Which good things are good for us? Which particular investigations should we (in particular) undertake? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Rachana Kamtekar. This present conversation focuses on Kamtekar’s book Plato’s Moral Psychology: Intellectualism, the Divided Soul, and the Desire for Good. Kamtekar has published numerous articles on ancient Greek and Roman moral psychology, ancient moral and political philosophy, and contemporary moral psychology. She teaches in Cornell University’s Sage School of Philosophy.
ANDY FITCH: Your book starts from the Socratic premise that “If we want to know how we might live well,” we should begin by seeking to define who we are, by tracing our capabilities and limitations, both as individuals and as human beings. Your book then picks up that definitional project by taking Socrates’s context-specific Protagoras conjecture that “we always do what we believe is the best of the things we can do,” and reformulating this claim into the (perhaps more broadly applicable) proposition that “human beings have a natural desire for our own good.” Could you describe how this subtle reformulation might open much more expansive efforts to provide a clarified account of human motivation — an account that can address the apparently flawed or inconsistent conceptions offered across Plato’s dialogues? Along the way, could you outline how this particular recalibration might help to account for us desiring “something actually bad” even while remaining directed towards the good? Could you sketch how this particular pivot from the Protagoras’s formulation to your own might depart from conventional assumptions regarding the “Socratic intellectualist package” (according to which: early Plato denies the existence of non-rational or good-independent motivations, and later Plato dispels this same disattributive model by positing a soul “divided into rational or good-directed and non-rational or good-indifferent parts, each independently capable of moving us to action”)? And could you point to some basic means by which such an interpretive departure on human motivation can in fact help lead us to leading better lives?
RACHANA KAMTEKAR: Socrates is famous for the view that virtue is knowledge. The Socrates I learned about as a student took this position because he thought, naively, that human beings are purely rational creatures who always do what they believe best for themselves. This naive thought supposedly explains why Socrates held that wrongdoing is due to ignorance (it’s ignorance of what is best for oneself), and therefore unwilling (if you do something out of ignorance, it’s unwilling), and why Socrates went around having philosophical conversations with people to improve them. But Plato, cleverer than Socrates, realized that this naive psychology is false, because human beings also do things out of non-rational motivations like appetite or anger (even when they know that doing something else would be best for them). So Plato argues that the soul is divided, having multiple sources of motivation (reason, appetite, spirit), rather than only reason. For Plato, virtue is not just knowledge, but knowledge plus appetite and anger harmonized with knowledge.
One problem with this story is that even when Plato’s dialogues propose a divided soul, they continue to say that wrongdoing is due to ignorance and is unwilling. Second, only in one very specific context does Socrates say that human beings always do what they believe best — when he cross-examines the sophist Protagoras, who claims to possess the ability to teach virtue. Protagoras claims not only that he can teach virtue, but also that virtue has knowledge-independent components. These claims conflict. So, I argue, Socrates shows Protagoras what virtue would need to be in order to be teachable (it would need to be knowledge of measuring goodness), what goodness would need to be in order to be measurable (it would need to be scalar, like pleasure), and what we would need to be in order for our own good to be determinable by measurement and for our virtue to consist solely in knowledge of measurement (we’d need to be creatures who always do what they believe best for themselves).
In every other context, Socrates says not that we always do what we think is best, but that we desire and pursue our good. What’s the difference?
The sophists who preceded Plato (for example, Gorgias and Antiphon) claimed that sensible (non-crazy) people do what they think best, and thought that plausible explanations of human actions (for example, in legal defenses) should take account of this. This is a conception of rationality. But it is purely subjective and formal, and doesn’t put us in contact with what is really good for us — and it’s surely because we want what’s really good that we do what we think best. Plato shows how we might actually make contact with the good we want: if we are designed to detect and respond to aspects of goodness through perception and appetites, through our spirit or sense of honor, and through our rational desire to find out what really is good. In the Republic, Plato shows this by representing our three motivational sources (appetite, spirit, and reason) as agent-like seekers after the good conceived of as pleasant, fine, and all-things-considered good. And in the Timaeus, Plato shows this by explaining how the physical design of our soul-parts and sense-organs enables us to achieve that knowledge in which our good condition lies. Because our nature is to seek our good, badness, and the wrongdoing that makes us bad, is contrary to our nature and is for that reason unwilling.
