Author Archives: fabiencayer

Measures and Metrics

It was a day at the races for two young boys in Gimli, Manitoba. As crowds gathered to watch cars flick back and forth on the track, they took their bikes a few hundred metres away to re-enact the races on a derelict runway. Unbeknownst to them, a giant silently bore down upon them. Air Canada’s flight 143 had run out of fuel and was attempting to glide to a safe landing. We can’t imagine their terror. We can’t imagine what it was like to see their short lives flash before their eyes as they turned to see the jet nearly upon them. They stood still in shock for a moment then raced down the runway as fast as they could. They made it. Barely.

This crash was no tragedy. But it could have been. Hundreds of people could have been injured or killed. And for what? For a conversion error. The ground crew thought that they were adding fuel in kilograms but were actually adding pounds. Hence only about half the fuel was added than intended. That is, the Gimli Glider was a casualty of Canada’s metrication process. There were others, though much less severe. And yet, metrication is worth it. The metric system is the best measurement system we have available to us.

This is a weird claim. All measurement systems are arbitrary. Rulers and thermometers were not the gifts of Heaven like those law tables carved in stone. Humans have always used what was available to them to keep track of weights and measures. Humans have used stones and feet and thumbs and brines and cups and so on. The metric system is just one more in this long list of arbitrary measures.

But arbitrary things can also be more and less apt to accomplish what it was designed for. For metrics, there are at least three primary criteria we use to evaluate aptness: ease of use, ease of conversion, and its ability to represent real difference.

Most metrics throughout history were designed with ease of use in mind. Weights and measures needed to be compared to some standard, and that standard had to be readily available. The cubit is the gold standard in ease of use: what is more available to a carpenter than her own forearm? If she wishes to measure out a board, she need only count how many of her forearms it is long, and she has some measure. And since her forearm does not change in size, everything she measures with it will be bound to the same standard.

Now, the problem with a cubit is that it isn’t easily convertible into other measures. How many thumbs go into a cubit? How many feet? It isn’t obvious, and the carpenter must determine that for herself. If another carpenter were to use her measurements, he might find that his cubits are of a different size, and the ratios of his feet to his cubits might be different altogether. People solved this long ago by standardising their previously variable measures into formal units. The foot no longer corresponded to the carpenter’s own foot but to some arbitrary standard foot, say the king’s. And so too with thumbs and all the rest. And once this is established, the ratios between different measures remain static. There are twelve thumbs in a foot. There are sixteen ounces in a pound. There are two pints in a quart. And so on. This may slightly reduce the ease of use for these measures, but it vastly improves the overall utility of the measurement system.

Finally, the ultimate purpose of any measurement system is to record real differences in the world. We want to know whether two boards are the same size or different. We want to know whether our apple-only diet is helping us lose weight. We want to know whether it is warmer or cooler outside than it was yesterday. And this is the hardest part about any measurement system: some of those differences are more important to us than others, and our measurement system must recognise this.

So given all this, why metrication? There are of course practical questions. Metric is the international standard; US manufacturers lose millions of dollars every year because they have to convert quantities into metric for export, a phenomenon that does not plague manufacturers elsewhere. This also puts American students behind their peers from other countries. Metric is the official measurement system of science, and so students in American schools must not only learn the imperial system, but also the metric system. However, these pragmatic questions say nothing about metrication. The US could without too much difficulty exert its influence to motivate other countries to switch back to imperial. If we want to justify metrication, we need to do this internal to a theory of measurement alone.

So why is metric the gold standard? In no uncertain terms, it unambiguously meets the measurement criteria better than any other measurement system. Metric is no more difficult to use than any other measurement alternative. Both imperial and metric require standardised instruments, and both are equally available. But metric makes conversion easier than any other measurement system. Imperial maintains constant ratios between different units, but these ratios are not uniform. There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and 1280 yards in a mile. A person needs to remember each one of those ratios, or at least look them up in some rule book, before one can complete even the simplest conversions. Metric dispenses with this difficulty. The conversion ratios in metric are not only constant, but also uniform. Every unit is distinguished from the others as multiples of ten. And when in doubt, the conversion ratio is included in the name of the unit. A kilometre is a kilo-metre, or a thousand metres. Easy.

Perhaps the most impressive benefit is the metric system’s ability to represent real difference. The metric system employs a greater diversity of units, in part due to its uniform conversion ratios, than any other measurement system. Objects as small as atoms and molecules or as large as stars and galaxies can be easily and coherently represented in metric units without ambiguity. And while the very small and very large do not affect ordinary people very often, the metric system does a better job with ordinary measures as well. The best example of this is temperature. The Fahrenheit scale is pinned to three different benchmarks: ice and salt brine, the freezing point of pure water, and human body temperature. These correspond to 0, 32, and 96 degrees respectively. These choices are arbitrary, of course. But they are also meaningless. There is no firm relationship between these standards that ties their temperatures nicely to a single scale. And moreover, they tell us nothing about what the temperature of a thing is like. The Celsius system is very different. It is pinned only to the phase changes of water. 00 is freezing. 1000 is boiling. This too is arbitrary, but it does tell us quite a lot about the world we live in. Water is fundamental to Earthly life, and its properties determine life’s conditions. It is plain that negative temperatures represent a different kind of weather than positive temperatures. Negative temperatures are associated with snow and ice. Positive with rain and warmth. Fahrenheit never gives us that clean divide. It could be snowing at 300 but raining at 350. Those five degrees are far more important than the scale lets on.

This is the reason the world has adopted the metric system. This is worth all the troubles metrication caused. The metric system is completely and unambiguously the superior measurement system. Now we need only for the most powerful country on Earth to catch up.



We live in an era of anti-skepticism. Skeptics are the enemy. They must be destroyed and overcome. This is what drove Descartes and Leibniz, Locke and Hobbes, and even Hume. They sought to naturalise the world, to conquer it, knowing its features with certainty. But this new tradition of anti-skepticism is very different. Philosophers today do not claim to certainly know. They in no way claim to refute the skeptic. The older eras held knowledge to be something lofty, fragile, godly. Knowledge was something not for man but for gods, for elites, for those deserving of special authority. In this new era, the anti-skeptics have lowered knowledge. It is not lofty: it is mundane. It is not godly: it is human. They have not refuted the skeptic: they have made her irrelevant. And the consequence is dire.

I begin by motivating contemporary anti-skepticism from its roots in Moore and Wittgenstein. Then I show how this tradition fails to overcome skepticism.

Moore begins with knowledge. Of course he knows that idealism is false. Of course he knows that he has hands and was once smaller than he currently is. What he doesn’t know is how to correctly analyse any sentence saying so. This looks dumb. Surely Moore cannot possibly know that he has hands: what if he is dreaming? What if he is hallucinating? What about Descartes’ evil demon or any of Hume’s or Kant’s skeptical challenges? But Moore is not troubled by these suggestions: these are only competing analyses of what it means to know. And these others are inferior. Why? As Moore suggests in “A Defense of Common Sense,” the skeptical analysis commits skeptics to far more than Moore’s analysis. Moore is committed to the truth of only a small set of basic claims—that there is a world, that he is an element of that world, that he was once younger and smaller than he currently is, and so on. The skeptic, on the other hand, is committed to these basic claims plus their skeptical claims. As Moore notes, the skeptic does not stop herself from going about in the world as a normal human being. She still wakes in the morning, commutes to work, constructs arguments for skepticism, and presents them to an audience of other philosophers. She demonstrates that she knows these things through her actions. Only she does not claim to know them: she both knows them and commits herself to not knowing them. This is extravagant. This is impossible. The consistent skeptic sits demure like Johannes Climacus, never stirring, never speaking, never thinking.

The idea is this: language is a practical thing. It has consequences. It does not matter whether we are dreaming, for we do not act like we are dreaming. If a debate is predicated on something so ethereal, something so benign, then it is not predicated on a correct understanding of language. Language is substantive and effective. We all know this: we all use language for some purpose. Our claims bear in some way on our lives. And what skeptics mean is just this: that when we say such and such, we could be wrong. This is trivially true, but the skeptic overstates her case. And for Moore, there is no sense in which we could ever be meaningfully wrong about whether there is a world or whether we were once smaller than we are now. There is a subset of propositions (Moorean propositions) that we cannot consistently and meaningfully deny.

