An Ever-Expanding Repertoire of Concepts: Talking to Danielle Allen

By Andy Fitch

The conversation focuses on Danielle Allen’s Why Plato Wrote. A subsequent conversation will focus on Allen’s memoir Cuz. Allen, a James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought — focusing on questions of justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America. Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), and Education and Equality (2016). She co-edited Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


ANDY FITCH: Cursory consideration of your professional trajectory could lead to the conclusion that, over the past decade, you have left Plato behind. Yet an abiding interest in foundational/aspirational social-blueprint texts, a fierce concept-driven dialectical clarity in your education-policy pieces, a cogent call for civic equality centered amid the Socratic virtues of verbal empowerment and participatory readiness, provide just some of the more obvious counterexamples to that claim. Here, rather than probe any apparent dualities or divergences across your diversified professional engagements, I wonder if we might trace an isomorphic fulcrum by which even your most overtly philosophical and most overtly political endeavors serve to stimulate, regulate, and articulate each other. We also could address biographical details (whether, for instance, any particular lived experiences or lingered-upon textual passages have pushed you away from, or beyond, or back to Plato; whether you embraced a multipronged approach to philosophical/pedagogical/political life from the start). And since Why Plato Wrote presents such a compelling case for reading this purportedly aloof philosopher as self-consciously, persuasively, constructively engaged participant in Athenian political life, I kept wondering precisely how theorizing Plato’s thought-practice had cleared generative space for your own ever-widening intellectual/interventionist pursuits. So could we pause upon Why Plato Wrote’s frequent reference to the Republic’s “constitution painter,” who works away “with frequent glances back and forth…. toward what is in nature just, noble, self-disciplined…and then again toward what he is putting into mankind, mingling and blending institutions to produce the true human likeness based on…godlike form,” and discuss the canny philosophical self-fashioning by which you perhaps have launched your own broader career’s “mingling and blending institutions” project?

DANIELLE ALLEN: That all makes me want to say: “Thank you for understanding my work!” And yes, to start with, the biographical does matter a lot, as I try to spell out in my new book Cuz. In 1991, as a 19-year-old Southern California kid at Princeton, in a class on Athenian democracy, I asked my professor (Josh Ober, as it happens): “Didn’t the Athenians use imprisonment?” Why did I ask my professor that question? In part because I had grown up in Southern California in the 1980s, during the first phase of mass-incarceration’s rise. I didn’t yet have an analytical vocabulary to register what I was witnessing around me, but my sensorium already had registered the ever-increasing presence of prison in my society’s own imagination. As I read page after page of speeches from Athenian courtrooms, seeing scarcely any mention of prison surprised me. What is this, I thought, a society, and a democracy no less, without prisons? When I asked my question, Josh said: “That would make a great dissertation topic.” The rest, as they say, is history.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of judgment, as opposed to law, in Athenian politics. Then I went to grad school at Cambridge to pursue a project on Athenian punishment. In 1995, while I wrote this dissertation (which became my first book) about the politics of punishment in democratic Athens, my baby cousin Michael was arrested, his first arrest, for an attempted carjacking. Luckily, the only person Michael hurt was Michael. His victim wrestled Michael’s gun away and shot him. On the way to the hospital, Michael confessed he also had robbed several people over the previous week — an outbreak of violence that came out of nowhere, and for which we had seen no prior examples. Against the backdrop of California’s (then) new Three-Strikes-You’re-Out law, Michael was sentenced to 12 years and 8 months in prison. This was heartbreaking for my whole family. I could not work on ancient Athenian punishment without having the modern American case very much in mind. The introduction to my book, which came out in 2000, ultimately included some reflection on that Three-Strikes-You’re-Out law.

But one project leads inevitably to another. I was fascinated by how Plato had tried to transform the Athenian retributive penal system into a reformative system. As I came to see ever-more clearly, Plato’s powerful interventions occurred not only at the level of argument, but also of what I now would call prophetic symbol-work (think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cornel West). I followed this line of thinking in Why Plato Wrote.