This, finally, takes us to the question you led with, about self-knowledge. As Socrates understands the Delphic Oracle’s injunction, “Know yourself” means “Know your soul.” I take this line to prioritize knowing the capacities for and limitations of the “parts” of your soul, especially in relation to achieving your good. There’s a generic and a specific version of this knowledge: you need to know about the human soul in general, and you need to know about your own soul in particular. Plato’s point here is perennially relevant: to live well, we have to know not only which things are good, but which good things are good for us — given our particular abilities, our particular moral and intellectual condition. This is self-knowledge, and it’s difficult to come by. Think about how hard students find it to choose a major in college (when they aren’t under pressure, and the courses are generally well taught): it’s precisely the problem of going from knowing which things are worth studying to determining which things they in particular should study.
Here reconceptions of Platonic soul-division also tempt me to race towards sketching contemporary political parallels: pointing to recent studies of political agents who vote against “their own” interest, or of political cross-cutters who feel motivated (and / or muddled) by competing internalized partisan perspectives, or of intersectional political subjecthood potentially subdivided into ever more discrete identity formations (and / or potentially unified by a palpable human agency and solidarity perhaps only discovered once we push beyond hegemonic social categorizations). Though rather than simply skimming Platonic characters’ most famous speeches to see what useful insights they might offer on such topics, I appreciate your methodological premise that “reconstructing the historical context can enrich…contemporary use of Plato’s dialogues by deepening…understandings of why Plato’s characters say what they do.” So as we start to outline your own position as “a historian seeking to understand what Plato thought,” could you sketch the crucial methodological importance that Plato’s Moral Psychology assigns to reading Platonic dialogues for dialectical dependence more than for characterological assertion? And in case reading Plato “historically” or for “dialectical dependence” sounds too dry to some audiences, could you describe how this type of investigation might in fact prompt a radically empathic reading project — in which we must first think ourselves into a given character’s perspective “from which these claims appear true, and true for reasons”? How might this type of perspectivist reading resemble or depart from “two-level” interpretations of Plato that likewise “give a point to Plato’s use of characterization and dramatic context”? But also, how does prioritizing a particularly acute close-reading method here contribute to reading Plato “historically”?
By “dialectical dependence” I mean that we should understand what gets said by Socrates and the other main speakers in the dialogues as responsive to the statements or questions of their interlocutors. I developed the notion of dialectical dependence as a middle way between two approaches to reading Plato: the “mouthpiece” view, according to which whatever the main speaker of a dialogue says is what Plato believed at the time of writing the dialogue, and the “philosophy as therapy” view (a species of “two-level” reading, in which Plato as author communicates to us as readers over the heads of the dialogue’s characters), according to which Socrates (the usual main speaker) says what he does because it’s what the interlocutor, given his particular character, needs to hear to make moral and intellectual progress. The “mouthpiece” view ignores the fact that Plato wrote dialogues, in which people say things to each other. This view also implies that Plato’s beliefs flip-flopped repeatedly. The “philosophy as therapy” view ignores the fact that Plato’s dialogues offer intellectual investigations of positions, often suggested by the interlocutor. If Socrates takes these positions seriously enough to argue with the people who hold them, we make an interpretive mistake when we diagnose away these positions as mere products of certain psychological conditions (for example, being a money-lover or honor-lover). But we also make a mistake when we overlook the fact that these arguments take place between people who hold positions for particular reasons, because their experiences or interests make some considerations more salient than others. As human beings, most readers likewise can’t help taking an interest in things (in this case, views), just because other people find them worthwhile.
Let me give one example. The Republic’s discussion about justice begins when the old patriarch Cephalus tells Socrates that he values his wealth primarily because he doesn’t have to cheat or deceive anyone, or to leave a sacrifice undone or a debt unpaid. As a result, Cephalus believes he can face death without fear of afterlife punishment. In needing our life-circumstances to support our good behavior, most of us are probably like Cephalus — although his level of awareness is unusual (and may spark self-awareness in us).
Socrates then asks Cephalus: is this what justice is, truth-telling and repaying one’s debts? From there the philosophical discussion takes off: what is justice? Can it be defined in terms of types of actions? What is the relationship between a just individual and a just society? Is being just good for oneself, or only for one’s community? If the former, is it always better than being unjust?
