Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Defending ‘Socrates’

Last year I wrote a response to an interesting paper by Constantine Sandis. His piece, in Think 17/18, 85–98, was entitled ‘In defence of four Socratic doctrines’. (That volume of Think is not available on-line but you can find a pdf of an uncorrected proof here.) My response, ‘On defending Socrates’, was in the same volume, pp.99–101. (A pdf of a draft of that piece can be read here.) Now Sandis has replied to my response (and to John Shand’s – whose response to Sandis was published in that same volume, pp.103–7) in Think 22, 101–5. If you have the right access to CUP's online journals, you can read that 2009 piece, ‘Contextualist vs. analytic history of philosophy: a study in Socrates’, here.

Responses to responses are not always necessary or welcome. But Sandis raises two points that I think are worth pursuing. The first, more local one, concerns a thought about the reasons that we might find offered in some Platonic work or other for the notion that there are ‘Forms’, for example the Form of beauty. Sandis writes (2009, 102):
Warren objects that it is ‘far from necessary to make the leap from the recognition of some common property of ‘beauty’ which we can identify in such diverse instances as Helen of Troy, the sunlight on a college lawn, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and an elegant mathematical proof to the assertion that there must be some further thing, ‘beauty itself’, distinct from and separate from all these instances.’ He suggests, instead, that (i) concepts such as that of beauty may be a family resemblance concept besides which (ii) even if this is not so, there remain alternative accounts that are metaphysically more plausible than that of Plato. I could not agree more with both of these last two remarks, but I fail to see how they support his view. For any concept X of a thing Y, the fact: that X is a family resemblance concept does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as Y. If anything, we might say that there must (at least in some relevant sense) be such a thing as Y for there to be a family resemblance concept of it in the first place.

I merely meant to claim that the fact that a variety of items might all reasonably be said to be ‘beautiful’ is no reason to think there must be Beauty distinct from and independent of these various beautiful items. There might, in fact, be no particular quality or qualities that all these items share. I had no view on the matter to support or not to support; I wanted to say that there is insufficient reason to think that this Platonic argument is at all plausible. Perhaps I should have stressed the insistence on what I take to be the distinctly Platonist notion of a Form of Beauty, namely that it is ‘separate’ from the various items that might truly be said to be beautiful. [1]

Still, as I now understand Sandis, his aim was to suggest that a less ontologically committed view can be a defensible version of the ‘Socratic’ thesis of Forms and that a complementary, but similarly deflationist, Wittgensteinian account of ‘recollection’ can be offered in which ‘recollecting justice’ amounts to ‘recollecting the multifarious ways in which words such as ‘justice’ and ‘knowledge’ are used’ (2008, p.90). Again, I suppose it might and it is an interesting idea. But at this point the deflation seems to me to have gone so far as to let all the Platonic air out of the thesis. What is left is not a Socratic view, to my mind, with or without scare quotes, nor a recognisably Platonic one. (In fact I wonder whether the Socrates of the Meno more or less explicitly says that this is not at all the right way to proceed: Meno 72b–d.) This is what troubled me most: if the price of making a ‘Socratic thesis’ more ‘relevant and plausible’, indeed ‘defensible’, is to drain it of the recognisably Platonic substance, then I don’t see why we begin by wondering about a Socratic thesis at all.

This brings us to the second and perhaps more interesting point in Sandis’ 2009 piece. I had previously not sufficiently appreciated the sense in which his 2008 piece is avowedly ‘anachronistic’ (2008, p. 90). Still, I imagined that the reason the journal editor asked my to reply was because I was thought to be someone who would do so from a background of work in ancient philosophy. So I did. Still, Sandis now helpfully makes clear his view (2009, p.103):
My central task was ... to offer a Wittgensteinian reading of certain Socratic doctrines in the hope that this renders them more relevant and plausible than standard interpretations do (though the latter may well be correct from a historiographical point of view). Indeed I write of my own account that ‘such a linguistic reading of Plato may seem ridiculously anachronistic, and I certainly wouldn’t want to put it forward as the correct interpretation of his methodology’.

