Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New Book: A Stranger's Knowledge: Statesmanship, Philosophy, and Law in Plato's Statesman

Due to a vaguely superstitious reluctance to make an announcement until I had the final physical copies in my hands, I neglected to announce here the recent publication of my first bookA Stranger's Knowledge: Statesmanship, Philosophy, and Law in Plato's Statesman (Parmenides, Amazon). But I now have physical proof that the book is truly available!

(And it's reasonably priced, too, for an academic monograph). 

My interest in Plato's Statesman may seem odd to regular readers of this blog, given that it has morphed into a blog on dictatorships, cults of personality, democratization, and the like. But this blog first started (years ago) as a home for orphaned footnotes that were excised from the book's first draft (click on the archives around 2007 to find some of them; it has taken me a long time to get here). Plato also remains the most prominent, interesting, and challenging defender of the rule of knowledge against the rule of the people, so my turn to the study of nondemocracy is perhaps not so surprising; and the many years I spent working on my interpretation of this puzzling dialogue have continued to nourish my thoughts in unexpected ways (e.g., my series on epistemic arguments for conservatism).  

The dialogue, at any rate, is an exquisite puzzle, which is probably what attracted me to it in graduate school in the first place. A conversation between an unnamed "stranger" from Elea and a young and pliable mathematician named Socrates (not the Socrates of most of the dialogues, who witnesses the conversation but, aside from a short prologue, never says a word), the dialogue purports to be part of a trio of conversations set right before the famous trial of Socrates, each of them concerned with defining a different figure: the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher. But though the Sophist exists, the Philosopher dialogue does not exist (and it is likely that it was never intended to exist); instead, the Sophist is placed in fictional continuity with the Theaetetus, Plato's most important dialogue on knowledge. The conversation itself is delightfully weird. It is full of strange distinctions and odd conclusions (including an elaborate joke about human beings being "featherless bipeds" or "two-legged pigs," which was apparently fodder for ancient pranksters like Diogenes the Cynic), dead ends and mistakes that are extensively discussed and acknowledged within the conversation itself, a long and detailed digression on the art of weaving, and a complex myth about a great "cosmic reversal" of motion in which human beings are depicted as being born from the earth in old age and living their lives in reverse. All of this leads to an ambiguous defense of the rule of law as "second best" and a characterization of the genuine statesman as someone whose main concern is the timing of existential decisions for the polity as a whole, in apparent tension with Plato's classic discussion of the "philosopher king" in the Republic

The puzzle lies in trying to make sense of how all of these disparate elements (which draw explicit attention both to their ill-fittingness and their fittingness) fit together as a single pedagogical and theoretical exercise; and the book is my attempt to provide a solution to this puzzle that makes sense of the dialogue not merely as a methodological discussion (as most scholars argue) but as a work of political philosophy that is decisively concerned with the question of what "political knowledge" could even mean. I may say more about my answer to this question later (though, as with most Platonic dialogues, most of the fun lies in trying to understand the movement of the conversation rather than in the answers to which the conversation arrives); buy the book (or tell your friendly academic librarian to buy the book) to find out the full version.