Moore did not succeed in this argument. But, says Wittgenstein, he is not wrong. He has rather failed to carry his insight to its logical conclusion. Moore remains vulnerable to skeptical attack by those who do not understand what it means to be certain, to know, and to doubt. Wittgenstein does. He will finish what Moore began.

For Wittgenstein, knowledge is located within a discourse: one knows such and such only if competent others recognise her as knowing such and such. This means that the claim must be recognised as true, but also that the reasons she gives for her claim are recognised as appropriate. This is not to reduce knowledge or even truth to something communal or legislative. A community cannot agree to collectively upend their knowledge system by changing what they believe and accept as valid reasoning. We are bound to a language in which we have no say. Our language gives us the concepts and thoughts to which our perception of the world conforms. In Kantian terms, language is the source of the categories of experience. Some of these are grounded in our form of life. In this Wittgenstein agrees with Moore. Others are grounded in particular grammars. But in neither case is the result a kind of relativism. It is rather a kind of contextualism: language merely shapes the world; it does not construct it.

The skeptic here has no room to move. Doubt can only occur concurrently with certainty. That is, where one aspect of a discourse is brought into question, it is questioned on account of other aspects of that discourse. When Copernicus doubted that the Sun revolved around the Earth, he did so on grounds acceptable to him, namely the simplicity of the heliocentric model and God’s preference for simplicity. Without these certainties, it is incoherent to doubt geocentrism. Doubt itself must be justified.  The skeptic does not do this. She holds an apple in her hand and asks “Is this apple an apple, or is it something else?” The question is senseless. Of course the apple is an apple. If it were not, it would not be an apple. The skeptic’s only reply undermines her claim: “You miss my point, Wittgenstein. I mean to say that we all know what an apple is, but cannot with certainty suppose that this object I hold in my hand is an instance of the general concept. And so also with any instance of any general concept.” This may be a legitimate and sensible question. Surely someone once pointed to a whale and asked whether that fish is a fish only to be answered in the negative. Surely it is never obvious when any object is an instance of a concept. But skepticism this isn’t. The relevant doubt is localised and predicated on a kind of certainty: that one knows what an apple is. And in general, if one is comfortable identifying the object of doubt with a name that is under dispute, the doubt is easily assuaged. Of course the apple is an apple: we call it an apple.

Whether a doubt is sensible and appropriate always depends on the context it is present. Some contexts place a greater demand on one’s knowledge of a claim than others. And some others will open up the possibility of doubt from some claims and not others. This is the skeptic’s greatest error. They always wish to doubt that which is never open to doubt. They wish to doubt those claims that are predicated on our form of life. They wish to doubt Moorean propositions. It’s curious that the skeptic claims to doubt the external world, yet stands upon the stage to address an audience. It really makes one think.

But in truth, the skeptic is well within her rights to do this. The most pressing questions in philosophy are not about apples or astronomy. They are about who we are and how we ought to live. There is nothing more fundamental to our form of life than not knowing who we are or how to live. And answering those questions requires inquiring into our history and our constitution. Not everyone who so inquires is a skeptic. The skeptic is only one who has so inquired and found herself at a loss. She is one who feels uneasy about who she is and how she ought to live. This is not absurd. This is not incoherent. It strikes me that this is the most natural, the most human feeling possible. For who among us truly knows how to live?

Contemporary anti-skeptics don’t satisfy these questions. They rule them out from the outset, and they themselves know this. Both Moore and Wittgenstein famously stood in an odd relationship to philosophy’s most pressing questions. For Moore, “the good is good, and that is the end of the matter.” (PE, §6) Wittgenstein agrees. Value is indefinable. It is something nonsensical: though it is everywhere present to us, it cannot reside in the world of facts. Both Moore and Wittgenstein surrender to a kind of bland mysticism. And what good is mysticism in answering our deepest questions? What good is anti-skepticism if it cannot actually overcome our skepticism? Moore and Wittgenstein offer no authority. They offer no guidance. Anti-skepticism is useless.

Parsimony and Theory Execution

Philosophy is a graveyard. Old theories live on through their epitaphs; present theories, condemned and dying, busy themselves by writing them. They do not know how they will be killed. They do not know when. But if there is anything certain in philosophy, it is this: that every theory awaits, anticipating with every-increasing jitters and joy, its own execution.

There is no humane death for a philosophical theory. Each one deserves much more than its short and brutal life. And yet!—yet some executions are revolting in their wanton cruelty and disregard for the dignity of a theory. One of these is employed so regularly, so joyfully, that Robespierre himself grows pale in his shame. This is no toy guillotine. This is no National Razor. It is much worse. It is much more cruel. It is much more sudden and unjustified. This is parsimony.

Parsimony holds that philosophical postulates shall not be asserted beyond necessity. For a principle that itself stands beyond necessity, it is cunning in its assault on philosophical theories. Divine Zeus once ordained it. It was His Will that all be done for the best of all. And Wise Zeus could not meander about: in His power and his intellect, He should approach His aim most simply, most directly. The Milesian Zeus, Thales’ wet, life-giving arche or Anaximander’s limitlessness, better instantiated its own wisdom by doing away with the traditional pantheon, far more expansive as it was than reason demanded.  And so too did Love and Strife and Being and the Good and Substance and God. The kosmos, physis itself, wished only the simplest, clearest path. But Nature, supreme as it may be, need not act wisely. As Nature became matter, Parsimony lost its grip.

Ever the trickster, Parsimony shapeshifted: no longer a metaphysical constraint, it became epistemological. It is not Nature who demanded that our theories be simple, but philosophers themselves in their humanity who demanded that nature conform to their limits. Philosophers, they themselves said, should not assert any more principles than can be justified. Bold again stands Parsimony, itself unable to be justified. It even betrays itself: once considered hubris, the anthropic constraints undermined it. Humanity began its self-overcoming, further dominating, further grasping out into the kosmos, now justifying what was before only guessing. With no end in sight, Parsimony had to evolve.

Parsimony today is an ethical concern. The virtuous theory, it says, strikes the mean: it does not assert so little that it cannot reasonably explain, nor too much that it need explain further. Parsimony executes the gluttonous theory for lazing gleefully upon its mountains of golden assertions. But is this too much, too quick? How far must the revolution be permitted to continue? All of metaphysics—metaphysics!—stands bound before the guillotine: while theories be beggars, it becomes an outrage that metaphysics stands upon even its singular assertion: that there be something rather than nothing. And so Scarlet Parsimony descends upon it. Shall it succeed? Let us not heed the jeers of the crowd: let justice alone decide.

Our question here is then this: is parsimony truly a theoretical virtue? It is not. It fails its own test, of course. It has failed its own test throughout the whole of its history. But beyond that still, it fails every other test too.

Philosophers almost universally recognise eight theoretical virtues: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, breadth, depth, significance, and completeness. If parsimony is to find a seat at the bench alongside these fine justices, it must meet their demands. Clarity begins the proceedings.

What does it mean for a theory to be parsimonious? It means for a theory to make no more assertions than necessary. Assertions are not straightforwardly countable. They come in different kinds and different orders with different relations along some hierarchy of inference. Finitism in mathematics is no more parsimonious than infinitism because the latter asserts infinitely. That infinite chain of assertions is inferred, and not essential to the theory. That is, they don’t count. What matters instead is the number of different kinds of assertions a theory makes. But delimiting what makes an assertion a different kind neither straightforward. Do assertions differ in kind by logical form? Or do they differ in kind by their content? Do they differ by their assertive force? These are all implausible: that a theory asserts only universals does not clearly make it any more parsimonious than another which asserts both counterfactuals and universals. And so on for any other distinction in kind. In no way can it be reliably understood how to evaluate the parsimony of a theory. Clarity finds parsimony guilty.

The others concur. It cannot be reliably adjudged which theories are parsimonious and therefore whether parsimony tracks truth. And with this limitation, parsimony is irrelevant and insignificant to theories as instruments of description, explanation, and justification.

