Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.9

James C. Klagge and Nicholas D. Smith (edd.), Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues. (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, supplementary volume, 1992.) Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Pp. 280. ISBN 0-19-823951-3.

Reviewed by Stephen G. Salkever

These are unusually lively times in Plato studies, and the essays in this collection devoted to the controversy over interpretive approaches to the dialogues provide a variety of perspectives on the question of how to read Plato as a philosopher. The crux of the debate is this: How can we read Plato as giving answers to philosophical questions, in light of the fact that he never speaks to us without mediation? While David Halperin's appealing characterization of the current critical scene as one that finds "Platonic interpreters in a state of restless and urgent desire" (119) may be a touch over-heated, it is surely true that basic questions about the character of Platonic texts are now more open to serious debate than they have been for several generations.

The immediate cause of this re-invigoration of the field is a crisis of confidence that now seems to trouble adherents of the so-called "analytic philosophy" approach to Plato that has dominated teaching and scholarship in Anglophone academe for the past forty years. Established by the brilliant work of Gregory Vlastos and G.E.L. Owen in the 1940's and 50's, the central idea of analytic Greek philosophy is that Plato and Aristotle are to be read as writers who, in effect, share the aims and preoccupations, though they manifestly lacked the logical sophistication, of professors of philosophy at twentieth century British and American universities. Plato scholarship in this mode involves extracting from the dialogues doctrines expressing Plato's theories (of metaphysics, ethics, and so on) and the strings of propositions Plato, in effect, uses to back up those theories. Within this paradigm, scholarly controversy centers on questions of what precisely Plato says in these doctrines, and on whether the arguments he gives for them are valid or invalid. What is not controversial within the walls of the analytic approach is the premise that Plato's primary aim is the construction of theoretical doctrines and valid arguments in their defense, and that other "literary" or "dramatic" features of the dialogues can be safely overlooked. Potential difficulties for this interpretive presupposition, especially the undeniable doctrinal conflicts among the positions Plato's chief spokesmen adopt in different dialogues, have generally been short-circuited by reference to a developmental hypothesis such as Vlastos' claim that the early dialogues are "Socratic" and maintain a set of primarily moral doctrines that often conflict with the primarily metaphysical doctrines adopted in the middle (or "Platonic") dialogues.

There have indeed been dissenting scholars in modern English-language Plato studies, who have contended that to construe the dialogues in the doctrines-and-arguments way of the analytic philosophers fundamentally distorts the character of the Platonic text, which should be read not as a straightforward technical treatise but in the light of the complex interplay among a variety of textual features: character, dramatic setting, the potential ironies contained in the Socratic and Platonic voices, as well as the explicit doctrines. One of the most powerful of these dissenters was Jacob Klein, who cautioned against adopting the central presuppositions of the analytic approach in the introductory chapter of his Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill, 1965):

We can try to avoid at least two pitfalls: (a) to become obsessed by the view that the chronology of the Platonic dialogues implies a "development" in Plato's own thinking and that an insight into this development contributes in a significant way to the understanding of the dialogues themselves; (b) to attempt to render what is said and shown in the dialogues in petrified terms derived -- after centuries of use and abuse -- from Aristotle's technical vocabulary.
But such potentially interesting and fundamental objections to the regnant analytic paradigm were regularly brushed aside on ad hominem grounds: Klein, and other similarly dissenting Plato interpreters like Leo Strauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer, were all students of Heidegger1 and thus contaminated by what analysts took to be an impossibly muddled and unproductive version of philosophy; moreover, Strauss and his students were dismissed as politically beyond the pale of respectable academic opinion.

The strategy of ignoring or rejecting without argument all challenges to the appropriateness of treating Plato as a systematic philosopher has worn thin over the last few years. As is generally the case with shifts within the culture of academic disciplines, the causes of this change are difficult to identify, though part of it is due to the persistence and high quality of many of the recent criticisms of the presuppositions of the analytic approach that come from a wide variety of perspectives, from classicists such as Halperin and Diskin Clay, philosophers such as Charles Griswold and Martha Nussbaum, and English literature professors such as Harry Berger. The variety and appeal of these challenges are such that it is no longer plausible for analytic philosophers to uphold the status quo by stereotyping outsiders as "continental" and/or reactionary barbaroi who are not qualified to speak about philosophy. An invaluable recent collection of essays edited by Griswold, Platonic Writings, Platonic Readings (Routledge, 1988), contains critiques and responses from analysts and critics and provides an excellent overview of the debate. The present volume contains eight interpretive essays of generally high quality from a variety of perspectives, along with a prologue and an afterword in which the co-editors, both analytic types, comment on the issues of method raised by the essays and on the meaning of the debate in general. The editors of this volume seem less inclined to sharpen the debate than to characterize it in a non-threatening -- not to say trivializing -- way. But in spite of their efforts, the high level and variety of the essays collected here make the volume exciting reading for anyone interested in Plato.

James Klagge's prologue characterizes the debate as a clash between philosophic and literary modes of interpretation, which he seems to think reflects a personality difference between the two groups of interpreters. Analytic philosophers share a sense of standards, of what counts as good thinking, but "it is harder to specify what the standards are, or whether there are standards, for the evaluation of creative literary interpretations. It is not too surprising that philosophers, who tend to be serious-minded, shy away from this open-ended sort of enterprise, and literary critics, who tend to be more free-spirited, gravitate towards it" (12). Fortunately, the authors and essays in the volume do not confirm Klagge's hypothesis.

