The Republic is widely recognized to be Plato’s masterpiece, but for centuries it has been the subject of much debate: is it about the ideal state, or the soul, or art, or education, or something else altogether? Interpretations have been many and various, for three main reasons: 1. studies have tended to concentrate on parts of this very long dialogue to the exclusion of other parts; 2. some of the opinions expressed in the dialogue are routinely regarded as being those of Plato himself; 3. the manifestly problematic inconsistencies and faulty argumentation are discussed and occasionally corrected as philosophical problems in their own right, and not as an organic part of the conversation. This book analyses the dialogue as a dialogue, a conversation between the characters presented in it, and examines the dialogue in its entirety. The result is a holistic interpretation making sense not only of the dialogue as a whole, but also of its parts, including the peculiarities. Each character is a paradigm representing an aspect of the central theme of the dialogue (apparent good), and it is because of what they represent that the conversation takes the overtly rambling and unstructured course that it does, while actually having a tight and well structured dynamic. Embracing the peculiarities rather than ignoring them, explaining them away, or correcting them piecemeal, is the first step on the way to understanding a Platonic text. Indeed, in general it is counter to philosophical thinking to impose on a text what one considers should be its meaning, rather than to examine and explain what is actually there.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

If Plato had made Records

I was recently informed by a person with a vested interest in the “Plato says” approach  that my analysis of Plato’s Politeia is only one interpretation. I would agree. However, my analysis is based on what I regard as the correct approach, whereby each dialogue is read as a dialogue in its entirety, and the interpretation explains the dialogue as a whole and in its parts. Other approaches fail to do this, to say the least. To illustrate my point that not all approaches (let alone interpretations) are equally valid, here are some possible approaches to Plato if Plato had made records:
1. The unitarian approach. All of Plato’s works tend to the same philosophy. It is a fact that he made thirty-six records, and these share many features in common. They each appear to be disc-like, with a groove spiralling inwards to a central hole or outwards from the hole (there is much controversy over this point). Because they are all the same, it is clear that Plato had one unchanging philosophy.
2. The developmental approach. The records appear to fall into three groups. Some are black, some are red, and others are blue. A few very technical experts have determined by an examination of the grooves that some records are to be played at 33 rpm, others at 45 rpm, and others at 78 rpm. Again, this has led to controversy. Do the different groups (whether according to colour or rpm) indicate different stages in Plato’s career, or simply different styles? Further analysis of the colours and grooves is required.
3. The unplayed Plato approach. Plato would not have released his top secret philosophy to all and sundry. It is therefore all very well talking about the records, but to know what Plato actually thought and taught, we must go back to the memoirs of people who knew him personally, or should have known him personally, or at least read a few magazine articles about him, or in recent years have held séances to talk with Plato’s spirit. Some additional information may be acquired by thinking about the circumstances leading someone to make records.
4. The historical approach. Nowadays, Plato’s records are made of polyvinyl chloride, but this may not always have been the case. There are indications that they were originally wax cylinders and there have been some exciting attempts to reconstruct them.
5. The analytic approach. If you take a Platonic record and cut along the diameter you will find yourself with two equal halves, clearly representing good and bad, yin and yang, the one and the many, etc., etc. Further research has revealed ever smaller and more intricate shapes, requiring extremely accurate measurements to describe them. If you put all these pieces in a bag, and then shake the bag, you may hear the music of the spheres. Various researchers have identified different rhythms, but all are generally agreed that Plato is a Pythagorean.
6. The holistic approach. Breaking the records is a shocking act of vandalism. The records were meant to be listened to intact. Hold one in your hand and swing it from side to side. You will hear the air blowing through the hole. This is the music of the spheres, and Plato is clearly a Pythagorean.
7. The sceptical approach. Plato’s records create a false sense of progress on the dizzying journey from the edge of nothingness towards the central hole of doubt and uncertainty. His sense of playful seriousness knows no bounds. Some sceptics claim that the records lead from one’s own central ignorance outwards towards an understanding that nothing can be known.
8. The Postmodern approach. Plato clearly had a fetish about round objects with a hole at the centre. Look at this wall decoration I’ve made from all the records! Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Corrigendum. The son is not the father...

p. 97 of my book.