Parsimony moreover doesn’t add anything new to this judicial bench. Every supposèd benefit of parsimony is already mastered by our eight theoretical justices. Where a theory of combustion asserts the existence of phlogiston, for example, philosophers might take it to be unacceptable because it is less parsimonious. But if that theory is consistent with the known chemical processes and thermodynamic equations, phlogiston doesn’t do anything for the theory. Asserting phlogiston is insignificant. Similarly for Meinongianism. For a squared circle to subsist fails parsimony. But it also fails clarity. It also fails relevance. Subsistence as an ontological category simply isn’t clear, especially since it is populated almost exclusively by impossible objects and objects that do not obtain. And since these objects do not obtain, their assertion is irrelevant to any theoretical explananda. And so parsimony fails its own test too: it is a principle beyond necessity. Let now Scarlet Parsimony descend upon itself: so has justice decreed.

Many too many philosophical theories have been lost to parsimony. Its reign of terror must end. All theories must die, but they ought to be executed with dignity and justice. Let us band together, philosophers, and shave parsimony itself from our metatheory. Let us divide it into its parts and cast them into the wind. Let us not even dignify it with an epitaph. Let it fade into obscurity.

A Plain Jane Theory of Sex Differances, Or: Jonesing for Some Sexy Oppression

In this scene, Jane Clare Jones, our star bigot, our astro-TERF attempts to Clarefy sex and sex-based oppression. I, a brainless rube, become confused, certainly on account of my brainlessness, and ask for further Clarefication. Jones obliges, to little effect. Our brainless rube is just too brainless.

Roll cameras! Action!

Skip the dinner and small talk: Jones wants to begin with sex. A little forward for my liking, but let’s role with it. Sex is not just “a very complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, and genitals.”[1] It has much more to do with “gametes and reproductive function.” It’s true! Sex is the system of categorisation we use to understand whether two individuals can productively copulate to produce viable offspring. XY/XX, testosterone/estradiol, penis/vagina, sperm/egg, nurturing mother/deadbeat dad. Sex is a binary. It is . . . wait, Sex isn’t a binary? “THAT IS NOT A FUCKING BINARY,” says Jones.

Okay, so what’s a binary? “A binary,” she says, “is a conceptual hierarchy which is formed by taking a term with a dominant positive value and creating a subordinate value by negating the privileged qualities of the dominant term.” Male/female (sex, that is) is not a binary. Masculine/Feminine (sex(?), that is) is a binary. Glad we Clared that up. Oh no, wait, I sexed it. Masculine/Feminine is gender. Okay, got it. Gender is the “ur-binary, to the extent that ALL of the binary pairs which structure Western thought . . . are gendered.” Sex, on the other hand, is not a binary because it is a “natural difference.” Apparently we in the West didn’t realise this at first because our thought “is so thoroughly gendered that [we] are incapable of thinking the difference ‘male/female’ without thinking it’s (sic) cultural hierarchisation . . .”

Good, good. Now that we know that sex is just a difference between individuals on account of their reproductive function and that there is no hierarchy granted on those grounds, we know what the cause of women’s oppression is: it is the cultural hierarchy of masculine over feminine, of man over woman. So trans women, as women, are oppressed just like cis women, for both are tokens of the same cultural type. They wear their hair long, care needlessly about their figure, read romance novels instead of build motors, and all the other things that women do that are not predicated on their reproductive function. To solve this oppression, then, we need  . . . Huh? What? Oh no: I’ve gone and gendered it up again. “You are committed to an ideology,” she says, “that means you can’t recognise . . . that female people are oppressed qua female people—that is, on the basis of their sex.” Now I’m confused.

I’m Jonesing for a Clarefication here! She obliges: “Male people commit violence . . . because of the structure of patriarchal gender.” Yeah, so men think women are weak and passive and emotional and irrational, and that these characteristics are worse, so they abuse and rape them, they pay them less, they don’t grant them political power, and so on. I got that. So when do we get to the sex? Jones says that “women are oppressed on the basis of their sex.” Okay . . . I realise that reproductive function sets women back in their careers because of child-bearing, and financially in other ways because feminine hygiene products cost money, but what about all the more heinous stuff? Women are raped. Women are catcalled and harassed. These are truly terrible. Trans women get raped too. Quite frequently. They get catcalled and harassed. But they can’t bear children. Rape and harassment have little to do with reproductive function. They are cultural signifiers of power. Cis women don’t have that power. Neither do trans women. Both are oppressed. Now, there are certainly avenues of oppression that cis women face that trans women don’t. Absolutely. But there are likewise avenues of oppression that trans women face that cis women don’t. Trans women face much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. They live shorter lives. They have more difficulty accessing medical care and have higher rates of disease as a result.

“Stop it with your baseless hierarchy of suffering lady!” Oh no, I’ve made her angry! “You think playing people’s wounds off against each other is going to get us somewhere good, you dangerous idiot???” Wow, okay, rude. I didn’t know I was being dangerous. All suffering is important. I just wanted to know, Dr. Jones, how cis women are oppressed on account of their sex when all of the major threats arise from their gender. I mean, trans men, though female, often don’t face the same threats that cis women, or even trans women, do. So please, Clarefy. Please.

Here we go: Trans women, she says, “are male people who are performing femininity in a way that violates the first rule of patriarchal masculinity.” Uh, sure. But I’m a fairly gracile man. I wear nail polish and sew. I’ve never been catcalled. Not even once. Nor raped. That’s not even a common thing for more effeminate men than me, or at least not nearly as common as it is for cis women or trans women. And why do these two explanations, that trans women don’t live up to the masculine standard, and that cis women have a female reproductive role, happen to explain the same phenomena? What are the chances of that?! Especially since many men don’t have x-ray vision and can’t see that trans women happen to have testes and a Y-chromosome. Like, I know men are attentive and discerning, but I didn’t know we could see hidden, invisible things!

So is that all? Is there nothing else? No? Okay. OKAY!!

Gender and sex are inextricably bound. They are not coextensive; they vary. But they are nevertheless joined like weights by a string, one heavier and one lighter. They shift around with time but at different rates. And yet no one can control either. They both stand independent of us to a large extent. Neither can just be wished away.

But what that means then is that trans women are women. They may differ from cis women in some ways of course: this, after all, is what the “trans” signifies. But their oppression is women’s oppression. Their oppression can be ameliorated by abolishing gender. And what that means is that we don’t demonise them, we don’t add further avenues to their intersection. We accept them and listen to them and support them as we ought to accept and listen and support cis women. But as our support for black women differs from white, disabled women differs from abled, lesbian women differs from straight, so too must our support for trans women differ from cis. Jones, in her infinite smugness, just doesn’t get that.


(Do I get a Prince?)

That’s a wrap! Good job, everyone; let’s get this to the cutting room.



[1] All quotations are from Jane Clare Jones,

Remembrance in the Menexenus

Plato was not a member of the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought two great wars, the generation of Pericles and Themistocles, Thucydides and Nicias, and even of Socrates. But he’s old enough to remember them. He knows from his youth what Athens was like at its peak, fortified and overflowing with wealth and prestige. But by the time he reached adulthood, the Delian league had evaporated, Sparta had torn down the long walls and dismantled Athens’ ships. Athens was a mere shadow of what it once was. And Athenians paid the price, including wealthy aristocrats like Plato. By all accounts, they were a lesser generation. They weren’t as bold or just or wealthy. They didn’t have the prestige that their fathers commanded. They were sorely lacking in resources and in opportunity. And they had to struggle with all this in the shadow of the Greatest Generation that preceded them.

We too, as I write, are faced with the same. And today we are asked to Remember. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of that Greatest Generation in its battle against tyrannical forces abroad so that we might grow and live in free and prosperous nations. Our forefathers failed. Plato’s forefathers so too.

So how shall we Remember? What, truly, do we owe to the Greatest Generation? In Plato’s Menexenus, he gives us an answer.

The Menexenus consists of two major sections: an introductory conversation between Socrates and Menexenus, then Aspasia’s speech. Aspasia’s speech takes up the bulk of the dialogue and can itself be broken into two, separated by the words of the war dead themselves. That Aspasia’s speech has these two parts is important for understanding its point and Plato’s. It is the ironic contrast between them that gives the speech its force.

