How might a reader, encountering Socratic conversations with some interlocutor, become Plato’s conversational interlocutor? How might theorists and scholars of Platonic texts foreground (formally, conceptually, pedagogically) their own dialogical engagements from the start? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Mary Margaret (“MM”) McCabe. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on McCabe’s Platonic Conversations. McCabe works on ancient philosophy, ethics, and the philosophy of medicine. Her books include Plato on Punishment, Plato’s Individuals, and Plato and his Predecessors: The Dramatisation of Reason. She was a Fellow of Classics at New Hall Cambridge, and later a Professor of Ancient Philosophy at King’s College London, where she is now Philosophy Emeritus. Recently a Keeling Scholar in Residence at University College, London, and a Bye-Fellow of Newnham College Cambridge, McCabe also delivered the 2017 Sather Lectures at UC-Berkeley, giving her lecture series the title “Seeing and Saying: Plato on Virtue and Knowledge.” McCabe is a Fellow of the British Academy, and a former president of the British Philosophical Association, as well as of the Mind Association. She edits the Cambridge University Press series Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato, which soon will publish her book Plato’s Euthydemus.
ANDY FITCH: I should have asked long ago for somebody to define “conversation,” or at least “Platonic conversation.” But I find myself lucky to have waited, since I consider you the perfect person. So could you sketch a continuum that might situate Platonic conversation amid dialogic processes such as: paradox (detaching us from an account’s forward momentum, ensnaring us in reflective engagement as we seek to make legible an author’s implicit intentions, a text’s implicit ramifications), puzzlement (crystallizing as its own form of internal Q-and-A, pushing us to provide some form of contemplative judgment), interrogative compulsion (which you often situate amid circumstantial urges to resolve “annoying” contradictions), disputation (its own quasi-compulsive and/or strategic pursuit of competitive disagreement), argument (potentially a debate or controversy, potentially an empathic attempt to persuade one’s interlocutor), myth (steering us in alternate directions from argument’s reductive tendencies, prioritizing the “ontologically extravagant”), dialectic (I won’t even try for a shorthand description of dialectic)? Could we likewise begin to sketch your characteristic methods of being conversant with a text, of closely attending to a particular Platonic dialogue across several articles, providing a rich, polyvalent response expanding beyond any straightforward summation of Plato’s supposed logical/moral/metaphysical precepts, though still directing readers towards some cogent philosophical destination “of which the analytic tradition might approve”? Could we take as one recurrent point of focus, say, the basic rhetorical parameters of the Meno, in which you trace two different queries playing out simultaneously (with Meno asking “how the object of inquiry comes into my purview at all,” while Socrates asks “how my own cognitive grip on the object of inquiry can figure in the inquiry itself”), and yet with these somewhat divergent considerations not canceling but complementing each other, helping to harmonize multi-perspectival planes of inquiry? How might Platonic conversation (however you want to define it, wherever you want to place it, with whatever degree of higher-order reflection you want to assign it) begin to tack between such counterbalancing pressures of private contemplation and social, ever-mediated engagement, never straying all the way towards nihilistic skepticism nor towards a monistic totality that would leave no place for a thinker/interlocutor/reader to offer her own constructive contribution?
MARY MARGARET MCCABE: Conversation, some might say, is a bad place to start in philosophy. It is loose, meandering, personal, ill-suited to the careful formalities of argument. And it begins in the middle of things (conversations are, perhaps, not where we start from first principles).
Plato’s conversations, some might say, are even worse, not real conversations at all, and dominated by the persuasive ways of literature rather than the rigor of philosophical argument. Plato’s conversations are fixed — they do not show people actually thinking for themselves, or really instantiating the virtues and vices of collaborative thought, or reaching conclusions held by particular, real individuals. So, the complaint goes, Plato’s representations of conversation are either irrelevant to whatever philosophical point he makes, or designed to tilt the discussion in one direction or another. For they encourage the reader to believe one view and disbelieve another — deploying sneaky techniques to privilege the authoritative view of Socrates over that of his unfortunate discussants, whose frequent discombobulation serves to undermine whatever views they put forward. So even if one might defend conversation in general as a worthwhile way to do philosophy, one might still deny that Platonic conversations have any such claim.
Consider, for example, the opening of Plato’s masterpiece, the Republic, where Socrates describes how he “went down to the Piraeus yesterday” in the company of (Plato’s brother) Glaucon, and was about to return when forcibly prevented by some other friends. What might we make of this motif of upwards and downwards journeys, which reappears later in the dialogue in both myth and image? What might we make of the role of pretend violence in a work seeming to endorse unconstrained reason? Why might any of that matter to what the dialogue “really” says? This framing material, some might say, does no philosophical work; it remains extraneous to the philosophical doctrine, the Platonism, carried by these literary vehicles. In addition, some consider Platonism itself suspect: the outmoded metaphysics of Forms, some retrograde ethics (say in the Protagoras’s suggestion that what we need for the best life is a “measuring skill,” whether for pleasure or goodness), or a totalitarian political theory (say the Republic’s account of philosophers’ benign rule). So should we ignore the “literary” features of the dialogues, including that they are dialogues, and focus our criticisms instead on whatever they might “say” underneath? Should we suppose that dialogue, conversation, or its developed technique of “dialectic” is ultimately unimportant, compared to the philosophical views, or even doctrines, lurking within these gilded masterpieces?
