The Shape of the Dialogue as a Whole: Talking to Verity Harte

How might parsing (provisionally at least, or conceptually, or conversationally) body and soul, sensation and desire, help us to articulate as well as to enact some of the broadest philosophical engagements towards which Platonic dialogues point their readers? How might a sustained and meticulous sifting through Socrates’s supple delineations in the Philebus, for example, launch us into ever more expansive peer and public and pedagogical discussions and investigations? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Verity Harte. This present conversation focuses on Harte’s recent article “Desire, Memory and the Authority of Soul: Plato Philebus 35CD.” Harte is George A. Saden Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale University. She is the author of Plato on Parts and Wholes: the Metaphysics of Structure (2002), and of numerous articles on classical Greek philosophy. She is co-editor (with M.M. McCabe, Robert W. Sharples, and Anne Sheppard) of Aristotle and the Stoics Reading Plato (2010); (with Melissa Lane) of Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy (2013); and (with Raphael Woolf) of Rereading Ancient Philosophy: Old Chestnuts and Sacred Cows (2017).

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ANDY FITCH: Progressing through your meticulous argument clarified one problem that I likewise encounter trying to grasp intricate conceptual schemes as these unfold in Plato’s dialogues. I think I get snagged by not talking the preliminary steps lightly enough. So, for example (and here sticking just with the contents of “Desire, Memory, and the Authority of Soul,” much easier for me to track than Philebus’s diffusive exchange), I seem, in your first quotations from the dialogue, to absorb the supposition that the body does not suffer “‘thirst, hunger, or anything of this sort.’” I seem to encounter a binary distinction between desires experienced by the soul, and pleasures/pains experienced by the body (“‘And the soul was what desires conditions opposed to that of the body, whereas the body was what provided the pain or some kind of pleasure on account of the experience’”). Soon afterwards, however, I learn that Socrates did in fact present hunger and thirst as commonplace examples of pain (so now the soul can feel pain, though I had assigned pains to the body). And then, through the concept of “anticipatory pleasures,” I learn that the soul can experience pleasure (again a function which I reductively had assigned to body alone). By this stage, I can begin to grasp your point that the body hasn’t been excluded entirely from any role in desire, that bodies simply take on a secondary yet still necessary, conditional role. But by now I’m caught up in thinking of pleasure (even anticipatory pleasure) as a state of body, rather than of soul. And I don’t mention my compounded mental mishaps in order to request that you correct each of them, but simply to start to suggest the argumentative dislocations one undergoes absorbing this single dialogue Philebus — let alone the contradictions that arise between dialogues, say with Socrates reversing his assignment of body and soul functions in the Phaedo. Instead, I outline these swift dislocations since I would love to hear about your own long-term lived experience sifting through some of the most rarefied conceptual doctrines within the Platonic corpus. Among scholars I have interviewed, your professional work exemplifies the merits of close, thorough, often collaborative readings-through of Platonic texts as a sufficient (and enjoyable) end in itself. Could you describe, for instance, attending to this particular dialogue (one which elsewhere you have described as an “acquired taste, by and large the preserve of specialists”) for more than a decade of intensive scrutiny? Could you trace some interpretive pivots you have undergone along the way, and make the case for why such methodical exegesis remains crucial? Did Plato, 2400 years ago, present an insightful vantage on desire from which we still can learn (or why, precisely, ought we make the painstaking effort to try to grasp Plato’s thoughts on this matter)? Or how does one gauge whether/when Plato pursues a selected topic (say the statesman, in a seemingly related dialogue) less as investigative end in itself than as means by which to demonstrate an exemplary form of dialectical inquiry — with Socrates in Philebus, for instance, begging release at times from the “protracted discussion,” hoping he can make his case in general terms and not have to keep at it until midnight?

VERITY HARTE: First, Andy, I want to thank you for your close engagement with my work, and for the opportunity to answer your thoughtful and wide-ranging questions, especially since they come at my paper from a different perspective from the usual engagements I might have with colleagues or students in my field, with my work generally being written for a specialized audience (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy is a pretty specialized venue even within academic philosophy, let alone outside of this). I think the experience you describe, the back-and-forth stages of your encounter with this Philebus argument through my presentation of it, the assumptions you bring to it and the ones you pick up and discard as you read along, provide a really insightful window into what can be involved in reading a Platonic dialogue and, indeed, into one aspect of what I take to be the value in doing so.