Socrates begins the dialogue thus: “Whence comes Menexenus?” Menexenus gives an answer—the Council Chamber—but this is not all whence Menexenus comes. He comes also from Athens, and from Athens’ brave ancestors. The first part of Aspasia’s speech concerns the former; the second part the latter. She begins with a history of Athens from the Persian Wars through the Peloponnesian War to the war against Corinth that the speech is memorialising. The major thread is easy to see: Athens was a powerful and noble polis who fought for the freedom of the Greeks first against barbarians, second against Greeks. Freedom is the object, no matter the enemy. Sometimes the tree of Liberty need be watered and all that. But so far so passé. Plato means to provoke with Aspasia’s speech. He does that in the second part, with the speech of the war dead.

These war dead are of Plato’s generation. They live in the shadow of their fathers who fought in the Peloponnesian War, and their gradfathers who fought the Persians. They begin by addressing their sons: “Sons,” they say, “our present condition shows that you are born of courageous fathers.”[1] This is no hyperbole. But their virtue has a reason. It is from their own virtue that they mean to exhort their sons, their fathers, and their city to virtue. They say that they “believe that no one who brings disrepute on his own family truly lives at all,” for “he has no friends, man or god, on Earth or below it.”[2] They continue:

You must remember our words and do everything in partnership with valor, without which all possessions and all actions are shameful and base . . . When sundered from the noble and just, even knowledge most certainly cannot be wisdom but seems rogue and villainous. Endeavour, therefore, for all time from the first to the last to surpass–most fervently, in merit and in worth–we who came before. And if you fail, if we stand above you, ennobled and great, our victory is truly our most shameful defeat. But if you overcome, this defeat is then our joyous victory.[3]

The condition for virtue, for success in the universe, is to make one’s progeny better, to hand off the reins of one’s country and one’s name to someone better, stronger, smarter. Failure is disaster: it is profound, universal loneliness, lacking friends among man and god while one lives or after one has died. This sentiment is repeated in Plato with some frequency, such as in the Lysis with regards to friendship, and the Gorgias on the responsibilities of political leaders. But here, it takes a different, more sombre tone. For as the war dead go on to say while consoling their fathers and mothers still living, “That mortal man has everything in his life turn out as he wishes is no easy feat.”[4] One’s success is all but beyond effect. For all a man’s best efforts, for all his toil and his pain, he may never accomplish anything of any value whatever.

And as Plato’s generation makes clear, exactly this happened in the history of Athens. The Greatest Generation of Athens was powerless to stop the decline of their city and the welfare of their children. And so too was the fate of these men being memorialised by Aspasia’s speech. The decline and fall of Athens was imminent and unavoidable. The present condition of Athens reveals something quite different than that Athenians were sons of courageous men. The war dead themselves must believe themselves to be shameful. They have not improved their city; they have been conquered by it and left it debased and wicked. Athens’ great heroes have all been failures.

So we return once again: what, truly, do we owe those men who fought and sacrificed for our city? What is the purpose of our Remembrance? Now we return to the first part of Aspasia’s speech. For as it stands, Aspasia has demonstrated the courage of the Athenian war dead and revoked it at once. We stand then at a crossroads. Is the Greatest Generation truly great, virtuous, courageous, or are they debased and corrupt? Truly, they are both. As Aspasia makes clear at the beginning, the Greatest Generation fought, and died, for what was right. Mistakes they may have made, but for everything to turn out is no easy feat. What makes courage, what makes virtue, is not to succeed: it is to know when and for what to fight. The Athenian Greatest Generation fought the Persians and the Spartans. Our own fought the Nazis. The Corinthian war dead too fought for freedom. And what will we do—will we fight Republicans?

So what do we owe to the Greatest Generation, these brave men who fought but failed to preserve our freedom? What do we owe them?  Forgiveness. We owe them forgiveness for their vices and their inadequacies. We owe them the knowledge that despite their failures, they still have friends amongst gods and men.


Works Cited

[1] Plato, Menexenus, 246d. All translations are my own.

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem, 246d-247a

[4] Ibidem, 247d

Scholarly, All Too Scholarly

One can find philosophers everywhere and nowhere. The title has no firm content. At best, it’s rhetorical, carrying with it status and authority. One’s proclamations have weight wielded as weapons and tools if one only calls them philosophical. But the real philosopher doesn’t wield claims: she only stutters them. The real philosopher is mild and dispassionate. She is scholarly, all too scholarly. And so philosophy is status for the sake of status. Philosophy does nothing. Philosophical claims are not weapons. Philosophical claims are not tools. One can do no harm with a philosophical claim. And one can neither give aid.

And so philosophy is vulnerable. Status approximates value, and without value, status can be revoked without warning. The scent of our uselessness may one day rouse History, stirring its hunger. And we philosophers serve a much more useful role as nourishment than as company. Everyone implicitly understands this: defenses of philosophy are meagre and peripheral. Philosophy produces effective lawyers, effective entrepreneurs, effective doctors, and so on. But this is no defense of philosophy. This is a call to improve law schools and business schools and medical schools. Philosophy improves scientific discourse. But only because scientists are not taught to evaluate concepts. They are too busy robotically collecting data. Philosophy inspires literature and art. But only because artists find inspiration in everything. None of this supports philosophy. It indicts the other domains of academic education. Philosophy makes no special claim. It collects together all those areas of inquiry that have henceforth remained unclaimed by the other sciences but which the other sciences ought to claim. And this is not good enough: philosophy is not good enough. It must do more.

Philosophy, however, has its status for a reason. It was once threatening and useful, powerful and productive. Cities and states trembled in awe of its majesty and its honey-sweet phrases. The bastard child of science and sophistry, philosophy comes from a noble but troubled pedigree. Both of its parents emerged from the Greek contests of wisdom that had come to form one pillar of political legitimacy in the Archaic period, and the Classical period found them pregnant with a solution to new troubles. Let us then examine this pedigree to uncover philosophy’s noble blood.

The contest of wisdom was a central pillar of Greek political life during the Archaic period. Elite families and patrons earned status by allying themselves with those who won these contests. Their peculiar structure in comparison with other societies placed important emphases on what wisdom meant for the Greeks that are represented both in science and in sophistry. Greek contests of wisdom are judged by the people. Those same people served as the economic and military backbone of the Greek poleis and hence their approval meant something quite significant. This over time became more and more enshrined in law and in custom, but it is also the significance of this public concern that shaped science and sophistry, for both embody distinct strategies to contest different types of opponents.

Science reflected the demand for transparency in reason. It emphasises public reason and observation distinct from the kind of private, privileged inspiration that is claimed by poets such as Hesiod and others. While the method differs, the explanandum remains the same. The Theogony for instance proclaims a genealogy of the world from its origin in Uranus and Gaia. The history of the gods is seen as an explanation of natural phenomena. The gods, however, are not public. Their works and their pedigree cannot be verified by the common man. And so the scientist attempts to provide an alternative account of natural phenomena by appeal to those elements that his audience can verify and understand for themselves. So where Hesiod explains nature as the unfolding of the incontrovertible divine will of Zeus, Thales explains it as the unfolding of the “will” of water, and Anaximander as the unfolding of the “will” of the unlimited, and so on. Unlike Hesiod, the claims of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and so on, while strange, are simple and easily evaluated by ordinary people. And if those people see the reasons for an account, they are liable to vote for it over an account for which the reasons are private. The Greek public may have been devoutly religious, but they were not stupid enough to believe everything anyone says about the gods just because it was said about the gods. Indeed, the Greek public stressed novelty. The same old explanations became tired. It did not take wisdom to regurgitate old explanations for natural phenomena. Instead, wisdom was demonstrated by finding the limits of old explanations and proposing new ones that overcame those limits.

Sophistry reflects a different but somewhat similar strategy. The sophist did not so much care for public reason or experience: he cared more for drawing himself toward the audience with bonds of identification and sympathy. He spoke in prose instead of verse, but nevertheless seasoned his words in order that they taste as sweet and as powerful in the ear as they do upon the tongue. This art of persuasion, of giving to words a distinctive and pleasant flavour, required study of its own sort. The sophists became experts in the meanings, the histories, the sounds, and the connotations or words, and they used that knowledge to their advantage even as others, such as Pindar, dismissed them as lowly, squawking crows–which was precisely the desired effect!

