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.

Draft of MMP Talk

Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon.  I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper.  This is the result so far.  It is a  formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class.  Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc.  Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications.  Comments welcome.

Hamann and the Tradition

Hamann and the Traditon (Northwestern University Press) is just out.  My essay:  “Metaschematizing Socrates:  Hamann, Kierkegaard and Kant on the Value of the Enlightenment” is included.  The editor, Lisa Marie Anderson, did a nice job with the volume.  Lots of good stuff on Hamann—including especially an essay by my friend, John Betz, who is the Hamann guy (not that that’s all he is, by any means).

(I just noticed an annoying mistake in my paper, no doubt due to my faulty proofreading.  The final footnote should compare Socrates to St. John the Baptist, not to Saint Paul, as it does. )

Ed Mooney on Living One’s Own Life

I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment–has he been living a strange life, or his own life.  That’s a funny question to ask, perhaps, yet people can get alienated from themselves, and regret that they’re “living-as-my-father-wants” rather than “living my own life.”

Prospectively, I think self knowledge is a “knowing how” that requires intimate acknowledgment of one’s desires, feelings, commitments and their weights, and so forth, and that sort of knowing how — knowing how to dig through all that — always questioning, always weighing, always proceeding in fear and trembling that one might be kidding oneself — is hard to share or expose or make public and will sound like a confession full of fits and starts and ill-formed thoughts. But along with that ‘reflective” and “confessional” side seems to be a willingness to pledge or promise, to stay true to something often only dimly apprehended. So Socrates remained true to things (say the assurance that the oracle was trustworthy, or that Diotima had something worthy to say) even while it’s hard to say what undergirds that pledge to honor a truth intrinsic to who one must be. “Living-as-Socrates”, knowing how to do that, is something Socrates has to work out for himself — we can’t guide him.

And if we LEARN from Socrates, how does that happen? Perhaps, as Kelly suggests, if I learn from a poem it may show up in my writing my own poem. If I learn ‘knowing how live out the unfolding self I am” by holding Socratic living in mind, that can’t mean Socrates has authority to tell me how to live. If I learn from him, it will not be that I learn how to “live-as-Socrates” (except in the most general way: for example, ‘think about what words you use in probing yourself’). Learning from him will be much more learning how to “live-as-me” — “learning” what can I pledge myself to, to give my life that sort of solidity and continuity that in the longer run I can look back (and my friends can look back) and say: “for all his (propositional, informational, doctrinal) ignorance he knew himself, he led his own life. And “learning what I can pledge myself to” is perhaps mostly just pledging-in-the-relative-dark: not ‘finding out” but “doing.”

This is a comment on a previous post, a comment by Ed Mooney.  I have found it of so much interest that I wanted to station it in a more visible spot.  I plan to write something responsive in the next couple of days.  (The title here is mine, not Ed’s.)

The Objective Absorbed Back Into the Subjective

A…Socratic aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought is found in its instrumentalism, its consistently pragmatic character with reference to theory, expression, and practice.  In this connection is it instructive to remember the difference between Socrates and Plato.  The dialectic which in the hands of Socrates was an instrument to sweep away the cobwebs of illusion to make room for the human ideals, therefore a means of self-discipline and incidentally also a discipline of others, this dialectic was transformed by Plato, more or less clearly and consciously, into an end in itself, and the abstractions developed by this dialectic therefore naturally became the supreme realities.  In short, Socrates was an existential thinker, to use Kierkegaard’s terminology, while Plato was a speculative metaphysician.  What Kierkegaard especially admires in Socrates is that he had no objective result, but only a way, that that it is only by following the Socratic way that one can reach the Socratic result…

In this Socratic sense, Kierkegaard’s own thought was instrumental and pragmatic also.  His objective thinking is everywhere absorbed–absorbed back into the subjective, the personality…   –Swenson, “A Danish Socrates”

I’m not entirely sure the actual Plato (as opposed to the textbook Plato) is quite as far from Socrates as Swenson puts him, but I think the contrast a good one–even if the actual men contrasted do not stand in such contrast to one another.

Socrates, Kierkegaard and The Realistic Spirit? (David Swenson)

Our time has experienced a reaction from the intellectually aristocratic unreality of the post-Kantian idealists, which has thrown us into the arms of the plebeian unreality of the naturalistic philosophers, whose sense of reality is satisfied by the massive, the extensive, the numerical, the quantitative; and thus we have merely exchanged one abstraction for another. But just as in ancient times the career of Socrates furnished perhaps the best commentary upon what a sense for reality means, so in modern times the life and thought of Kierkegaard offer an illuminating commentary upon the philosophy of the real, or upon realism in philosophy.