But perhaps those objections begin in the wrong place, by assuming that the dialogues fall to a complaint Socrates himself enunciates (in the Gorgias) against the persuasive powers of rhetoric. Maybe we should not assume from the outset that we know what counts as the merely “literary” or rhetorical or persuasive bits of any text, and what counts as the “philosophy,” but should start instead with what we have on the page (representations of philosophical conversation), and think about how conversations work.
Conversation begins, of course, with a sequence of give and take between distinct people, with different standpoints, assumptions, backgrounds, and life histories. That any conversation moves forward at all depends on the ways its interlocutors do indeed differ in assumptions and viewpoints. They can’t have a conversation if they are just clones of each other (as Plato himself notices in his minor masterpiece, the Euthydemus). Nor, indeed, does conversation happen when two people talk past each other (again, the Euthydemus is wise to this). And we expect that both interlocutors have something to say — a long speech is not a conversation at all (as Socrates complains in the Protagoras).
But as a consequence of the differences between interlocutors, a conversation is often driven forwards by one person asking the other a question. The question has a complex psychological effect (demanding, irritating, bothersome in one way or another), providing the need for an answer, and a source of dissatisfaction if that answer somehow fails. The short dialogues often show Socrates skewering some unfortunate interlocutor, persistently refusing to concede that his question has been answered (one perfect example is the gem that is the Euthyphro). This complex feature of questions (their psychological demand as well as their insistence on satisfaction) requires that the relation between question and answer be one of salience (the need for adequate, complete, relevant answers), again both in terms of what the answer says, and the answerer’s attitude towards what she has said. And in the classic Socratic case, a question provokes a salient answer, which then invites a further question, itself salient to the answer, and a further answer which again should attempt to satisfy the latest question. But at each stage, the answer may be criticized for failing as an answer, so that sometimes the questions are about salience itself, or about what it would mean to satisfy the question — the sequence proceeds at two levels of thought at once.
This pragmatic sequence may not offer a formal inferential structure, but still may be argumentative, focused on whether the answers properly satisfy the questions. Platonic dialogues frequently represent and emphasize all of this, for instance in the Charmides, when the interlocutors check for consistency between what they have agreed on now, and what they agreed on earlier. But that informality does not, I think, make these discussions somehow deficient, or second-rate compared to the abstractions of argument we find, for example, in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics. For Plato’s conversations are (like any conversation) embedded in the evaluative context of what it means to be that person, answering those questions at that time and place. This particularity, this being in the middle of things (an entirely banal feature of our ordinary lives), matters, even where it is only represented. At the same time, these representations provide a critique of the nature and the role of such conversations, and the conditions for their proper procedure.
So in the middle of the Meno, Meno finds himself unable to say anything at all in answer to Socrates’s insistent question about virtue. Meno finds himself in the grip of an acute sense of impasse, of aporia, and acknowledges that what he thought he knew he does not know, so that he feels in himself a thoroughgoing and incapacitating ignorance. When Socrates proposes that they carry on regardless, Meno complains that Socrates asks for the impossible, in asking Meno to tell him about virtue, when Meno now thinks he knows nothing at all about virtue. Socrates reformulates Meno’s complaint in quite general terms — as a challenge to the possibility of beginning any inquiry from a position of ignorance (how do we look for anything if we don’t even know what to look for?), let alone of completing any inquiry so begun (how could we ever know we have reached knowledge?). This challenge applies to conversation, too: how do we ever come up with new questions? How did we ever come up with a first question, when it was new? This puzzle seems paradoxical, for it questions whether we can question (it is often known as Meno’s Paradox, or the Paradox of Inquiry). And this paradox bears on how conversation always seems to be in the middle of things (how did it ever begin? how can it end?). Paradoxical puzzlement here should make any interlocutor notice the challenge directed at the very procedure she is engaged in right now, and so make her attend not only to the content of what is said, but also to how it is said, and to her own state of mind. Progress in knowledge, indeed, may need this kind of reflective feature: that when we ask questions and offer answers, we may track our own progress, think about it, seek to understand it — and this tracking, this second-order thinking about thinking, is itself a part of coming to understand.
So within the dialogues’ artificial conversations, the poor interlocutor, not knowing much at all, is confronted by Socrates, who seems to know perfectly well where the discussion should go (despite the fact that he often claims to know nothing at all). Here, however, the dialogues’ appearance of presenting free-floating conversations, genuine inquiries into the matter at hand, untrammeled by covert assumptions, seems merely an appearance, not offering us any real possibility to learn something we did not know before. Instead the dialogues offer questions heavily embedded in conversational context, ineradicably in the middle of things, but dictated all the way through by the author’s design.