I myself don’t think of reading Plato as a process of mining for 2400-year-old nuggets of truth and, although I think Plato was a brilliant philosopher and the author of some extremely powerful ideas, I don’t take the value of reading him to stand or fall on the truth of these ideas. To me, reading Plato is valuable because it is one way to do philosophy, or at least to do one of the things that counts as “doing philosophy.” Philosophers, even while advancing ideas and building or defending theories, always have an eye not only on how to construct or support the idea or theory (from the inside, as it were), but also an eye, from the outside, on what objections might be made to it, what assumptions it relies on and whether these could be rejected. More generally, philosophical ideas and theories inevitably sit within a broader constellation of ideas and theories, and typically prosper or wither according as they comport with these. The beauty of Plato’s philosophical writings (a beauty strengthened and encouraged by the dialogue form in which he typically writes) is that the process of trying to understand and articulate the question or problem being posed or addressed by a passage always requires an essentially philosophical project of articulating this broader space of ideas. To see what a passage may be getting at is always at the same time to consider what would be involved in articulating such a question or idea from the inside, what assumptions go along with it, what assumptions would constitute challenges to it.

At the same time, and since the constellation within which our own ideas sit is often scarcely visible to us, trying to figure out the shape of Plato’s ideas can bring into focus, sometimes by confrontation, these constellations of our own. This is in part because his writings have an interesting combination of familiarity and foreignness. For the past 2400 years, in many parts of the world, philosophers and others have been in pretty much constant engagement with at least some of Plato’s works, though that engagement has taken many different forms. In part for this reason, many readers find something immediately vivid and engaging in the questions that occupy Plato’s characters — and yet any serious engagement with the works of an author in fact both historically and culturally distant from ourselves is likely also to uncover a raft of diverse, even alien perspectives. Confronting this tension, and trying to enter into (while standing outside of) Plato’s perspective is itself part of the philosophical value of reading him.

In trying to make sense of the particular Philebus argument that my paper focuses on, this is one of the broader concerns that I had in view — in particular the way in which a long tradition (within and without philosophy) of ascribing a certain “specialness” to soul lends itself, as it seemed to me, to certain natural responses to this dialogue’s argument that, in the end, I claim to be mistaken. At the same time, articulating what I take to be the argument’s structure speaks to another recognizable and important role that soul has been called upon to play, in respect to agency — a role with roots in Plato’s predecessors and traces in his immediate descendants, though one that could easily get lost from these other perspectives. But while the paper gestures at these wider issues, its immediate purpose was mainly to try to make philosophical sense of the argument and claims of this very specific passage (where making philosophical sense is different from recommending acceptance of these claims), as a means to getting clearer myself (and perhaps helping others to do so, if only by sharpening their points of objection) on its role within the philosophical economy of the dialogue as a whole.

As you say, I have been living with and working on the Philebus for a (potentially embarrassingly) long time, though this work has moved in and out of my focus during that period. Because the dialogue’s overall structure is on first (and even many times later) reading unclear (and because, unlike many readers, I nevertheless do not consider the dialogue an exception to the rule that Plato’s dialogues are carefully crafted, philosophical, and dramatic unities), for a very long time my work was a matter of reading (and re-reading), often and helpfully in seminars with different groups of colleagues and/or students, and getting stuck on particular passages (such as the one that is this paper’s focus), and pulling at the threads of what puzzled me until I felt able to articulate its shape and a possible answer to it. But while I hope this and other papers I have written on the Philebus at intervals over the course of that long, slow process contribute to a scholarly conversation about the dialogue, I also think of them as evolutionary stages in arriving at some sense of (or, at least, a view about) the shape of the dialogue as a whole, which I am now at work on articulating in a study of larger scale.