So developing Why Plato Wrote definitely taught me something about how to do the work of a public intellectual. Though my project is not Plato’s. As I read Plato, I continue to consider him an anti-democrat, notwithstanding strong arguments to the contrary by esteemed scholars such as Sara Monoson and Jill Frank. I consider Plato as much a figure to argue against as to work alongside with regard to this issue of how we build normative frameworks to guide human life.

But I’ve learned a lot from Plato. As an analyst of human culture and its operations, Plato is, I believe, unrivalled even to this day. In my own current arguments that we need to rethink rehabilitative elements and to fold restorative approaches into our penal system, rather than focusing exclusively on deterrence, I am, I suppose, doing work analogous to Plato’s.

Along these lines, Why Plato Wrote’s prologue’s concluding pronouncement that “A full account of Plato’s theory of language and its usefulness for understanding the relationship between ideas and events, or discourse and structure, will have to wait” enticed me. No other “full account” could offer what I would more like to read. And yet, even after finishing Why Plato Wrote, I couldn’t fully tell whether that quoted statement had meant that you wouldn’t deliver such a full account within the prologue itself, or within the book as a whole — or whether, say, no such account seems possible at our current historical moment, or no such account ever could arrive amid the elastic yet experientially limited confines of a literary text. So here the waiting you prescribed pointed me in multiple directions. We could touch upon whom you think historically and/or at present best theorizes a porous threshold between abstract thought and consequential action. But it also seems crucial to tap your lived experience as an exemplary experimenter with how to make one’s progressive philosophical ideals as pragmatically efficacious as possible. For instance, could you describe, given your own impeccable academic training, how working with Illinois Humanities Council night-school students (perhaps equally smart, perhaps empowered by an even stronger self-reflective agency, yet presumably less educationally prepared than your current Harvard students) reshaped or further honed your pedagogical/rhetorical practice? What did your work within this specific intellectual community teach you about the imminent potential for galvanizing dialectical engagement in any number of chronically underestimated educational and discursive contexts? Or how has this Illinois Humanities Council experience, and how has the popular success of your subsequent Our Declaration book, modified your own answers to pressing questions again posed by Why Plato Wrote’s prologue, such as: “What are the processes by which intellectuals’ ideas come to shape a communities values? When non-philosophers adopt concepts from philosophers, getting them partly wrong and partly right, using and abusing them to particular strategic ends, how should we think about the degree of ‘influence’ on social events wielded by those philosophers and their concepts?” What constructive conclusions and outcomes might we draw from the ostensibly frightening (at least for philosophers) axiom that their ideas are never “transmitted whole (unchanged and unadapted) to their publics…there are myriad forms of slippage, misapprehensions, metonymic extension, and Freudian replacement, not to mention the constantly trailing shadow of the antitheses of the concepts under discussion”? Or if our own eudaemonic fulfillment depends upon the eudemonic fulfillment of those around us, if we recognize that “One can live a philosophic life regardless of the occupations in which one finds oneself,” if “Someone who chooses a philosophical life maximizes personal moderation for the sake of bringing the maximal degree of calm and order to her life, conditions necessary for the pursuit of wisdom,” could you offer your most concrete advice, based on your own lived practice, for how and where and why one might go pragmatically public (at whatever scale) while still pursuing this philosophical life?

First, in terms of Why Plato Wrote’s prologue: I was confessing up front that I did not intend to offer a full account, one that would have to draw on the full range of Plato’s dialogues, and dig more deeply into his psychology, anthropology, and linguistic theory. I think that book you describe remains to be written, and I too would love to read it. But I saw my job as simply mapping the terrain in one portion of the Platonic corpus.

This particular choice of terrain relates to your question about the intersections of my work inside and outside the academy. There have been moments in my career when I have put aside an obviously tantalizing scholarly question in order to move forward on a separate topic around which I felt there was more public urgency. In my own case, for example, the moment of completing Why Plato Wrote was also the moment of taking up the work on Our Declaration, which focuses on the concept of equality in our contemporary moral and political lives.