Socratic Irony, Good and Bad

In his talk, “In Praise of Philosophy”, Merleau-Ponty begins his discussion of Socrates’ irony by considering his behavior at the trial:

What can one do if he neither pleads his cause nor challenges to combat?  One can speak in such a way as to make freedom show itself in and through the various respects and considerations, and to unlock hate by a smile–a lesson for our philosophy which has lost both its smile and its sense of tragedy.  This is what is called irony.  The irony of Socrates is a distant but true relation with others.  It expresses the fundamental fact that each of us is only himself inescapably, and nevertheless recognizes himself in the other.  It is an attempt to open up both of us for freedom.  As is true of tragedy, both the adversaries are justified, and the true irony uses a double-meaning which is founded on these facts.  There is therefore no self-conceit.  As Hegel well says, it is naive.  The story of Socrates is not to say less in order to win an advantage in showing great mental power, or in suggesting some esoteric knowledge.  “Whenever I convince anyone of his ignorance,” the Apology says with melancholy, “my listeners imagine that I know everything that he does not know.”  Socrates does not know any more than they know.  He knows only that there is no absolute knowledge, and that it is by this absence that we are open to the truth.

To this good irony Hegel opposes a romantic irony which is equivocal, tricky, and self-conceited.  It relies on the power which we can use, if we wish, to give any kind of meaning to anything whatsoever.  It levels things down:  it plays with them and permits anything.  The irony of Socrates is not this kind of madness.  Or at least if there are traces of bad irony in it, it is Socrates himself who teaches us to correct Socrates…Sometimes it is clear that he yields to the giddiness of insolence and spitefulness, to self-magnification and the aristocratic spirit.  He was left with no other resource than himself.  As Hegel says again, he appeared “at the time of the decadence of the Athenian democracy; he drew away from the externally existent and retired into himself to seek the just and the good.”  But in the last analysis it was precisely this he was self-prohibited from doing, since he thought that one cannot be just all alone and indeed, that in being just all alone he ceases to be just.  If it is truly the City that he is defending, it is not merely the City in him but that actual City existing around him…It was therefore necessary to give the tribunal its chance of understanding.  In so far as we live with others, no judgment we make on them is possible with leaves us out, and which places them at a distance.

For me, this is a Janus passage: it retrospects Reading “RM” 10 (as well as another recent post) and prospects Reading “RM” 11 (or it will, when I produce 11).  –But for now I want to think about it just for Socrates’s sake.  Montaigne I set aside.  What interests me in the passage now is the contrast between good and bad irony.  I agree that there is such a contrast and I agree in the main with Merleau-Ponty’s Hegelian understanding of it.  Noting the contrast is important in reckoning with Socrates.  (It is therefore important in teaching Socrates, as I now am.  Students tend to react most strongly to the traces of bad irony in Socrates’ (good) irony and thus to treat his irony as (unalloyed) bad irony.  Merleau-Ponty’s description helps me sympathize with the students when they react that way, without yielding to their reaction.)  Socrates’ good irony hugs his ignorance, without crossing out that ignorance, rendering it merely apparent.  As I have said in previous posts, Socrates targets double ignorance–thinking that you know when you do not know–and having that target makes irony all but unavoidable.  Unlike simple ignorance–not knowing–double ignorance is not-knowing entombed in pride (self-conceit), coldly obstructed from the truth.  Socrates’ good irony aims to disinter a person’s simple ignorance, and to bring a person to acknowledge that simple ignorance.  Socrates’ good irony is, as Merleau-Ponty notes, a distant but true relation with others:  distant–because if he comes too close he aggravates their pride, risks losing himself or approbates himself against their freedom; true–because genuinely hopeful and genuinely humble.  Available, as I am now habitually putting it.  Sometimes Socrates fails because he cannot maintain distance or maintain truth, and then he either misses irony altogether or he slips into some degree of bad irony.  Good irony is Socrates’ way of making himself available to others without trespassing upon their freedom; it is also a way of targeting their pride, the pride that not only makes them unavailable to others, but makes them unhandy to themselves.  Pride creates only the freedom to fall.

(A puzzle in Merleau-Ponty’s passage is its use of ‘distant’ and ‘distance’.  Socrates’ irony is a “distant but true relation with others”, but Socrates will make no judgment on others that “places them at a distance”.  I solve the puzzle this way:  Socrates’ good irony does not place him at a judgmental distance from others.  It is not a standing over and above them.  In other words, Socrates can count himself among those he lives with, making no judgment on them that leaves him out, and which places them at a distance, even while his way of living among them is to maintain a distant but true relation to them.  In fact, his ironic distance even aids his refusal to place others at a judgmental distance from himself:  think of judgmental distance as a false relation to others.)

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