But again, this sense of the dialogues as artificial, as somehow cheating, turns out, I think, to be a virtue after all. For suppose that how these dialogues work is as philosophically important as any particular theses they may advance. Suppose the dialogues start shifting our attention, for example, to how this kind of interrogative thinking works, and thence to the relation between the author and his reader: you, me, and us. This relation, after all, has the characteristics of a conversation, as I have described them — for it comes with each side’s views unexamined in advance, embedded in particular personal and historical context, antecedently committed to all sorts of ideas that may not be evident. This relation, I suggest, is both well understood and thoroughly exploited by Plato, so that his literary workings serve to engage with unknown readers, in trying to get you, me, and us to think directly about what the dialogues (and what conversations more generally) say.
This has, perhaps, a consequence for how we think of these works as works of philosophy. We can choose to think of the dialogues not so much as a collection of doctrines or theses, but rather as activities or processes — the process of progressing in thought towards arriving at some kind of settled epistemic disposition, and some set of settled (even if provisional) views. This view of philosophical progress may indeed be what the Republic describes when it discusses the “power of conversation” or the “power of dialectic” in the education of the philosopher rulers. For the Republic insists that intellectual progress gets made by “the giving and receiving of reasons”: it supposes that in defending a claim I should be able not simply to give a justification for it, but that as I make intellectual progress I also have to “receive” the reasons that ground the views of others. To do this involves not just speaking, but listening, hearing what the other has to say. This constraint on doing philosophy through the informal ways of conversation suggests that, after all, philosophy is neither solipsistic, on the Platonic account, nor remotely metaphysical — since conversational progress at its best can embody philosophy. And if conversation should work like this, then the dialogues’ reader may likewise need to be deeply responsive to how Plato writes: since it is in attentiveness to detail that we often come to understand what our interlocutor may mean.
To continue clarifying how an author might enact or elicit such higher-order inquiries, rather than just making axiomatic claims about them, could we turn back to the Charmides, and begin exploring how this vivid scene in the flesh serves to differentiate Critias’s emphatic advocacy for “knowing oneself” from Socrates’s more measured investigations (starting from an acknowledgment of one’s own ignorance, thereby launching an elaborate embodied sifting/synthesis of “a complex set of relations between belief and perception, inquiry and reflection, even desire”)? And here could we contextualize such self-reflective parsings within a Charmides narrative that gets framed by discussions of physical sight and of psychological insight — yet that also gradually demonstrates how epistemological mediation precludes any “brute relation between perception and its object”? Could you sketch the significant (if never systematic) analogies among perception, knowledge, and understanding that do arise, and then (returning to your understated reference to “even desire”) could we pause on Socrates’s own apparent distraction from higher-order reflection, as he peers “at the things inside” Charmides’s cloak and suddenly feels “on fire…beside myself”? Could you outline how this coaxing forth of eros in all its carnal/contemplative/reflective fullness might in fact help Socrates to conceive of (and/or Plato to represent) appearance as “both somehow partial (perception is not the same thing as reflection or belief) and also somehow compelling: this is how it really seems”? What precisely does Socrates (or Socrates’s second- or third-hand philosophical audience absorbing this account) access when seeing the desired object (perhaps sensuous body, perhaps exemplary soul housed therein), and how might this desire’s reliance on (and ultimate refinement of) mediating perception compare to our own prospects for readerly higher-order reflection?
Some suppose that Plato’s interest in conversation lies in his wanting to tell us something about how private thinking works. I take the opposite view: that Plato thinks there is something important to philosophy about dialogue, real and effective dialogue; and that Plato explores something important for philosophy through the differences of perspective represented in the dialogues, because these mirror the many perspectives of the dialogues’ readers; that the challenge is thrown down to the reader to realize just that. Indeed, the very irritation of reading the dialogues (and complaining of the treatment of different interlocutors) itself prompts us to think about difference of perspective — from our own point of view, outside the dialogue. If that kind of higher-order reflection on our own thought is a part of the business of philosophy, then the dialogues’ form actively promotes it. The account that the dialogues then give (as we consider each individual dialogue as a cohesive whole) of what knowledge is, or what the inquiry that seeks knowledge might be, or what we might say of coming to understand, has an essentially reflective feature: knowledge is not merely a body of truths, but engages with the cognitive state of the knower; if we know, then we must at some point know that we know.