Along these lines, I mentioned my temporal experience of absorbing your piece because the temporal experience within Platonic dialogues (both for characters often needing to recall and re-create in speech the ever-fleeting text of their exchange, and for readers often needing equivalent reminders as they assimilate a sequence of discursive parries) stands out as crucial in ways I wish I could articulate. So again for the Philebus (a dialogue which opens in fact by summarizing a conversation that immediately precedes its present-tense narrative scene), amid the partially overlapping, sometimes mutually exclusive, sometimes intertwining agencies and capacities of soul and body, amid descriptions of the soul reaching out to conditions beyond oneself, amid formulations of desire as a means by which the soul regulates the body and sets “as target the appropriate restorative pleasures, which pleasures are the means to restore our harmonious nature,” what philosophical role do you see the dialogue form itself (with the reader’s corresponding absorption amid a teeming, sometimes contradictory, sometimes cooperative array of presuppositions, embodied perspectives, logical and illogical arguments) playing? Or more particularly, if one seeks to parse the proto-Boolean logic of soul/body, desire/feeling, why might it make sense (for Plato and his characters, for Socrates and his interlocutors, for scholars in a summer seminar) to go about this in dialogic fashion? Or could we just consider one of countless innocuous-seeming conversational snags (or stitches) within the text:

SOCRATES: Indeed, there is not, nor could there be, any way that is finer than the one I have always admired, although it has often escaped me and left me behind, alone and helpless. 


PROTARCHUS: What is this way? Let us have it. 


SOCRATES: It is not very difficult to describe it, but extremely difficult to use. For everything in any field of art that has ever been discovered has come to light because of this. See what way I have in mind. 


PROTARCHUS: Please do tell us. 


SOCRATES: It is a gift of the gods to men… 


What do you make, here and elsewhere, of the constant prompting, cajoling, imploring that Plato’s characters perform upon each other and upon speech itself? Socrates might, on occasion, quite explicitly state “it is the deprivation that gives rise to the desire for replenishment, and while the expectation is pleasant, the deprivation itself is painful.” But what philosophical vantage might we gain, when adopting close-reading methodologies, by tracking or simply experiencing consistent micro-deprivation/-expectation/-satiety sequences of this very sort — as a representative affective trajectory for the entire dialogue?

There’s a lot in your question: the general issue of what to make of the dialogue form, but also what to make of characters’ patterns of recall within a conversation, especially within a long and elaborate dialogue such as the Philebus; what to make of the short and, as you say, apparently innocuous passage at Philebus 16bc that you cite; and then what to make of dialogue about Plato, as we’re having. Regarding the general issue, I don’t have anything particularly original to say about the dialogue form in Plato, about which many others have written. We know that the writing of philosophical dialogues wasn’t unique to Plato, but a genre common to a number of figures in Socrates’s circle. But Plato seems highly alive to the many possibilities of this form (his works display considerable variety) and, especially in longer, more elaborate works such as the Philebus, to the inherent possibilities of what Tigerstedt called the “double dialogue” involved in any Platonic work — both the dialogue between Socrates (usually) and his interlocutor(s), and the distinct dialogue that this fictional exchange creates between author and audience.

Coming of age, as I did, in the ancient-philosophy community in Cambridge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I absorbed, especially from my first undergraduate ancient-philosophy teacher, MM McCabe (later, to my great good fortune, also my colleague), and from my first graduate teacher, Myles Burnyeat, a sensitivity to the ways in which these two “dialogues” can come apart and can fruitfully interact with (reflect, refract, counteract, question) one another, ways that best come to light precisely through close reading, with attention to every detail and with an eye on philosophical questions. This way of reading challenged the idea that one could somehow separate the philosophical component of a Platonic work from its “literary” environs without significant loss — though its readings are not “literary readings,” which Plato’s readers sometimes purport to offer.

