• Who Speaks Like Plato: Talking to Gerald A. Press

    How to speak for Plato? How to speak (perhaps much harder) like Plato writes? When I used to ask such questions, I would pose them to Gerald A. Press. Press’s books include Plato: A Guide for the Perplexed, as well as the edited volumes Who Speaks for Plato?: Studies in Platonic Anonymity and the Bloomsbury Companion to Plato. Press teaches philosophy (with a primary focus on ancient philosophy) at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is past editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and is on the editorial board for the Southern Journal of Philosophy. Press and I did extensive preparatory work on a dialogue about his articles “The State of the Question in the Study of Plato” (1996), “The State of the Question in the Study of Plato: Twenty Year Update” (2018), and “Changing Course in Plato Studies” (2015), and then Press dropped out of the conversation. I never fully understood why. But I also, at that formative moment for my amateur immersion in Plato’s dialogues, took the “anti-mouthpiece” interventions made by Plato scholars like Press and Debra Nails as giving me good reason not always to search for somebody else’s philosophical answers, and sometimes instead to prioritize figuring out one’s own philosophical questions. So here are several (still) appreciative questions for Gerald A. Press, from a stretch in which he sent many responses, but never formal answers.

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    ANDY FITCH: Your admirably expansive surveys of 20th- and 21st-century Platonic scholarship critique dogmatic approaches to Plato’s dialogues — approaches which treat Socrates or some equivalent protagonist as Plato’s unmediated spokesperson, and which claim to explicate Plato’s own perspective as delivered through such proxies. And within that broader critical context, I likewise have appreciated your efforts to elude any strict “dogmatic / skeptical” binaries regarding possibilities for finding some final meaning behind Plato’s texts, particularly through homeopathic formulations such as the following:

    We want to know what his views are about these ideas, but the dialogues transcend the muthos / logos dichotomy and leave us, as it is reasonable to suppose Plato wished, to think about them for ourselves rather than to be given an authoritative answer.

    Here though I also wonder what nuance can be found by cultivating a skeptical method, more than a skeptical argument, in relation to Platonic messaging: eschewing “crypto-dogmatic” (in your terms) formulations which might decisively assert “Plato did not want his texts to have any fixed meaning,” and instead coaxing forth more permissive critical prospects, along the lines of: “Articulating Plato’s intentions need not shape every possibly valid response to the profundity of his corpus.” So when can we (or why can’t we) give up altogether at this point on whether or not our readerly suppositions (reasonable or not) fit Plato’s wishes? And / or why must Plato scholars still so frequently consign themselves to interpreting Platonic logos, while refraining from enacting Platonic muthos?

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    Since your own critical account foregrounds the place of polyphonic textualities within Plato’s dialogues, could you point to critical engagements with Plato that themselves display these same features? Which Platonic theorists have created space for their own forms of dialogic resonance: perhaps through destabilizing the scholar’s authoritative status (say by presenting dubious, deliberately untrustworthy personae, in the mode of a Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or more recently Rebecca Newberger Goldstein), and / or by devising discursive literary projects that depict or enact conversation and collaboration, and / or by developing pedagogical modes that prompt participatory engagement instead of more passive audience reception, and / or by blending the scholarly, the artistic, the didactic within a single heterogeneous text or performance or public intervention? If we accept your articulation of “the explicit mission of the Platonic Socrates — and, plausibly, implicitly, of Plato himself” as “to exhibit personal, social, and political dimensions of ideas under discussion broader than what can be stated in formal definitions or verbal accounts, and to induce interlocutors in the dialogues and readers of them to rethink conventional views and provoke an inner reorientation,” which recent Platonic methodologies (perhaps even more than interpretations) best exemplify such practices? And how might exemplary elements of your own scholarly practice (such as your work as editor of anthologies and journals, as compiler / systematizer of wide-ranging histories of reception) help to facilitate, even to prioritize, polyphonic exchange over monographical / monological assertion?

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    Again, given your emphasis on the dialogic nature of Plato’s writing, could you offer an assessment of the place of interrogation, specifically of the question, within Plato’s broader philosophical project? When, in a piece like “Changing Course in Plato Studies” for example, you position dialogue between drama and argument, I can’t help but consider the rhetorical question as a particularly acute threading of those two poles: as perhaps a Platonic dialogue’s most elaborate fiction (directed, amid some already complex narrative scene, to an imagined imaginary audience), and at the same time as the most propositional, extractible (and perennially nonfictional, given its self-consciously speculative nature) part of a dialogue — an interrogative spur potentially worth pursuing whether or not Plato the author or Socrates the protagonist or any other speaker “really means it.” So if a typical Platonic dialogue prioritizes a triangulation between absent author and projective audience, often with a charismatic / inquisitive Socrates character as its palpable fulcrum, who in Platonic scholarship, speaks for questions? Or who speaks the question? Or, again, why does Platonic scholarship, dogmatic and anti-dogmatic alike, so often seem to traffic in answers rather than in questions?

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    Here I probably also should note that I don’t think of Socrates as literature’s (even philosophical literature’s) greatest conversationalist. So how to theorize Platonic dialogue, Platonic questioning, while never forgetting that these dialogues rarely present multiple parties robustly participating in mutually enlivening / enhancing discussion? How in fact can this one-sided, didactic, stealth-dogmatic conversational mode often found in Plato’s dialogues nonetheless serve as our own ongoing prompt to push new possibilities for collectively catalytic questioning?

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