Rules for Socratic dialectic

From the Gorgias of Plato it is possible to extrapolate a set of rules for Socratic dialectic as it is used in the Gorgias and in the dialogues generally…A compendium of rules derivable from the Gorgias follows:

  • The answers must be short. When Socrates asks Gorgias a question, he answers with a long speech; Socrates requests that he keeps his answers short (448e)
  • Both participants must desire to understand what the argument is about; in this way they advance the argument (453b).
  • Both parties in the dialogue must understand that the one who asks the questions is speaking on behalf of the audience, many of whom are too shy to speak. In short, the questioner is interested not only for his own sake but also for that of people in general (455d).
  • Both speakers must have good will and must be consistent. If both parties are not alike in this respect, the conversation must be ended. If the answerer gets caught in a contradiction — an aporia (the Greek word means “a place of no exit”) — he must not become angry. To be caught in a contradiction is not a disgrace, if one’s answers were sincere; in fact, it is a blessing, for now he knows that what he thought was in error. And surely, Socrates says, no person wants to be in error (457d).
  • Each interlocutor aims at getting the other to be a witness to what the interlocutor has said: what the other is to be a witness to is the truth of what has been said, for such agreement means that the arguments square with reality. If such an agreement is not reached, nothing will have been accomplished (472b, 474a, and 475).
  • When such agreement is achieved, we have friendship. Truth has the power to unite human beings in friendship, but error and falsehooods do not (473a).
  • The dialogue must be between two people only. The practitioner of dialectic must speak with only one person at a time (474b).
  • Contradiction guarantees what is said is not true; if there is a choice between what is contradictory and what is not contradictory, what is  not contradictory, however absurd, must be true (480e).
  • There are three prerequisites of intellectual character for engaging in dialogue (487a): (1) knowledge: each participant must know something and recognize knowledge when he sees it; that is, he must recognize when words square with reality; (2) good will: that is, each participant must have his opponent’s welfare at heart; he must be arguing for truth, not victory; (3) that each must speak freely; that is, each must say what is on his mind and not hedge or equivocate or hold back (487a).
  • Each participant must be aware that repetition does not invalidate truth. No matter how familiar a truth may be to a participant, no matter how trite a truism may sound, he must acknowledge its truth and not turn away out of boredom, looking for something different out of a desire for novelty (490e).
  • Sincerity is essential in each interlocutor: each must say what he believes or the implied contract in the dialectical conversation is broken (495a).
  • Engaging in the dialogue is the greatest good in and for life, for this is to engage in philosophy (500c).
  • All people should compete in the pursuit of truth through this dialectic, for only from sincere, prolonged competition will truth emerge. And truth is a common good for humankind (505e).
  • If an argument is true, one must see what follows from it. In other words, the dialogue must go on, no matter where it leads (508b).

From “Appendix B” of Plato: Gorgias, translated by James A. Arieti and Roger M. Burns, Focus Publishing, 2007.

I think it is worth the effort to meditate slowly over this list and ask why each of these injunctions are important.

By the way, my absolutely favorite translations of Greek texts are those done by Focus Philosophical Library. Arieti and Burns’ translation of the Gorgias is an exemplary edition with a nice critical apparatus. Highly recommended. I just reread Joe Sach’s volume by Focus called Socrates and the Sophists and was delighted in its profundity, particularly Sachs’ introduction to the volume.


Homonoia, Positive Mimesis and the Sharability of Desire

That’s the title of my paper proposal to read at the 2014 meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Freising, Germany. (This replaces my previous proposal on Peirce and Girard, “Mimesis and the Mediation of Meaning.” I decided that the Peircean elements would be just too difficult to communicate in a 20 minute presentation.) Here’s the abstract:

TITLE: “Homonoia, Positive Mimesis and the Sharability of Desire.”

ABSTRACT: A paradoxical but central tenet of Mimetic Theory is that violence feeds more off similarity than difference. The mirroring of desire, the doubling of monstrous antagonisms, and the breakdown of cultural distinctions are all instances of sameness generating or exacerbating violence. Human survival thus seems to require the strong reinforcement of culturally enforced distinctions/degrees, whether hierarchies or purity systems or the mother of all differences, the scapegoat, to prevent a violence-inducing sameness. This is Girardian orthodoxy, that similarity engenders violence.

But the ancients considered homonoia, i.e. “likemindedness,” to be a sine qua non of political/communal order, indeed as constitutive of peace itself. After considering some passages in Plato, Aristotle and St. Paul that trumpet the anthropological/sociological importance of homonoia, my presentation will attempt to answer certain questions pertinent to Mimetic Theory:

Did Plato/Aristotle/St. Paul get it wrong vis à vis Girard’s mimetic discovery? Or, is there an important sense in which both the Girardian and ancient accounts are true? Under what conditions does likemindedness lead to the violence that Girard theorizes and how might this violence be overcome in stable communal orders (without recourse to scapegoating)?

My answers to these questions will rest on an analysis of the mimetic roots of both homonoia and the crisis of distinctions. I will argue:

• It is not the loss of distinctions that create violence per se, but a breakdown of agreement (homologia/homonoia) regarding those distinctions.
• It is not the sameness of desiderata that alone produces rivalry between mimetic actors, but also a perspectival difference in the meaning of “mine.”
• We must pursue a normative version of positive mimesis based on the inherent sharability of joint objects of desire.