So the talk about conversation is one thing. But Platonic dialogues also offer intense and vivid descriptions of scenes, described as if before us, in which the conversations may be embedded. Plato’s Charmides tells a story of an encounter between Socrates and Critias (Plato’s uncle) and the beautiful youth Charmides, to discuss the virtue of sôphrosunê — of self-control or integrity (the regular translation as “temperance” does our understanding of this dialogue no favors). The Charmides has all the characteristics of a standard Socratic encounter but, as in other cases, the historical context looms over it: both Critias and Charmides had nasty careers in the bloody political coups in Athens at the end of the fifth century BCE (in the future on this dialogue’s timeline, but in the actual past when Plato wrote the piece). Neither man was, as this historical record suggests, much committed to self-control or integrity. The running question of the dialogue (whether integrity either is, or requires, self-knowledge) intensifies the moral tone (does the manifest failure of either man, here in this fictional setting, to account for the nature of integrity, or for the significance of self-knowledge, render him less culpable?). At the same time Plato offsets this dark aspect of the dialogue against its striking opening where, in a piece of slapstick comedy, he describes young Charmides’s beauty and the effect it has on the men assembled in the wrestling-school. They are sitting on a bench, but so eager to make room for Charmides to sit among them that they shove over and the man on the end falls off. This opening comedy invites a series of puzzles, taken up in the dialogue that follows. Socrates insists that seeing Charmides’s body doesn’t interest him, but only seeing within, into Charmides’s soul, which Socrates plans to uncover in argument. But before Socrates can do that, Charmides’s cloak falls open, and Socrates claims to see “within,” and to be overwhelmed. Does he see Charmides’s naked body? His naked soul? What kind of seeing plays out here?
The comic moment has come, as the dialogue’s developing tone will show, at a cost: the cost of imagining, and enjoying, the discomfiture of these men, with their hopeless desire for young Charmides, and the cost of wondering whether Socrates’s response to Charmides also comes from lust rather than his desire to inspect Charmides’s moral character, or what Socrates would see if he did inspect that character. The dialogue has opened with a play on what and how we see, then goes on to consider how seeing works, and whether the person who sees can see that they see, just as whether the person who knows can know that they know. Do we see just when affected by objects of sight out there in the world? Or is seeing richer and more reflective? Might the reader think about how she sees (or imagines) the comic events at this dialogue’s beginning, and register her own engaged perspective as she sees (and then come to notice, too, that knowing is like seeing — not so much a momentary encounter with some object or fact, but rather an active engagement of the knower in the business of coming to know)? The careful interplay in the Charmides between the complexity of perception and the complexity of knowledge, and the role in both of second-order attitudes (seeing that I see, knowing that I know), suggests that if we pay attention to this whole dialogue, the dramatic goings-on may themselves reflect on our assumptions about the cognition we deploy (right here from the outside, as we read).
A Platonic character may find himself gaping and bewildered as he comes to see his own statements as inconsistent. Likewise, the reader might reach a sense of puzzle or paradox or difficulty. Perhaps most striking of all, most directly affecting the reader, are moments when the puzzle remains for the reader alone. Consider, for example, the Protagoras scene when Socrates complains that Protagoras should not give long speeches because he (Socrates) cannot remember the beginning when he gets to the middle, and where we realize from outside that Socrates narrates this whole dialogue from memory. Or consider when Socrates tells, in the Phaedrus, of the invention of writing by the Egyptian Theuth, whose king complained that this invention would ruin our memories (for writing, Socrates observes, stands still and cannot defend itself, too fixed to provide us with knowledge). Socrates, within this dialogue’s dramatic context, complains about the damage done by writing, but Plato represents that complaint in writing. So how should we respond to this written advice not to trust what is written? This is surely another paradox, and it forces us to notice our own stance (outside the dialogue, looking in). We see not only something about the dialogue’s unreliability of reportage, but also about how Plato positions this reportage relative to us, and that we have a perspective on it from here. Just like comedy, these puzzles from the dialogues bring the reader’s stance into view, and allow her a perspective — both on the dialogue, and on her perspective itself.
But the Phaedrus paradox says still more. Socrates argues that paintings have the same immobile and unresponsive quality as writing: stuck, unable to do more than present themselves to us. Again this brings out the twin character of the dialogues, the combination of what they say and what they make us see — for the language is often vividly imagistic, both in its description of ordinary events, and in its deployment of myths, stories, thought-experiments, and elaborate theories. And yet the dialogues express, at the same time, condemnation of the role of visual images in our cognitive lives (notoriously in the discussion of mimesis in Republic Book 10).
Consider one highly imagistic description, the famous account of the cave and its prisoners, introduced in Republic Book 7 to describe “the nature of education and its failure.” The cave story describes the life of prisoners, tied underground by the neck and legs, facing a blank wall on which are cast shadows of objects carried behind the prisoners and illuminated by a fire. This shadow world exhausts the prisoners’ cognition, but occasionally one turns around and comes to see that the shadow world has another behind it, and another as she makes her way out of the cave to the sunlit natural world. This story, Socrates says, tells a great deal about how we ourselves see, how restricted our vision may be, how we then may be blinded by light as we gradually ascend. And this account of seeing is a picture for knowledge.
