• In the Context of Discovery: Talking to Hugh H. Benson

    How can we learn best when we can’t find somebody to learn from? How and when to redirect a process of discovery from hypothetical leaps to more solid ground? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Hugh H. Benson. This present conversation focuses on Benson’s book Clitophon’s Challenge: Dialectic in Plato’s Meno, Phaedo, and Republic. Benson is Emeritus George Lynn Cross Research Professor, Samuel Roberts Noble Presidential Professor, and the former chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He is the editor of Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates and Blackwell Companion to Plato, and the author of Socratic Wisdom and of various articles on the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.


    ANDY FITCH: In terms of the philosophical stakes at play in Clitophon’s challenge, your book opens with his observation to Socrates that:

    while you’re worth the world to someone who hasn’t yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, to someone who’s already been converted you rather get in the way of his attaining happiness by reaching the goal of virtue.

    In terms of Socrates’s own articulation of the lived personal stakes at play in any exhaustive pursuit of virtue, Clitophon’s Challenge later will bring in his Republic Book 7 statement that:

    Unless someone can distinguish in an account the Form of the Good from everything else, can survive all refutation, as if in a battle, striving to judge things not in accordance with opinion but in accordance with being…you’ll say that he doesn’t know the good itself or any other good…. And if he gets hold of some image of it, you’ll say that it’s true opinion, not knowledge, for he is dreaming and asleep throughout his present life, and, before he wakes up here, he will arrive in Hades and go to sleep forever.

    So in terms of sketching both the argumentative and the experiential stakes at play in your own book, I’d love if we could proceed from your introduction’s strikingly personalized starting point:

    like Clitophon, I have felt the force of Socrates’ exhortation to pursue the knowledge that is virtue which I both recognize that I lack and value more than the knowledge of how to care for my body. And, again like Clitophon, having felt the force of this exhortation, I’ve wondered what comes next … How do we acquire the knowledge that Socrates has made us desire?… I am inclined to think that he has left me hanging … if this challenge goes unmet.

    Here I appreciate, especially within an academic context typically averse to such emotive or autobiographical appeals, the candor with which you foreground your own lack, your own ongoing desire-infused engagement with Platonic dialogue. But I also sense this book’s broader argumentative contours already taking shape. Clitophon’s Challenge soon will introduce, for example, its disappointment with the recurrent recommendation from Socrates’s elenctic dialogues that, when we do not possess the knowledge necessary to field difficult philosophical questions, we ought to find somebody who does — presumably so that we can defer to this authority-figure’s account. Clitophon’s Challenge will go on to suggest that, since these elenctic dialogues so often fail to track down adequate philosophical authorities, they offer Socrates’s interlocutors at best a possibility for modest epistemic improvement, for acknowledging that one in fact does not know what one thought one knew, and for recognizing where one currently stands on the path to pursuing knowledge and virtue. So would it likewise make sense to treat Clitophon’s Challenge’s opening admissions of your personal / philosophical limitations not as some defeatist confession sabotaging this argumentative project from the start, but instead as a productive clearing of space, a recognition that relying upon your own unexamined assumptions, or even upon any unquestioned deference to textual authority figures such as Socrates, will not suffice? And how might these introductory gestures already begin to enact a form of inquiry that your book then will trace from the Meno, to the Phaedo, to the Republic, an inquiry in which: “If learning from another appears to be a flawed approach for acquiring the knowledge one lacks…perhaps the approach of de novo discovery or learning on one’s own will be more successful”?

    HUGH BENSON: Andy, thanks very much for your careful reading of Clitophons Challenge. Indeed, you are right to begin with the quote from the Clitophon. This challenge to or criticism of Socrates in the Clitophon seemed to me to put a finger on a similar feeling I had had while reading some of the shorter Platonic dialogues like the Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Laches, Hippias Major, Ion, Hippias Minor, and Charmides. Thus, my autobiographical comment was (rather immodestly) meant less to register my own “personal / philosophical limitations” than Socrates’s — at least how Plato depicts him in those dialogues. Socrates owes his interlocutor and Plato owes his reader a way of acquiring or at least approaching the knowledge they have persuaded their respective audience to recognize that it lacks and to supremely value. Let me see if I can explain my worry via the relatively familiar dialogue: the Euthyphro.

