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.