The kind of seeing Socrates describes here is richly cognitive. So the content of our sight itself is properly expressible, and open to scrutiny. Seeing is not, either here or in the Charmides descriptions of sight, the raw reception of what is perceived (so not, for example, just the figuring of the eye by the external world’s color), but fully described — what we see when we see is that things are thus and so, how things are, and how things are in context. So first of all, the content of seeing can be articulated and compared with other content. Second, these descriptions of vision and our perspective on it tell us of an engaged interaction with the world, a view taken by the subject of vision, and a reflective enlargement of our vision.
As a consequence, seeing can be improved. We can get better at seeing as our vision becomes better informed and thoughtful and reflective. On the Republic account, that kind of improvement still enhances genuine seeing. All of this cognitive business is a part of seeing proper. If, then, the intellect’s workings are (as the cave story takes them to be) analogous to seeing, then we may imagine intellect also to develop through thought and reflection, to improve over time. For both cases, progress gets made in richly cognitive ways: comparing and contrasting, checking and revising, and especially by recognizing our own perspective — whether sitting in the cave or thinking about knowledge or reading these texts.
Here the Charmides, once again, offers a challenge. Socrates and Charmides investigate whether integrity might be a matter of self-knowledge, but find it impossible to figure out just what any such self-knowledge might involve. Socrates presents merely reflexive knowledge as either trivial or absurd (it is clear enough that Plato is not here exercised by problems of consciousness). But if we think of self-knowledge as a richer psychological state, how to describe or achieve or even approach that state? Socrates offers no answer, but the beginning of a pragmatic account emerges in this dialogue’s construction itself — as the text’s complex workings provoke puzzles (about both vision and knowledge) that invite resolution not only in terms of rich cognition, but by involving the subject’s sense of her own point of view, her own reflective standpoint in both seeing and thinking through these arguments on offer.
Still this remains (as the dialogues make clear, both in their representation of conversations, and in their complex challenges to the reader) a frustrating, bothersome, arduous process. So why would we care? Why should any of this thinking and seeing and trying to know matter? Why, according to these texts, should we aspire to knowledge and endure these travails? Is this interest in knowledge merely practical, or is knowledge somehow worth having in itself? Is the self-knowledge involved in the reflective turn (provoked by difficulty and bewilderment and puzzle) of any value in itself?
A critical moment in the Meno asks this very question: suppose we try to get from Athens to Larissa. Suppose, too, that although we have never travelled the road, we have a belief (in fact true) about how to get there, and rightly have confidence in this belief, so that, setting off, we do indeed arrive at Larissa. Even if we distinguish this case from one where the person going to Larissa knows the road to Larissa, what difference does this knowledge make? They will get to Larissa just the same, of course — but suppose that the person with true belief also gets it right repeatedly (so that knowledge does not give any advantage of reliability), then what extra value does the knowledge provide? Why bother to acquire knowledge, if reliable true belief works just as well?
Notice here two kinds of contrast: the explicit contrast between knowledge and belief, thought to be familiar but (here) inexplicable; and the second contrast between individual, occurrent cognitive episodes (whether beliefs: “I believe the road to Larissa is on the left,” or pieces of knowledge: “I know the road to Larissa is on the left”), and much more general states of mind. The Meno’s final question turns less on the value of individual truths than on the value of possessing some more general state of mind, even a capacity — knowledge versus belief.
Again the parallel with sight may help here. For the Republic gives an account of the development of a general perceptual capacity (rather than of individual episodes of seeing), and a general capacity that has a strong evaluative cast. We learn to value the ability to see the world better, rather than merely to see that red apple over there or to get to Larissa. Here reflection plays an essential part in developing this capacity (even though not every individual case of seeing is reflective). Similarly, for the parallel intellectual state of knowledge, the general intellectual capacity requires reflection for its development and its systematic shape (in part this may differentiate knowledge from belief), but does not require that any particular episode of knowledge must be reflective (I can perfectly well know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, without an additional condition that I know that I know it). The reflective capacity is a feature of the general state of mind, rather than occurrent for each case of some particular thing I know.
This feature may indeed be what Socrates is searching for as “self-knowledge.” It is not the contemporary commonplace of “consciousness” — it does not tell me “what it is like” to see or to know. Rather, it represents the higher-order complexity of knowledge as knowledge of itself. This condition on knowing becomes obvious when we think about the intricate and complex ways these dialogues work, the ways in which they provoke the reader to reflection. But this view of how the dialogues engage the reader’s cognitive states might run counter to another view commonly attributed to Plato: that we can explain knowledge, for sure as a general capacity or state, but a capacity determined precisely by our direct access to a body of knowledge, to a domain of the unassailably true — to what some describe as the world of the Platonic Forms. That view obscures something essential. It obscures the value of such knowledge. It dismisses any sense we might have of knowledge as reflective, and it ignores, as a consequence, the role in knowledge of the knowing subject (so reflective not only on the knowledge itself, but also on the knower, “self-knowledge” in a truly complex sense). If I am right about ways in which these dialogues play on the reader’s perspective, as well as illustrating how the perceiving or thinking or knowing subject’s standpoint might matter, then the role of the knower indeed factors into Plato’s account of how knowledge develops, and should determine our account of his epistemology.