    The Euthyphro begins with Socrates accosting Euthyphro on the steps of the court of the king Archon. Socrates is going in for a preliminary hearing which precedes the hearing we read about in the Apology. Euthyphro is either going in or coming out (we will see why this might matter) on behalf of his prosecution of his aged father for killing (or letting die) a dependent who had killed one of their household slaves in a drunken rage. Euthyphro explains that his relatives think that his father’s prosecution is impious, but they are mistaken. Rather, according to Euthyphro, it is impious not to prosecute. Socrates asserts that Euthyphro must have knowledge of piety and impiety not to fear acting impiously in bringing such a prosecution, and Euthyphro agrees that he has such knowledge. At this point the main act of the dialogue begins. Socrates asks Euthyphro to become his teacher and answer his “What is piety?” question. The remainder of the dialogue consists of a series of Euthyphro’s failed attempts to answer this question, concluding with Euthyphro’s rushing off to make another appointment.

    My own question is: what does Socrates think Euthyphro should do at the end of the dialogue? Certainly not rush off to the probably fake appointment. But should Euthyphro prosecute his father or not? Here opinion diverges. Some think that Socrates thinks Euthyphro should not prosecute his father, and that Euthyphro’s rushing off to make another appointment indicates Socrates’s success (on the assumption that Euthyphro had been going in for the hearing). Others, like myself, are less sure. What seems clearer is that Socrates thinks Euthyphro should acquire the knowledge that the main act has shown to Socrates and the readers of the dialogue (if not to Euthyphro himself) that Euthyphro lacks, and which Socrates thinks is necessary in order to know whether prosecuting Euthyphro’s father is pious or impious. But how? Would remaining with Socrates and not rushing off help? No doubt it would help to persuade even Euthyphro himself that he lacks the needed knowledge.

    In other dialogues Socrates encourages joining with him in looking for people who know, in order to learn from these people. But those same dialogues suggest that Socrates has failed (even at the end of his life — consider the Apology) to find any such individuals. So, given the importance of such knowledge, Euthyphro’s (and our own) lack of such knowledge, and the general inability to find others who have it to learn from, how is Euthyphro (or anyone else, including myself) supposed to acquire it? This is the question the answer to which Clitophon thinks Socrates owes to his interlocutors, and I think Plato owes to his readers. And the thesis of Clitophon’s Challenge is that the answer to this question which Plato offers in the Meno, Phaedo, and Republic is to employ a specific method which is sometimes called the method of hypothesis, and which I believe is identical to (at least a portion of) dialectic.

    Let’s return to the quotation from the Clitophon for a moment. Clitophon maintains Socrates is helpful in converting those who have not yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, but is unhelpful, indeed harmful (though perhaps this is an exaggeration), to those who have already been converted. There are at least two different ways of reading Clitophon’s point.

    On the one hand, he may mean that Socrates is helpful in converting those who have not yet been converted to pursue moral excellence, but unhelpful to those who have already been converted. Read in this way, we might note that Euthyphro is already pursuing moral excellence at the beginning of his eponymous dialogue. Just like his relatives, Euthyphro is committed to doing the pious thing or to avoiding doing the impious thing, so much so that he is willing to risk the hatred and ridicule of these relatives and the potential unhappiness of his father. The difference between Euthyphro and his relatives is not their commitment to pursuing virtue or moral excellence, but their beliefs about which actions are virtuous (or pious) or morally excellent. And here, as Clitophon suggests, Socrates does not seem much help, unless one thinks (as I do not) that Socrates is encouraging Euthyphro to follow the direction of his relatives and abandon the prosecution. There is no more reason to think the relatives have the needed knowledge of what piety is than does Euthyphro.