The testing of souls

I still ascribe to the quaint notion that philosophy is ultimately about living well. Everything else — epistemology, ontology, ethics, metaphysics, etc. — is valuable to only to the extent it is interesting, since interest points us toward what is vital in life. A corollary (too often neglected) is that each of us should apply ourselves to abstract notions of living well only to the extent they illuminate the concrete act of living well. (This is why I shrink from teaching classes in ethics — the academic concern tends to overwhelm the performative.) Whatever habit formation is required to translate from abstract philosophical theory into the concrete cultivation of practical wisdom is also part of philosophy, in fact, its most important part. Let me therefore distinguish the theoretical component of philosophy from its performative component. The former can be inscribed with ink on paper, but the latter can only be inscribe on a living soul and is not reducible to ink.

I can, by own admission, therefore only point or gesture toward this difference. One of the first things to understand both (more…)

On “little kingdoms”

Book 9 of the Republic ends with the question of how the true philosopher, the one fitted by nature and education to rule in the city, would comport himself in a (mostly corrupt) actual city, one quite unlikely to recognize his/her authority to rule:

[592a] He will gladly take part in and enjoy those which he thinks will make him a better man, but in public and private life he will shun those that may overthrow the established habitof his soul.” “Then, if that is his chief concern,” he said, “he will not willingly take part in politics.” “Yes, by the dog,” said I, “in his own city he certainly will, yet perhaps not in the city of his birth, except in some providential conjuncture.” “I understand,” he said; “you mean the city whose establishment we have described, the city whose home is in the ideal; [592b] for I think that it can be found nowhere on earth.” “Well,” said I, “perhaps there is a pattern of it laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen. But it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being. The politics of this city only will be his and of none other.” “That seems probable,” he said. — Perseus Project translation of Plato’s Republic, 592a-b

The Republic toggles its concern between the just constitution of the city and the just constitution of the individual soul. One is left with the unsettling notion that only the latter can actually be, that the just are cursed in some way to be homeless, strangers in the land of the unjust. The Republic is perhaps an atopia, rather than eutopia. But there is another possibility…

In Chapter 37 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, there is a conversation between Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Casaubon. Dorothea is trapped in a mostly loveless marriage to a failed scholar, Edward Casaubon, a family relation of Ladislaw. In a (partially) adventitious meeting, Ladislaw expresses toward Mr. Casaubon some resentful disparagement, against which Dorothea chides Will, defending her failed husband through an appeal to Ladislaw’s sympathy for him. That results in the following exchange:

“You teach me better,” said Will. “I will never grumble on that subject again.” There was a gentleness in his tone which came from the unutterable contentment of perceiving—what Dorothea was hardly conscious of—that she was travelling into the remoteness of pure pity and loyalty towards her husband. Will was ready to adore her pity and loyalty, if she would associate himself with her in manifesting them. “I have really sometimes been a perverse fellow,” he went on, “but I will never again, if I can help it, do or say what you would disapprove.”

“That is very good of you,” said Dorothea, with another open smile. “I shall have a little kingdom then, where I shall give laws. But you will soon go away, out of my rule, I imagine…”

The phrase “little kingdom” struck me as pointing to the effect that virtue can have in the small social setting. In such circumstances, the virtuous can rule, if only for a time. Athens does not beg Socrates to rule them, but it is clear that he is allowed to “rule” in the small gathering in the house of Cephalus. In the Middlemarch passage, it is not even clear who is being the most philosophical, Dorothea with her loyalty-love or Will with his recognition of the superior claim placed upon him. Each brings the “little kingdom” into existence jointly. Is this not true politics? Is there a sense in which the large scale enterprise that conventionally goes by the name of “politics” can be a distraction from this smaller but truer version? Perhaps we should practice “politics” at the highest level that truth will allow, among our neighbors in our neighborhood, and let the scoundrels fight each other for the remainder…

Two…no three…great Plato essays

Posting on Eva Brann’s remarks on nescience reminded me of her great and seminal essay on Plato called “The Music of the Republic,” which is also the title essay of one of her books. I can’t recommend it too highly, even if I diverge from some of her interpretations at times. One of the glories of the internet age is that so many great things are available for free online. Not only Brann’s essay but also the second best essay I know on the Republic (“Imitation” by John White) are available for free in an a scanned version of a special issue of the St. John’s Review from 1989-90.

Here’s the link. Enjoy!

p.s. Robert Williamson also contributes an excellent essay on the nature of Plato’s Good to this edition. Williamson was among the most brilliant men I ever met. I was lucky to have studied Homer’s Iliad (in Greek of course) under his tutelage.


On nescience

From my beloved former tutor Eva Brann:

Advice to myself concerning nescience:
1. Simply admit ignorance of what others do not know (facts, theories). 2. Don’t be boastfully modest about not knowing what no one else knows either. 3. Either resign yourself to never knowing what you ought to know or make a project of learning it, but don’t fuss. 4. Don’t claim that something important is unknowable; it’s pure presumption. 5. Try to exult in newly discovered perplexities. 6. Don’t display dithering nescience; it’s just annoying. 7. Remember that unknowableness is the least persuasive antidote to dogmatism. 8. Make no boastful protestations of your large ignorance of expert’s expertise. 9. Don’t say “I don’t understand” when you mean “I don’t approve.” — Open Secrets, Inward Prospects, p. 366

In praise of failure

In my last post, I distinguished between two forms of ignorance, a (bad) static version and a (good) dynamic one. A similar distinction can be made regarding failure:

“The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.”
Sarah Lewis on the gift of failure

My one quibble with this quote is the word “imperfect” could have been read defectively as meaning “participating in a perfection not yet achieved.” Otherwise, it is a lovely quote.