Here's a philologically interesting mistake (aka, an incredibly stupid slip of the keyboard):

On both occasions, the chain of events leading to the diversion begins with an elaborate description of the way Polemarchus uses physical means to attract attention — in both cases, by catching hold of a person’s tunic. In the first instance, it is Polemarchus’ slave who does this, but at the instigation of Polemarchus; in the second, it is Polemarchus himself:

327b2-5 Observing us from afar as we were setting off homewards, Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, ordered his slave to run and order us to wait about. And the slave, behind me, catching hold of the tunic, said, “Cephalus orders you to wait about.”

The second appearance of "Cephalus", outlined here in red, should of course read "Polemarchus". The mistake seems to have occurred because "Cephalus" has just appeared in the preceding line, after many appearances of "Polemarchus". I am still astounded at my failure to spot this, since the whole point of the argument here is that Polemarchus diverts, the first diversion leading to the discussion as a whole, the second diversion leading to the "digression" of books V-VII.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Conference Book Sale

Lexington Books will be selling my book at a discount at the APA conference, in the exhibit hall of the Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, December 27-30, 2014.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Updating the Political Analogies

The classification of constitutions according to types of polis and citizen facilitates the discussion of various types of soul, referred to analogously as aristocratic, timocratic, and so on. The political analogy presents a hierarchical tripartite constitution with one part controlling the other two, thus producing various types of constitution according to which part is controlling; this is for the benefit of the hierarchically-minded timocratic Glauco and Adimantus. Socrates chose the polis because it would appeal to the timocratic Glauco and Adimantus on several levels, including ambition, power, and hierarchy, while also being a single entity recognizably having parts, a helpful analogy for the soul not usually considered to be a single entity with parts.

The soul, however, is not actually hierarchically tripartite. It has one or other general motive, depending upon the way good is conceived, and Socrates provides a money-making clue to aid in the identification of each type, although money-making is of course not part of the soul’s constitution. A modern equivalent analogy might be the university and the academic. My presentation is very rough and ready, just to give a general idea.

The conventional aristocratic university is a centre of research for the sake of research. It does what a university is supposed to do. It is difficult for such an institution to exist for any length of time since it has no interest in making money.
Aristocratic academics occasionally discover something new and interesting, and share their findings with others with no thought of personal advantage. They are prepared to lie to keep non-aristocratic students interested in academic research, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The timocratic university best fits the mythical image of the ivory tower. It attempts to emulate the aristocratic university while improving upon it in terms of recognition and reputation. It acquires the trappings of what it conceives to be aristocratic, which is basically anything beyond the ordinary, and anything that overawes the ordinary. The timocratic university will be old, venerable, and steeped in history, enjoying sufficient means (land revenues, bequests, etc.) to support itself without having to resort to ordinary money-making. It is far more impressive than the aristocratic university.
The timocratic academic competes with other timocratic academics in order to gain recognition as a true academic. Academic success is measured in terms of recognition and grudging respect from fellow timocratic academics. Excellence is a function of reputation. Academic success has little to do with the ordinary man in the street, or society as a whole. Research will be on abstruse subjects of little importance to society. There is a danger that the timocratic academic may gradually become enamoured of the trappings, while becoming less enamoured of timocratic research, which comes to be seen for what it is, a waste of time and energy. The timocratic academic will, however, continue to maintain the fiction since reputation is the end.

The oligarchic university is less detached from society. It concentrates on research into practical matters, and aims to support itself through patents and research grants. It must struggle to restrain itself from more populist fields which promise to be more lucrative.
The oligarchic academic is a hard-headed no-nonsense scientist with little time for subjects such as philosophy, sociology and literature, although, again, the lure of easy cash income through more lucrative research and teaching positions has to be suppressed constantly.