    On the other hand, Clitophon may mean that Socrates is helpful in converting those who have not yet been converted to pursue knowledge, given Socrates’s identification of virtue with knowledge (so-called Socratic intellectualism). Read in this way, Socrates is pretty helpful in converting those who have not yet been converted (because they think they have knowledge) to the pursuit of knowledge. Socrates encourages them to recognize that they lack knowledge (consider the conversation with the slave in the Meno), even though in the case of Euthyphro Socrates seems to have been unsuccessful. But again, for those of us who have already been converted and seek to acquire the valuable knowledge we recognize we lack, in dialogues like the Euthyphro Socrates is decidedly unhelpful, as Clitophon suggests. At best, so I think, Socrates encourages us to find those who already have this knowledge and learn from them, though he concedes at the end of his life not to have found any such individuals. Clitophon is right to raise this challenge — or so I think.

     Of course Clitophon’s challenge itself comes from Plato. And to the extent that your book Clitophon’s Challenge seeks to proceed from Platonic precedent, it first has to undertake “a certain amount of bootstrapping” necessary to synthesize Plato’s “infuriatingly brief, often incomplete, and sometimes obscure” descriptions of Socrates’s methods of inquiry. To the extent that Clitophon’s Challenge picks up this Platonic precedent, it does so, you tell us, “austerely and conservatively…. with what those descriptions alone require us to conclude about Plato’s method.” To the extent that Clitophon’s Challenge then strives to articulate Socrates’s / Plato’s method of hypothesis, and to delineate this method’s confirmation and proof stages, your book finds itself adopting but also qualifying preceding scholars’ descriptions of an “upward” and a “downward” path in Socratic / Platonic argumentation. So most broadly, if Socrates recommends that “when one seeks to discover de novo the answer to a question, one should adopt the procedure of the geometers and turn to a second question (however it is to be discovered) whose answer…will help…in answering the original question,” could you outline here the types of “second questions” (again especially methodological questions) that you have found fit to pose in relation to Clitophon’s initially disarming, potentially demoralizing, but hopefully catalyzing prompt? And could you begin to sketch the advantages and limitations to (and the intellectual adventure of) assembling this type of expansive conjectural calculus that Clitophon’s Challenge offers at the level of a sustained book-length argument?

    You rightly wonder about the nature of so-called second questions which appear in my account of Plato’s answer to this question of how missing (but valuable) knowledge is acquired when no one who already possesses that knowledge is around from whom to learn. Let me begin by saying a little bit more about the nature of these second questions and how they fit into Plato’s overall method of de novo knowledge acquisition, before turning to their role in my own method.

    I maintain that the method Plato recommends for de novo knowledge acquisition falls into two stages, each of which consists of an upward and downward movement. The first stage (the proof stage) attempts to acquire the knowledge of the answer to some question by identifying a second question whose most compelling answer enables one to answer the original question (the upward movement) — and shows how the answer to this second question can answer the first question (the downward movement). The answer to that second question is the hypothesis.

    De novo knowledge acquisition’s second stage (the confirmation stage) tests the “consequences” of the hypothesis for agreement or disagreement with each other (the downward movement), and identifies another question (the third question) whose most compelling answer enables one to obtain the hypothesis, shows how this compelling answer provides the hypothesis as the answer to the second question, and continues this process until one reaches something adequate (as in the Phaedo), or reaches the unhypothetical first principle of everything, as in the Republic (the upward movement).

    You quite reasonably wonder about the nature of these second (and third, etcetera) questions, and how one identifies them. One of the striking things about Plato’s discussion of this method is that he tells us very little about this crucial step. He does provide us some examples of second questions. In the Meno, for example, the second question identified in an attempt to come to know the answer to whether virtue is teachable is whether virtue is knowledge. Again, in the Phaedo, the second question identified in an attempt to come to know the answer to what is the cause of generation and destruction is whether there are forms. And finally, in the Republic, the second question identified in an attempt to come to know whether Kallipolis is possible is whether philosophy and political power coincide. But Plato tells us nothing about how these second questions were identified and little about why these answers (virtue is knowledge, there are forms, philosophy and political power do coincide) are the most compelling — though Plato does defend the first and third of these answers, by offering the compelling answers to third questions.

