Context-Dependent Discretion, Mood-Reading, Personal Charisma: Talking to Tae-Yeoun Keum

In what ways can a crowd encircling some intensive person-to-person exchange in fact prove philosophically, pedagogically, even artistically constructive for all involved? In what dramatic murmurings of the mob might Plato detect (or depict) prospects less for tyrannical impulsive action than for measured democratic persuasion, deliberation, conversation? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Tae-Yeoun Keum. This present talk focuses on recent and forthcoming publications from Keum, a junior research fellow at Christ Church, Oxford. Keum studies political myth, and is working on a book about the legacy of Plato’s myths in political thought.


ANDY FITCH: Let’s say you and I stumbled into a minor (yet quickly exposing) argumentative skirmish on social media, with an increasing crowd of friends and anonymous bystanders chiming in or at least observing. Or let’s say you and I decided (as we in fact have) to engage in a focused dialogue about your work, a dialogue we ultimately will publish with the Los Angeles Review of Books, and thus make available to broader audiences. As our exchange bounces back and forth amid variously intimate and more public registers, how might affective, philosophical, pedagogical dynamics at play within such a rhetorical vector begin to trace what “Why Did Socrates Conduct His Dialogues Before an Audience?” describes as “ongoing democratic discourse on both the troubling and…redemptive properties of collectives,” stretching back at least 2400 years? How, for instance, do Platonic depictions of Socrates’s personalized conversations within public spaces, of the Socratic method’s characteristic enactment of elenchus before a crowd, begin to raise, represent, and productively direct such tensions towards prosocial ends? How have preceding theorists’ emphases upon explicit (often quite cranky) statements extracted from Plato’s Socrates (even from Gorgias, a dialogue you select as exemplary for productive public exchange, I myself recall: “I’m not one of the politicians… The majority I disregard… I don’t even discuss things with the majority”) hindered our chances for learning from Socrates how most constructively to engage the crowd without “crowd-pleasing,” how “to harness the group’s constructive potential in the formation of a temporary community around a joint philosophical inquiry”? What advice might Socrates have, not necessarily for how we should resolve our hypothetical social-media spat, but for how we could use it to coax a more expansive range of participants towards both self-scrutinizing and civic-minded reflective/discursive practice?

TAE-YEOUN KEUM: I believe that Socrates conducted his dialogues with individual interlocutors before informal audiences, in public and semi-public spaces, because he wanted philosophical discussion to comprise a very particular kind of experience, and was trying to engineer that. When done well, a philosophical investigation with Socrates would configure some complementary combination of a one-on-one conversation’s intimacy and focus, and a group discussion’s sense of intellectual community.

So at least in that sense, an imagined digital equivalent might in fact look a lot more like a social-media skirmish, where other people can jump in and add to a developing comment thread, and less like an LARB dialogue you read after it gets published.

Now, that might not exactly sound like the paragon of philosophic practice, but we could set some important limitations to this model if we want it to resemble a Socratic investigation. The discussion may digress in many ways, but shouldn’t become a free-for-all. It should continue to investigate one central issue of philosophical import. Its default format should take the form of a question-and-answer exchange between Socrates and an individual interlocutor, with only one person on the “hot seat” at a time.

So maybe we might imagine a back-and forth comment exchange unfolding on the interlocutor’s Facebook timeline (since Socrates often stumbles into his interlocutors on their home turf), but with that back-and-forth running improbably long, many comment-volleys deep. And then one of the interlocutor’s friends might jump in halfway through to bring up some points the interlocutor might have missed. But then that friend might likewise get caught up in a long back-and-forth with Socrates, often finding himself cornered and only able to give yes-or-no answers.

And while people often get rude in the Socratic dialogues, this can come with social consequences, to the extent that an observing audience has grown invested in the ongoing philosophical investigation. So we can imagine our hypothetical Facebook dialogue showing up on the feeds of Socrates’s and the interlocutor’s 68 mutual Friends from college who all “liked” the original post, so the interlocutor probably doesn’t want to come off looking like a total jerk.

