be explained as the conventional shame of a younger man upon meeting an older man. This is a possibility, since Theodorus describes him as merely a companion of those around Parmenides and Zeno, not as a companion of Parmenides himself; the Stranger may never have met Parmenides, if we take Theodorus literally. But we are never told that the Stranger is a young man.

At any rate, Socrates appears to the Stranger as a figure inspiring reverence and shame, not someone to be trifled with lightly, especially not by giving oneself airs and putting on exhibitions; we might say that Socrates is to the Stranger as Parmenides was to Socrates. But just as Socrates did not simply bow down before Parmenides’ wisdom (even if he was rendered uncharacteristically at a loss), we should not expect the Stranger do so before Socrates. His very presence is a challenge to Socrates. And yet he seems ashamed of his possible challenge: if he is there to pass judgment on Socrates’ philosophical practice, the presence of a silent Socrates observing him also constitutes a test of the Stranger’s own philosophical activity, including his political thought.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Socrates' trial and the Eleatic Stranger

The Sophist and the Statesman seem to present themselves as a kind of philosophical trial of Socrates (see Cropsey 1995; Friedländer 1964, chapters III.26 and 27; Howland 1998; Miller Jr. 1980; Voegelin 1987/1956, chapter III.4). Plato placed both dialogues in continuity with the Theaetetus, which ends (210d2-4) when Socrates must go to the King-Archon in order to answer Meletus' indictment, and, though they do not overtly remind us of this fact, they do explicitly refer to the agreement to meet again with which Socrates concluded the conversation, and allude to the issues of the trial (cf. Statesman 299b2ff). We thus seem to be justified in suspecting that the dialogues represent a certain evaluation, if not necessarily an indictment, of Socrates' philosophic practice, though the verdict, if any, is not quite evident.

This point has been denied, even by people who take seriously the dramatic character of the dialogues. Blondell (2002, pp. 386-389), for example, argues that Plato doesn’t sufficiently indicate dramatically the connection to the trial to make it the central issue, an argument all the more curious given that her general views -she claims that the introduction of the Eleatic Stranger is Plato’s way of “silencing” Socrates- actually lend themselves to a trial-focused interpretation. Lane (1998, p. 154 note 37) instead suggests that the allusion to Socrates’ trial at Statesman 299b2-e10 is flawed, though she does not suggest that it is not an allusion to Socrates. Regardless of the merits of these arguments, the allusion to Socrates' trial invites the reader to think of the Eleatic Stranger as Socrates' potential judge, a rival in the practice of philosophy in comparison with whom Socrates may (or may not) be found wanting.

There are at least two ways in which the allusions to the trial of Socrates could matter, however. We could consider the Stranger to be fundamentally friendly to Socrates, a judge who will exonerate him where the Athenian people did not; or we could consider him a rival to Socrates, someone who will (wholly or in part) convict him for being a bad citizen, a bad philosopher, or both, and thus someone whom we – the readers – will need to correct if we believe the Socratic project to be fundamentally correct (cf. Howland 1998; Scodel 1987; Zuckert 2000).

Our view of the “philosophic” trial – and thus of who is properly a philosopher in the Platonic universe – will be significantly altered depending on whether we locate the main tension of the dialogue between Socrates and the Stranger or between philosophers (like Socrates and the Stranger) and non-philosophic others, including the mathematicians Theodorus and Theatetus.

I take it that Plato presents a substantive (though not personal) tension between Socrates and Theodorus and Theaetetus, who represent certain mathematical forms of thought (cf. Miller 1980, pp. 3-10). Despite their warm treatment of Socrates, they do not seem clearly convinced that he is not a vulgar sophist. For example, Theaetetus seems to agree that Socrates (or somebody who is much like Socrates) is a sophist at Sophist 231a4-5, even though he seems unaware of the consequences of his agreement; and Theodorus at various points seems to suggest that Socrates is not measured enough to be a philosopher (Theaetetus 169a6-b4, Sophist 216b7-c1). Theodorus in particular, like the Athenian demos, does not seem to understand the Socratic project of refutation as philosophical.