    One place to get some help with how to undertake this process of identifying second questions comes in Socrates’s account (in the Republic’s Book 7) of how philosopher rulers will be educated in Kallipolis. Plato may be indicating there that the skill of identifying such questions is acquired through practice in a variety of disciplines (the propaedeutic disciplines), but again there is no suggestion that any of this is algorithmic.

    Your specific question, however, concerns my own use of these so-called second questions in the method I employ in arriving at and defending my interpretation of Plato’s method. To be honest, I do not think I have considered this question previously, though no doubt I should have. You are right to indicate that my own method is more self-conscious than is perhaps customary in monographs of this sort. I suspect some of the self-consciousness is a consequence of my awareness that I am at odds with a number of sacred cows of Platonic interpretation. For example, I see the references to the method of hypothesis in the Meno, Phaedo, Republic, and even the Parmenides (though I do not discuss the Parmenides in Clitophon’s Challenge) all to be references to one single method. Similarly, I deny that the method of hypothesis is a second-best method, and I defend an idiosyncratic reading of the Divided Line in the Republic Book 6. I also see Plato’s method of inquiry as much more in keeping with Aristotle’s than the traditional interpretation of “Plato the rationalist” and “Aristotle the empiricist” would suggest.

    This awareness of questioning traditional readings of Plato may be similar to a kind of Socratic questioning of what we think we know — though (like Socrates) I have tremendous respect for the tradition (the cows are sacred for good reason), and the difficulty of my questioning only reinforces that respect. Moreover, my method does appear hypothetical in the sense that, given my questioning of much of the tradition concerning Plato’s method of inquiry, I myself might seem to deploy something like a hypothesis (very roughly: “Let’s suppose the tradition or at least some of the salient aspects of it are mistaken, and see what happens. Can a coherent account be pieced together?”) Finally, the method of hypothesis that I attribute to Plato is (again) very roughly something like the scientific method: ask a question, hypothesize an answer, confirm (or refute) the hypothesis by testing it against predictions. And the method I adopt in this book could plausibly be read along those lines — with philosophical plausibility and the text playing the role of the phenomena or predictions. Thus, there are indeed similarities between the method I use in Clitophon’s Challenge and my interpretation of Plato’s method of hypothesis.

    Nevertheless, I want to resist this idea that Clitophon’s Challenge employs Plato’s method of hypothesis. One of my concerns in the book is to avoid attributing to Plato a method of inquiry so broad and imprecise that virtually any instance of a methodological approach could satisfy its constraints. For example, I do not think that the method displayed in the Laches, the Charmides, or the first third of the Meno (70a-79e) is the method of hypothesis. The method employed in these texts, in my view, is the elenchus, and while the elenchus is a stage of dialectic, as I see it, it is a stage that precedes inquiry and so the method of hypothesis. Nor again, for example, do I think that the defense of the Apology, the speech of the laws in the Crito, nor the arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo are instances of the method of hypothesis. So, despite the similarities between Plato’s method of inquiry, as I understand it, and my own method in this book, I do not see myself as offering second questions to some initial question, and seeking to confirm the most compelling answer to these second questions by testing their “consequences” for consistency, and posing higher questions until reaching something adequate — at least not quite in the way I see Plato’s method of hypothesis working. I’ll try to say a bit more about this later.