Notably, the audience can make collective noises of excitement even if individuals in that group do not actually say anything to contribute to the discussion. (This might crudely correspond to what Facebook’s emotive “reactions” do, in addition to “likes,” though our hypothetical Facebook skirmish probably should include a “dislike” reaction.) The audience also might make it difficult for belligerent interlocutors to drop off. For example, in the Republic, Thrasymachus tries to leave after delivering a big final rant, but the audience physically restrains him, and he ends up quietly watching the rest of the discussion play out between Socrates and two other interlocutors. So even if an interlocutor has run out of arguments, or the mental energy to keep up with Socrates, the setup of the discussion allows him to remain engaged as an audience member. He can still learn from the ongoing discussion, and he can also, at least in theory, come back again later as the primary interlocutor. (Here I’m straining to imagine a social-media equivalent, which might involve the Friends and Friends-of-Friends somehow reaching through the screen and preventing this interlocutor from logging off prematurely in frustration or anger.)

As to the question about how previous scholarship has responded to Socrates’s treatment of the crowd: it’s not that other scholars haven’t noticed the presence of these anonymous bystanders in some dialogues, but I don’t think they have quite drawn out the ramifications of this aspect of Socrates’s practice, so I try to do that in my article.

To the extent that Socrates constantly grapples with the question of what philosophy (this new discipline he wants to get going) will look like in practice, he starts engaging in a kind of public philosophy. He does occasionally make remarks, like those you point to in the Gorgias, that seem to dismiss such group dynamics in order to focus on what the individual interlocutor thinks. But we should place such remarks within their proper context: if Socrates did want to hold a private conversation with the individual interlocutor, he could have done that, but he instead chooses to conduct these examinations of individuals before groups.

With that broader picture in mind, we can see that Socrates endeavors to make sure this is a very special experience. The experience of practicing philosophy with Socrates, ideally, is one in which both the interlocutors and audience can feel part of a meaningful collective endeavor — they are trying to figure something out together!

We might have exhausted the usefulness of the present-day social-media analogy here, because the task that Socrates sets himself in such encounters is really more of an art than an exact science. It takes a great deal of context-dependent discretion, mood-reading, personal charisma (factors we can’t quite capture in our present digital platforms) in order to navigate that tension between discursive modes opened up by the shifting interlocutor and audience roles. (There also may be practical constraints on how big and diverse Socrates’s audience could be.)

I do want to register, though, that if social media does open any utopian possibilities for public discourse, we might find very rough antecedents for some of those ideals in Socrates’s efforts to make philosophy a public rather than a private practice. Socrates might have been attracted to the egalitarian dynamic of an atmosphere where any audience member can jump in if he has something on point to contribute, or to the ways in which audience members might occasionally come together to police interlocutors who fail to move the investigation forward. Socrates also might have wanted his brand of philosophy to reach more people.

But at the same time Socrates, and especially Plato, were very concerned about the attendant dangers to some of these potential benefits — anticipating some of our own worries about mob mentality and its manifestations on the Internet. That tension is very much present in how Plato portrays Socrates’s dealings with the crowd: as a risky and delicate enterprise that could be tremendously effective if Socrates gets it right, but which also could go very wrong if he doesn’t.

In particular, Plato seems to suggest a vision of what getting it right might look like. This entails, I believe, creating an atmosphere where both audience and interlocutor-on-the-spot recognize their roles as continuous and complementary. This means that, even at moments when Socratic examination makes someone feel confused and stupid, the interlocutor can feel “with” rather than “against” the group. He doesn’t have to get self-conscious about looking bad before others — and the group, in turn, declines to take pleasure in watching Socrates one-up his interlocutor. Granted, Socrates’s encounters still often fall into both these dangers, and Plato wants us to notice that. All the same, Plato also invites us to see Socrates trying to overcome the risks one has to grapple with when making the audience a part of your practice, and striving for something more ambitious than a one-on-one interview with a single interlocutor.