If the main tension in these dialogues is between the Eleatic and Socrates on the one hand and Theodorus and the mathematicians on the other, then the Eleatic dialogues can be read in part as meditations on the limits of mathematical knowledge, as we shall see.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Stranger's Shame and the dialogic character of the Sophist

The typical view of the dramatic character of the "late" dialogues of Plato (like the Sophist) is that they don't have any. The dialogue is a cumbersome apparatus for presenting dogmatic material. The Eleatic Stranger is supposed to be merely reciting a Platonic doctrine, and Plato's presentation of it in the form of a dialogue is merely a matter of inertia.

Yet consider the small exchange at 217d8-e3. The Stranger, on hearing Socrates’ veiled request that he proceed by means of short exchanges in his investigation, he says that he would be ashamed (αἰδώς τίς μ᾽ ἔχει) to put on an exhibition (ἐπίδειξιν ποιούμενον; like a sophist, cf. Protagoras 320c3), either by himself or with another. He understands that, if he wants Socrates’ approval, he must distinguish himself from the sophists through his pedagogical success and his concern for truth; he must treat the exchange as a real exchange, not simply an opportunity to “show off;” in short, he must prove himself a philosopher.

We are clearly warned in this exchange that however docile young Theaetetus and Socrates may at times appear to be in the conversation that follows, the dialogue is never merely “for show,” and their responses will contain important clues about the effectiveness of the Stranger’s practice of philosophy, contrary to the superficial impression of dramatic inertness which still retains its hold in scholarly interpretations of the Eleatic dialogues (cf. Frede 1996).

To be sure, one may still argued that the drama of the dialogue, in spite of this warning, still remains a cumbersome facade. After all, the Stranger, in his earlier conversation with Theodorus and the boys (Sophist 217b5-9; this happens “off camera,” so to speak, before the meeting with Socrates) is reported by Theodorus to “remember well” what he heard about sophist, statesman, and philosopher from the Eleatics, and to be willing to repeat it. But this need not imply that he is about to merely recite it mechanically, pace Zuckert (2000 p. 70); this would be, after all, an ἐπίδειξιν, an exhibition. Remembrance, at any rate, will play an important role later on in the Statesman; it designates the human relation to the divine in the myth. The Stranger’s good remembrance has to be proven in his treatment of Theaetetus and young Socrates - in his ability to help them remember what is already in them.

Missing dialogues

It is an interesting factoid that Plato appears to have written two "incomplete" trilogies: the Timaeus, Critias, and "Hermocrates" trilogy and the Sophist, Statesman and "Philosopher" trilogies. In both cases the trilogy is announced in the first dialogue of the series - the Timaeus appears to promise a Hermocrates, and the Sophist a Philosopher (a promise reiterated in the Statesman). In both cases a "third" dialogue also appears as a sort of prequel to the incomplete trilogy - the Republic in the Timaeus-Critias-Hermocrates sequence and the Theaetetus in the Sophist, Statesman, Philosopher sequence. In both cases, the prequel does not belong to the "announced" trilogy, though it frames it or motivates it in important ways. (See the post below). What are we to make of this? What are the odds of Plato starting two sequences of dialogues with this structure, and leaving both incomplete?

The question has generated a fair amount of idle speculation. Older mainstream scholars mostly waved it away, often simply asserting that Plato must have planned to write them but for whatever reason did not. Typical in this respect is Campbell (1867, p. iv; cool link to the entire text of Campbell's book, which is out of copyright!), who thought that Plato abandoned the project after he realized that it was not possible “in the infancy of science.” Similarly Owen (1953, p. 81 - JSTOR link), who, in the course of his argument for dating the Timaeus earlier than the so-called “critical” dialogues, argued that “the Timaeus and its sequel or sequels were designed as the crowning work not of the latest dialogues but of the Republic group. The project was abandoned from dissatisfaction with certain basic theories, and in the first works of the critical group Plato dropped the confident didacticism of the Timaeus to make a fresh start on problems still unsolved.” (Owen does not – and on his own terms, cannot – account for the missing Philosopher in the same way). This is sort of the "null hypothesis" in thinking about the missing dialogues: it attributes the reasons for the incompleteness of the trilogies to external factors, such as Plato's loss of interest in them.