And to give just one brief example of what I learned teaching for the Illinois Humanities Council’s Odyssey Project, I had one student who seemed to make very little progress, week after week. Then suddenly she came in one day with an essay light years beyond where she had been. She never returned to her previous level, but thereafter performed continuously on this new, higher plane. I have no idea what suddenly made that leap possible. For all that Plato (and for that matter Aristotle) pretends to help us understand the workings of human psychology well enough to provide definite guides for education, I realized through this experience that full understanding of these mysteries of the human mind and spirit must inevitably escape us. This humbled me as a teacher and writer, and opened my mind to the notion that the category of “potential” has a much broader catchment area than most of us typically acknowledge.

I do think philosophy can happen anywhere anytime, whenever someone has gotten snagged on a conceptual confusion. Clearing up such forms of confusion is of course not enough to help people solve problems afflicting them individually, nor to help us all solve the problems afflicting us collectively. There is also always the problem of motivation. But I do believe conceptual clean-up work is necessary to make sure that we get the full benefits of action once someone is motivated to take action in relation to a relevant affliction.

Let me be less abstract: Cuz, again, tells the story of what happened as Michael went to prison at age 15, got out at 26, and was shot and killed at 29. His story reveals both personal and social afflictions. As I work through this story, I make the case that there is often little point drawing a binary between individual responsibility and social responsibility. People make decisions within the set of constraints presented to them, as the result of society’s choices — through its laws and the accretion of its aggregated social decisions. We each confront different degrees of difficulty on the path set before us. We each need to master that path, regardless of the degree of difficulty. We each can be held responsible when we don’t. But still we all need to recognize that the varying degree of difficulty presented to young people is not of their own making. Cuz draws on Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” poem to make the point that both Michael’s desires (fires) and society’s hate (ice) worked to do him in. I consider conceptual clarity about these imbrications of personal and social responsibility necessary to reforming our criminal-justice system, and to reforming it in the direction of justice. Cuz’s effort to clean up our thinking won’t get us to concrete reforms. Still, my hope is that this book will help, as motivation for reform builds, to provide conceptual tools to do better next time around, compared to how we have done over the last few decades.

But again, Cuz is sort of the culmination of a line of thought that started when I was 19, and also the culmination of a distinctive literary style developing ever since I showed up in Cambridge and insisted that, counter to normal practice, I needed not a single supervisor but a three-person dissertation committee, because I intended to make tragedy, philosophy, and history sing in relation to each other.

Well as one means of tracing this place of song throughout your work, I found Why Plato Wrote’s fleeting reference to that “constantly trailing shadow of the antitheses of the concepts under discussion” especially intriguing, and worth slowing down — in part because it redirects attention to philosophers’ oft-neglected temporal experience as plodding prose writers of a however neat and tidy (when later diagrammed, spatialized) conceptual schematics. I would love to dilate a bit upon how textually embedded temporal processes of, say, pacing, rhythm, polyphony, relational harmonics/discord might enhance and/or cloud the “surplus linguistic power” tracked through your meticulous reflections on spatial, conceptual, symbolic, and abstractly visual elements extracted from Platonic dialogues. And for one obvious point of focus, perhaps we could address the dense textualities at play whenever a tantalizing idea, anecdote, allegory gets offered by Socrates the character — and simultaneously, of course, by Plato the author. Early chapters in your book tend to follow the pattern of quoting extensively from Socratic statements as you make your main points, then, just before closing, taking a step back from Socrates’ dramatized gestures to reveal Plato’s hands yet again pulling the strings, but without dwelling upon how such decentralized, diffusive authorship contributes to Plato’s distinct types of linguistic surplus. More generally, Why Plato Wrote, like Socrates himself, might briefly point to rhythm’s (or later sound’s, or something like harmony’s) supreme power to stir the soul, but then quickly pivots back to preferred retinal terrain, to visual abstraction — even prescribing, for the philosopher committing to “rhyme with virtue,” the principle task of looking “closely at divine order and…‘molding’ his personality to that order.” And just to clarify here: I find no fault in Why Plato Wrote’s prioritization on spatial, visual, symbolic, conceptual aspects. I consider your powers in these domains unparalleled, and worth sharing. When you call Plato’s line analogy “the most exciting, stunning part of the Republic,” I recognize the presence of a clairvoyant reader who sees what I cannot see — the perceptual/reflective/philosophical equivalent perhaps of a supertaster’s supertaster. But since so much of your book succinctly tracks how Plato’s writing seeks to retune one’s sense of normative experience, seeks to shift one’s register of expectation, what particular values do you find in Plato placing all of his concept-generating (save for one aberrant public lecture) amid sites (or models, perhaps, in your own terminology) of overdetermined, interpersonal, affective relationality taking place in time? Or most basically, and for my own belated attempt at a clear conceptual delineation: Socrates’ statements describe certain mechanisms for producing linguistic surplus. Plato’s polyvalent arrangements of speakers’ statements enact certain others mechanisms for producing linguistic surplus. Taking into accounts the methodological parameters of your book, with its empirical means of tracing continuities in verbal usage across Athenian philosophical/political contexts, could you address any additional reasons why Why Plato Wrote disproportionately attends to the former linguistic mechanisms, presumably at the expense of the latter?