Of course the “proof” of any such reading strategy only can come from the reading itself, and the possibilities it opens up. And the form such a reading takes must respond to the specifics of a particular dialogue. The Philebus announces its project as an attempt to see which (if either) of pleasure and reason brings about the best human life. But this is not Plato’s first engagement with this topic (in particular, not his first encounter with hedonism), and the dialogue, I think, reflects this fact in a number of ways, including its striking start. The dialogue begins, as you note, by rehearsing a purportedly prior conversation between Socrates and the eponymous Philebus — a debate as to whether or not pleasure is the good, a dispute that ran aground with Philebus withdrawing from discussion so that Socrates must continue with a new conversation partner, Protarchus. The fiction of this prior conversational encounter seems to signal that the Philebus will not simply “do over” past encounters with hedonism, will not simply pursue that question anew with this latest conversation partner, but will consider how such philosophical conversation might answer the question in such a way as to avoid the kind of conversational breakdown represented as having happened before.

The dialogue thus presents a kind of double interest in method: an interest in finding the best method required for pursuit of its argumentative topic, and an interest in that particular method of pursuit. This double inquiry, I would say, is one central use to which the Philebus puts the possibilities that emerge from its double dialogue, and offers one way to approach that innocuous-seeming passage you quote. But first it will help to complete Socrates’s first remark and add its immediate precursor, here in the elegant Dorothea Frede translation that you cite:

PROTARCHUS: Careful, Socrates, don’t you see what a crowd we are and that we are all young? And are you not afraid that we will gang up against you with Philebus if you insult us? Still, we know what you want to say, and if there are some ways and means to remove this kind of disturbance from our discussion in a peaceful way, and to show us a better solution to the problem, then just go ahead, and we will follow you as best we can. For the present question is no mean thing, Socrates.

SOCRATES: It certainly is not, my boys, as Philebus is wont to address you. Indeed, there is not…

Protarchus’s initial remark brings out that, at this precise moment in the conversation, he and Socrates, not for the first time since beginning their dialogue, have come close to a breakdown, a breakdown prompted by Socrates’s own conversational behavior. The contentious focal issue they have been trying to negotiate involves a specific question about the possible complexity of pleasure (and whether such complexity jeopardizes Protarchus’s confidence that all varieties of pleasure are good). More broadly, Socrates suggests, this is a species of a general problem concerning one and many, and the “gift of the gods to men” turns out to be a method for systematically investigating complex unities. So the snippet of conversation you began with cues this method’s importance, with Socrates’s comments about “the way” described forestalling his actual description of it, and Protarchus voicing impatience to hear that description. This has the effect of building significance in much the same way that being told in advance that (but not what) something exciting will happen builds one’s excitement.

In addition, however, I would suggest that this snippet, especially within the additional context I cited above, shows Socrates and Protarchus negotiating how to talk with each other. Although, as Protarchus points out, he is the youth and Socrates the grown-up, Protarchus here shows a certain intellectual maturity in the face of what looks like Socratic provocation. Socrates has just elaborated how the general problem of one and many, in the hands of youth, thrills them in their ability to generate puzzles, while in fact only confusing themselves and others. Protarchus points out that such satire of youth is ill advised given that he and the silent cohort also present (Philebus aside) are all young. Nevertheless, rather than allowing their conversation to degenerate into a fight, Protarchus looks for a “peaceful way” out. In doing so, Protarchus himself benefits, I would argue, from the way in which, over the course of their conversation, Socrates has led them into ever greater abstraction from the immediately contested issue of varieties of pleasure — to a more neutral and generalized vantage point from which to approach such inquiry.

Socrates identifies the method he here introduces (with such fanfare) as key to the difference between “dialectical” or “eristical” discussion. Eris is strife: the kind of contentious, quarrelsome behavior Protarchus, despite his youth, here helps them avoid. Dialectic (the term Plato often uses for philosophical method) sounds grand, but originates in a humdrum verb for “conversation.” It’s a striking feature of this dialogue that reason emerges both as the rival to pleasure (in this dialogue’s consideration of what enables the best human life), and as the means by which Socrates and Protarchus must resolve their question. For both purposes, reflection on what makes for good conversation remains key, and this is one point Plato illustrates not simply by providing us with conversations to reflect on, but by doing so in such a way as to draw us into conversations with and about conversation.