    Sure, I guess your book’s treatment of Plato frequently eschewing any robust elaboration of his method of hypothesis (with the dialogues often offering, at most, fleeting context-specific illustrations) left me wondering about Plato’s own capacities to provide the type of adroitly differential yet sufficiently generalizable definitional account that Socrates so often demands from interlocutors. And when Clitophon’s Challenge then points to Socrates sometimes not following through on his own prescribed plan of action (say in the Meno, when, after detecting a flaw in the upward path of his own argument, Socrates neglects to adopt method-of-hypothesis protocol and take up alternate potential upward paths), I wondered whether Socratic argument frequently fails even to offer a proof stage without confirmation — let alone to offer a sustained dialectical account stretching all the way up the path towards abstracted proof and then all the way back down the path towards factual verification. I kept returning (specifically in relation to Clitophon’s challenge, but also to Socratic / Platonic inquiry more broadly) to the types of questions that your “A Preliminary Sketch” chapter poses to itself: “When does this process end? At what point in this process has the knowledge that we seek been acquired”? So what to make, for instance, of even well-trained scholars sometimes underestimating how long Socrates stays in such a conjectural mode (never positing his own truth claims along the way, but simply extending the logical implications of an interlocutor’s line of thought)? Or once Socrates (or once we ourselves) have reduced an inscription question to an application question, how ever to pivot back from this method of hypothesis to the non-hypothetical? Or here returning to the first-person experience sketched in your book’s introduction, can we only ever hope to accomplish a feeling of sturdier footing, as our account at least sheds some of its self-contradictory character? Can we only ever assemble meticulous, air-tight speculations, perhaps without being able to synthesize these respective positions into some sort of consensus-based verifiable account? Can we never dispel the threats of sophisticated perspectivism (at best), or lazy / indulgent solipsism (at worst), that Socrates often seems to fear most of all?

    The questions you raise here go to the heart of a serious divide among the readers of Plato. According to some readers, Plato (or Socrates, as depicted in perhaps some sub-set of the dialogues) denies that the knowledge, which Socrates’s interlocutors lack (whether or not they become aware of this fact), can be had or acquired. That is, Plato denies that the knowledge he encourages us to recognize we lack (and so encourages to seek) can be acquired — and, a fortiori, he denies that it can be acquired by the method of hypothesis. The best that can be hoped for is continued search, and perhaps a closer approach to the unacquirable goal. Such a reading of Plato may be correct and I have no definitive argument or definitive text that rules it out. But this is not a reading of Plato that I endorse.

    Let me be clear that the question concerns Plato’s (or Socrates’s) position. That is, the reading I endorse is that Plato (or Socrates, as depicted in the Platonic dialogues) believes that the knowledge we lack and should seek can be acquired. I do not mean to be endorsing the position that it, in fact, can be acquired. Indeed, I suspect it cannot. Plato’s conception of knowledge, as I understand it, is likely too robust to be acquirable. But I doubt that Plato thought so. Let me try to offer some reasons.

    First, I struggle with the idea that Socrates seeks knowledge while at the same time believing he cannot acquire it, or that he encourages his interlocutors to seek this knowledge (which they recognize they lack) while at the same time believing they cannot acquire it. The former seems psychologically implausible, the latter ethically suspect. I recognize that there appear to be counterexamples — at least to the psychological implausibility of seeking to do what one at the same time believes one cannot do. Professional musicians are said to seek to play a piece perfectly, recognizing full well that they cannot succeed. Similarly, theists are said to seek to be as perfect as God, again knowing full well that they cannot succeed. But I suspect that the psychology of these alleged counterexamples is much more complex than I have just described, and may involve some self-deception which I doubt Plato (or Socrates) would endorse.

    Second, I wonder why Socrates is so puzzled by the Delphic oracle’s response that no one was wiser than Socrates, if Socrates himself believes that the knowledge he seeks cannot be acquired. As Socrates explains, he was aware of being wise about nothing great or small. If he had thought that such wisdom or knowledge was impossible, then he should not have been surprised by the oracle’s response. Rather, it should have confirmed Socrates’s belief that acquiring knowledge was impossible not just for him, but for everybody else as well. Instead, however, Socrates sets off to refute the oracle by approaching politicians, poets, and craftsmen in an attempt to find individuals who had the wisdom and knowledge which Socrates lacked. In these attempts, he is unsuccessful. But the possibility of success seems assumed.

    Third, in the Republic Socrates appears to allow that it is possible for humans to know the good, though again Socrates himself does not know it. If such knowledge was impossible, then it would seem that Kallipolis would be impossible — contrary to what Socrates maintains:

    Then we can now conclude that this legislation is best, if only it is possible, and that, while it is hard for it to come about, it is not impossible.