Why does Why Plato Wrote pay attention to the character of Socrates and his statements, a single thread in the tapestry of the dialogue, and not to the whole literary construction of the Republic? Let me do my best to answer. I did early reading in books by Chris Rocco and Ramona Nadaff, books which do powerful work rendering the intricacy and complexity of the weave of Plato’s dialogic texts. And over the course of my career I have advised and mentored an astonishing number of people who have written theses and books trying to account for the full polyvalent nature of Plato’s writing, for instance the brilliant theses by Kendall Sharp (Socrates and the Second Person: The Craft of Platonic Dialogue, 2006), Radcliffe Edmonds (A Path Neither Simple nor Single: The Use Of Myth in Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets, 1999), and more recently Tae-Yeoun Keumn (Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought, 2017). I have worked closely with colleagues, friends, and my husband on books about Plato. And I also think of Jill Frank’s forthcoming book Poetic Justice: Re-reading Plato’s Republic, and James Doyle’s unpublished but essentially complete book Saying and Showing in Plato’s Gorgias. In short, I have watched quite a number of people take a run at rendering an account of, as you call it, Plato’s remarkable art of “overdetermined, interpersonal, affective relationality taking place in time.” They all have produced remarkable books, but, ultimately, any analytical treatment of Plato’s dialogues necessarily flattens. When I went to the University of Chicago for a job interview in 1997, Jamie Redfield drove me to dinner after my talk. I asked him what he was working on. He told me he wished he were writing a book on Plato, but he wasn’t because doing so would take a lifetime. Instead he was writing a book on the Locrian Maidens.

I wrote the only book I could imagine writing on Plato, one that would not require me to give a lifetime to it. For me, the best way to capture the polyvalent nature of Plato is in the classroom, slow-reading, reading the Greek, around the table, sentence by sentence, each taking a sentence in turn so that, yes, as you say, you can register the overlapping effects of rhythm, sonic texture, argument, visual imagery, and conceptual symbolism — appreciating their temporalities and dynamism. Plato’s dialogues were, after all, intended to be read out loud, and they were read out loud. They are, in that regard, rather like orchestral scores and, as with orchestral scores, the best way in is simply to play them. Each of the fine books that I’ve mentioned above about Plato makes one a better player of the symphony, better equipped to see themes and harmonies as these come into and out of audibility throughout a dialogue.