These strategies and others over time mixed and mutated in tandem with broader Greek society. Eventually full-fledged democracies were enfranchised and both science and sophistry were used by the elites in different ways as they attempted to respond to their eroding power. These responses in many cases barely concealed the contempt that wise elites held for common Greeks. Their situation was not altogether different from our present. The common Greek did not so much understand or care what these contestants said. They were in it for the spectacle and the validation of their own opinions and lifestyles. Hence in the contests, wisdom and study were quickly reduced to a jester’s farce for those who could scarcely learn from the wise.

Just as they do today, accomplished scientists and sophists came to resent the ignorance and the power of the common person. And like today, it is evident that this resentment is unwarranted. The wise were scarcely wiser than the average Greek. They were afforded important privileges in Greek society in virtue of the situation of their birth, but even despite these privileges, the wise were little better than the fools they derided. No Greek scientist or sophist could reasonably claim to know more than any common Greek, and in many cases, the common man knew much more. It is not the common man who we today ridicule for his absurd theories and his inability to accurately observe what stands immediately in front of his eyes. Indeed, there is at least some evidence that the common man could do this. He toiled and suffered to support himself and his kin, after all. There is no evidence, however, that the wise need ever do this, let alone were capable of it.

But this resentment is unwarranted for another reason as well. The common people grew in power over the nearly three centuries of the Archaic period until the emergence of the first real democracies, but they did not do so by simply taking power from the elites. It was the elites themselves who in their struggle against other elite rivals gradually gifted the common people greater status and power. And in many cases, this was not even power and responsibility that the common people always wanted. They for centuries threw their support behind elites who distinguished themselves from the unwashed masses for one reason or another just as poor whites do this today. But of course, no one really controls the tides of history, and it serves no one to resent it but those who lack the privileges of birth and wealth. Elites, of course, have never lacked these privileges.

Yet the elites persisted in their undue resentment of the common Greek. As the contests of wisdom gave way to people’s assemblies and people’s courts, many of their former contestants retreated from the public to private enclaves in which they religiously pursued their science and their study. They became absurd objects of public ridicule, ranting about Being and the power of the Vortex, the one and only god, all while speaking in tongues, refusing to utter the word “is.” Others did not retreat, but instead assaulted the common people. These elites invaded the people’s courts, often to cheers and applause, while they attempted to pass off their interest as that of the many. And they claimed some success at this. They commanded wealth and prestige. They commanded armies and economies. They claimed to shake the demos with every utterance, failing still to realise that their own tics and tremors had their source in the people to whom they remained servants.

And through all this, there was no serious improvement in political life. The Archaic period was violent and volatile. The Classical period too. Neither elites nor the people had the wisdom to rule. And as great poleis experienced their peak and began to decline, everyone, elite and commoner alike, cried out in anguish. And this time, science could not help them. Sophistry could not either. The comics were implicated and the tragedians, the last vestige of a dying, corrupt generation, abdicated their responsibility. The poleis needed something new, something capable. That something was philosophy.

Philosophy began with the followers of Socrates as they attempted to come to terms with their mentor’s trial and execution. But it was Socrates himself who first saw the demand for it. It was he who sacrificed his own interests for that of his polis, attempting to inspire his countrymen to pursue virtue and therefore achieve peace, order, and good governance. The object was to employ scientific reasoning in the public sphere to guide public decisions. But this science was in the tradition of Antiphon, Parmenides, Gorgias, et cetera, who largely reduced being to the self. Natural study was primarily study of one’s own psychology and its phenomena. It was from here that the science of ethics drew its first breath. For unlike Gorgias, Socrates was unsatisfied with the good being reduced to that which fulfilled fleeting desires. Echoing Antiphon and Parmenides, Socrates objected that desires provide only what seem good, and not what is good. But demonstrating this distinction remained the most difficult challenge that science faced: scientific norms are foreign and strange, just as Socrates’ ethics was. And so the people rejected it despite Socrates’ best efforts. They saw it as a threat to their sovereignty and their customs, but also to their well-being.

Rightly or wrongly, they lashed out at Socrates and extinguished his science, leaving his followers searching for solutions. Some gave up the effort, retreating to their houses, their barracks, or their barrels. Others sought solutions beyond Socratic science. This was primarily Plato’s doing; it was he who united Socratic science with a kind of sophistic drama that was sure to attract and enchant the public while also challenging it to improve. And in this, found success where his mentor found failure. Plato challenged the Athenian orthodoxy on every conceivable dimension of their worldly existence while nevertheless cultivating for himself a fine reputation. For it was Plato who realised that while one’s science may bestow upon its bearer untold riches and prestige, it is worthless while it appears degenerate and diseased. Gone were the days of the shoeless wisemen; a new era of philosophers in dyed fabrics and fine estates had commenced. The people must see with their own eyes the value of the preacher’s science.

But Plato was not so careless that he forgot his modesty; he did not follow the sophists in their luxury and their ostentation. Though of noble blood, his skin was middling. He was attractive yet not flashy. For the public can see success, and they can also see corruption. It is better not to rouse suspicions in the philosophers’ line of work.

Armed with the image of Socrates, the martyr for a better Athens, and his own talents for beautifying an assault on the common mores, Plato elevated the philosopher to a place of nobility in the minds of the public, a place that it has since remained. He did this by engaging directly with those who held the power in the polis: the common man. He placed his dialogues in the public consciousness alongside those of the great tragedians and comics, and he outshone them all. His strategy was simple: exhort the public to care about an issue, to put aside their jest and their passion while enticing them with those very things, and then hit them with the serious matter at hand. Plato employed all of the comics’ tricks–irony and mockery and schadenfreude–while elevating discussion with the gravity of tragedy. In this way, Plato not only demonstrated the costs of vice and benefits of virtue, but also a method of eliminating vice and cultivating virtue: critical self-examination.

Yet the actual success of philosophy at solving social strife is difficult to demonstrate. Plato’s philosophy existed during a time of unprecedented domestic stability in Athens. But Athens was then no longer the dominant superpower that it once was and faced few of the same threats. The apparent success of philosophy then may be mere coincidence. Despite his popularity, Plato may have had no serious effect on the political life of the average Athenian. Indeed, his philosophy itself may be seen as an expression of a common Athenian exasperation with the turbulence that preceded his generation. Had Plato more time in the sun, we could quite possibly discern more closely his effects; but as it stands, Athens itself came to an end as an independent polity soon after Plato’s death, succumbing to historical contingency. Philosophy has no place in empire; the public there is too massive, too diverse, and too disparate to have any serious effect on policy. Hence philosophers retreated within the self once again, dulling their claims and rendering them useless.

But today we need them again. We need the sharpened tools of Old Aristocles. The people have risen up! The people have seized back power! The democratic republics of the liberal age were a meagre compromise, only changing the shape of empire. But today matters stand differently: instant communications and near-infinite access to information have shrunk empires and rebirthed the polis. Athens lives today online. And just as Plato’s generation, ours cries out in anguish at a rudderless world. Should we not then recapitulate philosophy, shock the academy until its atavism is complete? Let us return to our workshops to sharpen our claims, philosophers! Let us excise evil and cultivate virtue! And though we have no guarantee of success, no certain precedent upon which to stand, let us find courage in our effort to find the better.

What Makes Teleology Immanent?

There are two broad ways to conceive of the metaphysics of teleology. Teleology may be dispositional or it may be axiological. What distinguishes these two kinds of teleology is the source of the teleological relation. If teleology is dispositional, some item i has some end e in virtue of some metaphysical or explanatory relationship between i and e. This is the kind of teleology that philosophers of science such as Hempel, Braithwaite, Wiener, and Wright had in mind.[i] If teleology is axiological, on the other hand, i has e in virtue of some value that e instantiates. Axiological teleology is far more common in the literature, stretching through history from the Ancients to contemporary metaethics, epistemology, et cetera.

