Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Writing and Being, Or: A Short Review of Irad Kimhi’s *Thinking and Being*

The first sentence of any essay is its most important. The first sentence is a doorman who invites the reader into the world that will unfold within what succeeds it. It is what sets the tone for the piece. The reader expects something quite different to follow from the pale butler with a posh, monotone accent than the dashing server who greets with a smooth voice and a smile. It would be quite obscene to follow the latter and not the former with a dingy mansion and rows of coffins. And yet…

The first sentence of an essay begins and therefore embodies a dialogue. Great writers therefore are not merely great theorists. They don’t merely have the best arguments. They don’t merely speak truly. They understand that all of these activities are intelligible only in dialogue, in discourse, in relation to what the reader brings to an essay. And so to understand how to write a great essay, one must understand how a great essay is read.

This dialogical element is essential. For an essay is an attempt, and attempt to not only establish some thesis, but convince its reader that it is true. An essay is nothing without a reader. But this is not to say that an essay may be cast out to the multitudes indiscriminately. The first thing that an essay must accomplish is to select a reader. This is the duty of the doorman, who must of course be mindful that the reader does not appear out of the aether. Every reader has a history, has hopes and habits. Every reader has reasons that bring them to an essay. The first sentence of an essay interrogates these reasons. It gets to know them over tea to play with them, to tease them, to judge them. It selects only those who might sacrifice themselves to the purpose of an essay, who might be deeply affected and emerge from the depths of an essay a different person with a new history, with new hopes and habits.

We learn from Socrates that the written word is a vulnerable thing, that it may be abducted and used for purposes alien to its own. This threat must be always opposed by the writer. An essay serves a higher calling than to satisfy a reader. But Socrates’ insight is important too: the essay has no power of its own. It cannot fight back against the determined reader. It cannot run. It cannot call for help. If an essay is to avoid Oreithuia’s fate, the writer must be cunning and use the reader’s energy against them. And as readers ourselves, all writers know precisely how easy this can be, for we too have been taken in by essays. We too have been destroyed and rebuilt by them. And we too have been told that this is what we have done to ourselves, that we have entrapped ourselves in our effort to abduct an essay. The question that remains is then how we may accomplish this feat for ourselves.

We all understand quite freely from satire and irony that blots of ink may hide an essay, or two or three, between and beyond them. It is the task of the doorman to choose which reader may be allowed to acquaint themself with which essay. The great writer might of course hide his crimes from the snooping detective while displaying them openly to any sympathetic ghoul or gangster. The masterful writer might even reveal a different essay to every reader who might happen across it and withhold the rest.

But an essay must nevertheless remain accessible. The reader who has hidden every element of an essay has not written an essay; we must always remember that an essay is a dialogue. Its first sentence cannot deny entry to everyone who happens to rap upon its door. We should rather say that a great writer proportions their selection to the readership they wish to address. And this depends upon the properties of that readership. A writer must know them intimately. They must live amongst them. They must laugh with them. They must cry with them. They must know everything that a reader desires and believes and identifies with. To fail this, to write in a way that does not reward or entice a reader, that does not address their concerns, and in which they cannot themselves see, risks soliloquy. And soliloquy is not writing.[1] It is a prison.

The first sentence of an essay dives into the soul of a reader in order to open them to an essay. It preys on their desires, on their spirit, on their judgements. It is deceptive, promising the world only to capture and captivate them, transforming them into a new person. In this, the dual duty of the first sentence of an essay becomes clear. It not only selects a reader: it also prepares them for what an essay will do to them—or rather what they will do to themselves while under the influence of an essay.

To prepare a reader is to crack them open, to loosen up their soul. As the reader labours to put themselves back together, they use the resources an essay gives them, and an essay takes this opportunity to smuggle a seed deep within.

It is not difficult to open up a reader. One need only present them with the promise of intelligible novelty. This is in essence to play upon those reasons that a reader first comes to an essay, to give them a taste but to hold back on the delivery. Easy as this might be, this is where writers most often fall into error. They so often forget that they are writing in dialogue that they fail to write at all. They instead forgo the norms of a discourse and craft what appear to be words but which have lost their meaning, or they place recognisable words in unrecognisable sentences and call those objections.

This is of course not how writing is done. It belies the central failure of the writer to know their reader and to select them accordingly. For many times a writer selects instead the wrong reader, one who cannot possibly be changed by the marks on the page. For this reader finds only the simplest of errors in these marks and remains therefore closed to the essay. And if this is so, how might an essay change them? How might an essay revolutionise a discourse? How might an essay teach a lesson? How might it even introduce a problem? Can an essay which fails at all of this even be called an essay? Just think of how many trees have been felled, how many forests cleared, how many birds and squirrels mulched in the chaos, and how many bears driven to starvation—all for what does not even amount to an essay; all for writers to not even write, but babble incoherently.

So what then shall the writer do? If the writer wishes to write, if the writer wishes to fulfill their destiny, they must first read. They must first live amongst readers and learn their languages and customs. Without this they are lost. They cannot despite their arrogance erect a whole discourse ex nihilo. But where they embrace their humility and accept their humanity, there they might finally write even a single sentence. For this is all that an essay is.

When the first sentence of an essay strikes a reader and tears open their soul, the reader immediately repairs the damage. They now have a new history, new hopes, new desires, new beliefs. And so in striking the reader, the first sentence of an essay changes them, draws them forward into the unknown. Each subsequent sentence now is, now is not, the same essay. The essay ceases, but continues. It embodies a new but old dialogue which now stands in relation to a distinct but indistinct reader. The great writer can make of plurality one and of one plurality. And if a writer cannot do this, gone are the hope that they may write at all. The sun has set on their writing. It is night.[2]

 

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Notes

[1] The writer may write for the reader who shares their body. It would be a mistake to suggest that all thinking is manifest in self-consciousness. The thinking being is not singular but a shifting sea of interrelated modules. Very often the best way for these modules to communicate, because they share a physiology, is to recreate themselves in signs without and convey a message indirectly. Writing is amongst the best means of accomplishing this. But the expression for expression’s sake, display for display’s sake, this is not writing, this is not thought. All writing, all speech, all thought is dialogical. The central task of philosophical logic depends upon this fact.

[2] Or maybe not.

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

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.

 

Notes:

[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