These questions apply to everyone, which makes the Republic resonate with readers so far removed from Plato in time and place. But Plato presents these universal questions for his readers as questions for particular characters: Cephalus, Cephalus’s son Polemarchus (who defines justice as helping friends and harming enemies), Thrasymachus (who thinks justice gets defined by laws set up to benefit rulers, and so the just individual is simpleminded and good for others), and Glaucon and Adeimantus (who challenge Socrates to defend justice against a sophistic account of justice by contract — according to which it’s not being just, but seeming just, that is good for oneself). Although Socrates shows these characters’ accounts of justice to be inadequate, they are not obviously so, and Plato often uses characterization to show, as we would say, “where these people are coming from” — or why, given their experiences, they would think what they do.
If we know that Thrasymachus served as an ambassador to imperial Athens, charged with saving his city Chalcedon from Athens’ punitive reprisals against Chalcedon’s bid for autonomy, we can better see what makes Thrasymachus angry and cynical about justice. And Socrates does not deny Thrasymachus’s claim about actual cities, but merely asks: what would justice be in a city whose law aimed at the good of the whole community, rather than only of the rulers? The Republic’s account of justice follows on the hypothesis of such a city, and this investigation on a hypothesis provides a clear example of dialectical dependence. When we recognize this broader conversational context, we see that Socrates hasn’t suddenly gone from denying knowledge of justice to claiming it, and that Plato hasn’t suddenly become dogmatic.
The dialectical dependence of what gets said in these dialogues makes it more difficult for us to extract Plato’s doctrines on specific topics. But that very dialectical dependence also models for us how discussions in the pursuit of truth might operate. Plato’s dialogues show possibilities for intellectual progress across disagreement and despite relative ignorance about matters of value — not in the first instance by coming to agreement, but by exploring one another’s points of view, by asking: what follows from these points of view? What else would be necessary or sufficient for them to be true? How do they fit alongside our other commitments?
Does this sort of perspective-taking involve “empathic reading”? Maybe, but here’s a caveat: the Republic also warns that perspective-taking can lead to our taking on false views, so it’s essential to subject the perspectives taken to exacting criticism.
Well perhaps in terms of perspectival precision, your book’s lovely concluding reconception of the divided soul (now as three “different soul-kinds,” possessing not only distinct animal mascots, “but also beliefs of their own” and independent motivations) helps us to push beyond blunt formulations of “the agent as moved to act by the strongest of competing forces,” towards a more nuanced account of this agent’s vectored yet still cohesive and deliberative vantage (“representing actions as good or better and better or worse and acting on what appears best”). And here conceiving of soul-division less as some decisive winner-take-all contest for internal domination, than as an ongoing forum for “human nature’s multiple and potentially conflicting natural orientations,” again made me wonder how this characterization of “soul-parts…each having a more or less limited conception of goodness” might in turn refract for us virtuous conversational or social or civic engagement. Just as the larger scale of the city can help us to see in magnified form the minute intraworkings of the soul, for example, do Plato’s dialogical structures themselves offer something similar, with each character (if given proper readerly attention) perceived not as “good” nor “bad,” but as more or less precisely attuned (with varying degrees of precision, of course) to the collective pursuit of virtue? Or to return to a more contemporary political context, what might it mean for us to adopt a Platonic mode of engagement that recognizes one’s argumentative rivals not as enemies to combat, but as collaborators helping to collectively midwife the most correct possible consensus perspective? Or even in terms of Plato’s Moral Psychology’s take on the prevailing secondary literature, how might the conspicuous tendency of certain Plato scholars to projectively over-read Socrates’s statements (to presume that Socrates offers metaphysical truth or falsehood, even when Socrates simply takes up a conversational partner’s conjecture in the conditional tense) strike us less by confirming a “wrong” or “failed” reading, than by reminding us of how many of our most objective-seeming disciplines (mathematic, scientific, and scholastic pursuits certainly among them) actually remain collective conjectural enterprises, rather than foundational sources for bedrock truths?
Just to be clear: I don’t think there need be any tension between a discipline’s seeking objective truth and its being a collective conjectural enterprise. But to your main concern, about rivals versus collaborators: Plato contrasts “eristic” discussions in which interlocutors aim at victory with discussions in which they aim at truth — and it does strike me how much contemporary discussion exemplifies eristic discussion, whether in political debates, legal arguments, or academic presentations. Indeed, we often talk as if competition in the “marketplace of ideas” offers our only route to truth. To be sure, certain disciplinary institutions and conventions (such as peer review, or the requirement to make the data on which a scientific publication gets based available on request) do constrain competitive activity in the academy, so as to make our discussions more truth-conducive. These institutions seek to ensure either that victory will mean victory in the pursuit of truth, or that we will pursue victory only where that’s compatible with truth. But I consider Plato right to remind us that victory is a distinct and not easily subordinated end of discussion.