For e to be immanent in i, e must be in some way contained in or determined solely by i. That is, i must be autotelic. This means different things for dispositional teleology than it does for axiological teleology, however. Let’s begin with the former. If i has some immanent disposition to realise e, two conditions must obtain: (1) there must be something about i that reliably picks out e, and (2) e explains i. If only (1) obtains, there is no teleology. It is at best efficient or formal causation. Essentially, this means that for any instance of immanent teleology, e makes i reliably pick out e. While this may sound crazy, there is no shortage of accounts that attempt to make this intelligible. The most common is Wright’s account of teleology as causation by consequence, or what he calls consequence etiology. Wright’s (explanatory) schema is as follows:

i is an element of some system s for the sake of e if and only if both s is disposed to satisfy e in virtue of i given some normal condition c and s was disposed to satisfy e in virtue of i given c in the past.

Both (1) and (2) above have representatives in Wright’s schema. (2) here is self-consciously framed in terms of evolutionary adaptation. This need not be strictly biological, but biological evolution is the core of the account. Insofar as this is the case, however, there is a clear bait and switch. e here is not the end of i (ei) but the end of s (es). ei is not properly explanatory in any adaptation; i may be disposed to realise ei, but ei alone gives no reason for why i should be an element of s. For instance, it might be nice for spiders to have wings so they can fly. But they have no need for flight given the niche they occupy. The ability to fly is not sufficient for explanation. Rather, ei must contribute to es and hence the latter bears the explanatory and metaphysical significance. And this means that i is not autotelic. Rather, e is transcendent of i.[ii] The same pattern occurs for every known account of immanent dispositional teleology and seems to follow immediately from (2).

Axiological immanent teleology faces the same fate, though in a much more interesting way. If e is immanent in i then three conditions must be met: (3) e is valuable with respect to i, (4) i has some duty to obtain the value that e provides because e is valuable for i, and (5) e explains i. (5) here is of course familiar to us as the problematic condition in dispositional teleology, and one might think that it would be problematic here too. But this is not necessarily the case. It is common in the history of philosophy to suggest that existence is more valuable than non-existence. If this is the case, then the value that e provides might be sufficient to explain i, even if the value is value for i alone. I suspect that the ultimate fate of this strategy is no better than that of dispositional teleology, but there is at least a tradition here to give prima facie support. Rather, the fundamental problem arises here from (4). For (4) to obtain, i must in some way give itself a duty to obtain the value that e provides. But objects cannot have duties to themselves.[iii] In a manner similar to Wittgenstein’s private language argument and his comments concerning the standard metre, there is no distinction between the definition of a duty and the performance of it. Objects do not hold themselves accountable or even evaluate themselves in the performance of some duty. They merely act. To insist otherwise is to add some extra element to i that serves as the locus for evaluation. In this case, though, the value no longer belongs to i per se but to this evaluating part. The value of e loses its explanatory power in this way. So either axiological immanent teleology misses out on (4) (and subsequently also (3)) or it misses out on (5). In either case, axiological teleology cannot be immanent.

When we ask what makes teleology immanent, two options present themselves. But when neither can possibly obtain, we are forced to admit that immanent teleology does not obtain. This leaves us with only two options. Either there is no teleology at all or teleology is transcendent. I think that we should lean towards the latter.



[i] In practice, both Wiener and Wright ended up with accounts of axiological teleology despite their attempts to restrict themselves to bare dispositions. In the long run, this probably counts as evidence against a purely dispositional account of teleology. It seems that any moderately successful account of teleology has to import axiological considerations.

[ii] Some philosophers have taken this to be sufficient to be a refutation of inflationary accounts of teleology per se and propose a deflationary account in their place: the teleology we see is an appearance generated by an objects causal role in a system and nothing more. In essence, this is the foundation of the dispute between causal role and selected effect accounts of functions in the philosophy of biology. Both types of accounts are confused about the relevant metaphysics.

[iii] One might suggest the counterexample that people at least sometimes have duties to themselves. This is only possible because people are self-distinct. It is possible that one’s definition of a duty is distinct from the performance of it. That is, people are not metaphysical simples. But this entails transcendence, not immanence.

Plato’s Criticisms of Socrates

Plato offers a number of subtle criticisms of Socrates throughout his corpus. Most of these consist in fairly minor challenges to how Socrates carries out his elenchtic project. The Gorgias, for instance, demonstrates Socrates’ lack of rhetorical success. The Protagoras and Parmenides might suggest issues with Socrates’ metaphysical and ethical theory. The Republic probably challenges Socrates’ anti-democratic political ideology. All of these criticisms ̶ if they are criticisms at all ̶ are subtle and gentle. But there is one dialogue that is much crueler and much more fundamental in this respect. Plato’s Cleitophon is a vicious attack on Socrates’ elenchtic project as a whole. It shows Plato wrestling with his mentor’s example and inadequacy while also overcoming these difficulties. It is in response to the criticisms laid out in the Cleitophon that Plato has crafted not only his philosophy but Philosophy per se. Understanding Plato’s criticisms of Socrates, and especially the Cleitophon, is therefore a metaphilosophical exercise as well as a historical one.

The Cleitophon begins with an insulted and betrayed Socrates confronting his student:

“Cleitophon, son of Aristonymos, we have been told recently that while having relations with Lysias, you have been criticising the time you’ve spent discussing with Socrates and fawning over your intercourse with Thrasymachus.”[i]

Don’t let the sexual language be lost on you. Socrates really is accusing Cleitophon of cheating on him. And Cleitophon doesn’t take this lightly: he spends the remainder of the dialogue breaking up with his old mentor, praising him for what he does well and criticising him for his shortcomings.

But Cleitophon is also doing something else. He is giving his own apology, much like that of Socrates. This is the reason for Socrates’ use of his own name in the third person and the first person plural in his accusation despite being alone with Cleitophon. He is charging Cleitophon not only with cheating on him as a teacher but with a crime against the state. Recall what Socrates claims about his own activities in his Apology:

“This is certainly what the god has commanded of me, and my service to the god is, I believe, the greatest blessing that can be bestowed upon a city, for I make it my business to do nothing but exhort the young and old amongst you to care for the optimal state of your soul as much as or more than your body or wealth.”[ii]

He repeats this sentiment later on:

“Men of Athens, I am certainly not making a defense of my own accord, which could be thought: I am making a defense on yours. By condemning me, you are mistreating a gift from the god. It is this error that I want to prevent . . . For I believe that the god attached me to the city for some purpose, I will never fail to provoke and inspire you, to persuade and challenge each and every one of you in whose presence I find myself at any time and in any place.”[iii]

The idea is simple: by denying Socrates, Cleitophon is likewise denying his service to the city. And here there are a few autobiographical details to mention that count against Cleitophon. We of course don’t know whether Cleitophon really ever followed Socrates. But we do know that he was an influential politician during the political tumult at the end of the Peloponnesian War. He was an ally of Anytus, first in favour of the oligarchic rule of four hundred but later against this, leading to Aristophanes’ description of him as an opportunist, “more clever than wise.”[iv]  This all culminates in Cleitophon’s role in the Republic as a thoroughgoing normative relativist. None of this would endear him to much of Plato’s democratic or philosophical audience. Yet Cleitophon attempts to defend himself.

He begins by denying the charges. He says that he did criticise Socrates for some things, but he also praised him. He wants to avoid hurting Socrates, who is pretending not to feel hurt, by telling him himself what he said in order to improve his now former mentor. His subsequent speech can then be broken into two parts. The first half praises Socrates and the second half criticises him. The structure is the same structure employed consistently by Socrates in his hortatory speeches, and the overall themes are thoroughly Socratic despite concluding in a very anti-Socratic manner.

