What is Defective Reading?

I call my project the Defective Reading of Plato’s Republic. I suppose I must first offer an apology for the title and clarify what I mean by calling this reading “defective.”  There are many possible ways of being defective, but I suppose my attempt more defective then any other attempt. (You have my blessing to bow out now!) I may as well begin by cataloging its many defects:

This reading starts out defective since I have already fibbed in my title. This book project is not primarily about Plato’s Republic. My interpretation is defective in that it wants to know not what Plato said but what Plato knew. My interest in the Republic is thus purely instrumental — as a means to a different end. I will assume that Plato is not trying to teach us about the Republic per se but about something else to which the dialogue bears witness. That “something else” must be arbiter of what is right or wrong in the Republic, so it is to that “something else” that my attention is primarily directed. What must that “something else” be if the Republic is to be taken as true? To answer that is my task. This reading is the expression of a questioning desire that it never finally overcomes, and desire is always defective in that it wants what it doesn’t yet have.

As a result of this, I must often depart from the text (another defect) in order to explore what I take to be the intended object of the dialogue against which I will measure the text itself — a straightforward task, yes?  However, this is an essayistic reading, forced by its subject to wander occasionally. As when the explorer of a territory, following a compass needle, encounters a river too deep to ford and must break away from his direction of travel in order to gather the materials necessary to build a boat or bridge, losing sight of his original quest in order to construct the mechanism needed to cross, so must I occasionally step away from pursuing my aim to gather or construct whatever conceptual tools are necessary to bridge gaps in understanding. Thinkers who have provided me with scaffolding and tools will show up in this book here and there: Rene Girard, Bernard Lonergan, Michael Polanyi, Charles S. Peirce , Soren Kierkegaard, R. G. Collingwood and others. I cannot find a way to say what Plato intended without saying a lot of things that Plato neither said nor appeared to understand in the same way as I do. Since I am unable to make up my mind whether this book is an exercise in exegesis or eisegesis — unsure, for example, whether I read Plato through Girard or Girard through Plato and unsure of what the difference between these readings would be anyway — we must count that as a defect.

Another defect is that I have by no means mastered Plato or the massive scholarly armadas that circle his corpse. I have certainly profited from the small percentage of such scholarship I have been fortunate enough to study carefully. (Would that I could study it all!) Believe me, I would tug on every shirt tail, begging for help of every living Plato scholar if I thought I could do so without being a burden to them. “Cure me of my defects!” I would plead.

This reading is defective in that it admits its utter inferiority to both the author (Plato) and the object of his study (whatever that might be). I come to Plato as one convinced that Plato knows more than me — not only about what he said, but about the object intended by his study. Full disclosure requires me to reveal up front that I am a member of the Chaerophon wing of Platonists. Chaerophon you will recall was the rather clownishly imitative disciple of Socrates, who hung on his every word, an imitator in the bad sense, who probably caused as much damage to Socrates’ reputation as his accusers. As Chaerophon was to Socrates, so am I to Plato. I idolize Plato and throughout this interpretation will assume (Chaerophon-like) that Plato is without blemish, always right, and that where he seems wrong, the defect is either a misunderstanding on my part or an intentional act of provocation on the part of Plato. Plato will be presumed always to speak the truth. Like Chaerophon, my role is as one returning from the oracle to report among the incredulous that Plato is the wisest of philosophers. I hope to inspire the same response that Socrates had: to eventually stop asking whether this is true in order to ask how is it true.

Likewise, my reading is defective in that it treats Plato with a degree of seriousness not befitting to a modern interpreter. One of my defects is that the Plato-whom-I think-is-right is a much more interesting object of study than the Plato-whom-we-all-know-is-wrong. To take Plato and Platonism seriously is as if one has presented oneself as a flat-earther. The blunt testimony of the great classicist Jonathan Barnes, explaining the superiority of Aristotle to Plato, is case in point: “Plato’s philosophical views are mostly false, and for the most part are evidently false; his arguments are mostly bad, and for the most part they are evidently bad. Studying Plato will indeed make you realize how difficult philosophy is, and the study has a particular fascination and a particular pleasure. But it can also be a dispiriting business — How and why did Plato come to entertain such exotic opinions, to advance such outre’ arguments?” (The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle by Jonathan Barnes, Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 1995, p. xiv) Since I think there is more to Plato than pleasure and fascination, since I confess that his “bad” arguments don’t dispirit me at all, my interpretation is defective on good authority. I shamefully take Plato as true, not just fascinating! Defective, no?

But mostly my reading is defective in that it looks at the Republic through the lens of the dialogue’s own defects. These defects and the way that the Republic addresses them in a self-reflective way are very much to the point of what I take Plato trying to do. Each defect is an artifact of some form of desired wholeness and every defect conceals a latent eros that refuses to be satisfied with anything less. I will argue that expressions of ignorance, aporia, stillborn argument, etc. all function as dynamic pointers to a concern for wholeness that each of these disappoint. I will attempt to make focal what is absent in Plato, to explore the negative spaces and moments of frustration in his dialogue and try to struggle with him to grasp in some way the possibilities to which the desires they give rise gesture. Being defective, this interpretation cannot take the full measure of Plato, since the imperfect cannot be the measure of anything. But it can, with Plato’s help, gesture toward that “something else” which might satisfy its demand for measure.

My interpretation is thus thoroughly defective — I freely admit it — but defective in a way quite different from other defective interpretations. My one confident contention is that my reading IS defective and I will challenge anyone polemically who argues otherwise. I doubt I am wholly right about any of the other things I may claim in addition to this contentious contention, but I do suspect that a person can learn a lot about Plato in attempting to set me straight. My new way of getting Plato wrong could be the first step in a new way of getting Plato right!

Woody Belangia

p.s. For a less glib version of what makes my interpretation defective, click here. There are also some posts where I apply the the method of defective reading to Descartes’ Third Meditation and to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by way of illustration.

One thought on “What is Defective Reading?

  1. “I idolize Plato and throughout this interpretation will assume (Chaerophon-like) that Plato is without blemish, always right, and that where he seems wrong, the defect is either a misunderstanding on my part or an intentional act of provocation on the part of Plato.”

    I think you’re right to do so. Plato himself encourages us to take him so seriously, to assume everything matters, nothing is unintentional. In the Phaedrus,Socrates likens writing to an organic body (I’d give you the quote, but I’m a bit lazy).

    Never mind…here it is:

    “Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work.”

    (Okay, I’m still lazy since I merely took this quote from another site and failed to cite it.)

    Which seems to suggest that Plato has extraordinarily high standards. Everything must mean something. There is no appendix. 🙂 That would mean each and every paragraph, each sentence, each word…must be in its proper place. Yikes! That’s hard to buy into.

    OR…maybe he meant writing should be organic in the sense that it moves, it breathes, it can’t be held down.

    OR all of the above?

    Then there’s this:

    Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

    —Plato’s Phaedrus, 275d-e

    Socrates seems to be talking about writing itself, not a specific kind of writing. Here he makes it sound like a terrible activity to engage in.

    How to reconcile these? Well, you could say the first quote represents Plato, the second the historical Socrates himself. Or you could say Plato agreed with Socrates for the most part (obviously not entirely, otherwise we wouldn’t be reading Plato!) and so had to invent a new style of writing, one which would be suitable to all audiences. (Sort of reminds me of Augustine…Confessions, maybe?) So you have eikasia-people who take what they can from the allegory of the cave (and think, everyone remembers that)…and so on.

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