In defense of Protagoras

The opening words of the opening dialogue* of the entire Platonic corpus are “From where, O Socrates, do you appear?” Perhaps we can grant these words some independence from the words that immediately follow and think about the way they inaugurate the whole Socratic trajectory. The words appear at the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras, and I want to submit that this question and this name are closely allied.

Protagoras is of course the sophist par excellence, a professional teacher of dubious “wisdom” and champion of radical relativism. He and his kind are the black-hatted villains opposed to the virtue-loving Socrates — or so we may be tempted to read. Conflict excites and agreement is boring, which makes us overemphasize the former at the expense of the latter. The tradition, starting with Plato, has naturally tended to emphasize the oppositions and antagonisms between sophist and philosopher. But this emphasis discounts the priority and importance of the sophist movement in Ancient Greece; it fails to understand the degree to which the sophists were predecessors to the philosophers, and were the first to frame the kinds of human questions that were to become its dominant obsession. It seems to me that Socrates is spiritually much closer to Protagoras than to Empedocles, say. A shared question, even when one disagrees vehemently over the answer, is evidence of a more basic deep agreement.

We begin with a question (“From where, O Socrates, do you appear?”) and are presented a dialogue called Protagoras in answer. Every statement has meaning only as an answer to a prior question. Oftentimes we get the answer first and must reconstruct the question. (The real heritage of the “first philosopher” Thales is not his claim that the source of all things is water, but the line of questioning he opens up to others, the quest for the arche or source/principle.) The sophistic profession of Protagoras is an answer to a nexus of unstated questions that look eerily Socratic: What is a properly human excellence? What is the best way to live? Can virtue be taught and, if so, how? What is the source of human value? How much are knowledge and wisdom worth? (Etc.) Socrates becomes an opponent of sophistry only after his mimesis of Protagoras’ questions leads him to different answers.

Thinking never begins with a clean slate. It never emerges from blissful ignorance or dark chaos. It begins when some positive attempt to order experience breaks down or is shown wanting. Thinking is inherently critical and necessarily comes in the train of a positive articulation of what seems to be the case. Thinking lives in the fluid of questions; questions are desires; desires are mimetic. The failure of the answers of Protagoras to satisfy Socrates leads Socrates to give voice to otherwise tacit questions concerning human aspiration that Protagoras’ teaching excite. Socrates makes explicit what is implicit in Protagoras — not the answers, but the questions. These questions are the true progeny of Protagoras. The humanistic turn in philosophy begins with Protagoras. Our debt to him is still earning interest.



* By “opening dialogue” I mean first in terms of the Reading Order of the dialogues as reconstructed by William Altman. I won’t defend that reconstruction here, other than to claim that I find Altman’s order more useful and more cogently argued than other forms of order, especially developmentalist or dramatic. The root idea is that the dialogues formed a pedagogical canon in the early canon and that Plato often used earlier dialogues to prepare the mind for later ones, and later dialogues to test the student’s mastery of the lessons the student was supposed to have learned in the earlier. Altman’s order has the Republic as the central dialogue, both chronologically and in importance. See his book Plato the Teacher for more.

Self-critique on homonoia and positive mimesis

This post is based on the paper I recently submitted to the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Freising, Germany last week. I want to criticize what I wrote there and at least admit to certain defects that I can find there. Here is an incomplete list (even my list of defects is defective!):

1. The mimetic fantasy problem — In my paper, I defined positive mimesis as “the mimesis of desire for a sharable good that can only be enjoyed through the mediation of another.” The positive element is that fact that mutual aspiration for a sharable good would unify and not be in itself conflictual. But this does not mean that the mimetic object is good or even real. Consider the following quote, a first-hand account of a Yanomami shaman on how he learned of the spirit world:

“As children, we gradually start to think straight. We realize that the xapiri [spirits] really exist and that the elders’ words are true. Little by little, we understand that the shamans do not behave as ghosts without a reason. Our thought fixes itself on the spirits’ words, and then we really want to see them. We take hold of the idea that later we will be able to ask the elders to blow the yakoana into our nostrils and give us the xapiri’s songs. This is how it happened for me a long time ago. The spirits often came to visit me in dreams. This is how they started to know me well.” — (from The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa)

I am not taking a position on shamanism, but it is clear that the Western experiences the world through a different mimetic lens. The xapiri surely are “realities” in Yanomami social life at least. The quote makes clear how they are mimetically mediated in the very manner that I describe in my paper — although a scapegoat may be lurking behind the scenes. But they also could be mimetic projections/fantasies that yet preserve no small measure of cultural unity.

2. The paradigm fixation problem — What I mean by this is that my hypothesis of positive mimesis is based on models, either designated or tacit, that provide concrete flesh to my imagination. As Aristotle noted, we can only think through images. It is easy in one’s mind to dismiss a counter-example by retuning to the paradigm case, arguing from that standpoint, and remaining rooted there. My paradigm is that understanding can be shared with others in intellectual pursuits, and shared without diminishment. But perhaps a lot of other, more messy examples would require a lot of twisting to fit into the procrustean bed of my hypothesis.

3. The disguised partiality problem — One’s positive vision of unity, however lovely, must overcome a lot of partial interests to be actualized in fact. The champions of the whole can unwittingly become just another special interest battling against other special interests in an attempt to dominate the shared space. (Thrasymachus’ notion in the Republic that justice is “the advantage of the stronger” recognizes that a ruler of the whole is in a position to assert himself as a special interest in his own right. One of the burdens of the City in Speech is to think about how this problem can be overcome.) I mentioned Political Correctness in my paper, a phenomenon in which an appeal to tolerance devolves into an intolerance against perceived intolerance. (It should be noted that homonoia does not preclude the special, the diverse or the partial. On the contrary, we must be parts to participate in a whole — it is not uniformity but common participation in the sharable.  There can no unum without a pluribus.)