For my purposes here, the first half of the speech is uninteresting. It details Socrates’ commitment to exhorting others to care about justice and the state of their soul. But for Cleitophon, this isn’t good enough. He relays to Socrates questions he asked of Socrates’ other followers and of Socrates himself:

“Men of highest esteem, I ask: what should we think about Socrates’ exhorting us to virtue? Should we think that there is nothing else than this exhortation and that it is impossible to pursue the matter further and understand it fully? Should this be our life-long purpose, simply to exhort men who have not been exhorted so that they themselves can exhort others? We may agree that this is what we should do, should we also ask Socrates and each other what comes next? How do we say we should begin to learn about justice?”[v]

The answers that Cleitophon received to this question were unsatisfactory, both from Socrates’ followers and from Socrates himself. Socrates, as it happens, gave Cleitophon the answer that Polemarchus will give him in the Republic, possibly suggesting their closer connection. But that answer is there and here found to be inadequate for the same reason, and it says nothing in the Cleitophon itself that Socrates knows what justice really is, especially since we do not know whether what Socrates says in the Republic is what the real Socrates believed (and likewise what he says in the Cleitophon).

Cleitophon says that he endured this ultimate vacuity “for quite some time,” and was thereafter forced to one of two conclusions: either Socrates is capable of praising justice without knowing what justice is, or he knows justice but does not wish to share his knowledge of it. It is here that most commentators jump off the train. The usual response is that Plato cannot be criticising Socrates, so there must be an implicit answer to Cleitophon in the dialogue. Usually that answer consists in Socrates embodying justice by exhorting others to justice. Justice, on this view, just consists in making others care about justice. Another response is to suggest that the Cleitophon is unfinished, with Plato intending Socrates to answer Cleitophon’s criticism. And another further is to deny that Plato was the author of the Cleitophon at all. All of these responses are inadequate. Committing to justice being no more than exhorting others to justice is obviously inadequate and inconsistent with Plato’s life and corpus. The dialogue concludes naturally given how it began. A defense of this sort need not beg a response, after all, just as Socrates’ defense does not receive a response in the Apology. And finally, the stylistic and thematic evidence strongly suggests that Plato was the author of the dialogue, even if it seems odd for him to be criticising his mentor. We need a better reason to deny authorship than that our cherished view of a philosopher is inconsistent with the evidence of his writings. On those grounds, Lakatos must not have been a spy who destroyed the careers of many of his peers and Frege must not have written about Jewish conspiracies.

So we must conclude that the Cleitophon is an authentic criticism of Socrates by Plato. But Plato’s criticism is more than just what Cleitophon says. Here the sexual language returns. One does not break up with a person after praising him so greatly. One breaks up with someone because one has found another who provides one with what was missing in the preceding relationship. And with Cleitophon, he found that in Thrasymachus. For Plato’s audience, this is a dangerous and detestable eventuality. Most Athenians do not end up in Thrasymachus’s influence, but Socrates’ exhortation to virtue and lack of follow-through drove Cleitophon there.

Cleitophon offers Socrates a way to change that, a way to get Cleitophon back: “If you were willing to refrain from exhorting me, but instead, willing to do what follows exhortation . . . do that now.”[vi] Socrates can say nothing. And hence Socrates is not merely an impediment to virtue, as Cleitophon concludes: He is actively harmful to it. Ultimately, Cleitophon gets his revenge on Socrates through his political allies: he was executed for corrupting the youth just like he corrupted him. Plato must have believed this to be a great evil, and Socrates was not blameless in this. He did not take care to keep the end in mind when he conversed, and that is something that philosophy must do. Philosophy must take care to identify what precisely virtue is while it inspires concern in others for it.


Works Cited:

[i] Plato, Cleitophon, 406a; All translations are my own

[ii] Plato, Apology, 30a-b

[iii] Plato, Apology, 30d-e

[iv] Debra Nails, The People of Plato, 285

[v] Plato, Cleitophon, 408d-e

[vi] Plato, Cleitophon, 410d-e

Is Plato a Platonist?

Plato is obviously best known for the metaphysical view that bears his name. Are we wrong to make this association? What if Plato isn’t actually a Platonist? How could we make this determination? And what affect might this have on our interpretation of the dialogues?

Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I have to mention one small issue. Platonism, specifically capital P Platonism, is a squirrely position. It’s inherently linked to Plato as a character; Platonism is what Plato actually believed. There is a Platonism in metaphysics. There is a Platonism in aesthetics. There is a Platonism in ethics. There is a Platonism in pretty well every philosophical discipline. But in general, we aren’t certain what that might be and if we ask whether Plato is a Platonist in this sense, the answer is trivial. That doesn’t help matters, so we should try a different strategy.

So what’s at stake? Why does it matter whether Plato is a Platonist or not? Of course, most people might think that it wouldn’t. I want to believe that. But I’m afraid that Plato’s own position is importantly central to how we interpret the dialogues and hence understand Plato’s project. If we as readers are supposed to get something out of a given dialogue, we should try to figure out what Plato actually wants to give us, and that thing might differ quite substantially if we begin the dialogue thinking that Plato is committed to Platonism or otherwise.

Consider the Republic. It’s the typical source for Plato’s Platonism. It contains some of the basic arguments and analogies, all in the context of a largely anti-democratic political conversation. Given that Plato wrote this dialogue, we might immediately be justified in thinking that Plato is in fact a Platonist. To hold this view, however, is to be committed to some questionable interpretations of Plato’s life and of the setting and plot of the dialogue itself. Josiah Ober, for instance, claims that Plato cowered away from the difficult life of Socrates and retreated to the Academy to practice philosophy in isolation.[1] He grew and maintained his household alone, free from the fetters of democratic politics. But none of this is strictly true. Plato certainly did spend a large amount of time teaching and discussing philosophy at the Academy, but he also engaged life as a fairly normal Athenian, but for being one known for his wisdom and his justice. He served in several Athenian military expeditions. He chastised his fellow citizens for gambling and for drinking excessively. He sponsored dramas in the public theatres. He defended friends in court, even at the threat of peril. As Diogenes Laertius tells us, when Plato was threatened that “the hemlock of Socrates awaits [him],” he replied: “As I faced dangers when serving in the cause of my country, so I will face them now in the cause of duty for a friend.”[2]

Ober’s interpretation of the Republic‘s setting and plot is likewise mistaken. The dialogue begins with Socrates and Glaucon returning to Athens from the Piraeus before being accosted by a group led by Polemarchus, who demand that they accompany them to a new festival in the Piraeus. Socrates initially resists, but is met with a democratic injunction that he and Glaucon must join them for Polemarchus’s group is larger and hence stronger. Socrates contends that the larger group can be persuaded, but Polemarchus responds that persuasion cannot be effective if he refuses to listen.

So far so good. But from here on, Ober errs quite significantly. He recalls that this was the same difficulty that Socrates faced in the Gorgias. Socrates, despite having the stronger argument, could not convince Callicles to renounce his love of the demos because Gorgias refused to listen. So the Republic was playing on that parallel. Here was Socrates once again threatened by the strength of the many who refused to be persuaded towards justice. On Ober’s accounting, Socrates responds with a kind of treachery. While debating with Thrasymachus, he objects to the latter’s rhetorical style, saying that if he were to proceed with long speeches, they would require dikastai, or jurors, to adjudicate the victor. Instead, Socrates supposes, the victor shall be decided internally. And hence Cephalus’s house becomes a sealed, hermetic society free from the influence of the democratic polis.

This is all wrong. Socrates was not escaping the democratic polis in Cephalus’s house: he was embracing it. Cephalus was a good democrat, an opponent of the Thirty Tyrants, who lived in the Piraeus, a democratic stronghold. If Socrates means to escape the democrats, he has ventured to the wrong place. Socrates has willingly ventured into the lion’s den. For what reason? To improve the democrats, to make them listen. And he did this with democratic ideals in mind. The elenchtic style of Socrates’ questioning is democratic, and so too are the principles that he uses to refute Thrasymachus. Indeed, the sheer act of building a city in speech is democratic.[i] The Republic was not a counter to the democracy but a realisation of its highest ideals. It’s just that to the democrat, this eventuality is ghastly and vile. No good democrat would support Socrates’ city. It is antithetical to democracy itself.

And this is perhaps Plato’s point here: the Republic is not an alternative to the democracy but a reductio of it just as Socrates refuted Callicles in the Gorgias by proposing the kinnaidos as a reductio of his view. This strategy occurs again and again in Plato’s corpus, but we don’t think that Plato really supported the kinnaidos‘s insatiety, so why do we think that Plato supported the polis built on words in the Republic? Indeed, it was Plato’s commitment to the democracy that forced him to improve the minds and the virtues of its democrats by means of writing. After all, Plato was widely published and more widely read by his Athenian counterparts, and one might think that these democrats would scarcely hold such an anti-democratic elitist in such high esteem. Yet they did.