Furthermore, the Republic image of the cave (where a single prisoner, freed from her shackles, turns around and makes her way, with pain and difficulty, to the outside world), might seem to represent the role of the thinking or knowing subject as solitary — well primed for an elitist (if not utterly solipsistic) view of knowledge. But that runs quite counter to the collaborative business of conversation, where an account is both given and taken, and where inquiry is engaged together. Indeed, a peculiar feature of the Republic (itself the place where Plato’s critics have found the most elitist attitudes) is its emphasis on collaboration. Although the Republic starts with Socrates’s “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday,” succeeding pages make it clear that the first-person verbs are plural, “we” (with a complex play throughout on who counts as “we”: is it Socrates and his friends? Citizens of the ideal state? The ordinary vernacular “we” of social norms? The readers of his text?). These details of the Republic’s dialogic composition, as well as the conditions of education it describes, insist that the collaborative approach, the progress of conversation, matters in figuring out how to acquire knowledge of this highly reflective kind.
So let’s say we can agree (perhaps agreeing with Plato) that understanding comes not from some singular unmediated access to knowledge, but rather from an ongoing search for wisdom, from a cultivation of cognitive virtue through self-refining pursuits of conversational practice, reflection, habit. Let’s say one basic benefit to reading Plato emerges as we gradually arrive not at some fixed, categorical rejection of the world of appearance, but at a more fluid recognition that present vantages on the phenomenal world remain insufficiently static: that we will need an ever-greater perspectival variety, calling forth ever-enhanced synthesizing capacities, in order for our own cognitive virtue to continue developing. Rather than passively absorb authoritative Platonic pronouncements (as one perhaps might just “see” or “experience” an unmediated ultimate reality placed before us), Plato’s readers must actively calculate, judge, reason their way towards conceiving of perception itself as always perspectival, propositional, discursive. And so again, as readers seeking to sharpen our intuitive knack for grasping such immersive, interactive, vectored, three-dimensional understandings, let’s say we decide to place ourselves back amid the Republic’s mythic cave, and start to wonder, as you do: “On the one hand…how can I see myself, when myself is doing the seeing? On the other hand, if what I see, in seeing myself, is in fact only my shadow…it looks as though my self-identification has gone wrong.” Here this cave’s image production, projected from behind the viewer, seen reflected (or more accurately, silhouetted before us — or do we in fact just see our own shadow?) provides an increasingly uncanny yet apt metaphor for the physical, psychological, social, intertextual phenomenology of the reading subject, to such a dizzying extent that (as with all reading experiences) we might find restorative relief in sometimes departing from this hyper-lucid state (perhaps by descending back into the cave’s darkness, or by closing the book), and then later returning to that lucid state — revitalizing, through such oscillations, both our practical dexterities and our self-reflective depths. Does that preliminary account of a reading subject’s ongoing dialectical education (with reading itself always including a kaleidoscopic affective/experiential range of allusion, anticipation, echo, projective identification) further point towards how Platonic dialogue might skirt any absolutist subjective solipsism while nonetheless exemplifying prospects for individual engagement to bring value to a text, for this cultivation of the reading subject as moral agent to push beyond bookish confines, for the even more fundamental question: “Even if Plato can show how to do good dialectic, can you show how dialectic is good?”
Think first about being a knower. As I said earlier, some think that knowledge’s value lies in the sheer possession of a body of truths, and that Platonic metaphysics explain this value. But that account leaves unexplained the ways in which the Republic invites us to think about epistemic progress: as made, for example, by the reader who does all the thinking, who develops what Socrates calls the “power” of various cognitive abilities. Suppose we picture how this process works (as imagined, for example, in Socrates’s discussion with Meno’s slave), how it works through all sorts of cognitive attitudes (conviction, confidence, bewilderment, the sense of failure and renewed effort, the eventual moment of just seeing that things are thus and so). That moment of seeing is best described, not as knowledge, but rather as understanding. It has become a common trope of recent discussions of Plato, indeed, to suggest that his dialogues endorse understanding rather than mere knowledge, that they endorse the idea of understanding as a complex nexus of truths standing in explanatory relation to each other. But while that systematicity is clearly important, it is not sufficient to account for the ways in which understanding is a pellucid, reflective, self-aware state of the knowing subject. And careful reading of the dialogues directs their readers precisely towards such a state, clearly possessing value in itself.