    Socrates’s argument indicates that Kallipolis is possible only if philosophers rule, and this is in part because philosophers know the good. It is true that the beginning of the Phaedo suggests that such knowledge can only be acquired after death, but later in that same dialogue the theory of recollection permits knowledge acquisition while still embodied.

    Of course, none of this is to say that Plato or Socrates as depicted believes that anyone presently has such knowledge (at least in their embodied form), nor that the acquisition of it comes easy and without considerable exertion. Nor is this to say that responses to these considerations in favor of the possibility of knowledge acquisition are unavailable. For example, some readers of the dialogues think that Plato changes his view about this question over the course of the dialogues: so that in dialogues like the Apology, Euthyphro, Protagoras, and Laches he maintains that knowledge cannot be acquired, but by the time he came to write dialogues like the Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, and Phaedrus he came to think it could. This, of course, may be right, but in Clitophon’s Challenge I tried to studiously avoid questions concerning the compositional chronology of the dialogues — and in any case, one would expect to see some indication of such a momentous change, but such an indication is not to be found. Nevertheless, none of these considerations are definitive (one way or the other), or so it seems to me. I simply register my belief together with some of its reasons that Plato took knowledge acquisition to be possible. But this debate has been ongoing at least since the Academic skeptics, and it is not likely to be settled soon.

    To close then on something more like the contemporary professional stakes Clitophon’s challenge and Clitophon’s Challenge raise, I’d start from your lucid account of one of the main argumentative concerns Socrates has to address in the Republic’s Book 6, that:

     the aitia of the viciousness of philosophers is not philosophy, but traditional education: on the one hand, corrupting those who possess the qualities and natural abilities necessary for the genuine philosophical life, and leaving room for those who fail to possess these qualities to take up the genuine philosophical life, on the other.

     I’d bring in the disconcerting follow-up that “the few decent and useless ones to escape the corrupting influence of traditional education do so roughly by escaping notice.” I’d note once more how forthcomingly Clitophon’s Challenge foregrounds its own modest goals, its own inability to obtain satisfactory conclusions. I’d praise how your book in fact basically poses at its end the same questions it had posed at its beginning (but now having modeled a plausible strategy for acquiring knowledge, so hopefully prodding us beyond any passive hopes for someone else to supply us answers). I’d point again to your book-length conjectural approach coaxing us to gauge our still-incomplete progress towards virtue and knowledge, and to appreciate how our own failures along the way (again like Socrates’s) hopefully indicate our status as impassioned and insatiable philosophers, rather than as glib debaters. So does Clitophon’s Challenge’s rigorously implemented upward-path speculation, and detailed close-reading downward-path confirmation, exemplify your conception of education at its best: less as winning an argument than as getting one’s interlocutors to agree, less as a bestowal of knowledge than as a technique for gently turning “the soul around toward being, toward truth, and toward the unhypothetical archê”? In these ways, do you wish for your book ultimately to speak to us in something like the intimate terms that the Phaedrus ascribes to dialogic engagement, as opposed to more typical textual instruction? And where, in your present-day work as a philosophical thinker (not just as a classroom teacher, where this mode seems easier to envision enacting — but as an author, as a participant in professional conversations with peers, as a citizen speaking to a broader public) do you see constructive space being created and / or desperately needed for such sustained, self-consciously hypothetical, fundamentally collaborative engagements?

    In your final set of questions you again raise issues to which I did not give much explicit thought in writing Clitophon’s Challenge. You ask in essence how my view of Plato’s method of hypothesis infuses my view of teaching and philosophically professional activities in general. Do I wish for my book to encourage dialogical engagement as opposed to typical textual instruction or the winning of arguments? Yes, I guess I do (I guess I am just not very self-reflective about it). But, to explain this answer to your final questions, let me broaden my response beyond Clitophon’s Challenge, to include what I think is going on in the Platonic dialogues as whole, though very little of this is defended in any of my published works, let alone Clitophon’s Challenge.