Sure, when I ask for your thoughts on fluid temporal processes, in addition to spatialized ideational clarities, I do mean to foreground the reader’s experiential engagement alongside any intentional conceptual scheme on Plato’s part. Of course since a text like the Republic ostensibly calls for quite few citizens to pursue dialectal and/or political training, it might seem a stretch to suggest that, in fact, Plato’s dialogues implicitly prompt all readers to take up these very pursuits. But perhaps through rhythm’s seductive powers, I can’t help pivoting from your Why Plato Wrote title to Stanley Fish’s How Milton Works from several years prior, and recalling Fish’s depictions of Milton’s own textual profusions casting readers adrift amid swirling affective, cognitive, intertextual, carnal, moral, and mortal currents — a vector or vortex not unlike those provided (at least in certain Puritanical accounts) by everyday experience, with its ever-present threats to temptation, yet also its subtly discerned path of virtue apprehendable by the most attentive audiences. So I’ll perceive Plato as, analogically, through his dialogues, provoking all the teeming elements within our tripartite souls, perhaps channeling or coaxing or demanding us to discern among this multitude’s at times competing, at times overlapping (sometimes amplifying, sometimes muddling) calls. I’ll sense, even more than in Er’s explicit assertion on this point, Plato’s dialogical structures comprehensively demonstrating that, as a reading/thinking/political subject, “The choice makes you responsible. God is not responsible.” Choosing, we might say, can make your otherwise jostling, multitudinous soul a just one. No doubt numerous critics have probed Plato’s reader’s active role more cogently than I have, and Why Plato Wrote’s own interpretive dynamic incorporates many related propositions. But here I also wonder if you could offer some personal record or projective model of reader’s agency that might clarify all the further what makes Plato such a generative writer, particularly one with broad appeal (like yourself) to purportedly disparate philosophical, political, and literary communities. And if one very specific point of reference would help: when Socrates speaks, in your terms, of “making the invisible visible,” he offers the image of “rubbing dry sticks together” so that “we can get a spark from them” — with the rubbing sticks here being allegories of city and of soul. But I can’t help thinking of Socrates’ dialogic friction with his interlocutors also providing its own equivalent sparks. I can’t help picturing author and text, author and reader, text and reader as their own paired rubbing (sparking) sticks. Amid such pluralities, dualities, understatedly eroticized Platonic tropes, Why Plato Wrote eloquently summarizes Socrates’ transcendentally signifying interpretive mechanism, whereby, if Plato’s written texts “can help generate the relevant sorts of sparks…they can make concepts visible that both allow students to participate in the truth and facilitate their move forward toward dialectical engagement with the Forms themselves.” But what do you personally see, what do you personally do, when the lights go out and the “‘images’” dispel (or finally spark again) in Plato?

In many ways you echo the argument that Jill Frank makes in her forthcoming book, so I hope you’ll consider interviewing her next! And you’re tracking James Doyle’s arguments beautifully. And here you also really put me on the spot. The truth of the matter is that in Why Plato Wrote I do ultimately rather disregard the Plato speaking to each and every reader, engaging all readers who encounter him on their own philosophic and choice-making journeys. Instead my book concentrates on the specific journey Plato prepares for a certain class of technocrats, those who wish to compete with the poets, who wish to understand the power that language has in shaping culture. And again, this is only one topic that one can learn about from reading Plato’s dialogues. But if you want to learn those particular lessons, there’s a sense in which you have to disregard other lessons while you proceed, lest you be distracted. This does not mean you should permanently disregard those lessons, but that, for the sake of learning about this one particular thing, it is necessary to disregard others. Jill Frank emphasizes precisely these liberatory potentials that I put to the side in Why Plato Wrote. And I think it’s right that those liberatory potentials are there. And yes, you’re correct that that’s the sense in which the antitheses of the powerful symbols Plato creates are always trailing and lurking alongside his efforts to install his own language at the center of his compatriots’ moral imagination. Frank wants to argue that this makes Plato a democrat. I don’t think that’s true. I think Plato believes he can triumph over those liberatory potentials, that he displays them partly in order to perform his defeat of them. This is why, in my own work, I ultimately turn in an Aristotelian direction. I end up where Aristotle ends when he concludes the Rhetoric by saying: “I have spoken. You have heard. You understand. Now judge.” That’s how I too try to finish every book, and one purpose in doing so is always to hand the instruments of cultural creation (language and judgment) back over to my readers at the end of the process, so that they can take their turn.

So for me, the sparks, once lit, don’t go out. Instead I find that I have an ever-expanding repertoire of concepts that I can use to ask questions about human experience and possibility. I don’t think the sparks take me to the Forms, but I do think they take me toward conceptual structures that are sound enough to bring order to human life, and that consequently have power. Then, because of their power, these concepts must be judged and accepted, or rejected and replaced, and as I become a judge (rather than a reader), I liberate myself from Plato and take the tools he has given me, without taking the world he recommends, and I proceed to own my own place in the world and also to own my capacity to be a co-creator in the kingdom of culture — an experience into which I also always hope to invite every reader.

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