Your article describes quite well these shifting intersubjective dynamics by which Socrates’s peculiar form of personal/public engagement triangulates its intended audience, prompting both active interlocutors and seemingly passive observers to consider themselves an interchangeable cast of participants undergoing (imminent and/or vicarious) examination of their most closely held (if potentially unexamined) beliefs and values. And here I wonder if we also could address a parallel mode of triangulation at play, a means by which the ever-triangulating and ever-triangulated reader (never as solitary, sedentary, or stable as unreflective models of the reading subject might suggest — but instead perpetually intuiting, enacting, undergoing “Plato’s” dialogic scene, even while projecting, articulating, affirming, rejecting such a scene’s more generalizable implications) might come to recognize her own animating pluralities reflected within the polyvocal text that Plato provides. Plato’s tripartite conception of the soul in fact makes it easy to visualize such a pluralized reading subject, as does the lived experience of, say, sensing one’s own appetitive and spirited sides savoring the anticipation of Socrates roasting his latest rival (at least until one’s “quiet voice of reason” begins to regulate oneself away from uglier aspects of typical crowd behavior). Or when you linger eloquently upon Plato’s depiction of the crowd making a “commotion,” I sense a concrete, choral manifestation of our own confused, unsettled, internal echo-chamber when many Platonic dialogues abruptly end on an aporia. Or most broadly, Plato’s dialogic methods confound any default conception of how we might map the temporal trajectory of a productive reading experience (I was ignorant; I read; I learned), instead offering a potentially cacophonic, potentially harmonious simultaneity. In order to gain the most philosophical vantage, Plato’s triangulated reader/thinker, like the Gorgias’s triangulated speaker/bystander, persistently must tack between placing herself within the fraught and contested conversational center, and resuming a more all-circumferencing stance along the periphery. So again, how might this readerly training in a kaleidoscopic perspectivism help both to direct our own personal teeming subjectivity towards coherent social engagement, and to build broader political collectivities on the model of a properly coordinated elenchic subject?

You’ve singled out the moment in the Gorgias from which this whole project grew. The first time I read this dialogue (under the supervision of Melissa Lane, actually), I was struck by the moment when anonymous bystanders, who had been witnessing Socrates’s dialogue with Gorgias the entire time, suddenly erupt into a commotion. Moments like this can remind us of something well-established in scholarship focused on Plato’s literary accomplishment: Plato doesn’t give us philosophical treatises written out in syllogisms, or even in dialogues (at least not the kind you find in innumerable philosophical dialogues written after Plato’s model, where an intellectual exploration of a topic unfolds in a conversation between two allegorical figures, without much scene-setting or character development). Plato instead writes dramas of great literary complexity, which have a rather different effect on readers than might a treatise or a bare-bones, purely functional philosophical dialogue.

I agree with you that Plato likely thinks of his reader in the same psychological terms with which he characterizes cities and souls alike: multitudinous, containing many voices and passions and impulses pulling in different directions. Accordingly, Plato writes complex dramas in which the reader gets to hear out various interlocutors (all with their own diverse positions and personalities), and even to catch a glimpse of the wider range of emotions running through the overall scene (as in that moment when the crowd makes a commotion). Here Plato seems to work from the premise that, when you’re trying to present a set of ideas, you might do so more effectively by acknowledging the diversity of possible inchoate responses lurking within your reader. Just bulldozing through an argument, on the other hand, risks suppressing the reader’s internal doubts and multiple considerations, instead of taming these and bringing them together. So in the broadest strokes, I read Plato’s decision to include those details about Socrates’s audiences as part of the same literary ambitions that drove him to write dramatic works of philosophy in the first place.

Then as to the question of what these occasional references to the audience specifically do to a reader’s experience, I have two provisional responses. First, they give more texture to the reader’s experience, and they provide a somewhat better sense (however vicarious) of what it’s like to participate in one of these Socratic investigations. That’s not just a point about supplying readers with the most realistic proxy of an experience that the author can muster. When Plato includes such cues (like the indescribable noises an audience makes, or the eagerness with which some of its members interject themselves into the discussion) he reminds his readers that there are certain untranslatable elements of the experience one can get only by being there. It’s the reader’s job to be aware of the limitations of Plato’s account, and to fill in these gaps.

Second, Plato shows Socrates struggling with a complicated entity when he incorporates an audience into his investigations. I think Plato means for us, his readers, to see that struggle, and to pose ourselves the question of whether Socrates succeeds in his attempt.