4. The necessity of dissociation problem — Let me quote Jacques Derrida:

“Once you grant some privilege to gathering and not to dissociating, then you leave no room for the other, for the radical otherness of the other, for the radical singularity of the other. I think, from that point of view, separation, dissociation is not an obstacle to society, to community, but the condition…Dissociation, separation, is the condition of my relation to the other. I can address the Other only to the extent that there is a separation, a dissociation, so that I cannot replace the other and vice-versa.” (Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p. 14) **SEE NOTE BELOW

So in the self-reinforcing process of a philia for a sharable good that I describe there must be moments when a limit is reached, when the most sensible thing to do is to part ways. If our responsibility for the other is infinite then that precludes me from exercise my responsibilities to others. That can’t be right, can it? Perhaps the issue of “distance” for which I criticized Girard should be reexamined.


So these are a few of the problems I see with my hypothesis, each big enough to drive a truck through. And yet…I still think there is some merit in my hypothesis that must be preserved against these criticisms. So I will keep working…


**NOTE: Sometime in a private conversation during my time in Freising, I had the poor sense of pronouncing on a subject that I don’t know well enough to criticize, namely deconstruction. I have read (poorly) a few of the seminal texts on the subject, but certainly cannot speak as an authority. Nobody called me out on it — there was no socially embarrassing comeuppance, but I know that I shouldn’t pronounce on that which I am barely in a position to understand. So my self-imposed penance is to study enough so that I can see to what extent my assertion was wrong. I had the book Deconstruction in a Nutshell, which I must admit, I am enjoying tremendously — to my surprise. I failed to grasp how much I am doing with Plato is akin to deconstruction of a type. I do think that Derrida and I will diverge at some point in my investigation, but I am willing to entertain the notion that he is right and I am wrong and vice-versa. By the way, I actually think highly of Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus called “Plato’s Pharmacy” and an essay he wrote on the Timaeus called “Khora.” So why am I put off by Derrida? I’m not sure.

“Homonoia, Positive Mimesis and the Sharability of Desire”

That is the title of the paper I delivered on July 22nd in Freising, Germany at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. Here is a link to the paper.

Per its website, “The COLLOQUIUM ON VIOLENCE AND RELIGION (COV&R) is an international association of scholars founded in 1990. It is dedicated to the exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard‘s mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture.” If you are at all interested in Girard and Mimetic Theory, I *strongly* recommend joining COV&R. One of the great benefits is a subscription to receive every new volume in the Michigan State University Press series Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture as well as the Colloquium’s journal Contagion.

Those who have been reading this blog will notice that I often swerve from Plato into topics related to the Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, a theory that I summarized in three blog posts herehere and here. My paper was directed to primarily a Girardian audience, and I ended up leaving almost every reference to Plato on the editing room floor. But the paper deals with themes that I plan to develop in my Plato book and in this blog. My ambition is to use Girardian Mimetic Theory as a tool to interpret the dialogues. Girardian readers have tended to offer suspicious, deconstructive readings of Plato. I, on the other hand, intend to use the theory of Girard as a tool for a constructive and receptive reading of the dialogues.

My paper was written as a part of an ongoing dialogue on so-called “positive mimesis” with Jeremiah Alberg, author of the highly recommended book Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts. Jeremiah presented the other talk in our session on “positive mimesis.” He was a careful reader and gentle critic of my approach to the subject. No writer could ask for better.

I wrote earlier about my theory of Defective Reading “that defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by. Once one become aware of a defect, in an argument for instance, an inner norm becomes energetic and operative. Defects excite such norms, whereas self-satisfied opinions depress them. Moments of such defective awareness thus present the best chance to catch a glimpse of these norms in action, norms which cannot be fully expressed but can be fully inhabited.” Having now attempted to articulate a positive expression of homonoia, philia and positive mimesis, my task is to examine the defects, gaps, hesitancies, and qualms that such an attempt produces. Believe me, such defects are all too obvious to me now! I will devote the next few blogs to unpacking a few.

Upcoming Plans

It has obviously been a while since I have posted. Travel and preparing for an upcoming conference in Germany haven’t given me much time to devote to my Plato blog.

I will be presenting a paper at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Freising, Germany next Tuesday. Here is a link to the conference schedule. My paper is to be entitled “Homonoia, Positive Mimesis and the Sharability of Desire” and it is undergoing a total redraft as we speak. Much of my preparation was in studying various classical authors (particularly Plato and Aristotle) on the theme of homonoia, which translates roughly as “likemindedness” or “unanimity.”  However, due to time constraints and the anticipated audience, I had to leave much of that discussion out. The paper will be more straightforwardly Girardian. I will post the paper eventually when I get it in a presentable state.

After the conference, my plan is begin reading through the entire Platonic corpus with a couple of friends, using William Altman’s reconstructed “Reading Order” of the dialogues from his book Plato The Teacher. Following his plan, we will read Protagoras, Alcibiades Major and Minor, Erastai (Lovers) and Hippias Major and Minor, then see how it goes from there.

I am also have a nice time some favorite reading short stories with my reading group. The group of about twenty gathers in my living room every 2 or 3 weeks. This summer we have already discussed “The Moons of Jupiter” by Alice Munro and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor. On July 28th, we will discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Black Monk”. Then we will read “Bluebeard’s Egg” by Margaret Atwood, “The Judgment” by Franz Kafka and “Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov. In the fall our plan is to begin discussing Thomas Mann’s mammoth Joseph and His Brothers — that one could take a while…

So I should be back posting again in a few weeks. Until then, auf wiedersehen!