Later, more drama-aware (or should we say “dramatically aware”?) scholarship has often moved away from these purely “external” explanations and has sometimes sought to find both dialogues (but in particular the Philosopher) somehow “within” their respective series, or, as Voegelin (1987/1956, p. III.142), puts it, “as part of the internal meaning of the dialogues;” already Heidegger (1997/1924-25, p. 169 [246 in vol. 19 of the Gesamtausgabe]), ridiculed those scholars who persisted in thinking that Plato really intended to write a dialogue called the Philosopher, as if he were “a grade-school teacher ... bent on composing a trilogy” Heidegger thought the Philosopher was to be found in the Sophist; more typically commentators have suggested that the Philosopher is to be found in both the Sophist and the Statesman.

The Timaeus-Critias-Hermocrates sequence is a harder case than the Sophist, Statesman, Philosopher sequence, since the Critias really does look unfinished, stopping in the middle of a sentence. Ausland (2000 pp. 194-198 - JSTOR link), and Voegelin (1987/1956, pp. III.183-184 and chapter III.5 more generally) both argue for the thesis that it was Plato's intention not to complete the dialogue: what Zeus was about to say at the end of the Critias has in a way already been said. More recently Nesselrath (2006) has apparently argued the contrary position (I have not read the work).

The arguments for the "internal" completeness of the sequences depend, by contrast with the "null hypothesis" on internal reasons - about the coherence of the texts. But might one not add a probabilistic reason? What are the odds, really, of Plato embarking on two unsuccessful bouts of trilogy-construction, in both cases with a fairly similar structure? It's not as if there is external evidence for the view that Plato abandoned both projects. I suppose that in both cases one could argue that the Philosopher and the Hermocrates simply were too hard - but their hardness could not have escaped Plato. Perhaps one should rather take the incompleteness of the sequences as evidence of the unsayability of philosophy or of the best regime in motion? But why couldn't it be evidence of a Platonic purpose to create "exercises for the reader"?

If we accept the incompleteness of the sequences as challenges for the reader rather than as evidence of Plato's lack of interest or inability to complete them, lots of things become clearer. For example, it is clear that the philosopher is to be sought in the difference between sophist and statesman: philosophical practice being in-between these two.

The Theaetetus and the Eleatic Dialogues

Are the Theaetetus and the Eleatic dialogues of Plato (the Sophist and the Statesman) dramatically connected?

The usual answer is yes - they are clearly connected. After all, the conversation depicted in the Sophist takes place the day after the conversation depicted in the Theaetetus (Soph. 216a), with the same characters (except for the addition of the Eleatic Stranger). Yet at the end of the Theaetetus Socrates simply says “let us meet tomorrow here again” (210d4). The book from which Eukleides’ slave has read the dialogue (143c8) apparently does not record Theodorus’ answer. In other words, we only learn that Theodorus has accepted Socrates’ invitation once we “step out” of the framing dialogue; the conversation we are about to hear was not vouchsafed to Eukleides by Socrates (142c5-143a5), for unknown reasons.

This seems to suggest that the Sophist was not intended by Plato to be too closely tied to the Theaetetus. On these grounds Lane (1998, p. 7), argues for a looser connection between the Theaetetus and the other dialogues of the “trilogy;” and Klein (1977, p. 75), is led by this difficulty, in my view wrongly, to rely on dubious ancient reports of a different prologue to the dialogue and so discards the prologue that has come down to us for the sake of preserving the tight connection between the dialogues.

But it seems to me that Friedländer (1964, p. III.224), has it right when he argues that regardless of when exactly Plato wrote the Theaetetus and the Sophist, and whether he thought he would write a sequel to the Theaetetus when he wrote it, he chose to place it in obvious connection with the problematic of the Theaetetus, and thus with the problematic of knowledge discussed there. The three dialogues are indeed tightly connected, despite their methodological differences (pace Annas and Waterfield 1995, p. 1, note 1). Without assuming a tight connection between the Theaetetus and the two “Eleatic” dialogues the presence of a silent young Socrates in the Theaetetus (cf. toutoi 147d1-2 implying actual presence) makes little sense, since the character could have been absent from the Theaetetus without prejudice to the argument and introduced, along with the Stranger, in the Sophist.

If we assume that the Theaetetus and the Sophist are indeed tightly connected, then we must look at the latter (and at the Statesman) as in part centrally concerned with the question of knowledge.