It goes with this thought, and with the elaborate conceptions of “self-knowledge” I described, that we might reasonably think of knowledge or understanding in terms of virtue: connected essentially to its reflective subject, in evaluative ways through and through. This might encourage us to think about epistemic virtue, perhaps as an analogue to ethical virtue. Epistemic virtue, perhaps, helps us see how knowledge can in fact be done better, just as ethical virtue explains how lives can be lived better. Some have taken this further, to consider epistemic sub-virtues as very much like, or even overlapping, ethical ones (honesty, for example, or truthfulness).
But Plato’s take on epistemic virtue (both in his representations of character and in the represented discussions about character, and likewise in his engagement with his reader) seems to suggest that epistemic virtue and ethical virtue coincide. This is sometimes understood as a practical kind of intellectualism, where epistemic virtue entails practical success (so knowledge gets us goods). But that view runs up against the Meno’s question of knowledge’s value. Elsewhere Plato invokes the good order of the soul ruled by reason (notably in Republic Book 4). Personally, I think that the thoroughgoing connection between understanding and conversation, between understanding and vision, suggests a stronger point still: that understanding/virtue makes our projects and our circumstances good; that this is what is good, for us, in itself (I call this a theory of “transformative goods,” transformative both of other goods and of ourselves).
One can hardly dispute that seeing better (with more discernment) is worth having in particular cases. Suppose I look at a painting (say the wonderful Rachel Ruysch still-life in the National Gallery in London) for the first time, and then think and look again, then learn about the trials and tribulations of women still-life artists in the 17th century, and then look again. I come (I take Plato to suggest) to see this wonderful painting better this time, and seeing it so is better for me. Just so, the reading subject continually shifts perspectives on a given argument or scene or text and comes to see it, or to understand it, better. But then, we might think, my being such as to see in these rich ways is in itself a good: better seeing is a better thing to have, for me and apart from its individual manifestations. Likewise for knowledge, its value for me arises apart from any of its practical results — understanding is just a good, in itself.
Continuing our own perception-as-proposition approach, let’s say we share a growing sense that, for the most supple philosopher, “the object of his vision is not known by a mirror-identification (or, then, by the first-person authority of introspection, or by proprioception, or by the immediate awareness of consciousness), but as a complex whole, by being seen from all around” — that such a philosopher ought relentlessly to cultivate this stereoscopic sense both of the object in view and of oneself as its perceiving subject. Plato himself, for instance, might enact such a polyvalent reflective/ruminative approach, say by recycling motifs from one dialogue to another (as your comparisons and contrasts between the Meno and the Euthydemus suggest), thereby constructing a refractive corpus posing perspectives beyond any single textual portal or vantage. And similarly, we might come to recognize the importance not just of how we see, but of how we ourselves are seen (and again, how such diversified perspectives might contribute to one’s stereoscopic self-perception in the round). Platonic conversations no doubt have contributed, along such lines, to your own stereopathy, with the concluding footnote from almost every chapter in this book thanking friends and peers for their feedback, criticism. And I wonder what broader philosophical, pedagogical, discursive, public, conversational spaces and practices in our contemporary world you find most conducive to a thinker pursuing “a kind of moral understanding that will make coherent the role of value in her own life, and that will thus make of her life an integrated whole.” Given, let’s say, your own exemplary fusions of interdisciplinary, intertextual, interpersonal inquiry, given your admiring yet wary regard of present-day academic specialization, where could a reader of this present conversation look (or where, at least, should she be able to look) to flesh out further the most fundamental connections “between ethics and logic, or between metaphysics and politics”? Where does that type of connecting (both within the pluralized intellectual subject and within broader collectivities) happen best right now, and how might we push such connective potential much further?
Considering again this project of close reading, let’s turn to what I described as a minor masterpiece, the Euthydemus. This rather strange dialogue recounts a thoroughly episodic exchange between Socrates (and his friends) and a pair of sophists, the two brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, ostentatiously fictional exponents of sophistic argument. The Euthydemus often gets dismissed as a mere collection of sophistries or fallacies and poor arguments — presumably for the purpose of gathering ammunition against those who purvey them. However a different reading of the dialogue – the one I propose – prioritizes philosophical logic: especially trying to formulate and justify the basic principles of logic, such as the significance of our ways of thought, or the ways in which we manage contradictions (how do we defend, for example, the principle Aristotle claims most fundamental, the impossibility for something to be thus-and-so, and not thus-and-so, in the same respects, at the same time?). In the midst of the Euthydemus, one crucial discussion gets raised: suppose I commit myself to two claims which turn out inconsistent, which cannot both be true at once. If I do hold inconsistent beliefs, why should I care? That question grounds considerations of philosophical logic in a different question about value. But the Euthydemus takes this question, in turn, to illuminate some kind of understanding of who we are: for the dialogue proceeds with a series of different puzzles about personal identity and persistence, starting with a joke about how many sophists Socrates here engages, continuing through the brothers’ refusal to require consistency in what they say over time, to their gibe at Socrates that his interest in his own consistency merely comes from a stupid old stick-in-the-mud, unable to cope with the speed of his own fleeting opinions. The idiom and imagery of this dialogue, the language of persistence and change it exploits, make it clear that persistence and integrity of the speaker underpin consistency. If faced with my own inconsistency, I cannot both accept being inconsistent and stay true to myself — I must either change my mind, or risk my own integrity. So in the end these sophists, who care only for the momentary truth of whatever they say, end up unable to engage with speech in any significant way. As Socrates says, they sew up their own mouths. Commitment to speech requires some kind of ethical stance to one’s own integrity: and Socrates takes that as a necessary condition of one’s life having any value. On this account (set up carefully by the Euthydemus’s own interactions with the Republic), a deep and significant connection exists between ethical virtue and the excellent dispositions and capacities acquired by education.