The democratic university promotes the study of any and every subject since they are all of equal worth. This open policy requires much greater investment than in the oligarchic university, requiring a greater number of fee-paying students in addition to patents and research grants. Fortunately, the wide range of studies available attracts a great number of democratically-inclined students. Disciplines are too restrictive, and so-called multidisciplinary studies are promoted. True multidisciplinary studies require years of investment in learning each discipline before combining them, but the democratic university treats the tasting of various studies in various disciplines as multidisciplinary.
The democratic academic is a multidisciplinarian in the democratic sense. Democratic academics write on anything and everything, teach anything and everything, and are generally exciting and entertaining people.

The tyrannical university exists to promote itself. All means are legitimate towards the university’s self-aggrandisement. Sex, violence, films, postmodernist pseudoscience and any other subject found to attract the masses will be exploited under the guise of education. Student fees are more important than the students themselves. Thrasymachus the sophist would feel at home in the tyrannical university, although the tyrannical university exploits academics as much as students, requiring its staff to apply for research grants whether they need to or not, obliging them to write papers (rather than books) and send them to “respectable” journals, since such publications earn the university credits, and so on. Academic integrity is frowned upon.
The tyrannical academic cynically plays along with the undermining of reason and truth, constantly devising new ways for self-promotion within the system at the expense of academic integrity, while adopting all the trappings of previous constitutions, such as the notions of excellence, multidisciplinary studies, and bulk-publishing. Thrasymachus and the myriads like him are angry and resentful at the happiness of others.

This, then, is how universities might be classified according to the results of Plato’s Politeia. Of course, as Glauco notes in the dialogue, there are no such constitutions in reality. The point is that the analogies are made up to help understand types of soul.

One constitution not yet considered here is that of Socrates, the dialectical aristocrat. Like the conventional aristocratic academic, Socrates lies through his teeth to engage non-aristocratic people in a contemplation of truth, but unlike the conventional aristocratic academic, he lies in such a way that there is a chance that his interlocutors might become puzzled enough to activate their own dialectic thought.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Touch of Plato

The Cave Analogy does not work if we take it seriously. One obvious solution is to assume that Plato is interested not so much in details as in the big philosophical picture. The Devil, however - in this case Plato - is in the details as well as the big picture. Every detail fits into the big picture, and the big picture may only be seen once the details have fallen into place. The details themselves may only be fully appreciated in the context of the big picture. Here’s a small example.

On the first page of the dialogue, Socrates, narrating the events of the day before, makes it clear that he would have gone back to Athens had he not been persuaded to stay in Piraeus, the port of Athens. At the beginning of Book V, half way through the dialogue, having given an account of the good city, Socrates relates how he was about to talk about the degenerate cities when he was persuaded to talk instead about sharing women and children, a subject which somehow leads hin to talk about other subjects such as the Philosopher King, the Sun Analogy, the Divided Line Analogy, and the Cave Analogy: he returns to his original intent only at the beginning of Book VIII. Who persuades Socrates to engage in this long dialogue in the first place (Book I), and who persuades him to digress for three books (V-VII) on those subjects now considered to be the high point of Platonic philosophy? The answer to both questions is Polemarchus.

After much analysis it becomes evident that Polemarchus represents the type of person who thinks that doing well is chasing the next pleasure, whatever it may be. The political tag this type receives in the dialogue is “democratic”. Polemarchus represents the psychic democrat, not the political democrat, although there is some overlap. At the beginning of the dialogue, he attempts two forms of persuasion on Socrates: firstly, by democratically threatening him with mob power (whether in jest or not); secondly, by enticing him as he himself would be enticed, by a number of pleasures that will be theirs if Socrates stays. The digression in Book V begins when Polemarchus is unwilling to pass on the democratically fascinating subject of the sharing of women and children.

It is more than merely interesting that apparently great philosophy is instigated by a desire for novelty and pleasure on the part of the democratic, charismatic, mobster who won’t take no for an answer. All the more so when we recollect that Polemarchus is a passive listener for most of the dialogue.