    The nature of the discipline of philosophy is undergoing development and construction in the fourth century, B.C.E. Some evidence for this derives from the relative rarity of the term philosophos and its cognates prior to the fourth century, and their abundant use thereafter. For Plato, Socrates was the paradigm of a philosopher, and Plato’s dialogues depict Socrates as philosophizing or (as Socrates is made to describe it at one point in the Apology) making logoi. At least one of the things Plato is concerned to do in these depictions is to help define the nature of this philosophical thinking by depicting Socrates as engaging in it in different contexts and by distinguishing Socrates’s practice from other ways of thinking or making logoi: eristic, rhetoric, sophistic, etcetera.

    Two recurring contexts in which Plato depicts Socrates in the dialogues are what we might call the context of discovery (the context of attempting to acquire the knowledge he recognizes he does not have and yet needs or values) and the context of justification (the context of defending or justifying a position he has endorsed). Sometimes a discovery context occurs in which Socrates’s interlocutor claims to have the knowledge Socrates seeks (for example, in the Euthyphro). Other times a discovery context occurs in which none of Socrates’s interlocutors claim to have the knowledge he seeks — thus demanding de novo discovery or learning on one’s own (for example, the last third of the Meno or the Theaetetus). Sometimes Plato depicts Socrates in the context of justification. For example, much of the Phaedo is devoted to Socrates’s justification of his belief (or logos) that as a philosopher he should embrace his pending death, and much of the Republic is devoted to the justification of Socrates’s belief (or logos) that justice is a good welcomed for its own sake and its consequences. And of course this frequent emphasis on Socrates’s philosophical context also raises the fascinating question of what Plato is attempting to depict in dialogues like the Sophist, Politicus, and Timaeus in which Socrates ceases to be the main interlocutor. These contexts (and others) are not always well defined, but the general distinction is I hope clear enough.

    Clitophon’s challenge raises the question of how to behave philosophically, to philosophize, in the context of discovery — when no one is around from whom to learn. This is why in seeking to address Clitophon’s challenge, I sought textual contexts in which Socrates (or a philosophically thinking interlocutor) was depicted as attempting to acquire the knowledge he lacked, specifically when no one who claimed to have it was available. As it turned out, such contexts were few and far between: the last third of the Meno, and Socrates’s description of his attempt to discover the cause of generation and destruction in the Phaedo. And I also looked for evidence in Socrates’s descriptions of his method of inquiry or discovery.

    This does not mean that the method of hypothesis cannot be used in other contexts. Indeed, the argument for the possibility of Kallipolis does not appear to be a context of discovery, and yet it was my third primary example of Socrates’s method at work in the dialogues. But the method of hypothesis is less at home in the context of justification than in the context of discovery. As I mentioned above, the speech of the laws in the Crito, or the arguments for immortality in the Phaedo, or Timaeus’s logos in the Timaeus do not look like instances of this method of hypothesis.

    To return to your final question, then, I doubt that the method of hypothesis is at home in much of what we see of philosophically professional activity. Teaching, or publishing monographs or articles, or professional presentations typically take place within a context of justification, as they should be: “Here’s my thesis and this is why I hold it.”

    The context of discovery in professional philosophizing can take place in isolation, but it also takes place in e-mail (or, when I began this activity, snail-mail) correspondence with one’s colleagues, in discussions around and about professional presentations, and even over dinner or a drink. In those contexts especially, I suspect that something like Plato’s method of hypothesis is a good model for such activity: supposing an answer to a question whose answer would answer the issue under consideration, and confirming that supposition by considering what it might follow from and whether it has any untoward consequences, and continuing this activity until one has arrived at something sufficient (or the drinks have run out). But more generally I am inclined to think that studying Plato’s dialogues amounts in part to studying his views about the nature of philosophy or philosophical thinking in various contexts (and in contrast to other sorts of thinking — a perennial concern). Consequently, his dialogues are indeed a good place to start in thinking about philosophically professional (and non-professional) activities. So as I say, I guess I do hope that my book encourages a way of engaging in philosophical thinking as opposed to typical textual instruction, or to the mere winning of arguments. But I think that that is Plato’s hope for his work as well, and he does it much better than I, and it is a much bigger task than anything I have attempted in Clitophon’s Challenge.