Those connections, in turn, get sustained by conversation. One part of a conversation’s giving and receiving involves listening to another’s views. If progress in thinking involves thinking about one’s own perspective and integrity and assumptions, then the same holds true of listening (attending to the perspective, the assumptions, and the integrity of one’s interlocutor). Interpreters of Plato in fact proceed in exactly this way: asking whether Plato’s assumptions are sustainable, whether his views are consistent, whether we can attribute to him this or that idea — by listening and thinking and listening again. But traditional interpretation focusses on Plato’s supposed pronouncements. I propose, by contrast, that Plato deploys all of his skill to make the reader also focus on her own cognitive and ethical state. This does not suggest that what Plato’s characters (especially his protagonists) say, in considerable detail, about the multiplicity of philosophical topics these dialogues address, is phony or insignificant or agnostic. Instead it suggests that those views offer just one side of a developing conversation, conducted in the middle of things throughout (liable to revision and retraction, to changing and expanding one’s mind), and always a matter of construction and reconstruction of what it is that makes sense of the world, and of our place within it. Plato, on such an account, is not a dogmatist, but always a dialectician.
So where does this go next? Beyond a general injunction to listen better, three different connections come to mind. First think of Aristotle, Plato’s greatest pupil. Aristotle often gets characterized in pseudo-Freudian terms, as having started his career in thrall to his master, then turning on him with fierce criticism as Aristotle advances his own mature metaphysics. This reading fails to account for a far deeper element in Aristotle’s writing (different, of course, in style and form from the smooth literariness of Platonic dialogues) — namely the ways in which readings of individual Platonic dialogues run beneath both Aristotle’s language and his thought. Over and over (notably in Aristotle’s psychology, especially his accounts of perception in De Anima Book 3; in his metaphysics, in discussing the universal in Metaphysics Z; and in his ethics, in the discussions of how we should understand our relations with others we love), Aristotle’s Platonic background gets brought to our notice by allusion and by details of linguistic structure. In these cases no direct attack occurs on Plato, but rather a dialectical engagement, and a profound acknowledgement of the ways in which Aristotle learned how to think. Noticing this may help us to rethink some part of the ancient dogmatic tradition.
Second, we might think more carefully about the language of conversation. There is a difference between what Grice calls “natural meaning” and the pragmatic meanings that turn up within the context of communication between a speaker and an audience. We need to think hard not merely about words on the page, but also about both how they function as expressions of the intentions of the utterer, and how they are taken by the hearer. Discussions of language’s ethical content (for example recent discussions of bias and injustice in speech, as well as reflections on performative aspects of speech in, for example, hate speech) richly renew this pragmatic aspect of the philosophy of language. Much work on bias and injustice attends to disparities between speaker and hearer, and to the disadvantage suffered by someone who remains mute within the context of a discussion. The Platonic approach to conversation, in my account, supposes a fully and actively engaged auditor or reader — not mute at all, but giving and taking accounts. Whether this gives us a model for rethinking deformations of speech, both public and private, I am not sure. But it does give us a way to think through the active significance, both ethical and logical, of the auditor who only seems to remain mute: you, me and us.
Third, and more directly in Plato’s sights, privileging the ways in which the dialogues seek to elaborate, explain, and even assist the reader’s cognitive development pushes the epistemology of these works towards what I have described as epistemic virtue: where we understand knowledge’s role in terms of the dispositions, capacities, and good ordering of the knower — rather than merely as an externally constituted body of truths. These accounts of epistemic virtue in contemporary theory came after a different development in contemporary ethics, thinking about ethical questions in ways suggested by virtue-theorists like Aristotle. These accounts often suppose that although epistemic virtue may overlap the ethical in some ways (for example in a commitment to honesty or truthfulness) they are not coextensive with it. Plato suggests that, in fact, “virtue” covers both the epistemic and ethical domains, and that these two domains coincide. A challenge for understanding Plato involves figuring out just what this means, and how we can make it plausible. I believe that combining a virtue-orientated view of understanding with a grounding in the collaborative enterprise of conversation may begin to offer such an account.