Well since your article speaks so incisively about the twinned dangers facing elenchic interlocutors/witnesses (of paranoid/prudish reticence, and of passively entertained complacency), I wonder whether you consider Socrates himself susceptible to these same threats. Here again the interchangeability of roles within the elenchic scene seems crucial. As one witnesses (or perhaps calls forth) this ever-shifting choral form of address (with, say, a leader only appearing occasionally, provisionally, amid the multitude’s unceasing reformulations of singularity/collectivity), one can come to enact (both socially and within our own pluralized reading selves) Socrates’s articulation of an exemplary dialectical practice: “It’s not you I’m after, it’s our discussion, to have it proceed in such a way as to make the thing we’re talking about most clear to us…And what kind of man am I… one who…wouldn’t be any less pleased to be refuted than to refute.” But here the concrete specifics of Socrates’s actual dialogic practice within the Gorgias do start to trip me up. Socrates in fact shifts from cutting off any questions directed at him; to pointing towards the lack of tact, sequential logic, seriousness, sophistication that such questions betray; to half-jokingly taking on both interlocutive roles himself, so that all others present can just sit back and watch how real conversation happens. Along the way, at least in my reading experience, Socrates skirts Callicles’s powerful critique of the infantalized intellectual unable to direct academic prowess towards constructive social engagement (with Socrates instead often indulging in just the types of pedantic parsings Callicles predicted he would deploy). And of course we might, as you helpfully suggest, imagine the moment after a given dialogue concludes, when elenchic interlocutors merge back into the crowd, take a rest after sustained scrutiny, infuse this crowd with newfound self-reflective critical consciousness — but can we imagine Socrates likewise letting his guard down and commingling this way? Might a more comfortable embrace of mutual vulnerabilities have prompted a more positive outcome both for Socrates and for the crowds he faces? Or more broadly, what constructive potential might you find in a reader asking at the end of such scenes “Can’t dialogue do any better than this?” Do we, again as audience members, need to take a more active role here — recognizing that, just as a crowd shouldn’t project positive wisdom onto Socrates simply because he reveals his interlocutor’s logical inconsistencies, neither should we? Can Socrates likewise only play his most constructive elenchic part once we start posing back to him some such questions?

That’s really interesting. The so-called “Socratic dialogues” are Plato’s early and early-middle dialogues, in which we often find a navel-gazing preoccupation with Socrates’s method. Plato appears to eventually abandon this interest. In the later dialogues, Socrates is less often depicted cross-examining individual interlocutors in public and semi-public venues, until he himself starts fading into the background, or disappears entirely.

If we buy into that chronology, we might be tempted to read this trajectory as one in which Plato ultimately casts a negative judgment on the Socratic method. That’s a bit speculative, and I don’t want to suggest the explanation could be so simple or extreme. But I do think Plato wants readers to think critically about both the promise and the potential limitations of the Socratic method as a way of doing philosophy. And your suggestion (that Socrates doesn’t make himself vulnerable in the same way he requires of his interlocutors) echoes a recurring complaint made against him.

It seems that, in lending a voice to this particular kind of dissatisfaction, Plato does want us to register and sympathize with it, and in turn think more critically about Socrates’s method. In fact, these particular frustrations accompanying a Socrates who doesn’t make himself available to cross-examination might remind readers of the criticisms of writing in the Phaedrus, where Socrates describes writing as characteristically unaccountable, because it denies the option to pose follow-up questions to the text (and here with the added irony, of course, that this criticism of writing appears in a written dialogue).

At the same time, as you point out, my take on the Socratic method does suggest that Socrates struggles to transcend the terms in which we’ve been discussing his vulnerability, or lack thereof. He wants it not to matter which particular individual makes himself more vulnerable than another in a Socratic examination. Philosophy, for Socrates, is meant to comprise a humbling experience for everyone in the group. This adds a different gloss to Socrates’s remarks describing both his interlocutor and himself as lovers beholden to the objects of their love. Socrates presents these remarks playfully, but I don’t think they are merely facetious. At one level Socrates does want to say that this experience of falling helplessly in love with philosophy can leave you exposed and open, as might any interpersonal relationship.