In the Gorgias, Plato suggests two ways to keep this desire for victory at bay in truth-pursuing discussions. One can approach a discussion in the spirit of cooperation (though I doubt this can eliminate all desire for victory, since even in the most collaborative enterprises people seem to keep track of, and to rank, their own contributions vis-à-vis those of others). And one can engage in the type of person-to-person discussion which takes only the change of an interlocutor’s mind as a mark of success, and completely ignores the relative public popularity of an argumentative position.
To pick up, then, your “Why Is the Divided Soul Tripartite?” chapter, I wonder how the spirited soul-part that you place at the hinge of Plato’s tripartite structure again might overlap with the triangulated reader so often coaxed towards spirited preference for one Platonic character over another (rather than towards some more rational survey of the allover scene). Here I’d start, for example, by citing your helpful attention to something that always has confused me about The Republic’s spirited “auxiliaries” or guardians, who at various moments seem either to embody or to serve a ruling class. Here I particularly appreciate your description of these spirited auxiliaries as tough no doubt, but also as acutely receptive, supple, pliant, flexible in their efforts to intuit and preserve reason’s judgments, particularly in the face of “bewitching” appetitive pleasures and bodily pains. And here I couldn’t help but think of reading (especially the philosophical close-reading in which your book engages) as its own form of desire-infused (but also bewitchment-patrolling) engagement with an author’s meticulous deliberations — here pursuing “what Plato thought” perhaps, but while also always guarding against how “relying on characterization…shifts our attention away from Plato’s intellectual motivations.” And given that our less-than-perfectly-rational pursuits of the good “need not be de-attributed on that ground,” given our need to recognize human motivation’s multiple (potentially conflicting) orientations, should even professional close-readers like ourselves not feel shame when we sense our spirited side kick into action? Does even an intellectual historian’s approach to Platonic thought need to include an erotic historian’s (“erotic” here in the Platonic sense) entwinement with Platonic plots and persons? Or given that anger and shame at their best can exemplify “‘hot’ motivations” raising us up from appetitive comforts and complacencies, given that The Republic’s spirited soul-part plays an important role preserving the composure of our (more reserved) reason’s management of the complex whole, what crucial functions might you see spirited soul-craft (and spirited reading) fulfilling amid the more exuberant, more God-like, more “mad” pursuits of philosophical contemplation, of pursuing “knowledge of fundamental truths, for its own sake”?
As I understand the spirited motivations, they manifest as anger, shame, and the love of honor — but their content, and the objects at which one feels anger (or shame, etc.) depends on one’s reason. Whereas readers may have an intuitive sense of what appetite and reasoning are, spirit is less familiar. But here’s an example: if someone steps on your foot on the train, you may immediately feel angry at her. However, if you find out that somebody pushed her, then your angry feelings will disappear, or shift to the person actually at fault.
It’s remarkable that some of our feelings respond to reasoning (here the reasoning that it wasn’t up to this woman not to step on your foot), whereas others, like hunger, do not (or do far less). If you inspect your preceding feelings of spirited anger, they might turn out to involve thoughts like That was my foot, not just some rubbish on the floor of the train! or some equivalent thought about how you ought to be treated, given your status. The soul’s spirited part, on my account, remains the source of these reason-responsive feelings, and that’s why Plato characterizes it as reason’s auxiliary. It combines the strength of feeling with a receptivity to reasoning. However, I don’t think Plato characterizes the spirited part as flexible in the way that reasoning is — although the ideal city’s auxiliaries may be, because their education has trained both their spirited and reasoning parts. This is one respect in which although parts may be agent-like, they fall short of being actual agents.
You also ask me what our spirited part does, and in general what the involvement of our feelings is, as readers of Plato. I think Plato’s writing works on us at the level of both reason and feeling. For example, we may feel shame if we recognize that we couldn’t maintain our just behavior under adversity — because we value justice only for peace of mind, like Cephalus. Or in the Phaedo, Plato writes about Socrates’s death in a way that calls up feelings of pity and fear, even as we work through Socrates’s arguments that death does not harm the philosopher. Even though Socrates strives to get us care above all for wisdom, Plato wrote dialogues about human beings for human beings.