Given our resulting experiential relationship to Platonic dialogue, I assume we remember it more, or better, or quite differently than a straightforward prose argument. The Philebus suggests, of course, that memory of a conscious perception (experienced by both mind and body — so presumably more intensely realized through dialogic, dramatized, affect-heavy forms of text) plays a crucial animating role in shaping our future desires. And I wonder if we could address the place of memory-inducing, memory-sculpting, desire-generating-through-memory-stimulus devices in your own prose. Your final footnote alludes to the self-referential presence of repetitive passages in Socrates’s statements (alongside explicit articulations such as: “The proverb fits well here that says that good things deserve repeating twice or even thrice”), and I couldn’t help being struck by your own incantatory repetitions of certain quotes and formulations (sometimes with new names, such as “the Desire Argument,” now attached, as if further to press a mnemonic stamp onto our reading experience). Just as I couldn’t tell, in the Philebus itself, if/when Socrates, by repeating his own claims, had provided the air, if not the airtight logic, of a proof, I couldn’t gauge whether your frequent return to certain passages had made them suddenly seem quite crucial (rather than, say, their universally agreed-upon importance having prompted you to repeat them in the first place). I couldn’t tell, even as you discussed the types of fastening on (to a preserved representation) that memory allows, how deliberately you had sought to embed preserved representations within your own reader’s mind — pushing us ever forwards, towards the intriguing if dauntingly complex claims to follow. What forms of desire, and/or of argumentative traction, do you sense circulating amid your article’s many such repetitions? Or how do particular passages, reflections, rhythms circulate for you as a lifelong reader of Plato, and what trajectories or explorations of desire do you see (or would you like to see) manifest in contemporary responses to Plato?

For better or worse, I’m a less self-conscious writer than I take Plato to be (and I don’t think scholarship on Plato would be best served by my, or anyone’s, attempting to write like Plato). Certainly, and undoubtedly for the better, I think more about his prose than mine. And writing about the Philebus has made especially salient to me a difficulty of writing about Plato in general — given my view about the ways in which, often, a single stretch of dialogue may do several things at once, which may require teasing out separately.

You ask about desire. One thing I would change, I think, if I were writing this article now, would be my discussion of desire. I note in the paper that it’s not an ideal translation, but I would now make this more explicit by choosing a qualified version, such as “appetitive desire.” Socrates focuses on appetitive desire for the stretch of argument my article discusses, and for quite a bit of the Philebus’s lengthy examination of pleasure. Socrates presents hunger and thirst as paradigm examples of this appetitive desire. He outlines a motivational structure that presents the pleasures of eating and drinking as responses to hunger and thirst. Appetitive desires shape a need, and certain pleasures characteristically come along with satisfaction of that need. This is good: as embodied creatures, we would surely find ourselves in bad shape if we lacked any way of registering bodily deprivations such as nutritional deficit and dehydration, or if we lacked motivation to respond to those deprivations.

But Socrates nonetheless considers it problematic to construct our theory of the good around this motivational structure, around the pursuit of pleasure as relief from pain. First, this approach would prompt the danger that such pursuit becomes pathological. If what I value is pleasure, and if pleasure relieves pain, this potentially provides a perverse incentive to seek out pain to relieve (Socrates has already leveled this objection at the hedonist Callicles, in the Gorgias). Second, this particular motivational structure leaves out a lot, since it doesn’t even capture all of our pleasures, let alone goods. We may talk metaphorically about a “thirst” for knowledge, knowledge being something we can desire and find good, but it would seem artificial to frame motivation towards (and pleasure in the pursuit of) knowledge on this model of literal thirst. Indeed, if we imagine a person for whom gaining knowledge did satisfy an appetitive desire like actual thirst, we might think there was something wrong with the way in which this person pursues knowledge, something wrong with the way he/she values knowledge.

This broader question about relations among pleasure, motivation, and value is something I have come to be interested in through working on the Philebus. Autobiographically, this is often how it works for me, at least as it seems to me: rather than coming to my reading of Plato with a particular set of philosophical questions and interests, I find my questions and interests often shaped by reading Plato.