To close then on finding personal agency amid public exchanges and exposure, could we pivot to your “Three Stories of Awakening in Plato’s Republic” piece-in-progress, and start to think through the place of testing (sometimes “testing” as comparative/quantitative ranking, sometimes “testing” as enabling/qualitative challenge) both in Platonic myth and in present real-life philosophical practice? Could you sketch the complex rhetorical interplay of these three stories, both within the Republic’s specific conversational scene, and within Kallipolis’s broader blueprint for lifelong (and even longer than that!) civic instruction? Could you begin to outline some latent implications lurking within this three-part progression (amid the Republic’s meta-textual education of its dialogic interlocutors, its hypothetical citizens, its interloping audience): from the Myth of Metals (designed to naturalize, as if through dream or collective delusion, modes of social differentiation inscribed by early educational testing); to the Allegory of the Cave (providing more imaginative/aspirational space for an audience to project itself into this potentially empowering scene); and then back to more normative, prescriptive myth-making with Er’s narrative (though here a myth perhaps calling into question possibilities for any educational experience, for any dialogue in which we participate, for any text we read to save us from constructing our own hells)? How might this overall sequence of three “waking-up stories” perhaps still, 2400 years later, deposit us afresh at the ever-provisional position that “there is no essential human nature as such, and that the durability of a philosophical nature depends more on the continual striving toward that ideal than in any possibility of its ultimate realization”? And where/how at present can/should/do philosophers live out such challenging propositions?

The article in question comes from a larger book project, provisionally titled “Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought.” The book argues that Plato wrote myths for philosophically constructive and salutary reasons, and shows how some of Plato’s most astute readers have picked up on this genre’s constructive potential.

We see Plato using myth in a particularly interesting way in this sequence from the Republic. My reading of these three myths basically grows out of a single literary observation: that Plato frames each myth using the same plot structure, in which a protagonist or protagonists who are initially underground, in some state of dreaming, travel aboveground to wake into a new reality.

Now, the Myth of Metals and the Allegory of the Cave appear at crucial transitional junctures in Plato’s description of Kallipolis’s educational curriculum. The citizens have been tested and sorted after a preliminary education in music and gymnastics, and again after a dialectical education. Plato deploys the waking-up plot in both myths to give an account of the transformative effect that these respective educational stages have on their subjects.

Given that the Myth of Er concluding the Republic also shares this waking-up plot, I argue that we can make that famously inscrutable myth a bit more intelligible by reading it together with the Myth of Metals and the Allegory of the Cave. On this reading, the Myth of Er is, like the preceding two myths, about processes of education and testing.

But the larger claim I want to explore is that Plato uses the medium of myth in a particular way. In each myth within this sequence, Plato defines individual nature as the qualities one possesses after undergoing a particular education. So the Myth of Metals tells Kallipolis’s citizens that they were dreaming the whole time they were being educated in music and gymnastics, and only now have truly been born into their gold, silver, iron, and bronze natures. In the Allegory of the Cave, the student of dialectic discovers that his true nature consists in that part of him most at home in the world of the Forms above.

Throughout this sequence, I see Plato using myth to rework a thick concept (the concept of individual nature) already embedded into the cultural landscape that we often take for granted. This maneuver reminds us first that we in fact rely on these thick frameworks to dictate ways we think about the natural order of things, about the way things simply are. And Plato’s preoccupation with the philosopher’s education tells us that not only the unphilosophical masses, but even philosophers depend on these thick concepts to orient their understanding of themselves. But second, Plato’s myths also tell us that these narratives grounding our worldviews have not been set in stone — that we can and should revisit them time and again.

And this pair of lessons can provide an important guide for philosophers, intellectuals, writers — people in a privileged place to articulate and to shape ideas. Their occupations require a kind of philosophical humility, which entails inhabiting a dual mindset from which to recognize both the necessity and the provisionality of the stories we take for granted about our world. Whenever I read the myths of the Republic, I find myself recalling a line from James Baldwin, about how “society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and…must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” We’d do well to remember this is a task built into the fabric of all intellectual inquiry.