A Quick Thought on Plato

I have been teaching lots of Plato lately:  The Theaetetus in my Intro to Phil class; the Euthydemus and the Phaedrus (so far) in Ancient; and I’m doing a reading group on the Symposium (using Shelley’s translation–edited and introduced by the inimitable David O’Conner). It’s been a long time since I have been so Plato supersaturated.  One thing that has struck me is the depth of Plato’s engagement with sophistry–and just how difficult he finds isolating the threat of sophistry to be:  I don’t think I realized before just how formidable and how central a philosophical problem sophistry itself is for Plato.  Part of what makes it so formidable and so central is the remarkable way in which, over and over, sophistry looks more like philosophy than philosophy itself does.  (Put in other terms, it is the sophists who look like the rationalists, Socrates who looks like the irrationalist.)

Sophistry is internal to philosophy; philosophy cannot eliminate (the possibility of) sophistry without eliminating (the possibility of) itself. And so Socrates’s war with the sophists never ends, even if battles sometimes do.

I know this is a leap, but (what the hell) I will make it:  one of my chief complaints about the self-understanding of many analytic philosophers I know is their easy confidence that philosophy as they do it can eliminate (the possibililty of) sophistry through a new acquist of ever more sternly regulated techniques–a technique for clarity, a technique for rigor, a technique for explicitness.  But of course it is just this elevation of and reliance on technique that typifies sophistry.  Now, by that I do not mean that these analytic philosophers I know are sophists.  They aren’t—mostly.  But they are far closer to sophistry than they know.  What is meant to safeguard them from sophistry is what keeps them exposed to it.

8 responses

  1. – take a fee which is only thinkable as anything other than a fee for teaching by virtue of complicated institutional arrangements, and a historical connection to offices of the church
    – professional pride of place given to the making of long speeches uninterrupted by questions
    – professionalization and advancement processes that encourage thinking of a vocation as a career and a career in terms of in-group status
    – strong temptation, when asked to justify value to society or impressionable youths, to claim sole possession, or at least best preparation for acquisition, of the most important knowledge
    – ‘many prospective law students who score well on the lsats took philosophy majors’
    – prefer use of unnatural terminology like ‘effluvia’ to words that ordinary people can understand
    – risk-prone habit of treating all positions as equally arguable

    • Yes, including even that. Method is a snare. After all, the only times I believe I know the method of philosophizing are the times when I am not philosophizing; when I am, I do not believe I know.

      • indeed, but how put that into a formula for administration on what undergrads will learn in your classes?

      • I’m not sure if you can, exactly. But you can teach in the light of Plato’s line from the Seventh Letter: “Acquaintance with [Philosophy] must come after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself, and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and becomes self-sustaining.”

  2. “Ultimately, nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows. For what one lacks access to from experience one will have no ear. Now let us imagine an extreme case: that a book speaks of nothing but events that lie altogether beyond the possibility of any frequent or even rare experience – that it is the first language for a new series of experiences. In that case, simply nothing will be heard, but there will be the acoustic illusion that where nothing is heard, nothing is there..” -F.N.

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