The two instances in Books I and V reveal unusual attention to detail, especially considering how confused “Plato” appears to be in the Cave Analogy, from one sentence to the next. Polemarchus enlists the help of others: in Book I, Polemarchus gets his slave to stop Socrates; in Book V, he gets Adimantus to insist on discussing the subject that derails the main discussion. The physical persuasiveness of Polemarchus is brought out in both cases, with the process of persuasion including at some point the act of tugging on a sleeve; in both cases, the exact same phrase appears, and this appears nowhere else in the Platonic corpus - “catching hold of the tunic”. Here are the two passages:

327b2-5 Observing us from afar as we were setting off homewards, Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, ordered his slave to run and order us to wait about. And the slave, behind me, catching hold of the tunic, said, “Polemarchus orders you to wait about.”

449b2-6 But Polemarchus — for he was sitting a little away from Adimantus — stretching out his hand and catching hold of the tunic, above by the shoulder, dragged the latter, and stretching himself forward began to talk in a huddled whisper which we couldn’t hear, except, “Shall we let him off, then, or what shall we do?

It is almost as if the reader is invited to make the comparison, although the two passages are so far apart in the dialogue.

The adverbs used in both instances are reminiscent of the same or similar adverbs used in the description of the fire in the Cave Analogy in Book VII: namely, “above”, and “behind”; and a third adverb “at a distance” (or “from afar”) is also to be found in the scene in Book I, and a similar adverb meaning the same thing ("a little away") is in the scene in Book V.

While these details may not contribute very much to the philosophical account, it seems to me that they suggest very strongly that Plato is well aware of what he is doing, and that if there are blatant inconsistencies from one sentence to the next in the Cave Analogy (and elsewhere), they are intentional.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Shadows in the Cave

Here is a very small sample of a pervasive phenomenon in the dialogue. I have chosen it because it requires no philosophical background, and because it is probably the most familiar section in the dialogue.

The passage at the beginning of Book VII of Plato's Republic is so well-known that it may be worth actually reading it. Socrates is talking with Glauco (in Greek transliteration, Glaukon):

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.

Socrates presents an impossibility. On the very same wall opposite the prisoners are to be found a) the shadows of themselves, b) presumably the shadow of the wall, c) and the shadows of objects carried by men passing along the wall. Many attempts have been made to illustrate the analogy, and several shadowy versions are replicated in the Cave of the Internet.

In this version, the fire is located correctly behind and above the prisoners, explicitly stated by Socrates just a few lines earlier. The shadows of the prisoners are necessarily cast onto the ground before them, and not onto the wall. Thus, either the fire is not above and behind, or the shadows of the prisoners cannot be opposite them on the cave wall. There is something wrong with the account, and it should not be ignored. That it is ignored must be ascribed to an unthinking assumption that the account is somehow to be understood despite the discrepancies: small points in the general scheme of things may be ignored. The wall and the models cast no shadows whatsoever; they would have obliterated the shadows of the prisoners, and are therefore inconvenient.
The inconvenience may be solved in the following way:
These prisoners cast no shadows (onto the ground), not to mention the wall's apparent translucency. A more sophisticated illustration retaining the shadows of the prisoners and the shadows of the models is to be admired for its ingenuity and its more sophisticated perversion of the laws of physics:
Here at last we have both the shadows of the prisoners and the shadows of the models, thanks to some masterful bending of space. Even this, however, fails to meet the criteria of the account, where the prisoners are explicitly unable to remove their gaze from the wall directly in front of them; the shadows of themselves are expressly opposite them on the cave wall, exactly where the shadows of the models are also said to be.

To return to the passage quoted at the top of this entry. This is not Plato's account of a cave. This is not even Socrates' account. Socrates is asking Glauco whether he can imagine this cave, and it is Glauco who says that he does. Clearly Glauco does not imagine it, since it is impossible. No one is expected to accept this cave analogy at face value, except for people like Glauco.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Buy the book new - it's cheaper!

This is snapped from Amazon's site. Brand new, the book is a mere $81.48 (beyond my means, but I've already read it); used, the book costs over 10% more. I'm wondering whether the used book costs more because of the rarity value of my book having had a reader.