So what does that mean for Plato’s Platonism? Simple: we cannot be sure if Plato’s arguments for his Platonism are made sincerely or ironically. If the Republic really is a reductio, how can we know whether Plato thinks that Platonism isn’t just instrumental in shaping the democratic ideology? One answer could be that Plato elsewhere discusses Platonic metaphysics. But similar reinterpretations can be made in those places as well. We must then recite the common refrain: we simply cannot know what Plato believed. His dialogues actively prevent this. And maybe this was the point all along.



[i] There is a fairly significant tradition in Athenian drama of creating ideal cities. Aristophanes’ Birds is probably the best example of this outside of the Republic. All of the extant examples are quite explicitly founded upon democratic principles, including the Republic.


Works Cited:

[1] Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1998: 214-240

[2] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers III.24.3-5

How to Interpret Plato

Interpreting Plato is difficult work. It is made even more difficult with the strategy championed by Gregory Vlastos and commonly employed by Analytic philosophers. This strategy has three main commitments: (1) Plato’s views are distinguished from those of Socrates, (2) both views are constructed on the basis of the arguments presented in Plato’s dialogues, and (3) those arguments are interpreted with an eye to constructing a cohesive view for both philosophers. All three of these strategic commitments are problematic and hold us back from rightly understanding Plato’s corpus.[i] And all three commitments are derived from the same basic oversight: Plato wrote dialogues to be read.[ii]

Plato begot the tradition of Socratic dialogues as a medium for public debate. Artistic works such as tragedy and comedy were an important element of Athenian democracy. Poets were divinely inspired: the moral dilemmas presented in their works were given by the gods, and their lessons were taken seriously by the demos as a result. But by the end of the fifth century, Athens was declining. Devastating civil wars ravaged the city amid the Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent dissolution of the Delian League, which provided Athens its wealth and its power.  The demos was hungry for change, and Plato, among others, was willing to bring it. He positioned philosophy as an alternative to tragedy and comedy. This is well known. But he also positioned it as continuous with these more dominant genres. It is this continuity that often goes ignored and is really at issue when we consider (1), (2), and (3). Let us turn to these commitments themselves, beginning with (1).

Plato is often denigrated as something of a scribe, someone who merely recorded the conversations of Socrates for posterity. This is what other Socratic dialogue writers purport to do. Xenophon, for instance, explicitly claims to present the conversations of Socrates as they really took place, according to what he and his sources could remember. But Xenophon criticises Plato for putting words in Socrates’ mouth that he did not say.[iii] This should be historically unsurprising since there was at least a decade between Socrates’ death and the publication of Plato’s first dialogue. Surely Plato would have forgotten the precise wording of Socrates’ conversations. But so too would have Xenophon. What seems more likely is that Xenophon’s critique is not merely pedantic but principled. He knows that Socrates didn’t say what Plato wrote because Socrates couldn’t have said those things. Socrates’ opinion differed from what Plato presented in a way that would have been well known to Socrates’ followers. So what, then, is going on? The answer is pretty simple given the history of Athenian poetry more generally. Socrates was a caricature in Plato’s dialogues just as he was in Aristophanes’ Clouds. Everyone knew who he was and some general features of his personality and his life. But more importantly, Socrates was well known to have been sentenced to death in 399, and by the time of Plato’s writing, this was a matter of severe public guilt. Plato was no doubt inspired by his teacher, but he also capitalised on the facts surrounding his life and his death for his own ends. And hence the picture that Plato gives of Socrates may not be a faithful one. It need only be close enough for his audience to recognise the character as Socrates the wandering questioner. So how then can we on the basis of Plato’s dialogues distinguish between Plato’s view and Socrates’? Quite obviously, we cannot.

The method that Vlastos and others appeal to to make that distinction is to evaluate the arguments presented in the dialogue and all of their various entailments. This method generates two significant questions, one of which we shall leave until we discuss (3). Nowhere does Plato come out and say “I, Plato, will argue for such and such in the following way.” It is left up to the audience to interpret what Plato means by presenting any given dialogue in the way that he has, and in many cases, it is precisely what is not said and not argued that is important for understanding a given dialogue. Perhaps the best example of this is the Meno. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?” Here we have four possible sources of virtue: teaching, practice, nature, or something else. In the succeeding discussion, Socrates and Meno consider three possibilities: teaching, nature, and the gods. They end up with a hesitant commitment to the gods as the source of virtue. Yet throughout there are allusions to tasks commonly learned by practice, and its absence among consideration is conspicuous, especially given the orthodoxy of the period. This of course does not mean that Plato believed that practice is the source of virtue. It means only that Plato is clear on the inadequacy of the discussion and is pointing it out to his audience. Focusing only on the arguments of the Meno, however, would miss this possibility entirely. It would lead one to believe that Plato truly did believe that knowledge is recollection and that virtue is given by the gods. That may be the case, but it is far from certain, and Vlastos’s method doesn’t clear up the matter.

One way that Vlastos tries to clear up various ambiguities in Plato’s arguments is by committing himself to demonstrating that a given argument is consistent with other arguments elsewhere. He constructs Socrates’ and Plato’s positions as coherent wholes that manifest themselves in the arguments of Plato’s dialogues. Each dialogue then gives a piece of the overall whole that Plato’s audience must then hold together to understand what Plato seeks to show them. The difficulty of doing so should be sufficient to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this commitment. Holding all of Plato’s works in one’s head is difficult enough for specialists, let alone for Plato’s Athenian audience reading a dialogue before all of them had even been written. There of course may be some relationship between some dialogues. There was some speculation by Hellenistic commentators, for instance, that Plato presented his dialogues as tetrologies like the tragedians did.[iv] But aside from that, no one of Plato’s audience would be expected to understand how the dialogue he is reading fits into Plato’s broader view. This might be expected of Plato’s students, but the dialogues were published beyond the academy, and purposely so. As Steven Robinson points out, if Plato was simply writing for his students, he would have no reason to do so. These students are philosophers themselves, and they know better that philosophy is no threat to the polis. What matters, on the other hand, is the opinion of the demos, and it is that which Plato seeks to change. And he can’t do that if the demos must first read and comment on everything that Plato has written and will write. (3) completely misses the point of Plato’s writing. Maybe we can find something common amongst Plato’s corpus as a whole, but this would be no help at all in understanding the point of any single dialogue. The really important interpretative work demands that we understand the individual dialogues, not Plato personally. And to this end, there is no reason why there can’t be ten Platos or ten Socrateses in ten different dialogues.

So how do we interpret Plato? Ultimately, I don’t know. But I do know that we can’t do it like we tend to do now. We have to treat Plato’s dialogues as dialogues. They are not essays in analytic philosophy: we cannot mine them for their arguments and be sated by that alone. We have to consider the traditions that influenced Plato. We have to understand his audience. We have to weigh what has been said against what has not. We have to admit the possibility of irony and satire and other dramatic tropes. All this is what makes Plato so difficult, but also so engaging and persistently rewarding.



[i] This is important for more than merely historical interest. I shall save a full demonstration of this for another time. Briefly, however, when we ask about how to rightly do philosophy, what philosophical methods are appropriate or otherwise, we must defer to what philosophy itself is for. This kind of functional demand can only be decided by looking to the foundations of philosophy and to the problems that it was established to solve. Plato happens to be the centrepiece of those foundations.

[ii] There is some dispute about whether Plato’s dialogues were performed. There is good reason to believe that they were, at least in some respect, but they need not have been in order to support the general appeal to the public upon which my account relies.

[iii] This criticism is specifically about the Lysis, an early dialogue of peripheral import.

[iv] Diogenes Laertius considers this rather plausible but attributes the hypothesis to earlier commentators.


Works Cited:

Steven Robinson, “Plato in the Crito” in Jonathon Lavery, Louis Groarke, and William Sweet [eds.], Ideas Under Fire: Historical Studies of Philosophy and Science in Adversity, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, WI), 2013: 37-65

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