I am not sure that a Wittgensteinian reading makes a Socratic doctrine more relevant or plausible. Perhaps it does; for now, let us leave that question aside. I am certainly not objecting to the idea, as Sandis puts it, of an ‘analytical’ (which later he glosses as ‘non-historiographical’, 2009, p.104) rather than ‘contextualist’ (for which Sandis – I imagine with a smile – offers ‘antiquarian’ as an alternative title) approach to the history of philosophy generally. I suppose I see myself more as following the latter course while Sandis on this occasion chose the former. But we should be clear: ‘contextualism’ does not preclude critical evaluation or analysis. And, I would suggest, analytical approaches cannot be entirely innocent of context. Sandis asks:
If determining what a historical figure or set of figures actually thought is an aim not shared by the analytic approach, then where exactly does its value lie? (2009, p.104)

To my mind, it is sometimes part of my job to try to work out what some historical figure or other actually said or meant. Sometimes, I suppose they thought what they said, but that is not always the case and for the most part I am interested in ancient texts rather than long-dead people. In the case of Plato, for example, the interpretative job is importantly complicated by the fact of the form of his writing and the range of ideas in the different works tto such an extent that it is usually prudent to work rather with the question: What does this dialogue actually have to say about this philosophical question? The context for the contextualist approach can vary. (In the case of Socrates I confess I am inclined to give up on wondering what the historical Socrates actually thought.) [2]

Sandis goes on:
The consideration of a philosophical text in (varying degrees of) contextual isolation allows us to focus on the most charitable formulation of arguments and ideas which it has inspired or anticipated. (2009, p.104)

I suppose I see much less of a disjunction between the two approaches. Charitable interpretation (informed by philosophical analysis) has an important role in contextualist approaches (since the context is often of itself insufficient to determine a single clear interpretation, both for complete texts and to a larger extent in incomplete or fragmentary ones). And at this point Sandis and I may simply be involved in a verbal disagreement; the bracketed ‘(varying degrees of)’ in the last quotation is perhaps significant. For me, for there to be much sense in calling a thesis under scrutiny ‘Socratic’, it ought to have a fighting chance of being a thesis we might reasonably think could be ascribed to Socrates, whether by this we mean the historical figure or the figure in some Platonic work or other. Otherwise, I see no reason to invoke the name; let’s just get on and wonder what we now ought to think about beauty, expertise, and such like. It may, of course, be true that Wittgenstein, say, thought that his own view of some matter or other could be ascribed to or was in some way inspired by a reading of Platonic works. But that is itself a question for contextualist interpretation.


[1] ‘For any concept X of a thing Y, the fact: that X is a family resemblance concept does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as Y’. Of course. And I suppose this is true on either of the following construals of X and Y. If X is supposed to stand for e.g. beauty and Y of some thing, e.g. a sunset, then of course the notion that beauty is (or may be) a family resemblance term does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as a sunset, or even a beautiful sunset. (I did not claim it did.) If X is supposed to stand for e.g. a concept of beauty and Y of some thing, e.g. beauty, then of course the notion that the concept of beauty is a family resemblance concept does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as beauty. (I did not claim it did; I do claim that the ‘beauty’ that would be consistent with the hypothesis is not recognisably a Socratic or Platonic idea of beauty.)

[2] There are some helpful thoughts about this in J. Barnes, ‘La philosophie entre guillemets’ in M. Canto-Sperber and P. Pellegrin eds. Le style de la pensée: recueil de textes en hommage à Jacques Brunschwig, Paris 2002, 522–47, at 529ff. Barnes is reacting to the two pieces, by Brunschwig and Aubenque, I mentioned in an earlier post here.

1 comment:

mrbo said...

Dear James,

I greatly enjoyed reading this. My guess, now, is that our dispute is mainly verbal (e.g. I agree with everything you say in your first footnote which I found very helpful).
I suppose if there is a difference between us it may be that that I use terms like 'Socratic', 'Wittgensteinian' etc. more loosely than you (on the grounds that if something is inspired by X and contains some resemblance to it it may reasonably be called Xian even if X would not agree with it).Anyhow, I'd suggested you as a potential respondant because I thought you had some very interesting things to say about Rowe's paper on Plato and Witt. in an earlier blog and am glad that you agreed to do it.

The term ‘antiquarian’ is Anthony Kenny's (a master blender of contextualist and analytic history of philosophy; I agree that the ideal is to mix both when one can).

Thanks for the reference to Meno 72b–d, which I'd failed to recollect!

All best wishes, Constantine