Pushing then beyond your article’s primary reference to desiring, could you discuss a bit what these specific selected passages might tell us about related outward-reaching activities such as thinking, talking, reading, seeing depth in a painting? I respect your cautionary note that “it seems unclear that any representations involved in the desires on which Socrates is focused in the Desire Argument would be linguistic,” but when we encounter Socratic metaphors of thinking as a form of talking to oneself, or of thinking as like the writing of a scribe in our psychological book, or of imagination as the work of a painter to illustrate the record of that scribe, I can’t help conflating all these different modes of mediation. I’ll wonder, for instance: does conscious perception, with its interworkings of soul and body, more closely resemble conversation — whereas desire (pulling soul away from present embodied state) more resembles writing/reading? And how could such conceptual analogies help us further to clarify Socrates’s apparent preference for talking over writing (most famously in the Phaedrus)? And if reading does get structured more like desire, then what crucial role does memory (either of past reading experiences, or of associational content) play in reading, but potentially not in talking? Or again, does dialectical Platonic talking, with its temporal dimension, with its reliance upon frequently reminding each participant of the ongoing text’s present trajectory, in fact bring forth the more directed desire? Or why do all of these potential tangents, if you prefer, not merit serious consideration amid your more circumspect examination of the Philebus? And what, if any, temptation to such loose extensions and extrapolations might you yourself still encounter when sitting down to read this dialogue afresh?

One fascinating (and maddening) feature of the Philebus is that it develops a quite extensive psychology, discussing: sensory awareness, memory, recollection, appetite, imagination, opinion, and emotion. Although discussions of these individual phenomena appear elsewhere in Plato, this is really the most extensive philosophical psychology in the corpus — comparable in scope and interest to Aristotle’s writings on the soul, themselves evidently heavily influenced by the Philebus, among other works. This feature is maddening, however, because in my view Socrates in the Philebus does not engage in philosophical psychology for its own sake, but for the sake of his immediate focus on the respective contributions of pleasure and reason to the best human life. He thus says only as much about these various interesting psychological phenomena as is necessary for his purpose. We therefore find in the dialogue the best evidence of what may have been Plato’s mature theorizing on psychology, even as this evidence’s restricted context should make us cautious about how much we can build out from Socrates’s claims towards statements of a “Platonic view” on any of these phenomena.

The Philebus’s striking image of the scribe presents a case in point. I would say the role of this scribe operates somewhat differently from the immediately preceding comparison of thinking and talking. The Philebus is indeed one of the works in which Socrates describes thinking as silent talking. In the Philebus, at least, it seems clear that such inner dialogue provides a model for how one forms an opinion or arrives at a view, by a process of question and answer of oneself. The scribe who writes in the soul represents, then, opinion once formed. The scribe’s writing in the soul models the kind of commitment involving in having an opinion — when one is committed to things being thus and so. But such scribal writing does not contrast sharply to talking. We, today, may associate scribes with silent monasticism. But ancient scribes not only recorded decisions arrived at by deliberative bodies, but also, often, read these aloud (just as we might give voice to our settled opinion).

I’m not sure how I would relate all of this to that well-known passage from the Phaedrus. The Phaedrus focuses on writing more than on reading, perhaps again because ancient readers read aloud. And, as MM McCabe has rightly stressed, the passage presents an interesting paradox: it cautions against writing, in writing. So its point remains far from straightforward. In the Phaedrus, Socrates expresses concern that writing cannot answer back or respond to a question. But that won’t necessarily be true of the Philebus’s writing in the soul. Of course such writing in the soul may likewise have a kind of fixity. But fixity of opinion isn’t of necessity a bad thing. Philebus might obstinately stick to an opinion once formed (here, that pleasure is victorious, come what may). But such fixity of opinion could also indicate the stability that comes from an opinion being progressively tested, reinforced, and situated in the back and forth of conversational encounters. The Phaedrus paradox may point to the need for a kind of writing that, like this dialogue itself, can invite the back and forth of conversational encounter. Phileban obstinacy may in turn provide the reason why he himself doesn’t take much part in the dialogue to which he gives his name.

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