As a survey of the essays will show, good Plato reading requires skill both in formulating and evaluating arguments and in gauging the philosophic significance of diction, character, and a variety of features philosophic readers have too easily dismissed as "literary" and no concern of theirs. The debate over method cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy. But if there is an interesting difference between the two critical camps, I would suggest that it lies not in their degree of seriousness, but in the conflicting attitudes they display toward textual ambiguity. For the analysts (represented most clearly in this volume in the essays by Gail Fine and by Marc Cohen and David Keyt), semantic ambiguity has no legitimate place in philosophic discourse, and the job of analytic commentary on Plato-the-philosopher is to identify instances of ambiguity and replace Plato's ambiguous words with unequivocal propositions. For the challengers, semantic ambiguity is a philosophic resource rather than an error; David Halperin's formulation of this is his claim that Plato "actively courts in his writing an effect of undecidability" (118), and similar claims that ambiguous speech is appropriate on philosophic grounds according to Plato are made by Aryeh Kosman, Michael Frede, and Kenneth Sayre. The lost opportunity of the volume is that the issue of the status of ambiguity in Plato's philosophic discourse (Does Plato actively court undecidability? If he does, does this mean that he is not, to that extent at any rate, a good philosopher?) goes unremarked by the editors. Perhaps their silence bespeaks a design not evident to the non-analytic reader. Be that as it may, the essays on their own are well worth reading.

The first essay, Fine's "Aristotle's Criticisms of Plato," is in both style and substance an example of the analytic approach at its best. Fine addresses a dilemma posed by Aristotle's critique of Plato's account of forms: We seem obliged to conclude either that Aristotle correctly shows Plato to be incoherent, or that Aristotle thoroughly misunderstands Plato; neither of these seems a plausible alternative. Fine's solution is to say that there is another way of looking at these criticisms than as straightforward attempts to demolish Plato's theory. Instead, we can read them as "either attacks [on] literal versions of vague and impressionistic Platonic claims, or reconstructed versions of Platonism based on Aristotelian assumptions" (13). Thus, Fine can respond, speaking for Plato, that more precise formulations of Platonic views about, for example, the self-predication of forms or about what it means to call forms paradigms, can provide defenses against Aristotle's critiques. Aristotle's critique of Plato then turns out to overthrow not the most philosophic possible Plato, but an imprecise Plato -- which, Fine concedes, Plato too often was (41). Once Plato's writing is cleansed of imprecision, the differences between Plato and Aristotle can be seen as stemming from "conflicting metaphysical intuitions" (40), thus relieving us of the burden of having to decide that either Plato or Aristotle is an incompetent philosopher. Both then can be seen to have plausible metaphysical theories and to employ coherent reasoning in developing them. Appropriately placed first in the volume, Fine's is the only essay that makes no reference to the current debate over method, recalling a quieter time when analytic interpreters could treat their orientation as entirely unproblematic.

Julia Annas' fascinating historical study, "Plato the Sceptic," begins the process of problematizing the way in which Plato is a philosopher by discussing two competing schools of Plato interpretation in antiquity. She compares the argument made by Arcesilaus, head of the Academy in the 2d century B.C, that Plato is essentially a skeptical writer with an anonymous Neoplatonic text from the 6th century A.D. that argues against the skeptical reading and for treating the Platonic dialogues as a source of systematic doctrine. As Annas characterizes them, these two ancient positions bear an uncanny resemblance to the two modern modes of reading Plato. The skeptics claim that Plato's intention is not to produce true moral and metaphysical doctrines, but to encourage more self-aware and less dogmatic inquiry, while the Neoplatonist, like the 20th century analytic philosopher, plays down the significance of the ad hominem character of Plato's arguments and of the pervasive Platonic trope of calling into question (and sometimes subverting) doctrines his principal interlocutors seek to defend. For the skeptic, the dialogues are primarily a preparation for further inquiry, while the Neoplatonist sees a dogmatic Plato, one whose central intention is to give binding and systematic answers to the most fundamental questions about being and value. Annas sees merit in both ancient ways of reading of Plato, though I think she wraps up the debate too neatly and conclusively by relying on the truth of the modern analytic Platonist's split between early and middle Plato to say that the skeptical reading works best for the early dialogues and the Theaetetus, while the Neoplatonic picture of a dogmatic Plato is the only way to account for the Phaedo and the Republic. Still, she acknowledges the possibility that the difference between modest dogmatism and moderate skepticism may be less than meets the eye. At any rate, the essay casts remarkable light on the current debate by resurrecting an ancient one.

The next two essays, Kosman's "Silence and Imitation in the Platonic Dialogues," and Halperin's "Plato and the Erotics of Narrativity," are brilliant pieces, and are too rich to be summarized accurately in a short space. Each begins with a close reading of a complex passage which forces us to consider the possible distance between Plato and what is being said by the characters in the dialogues, that is, to consider the possibility of Platonic as well as Socratic irony and concealment. Kosman discusses Socrates' critique of mimetic narrative in Book 3 of the Republic and Halperin takes on Apollodorus' account, in the opening pages of the Symposium, of how he came to learn the narrative he is about to present of Agathon's long ago drinking party. Both then go on to consider the current controversy over method directly, and both argue, very much contra the analytic Platonists, that to assume that the central philosophic business of the dialogues is to convey doctrines and arguments from the author to the reader is to misread Platonic philosophy badly. Once this is seen, Kosman says, we must recognize the need to read the dialogues in some very different, though no less philosophic way:

We shall not be able to read directly out of the dialogues anything that counts eo ipso as a theory of Plato; we shall be unable simply to abstract a passage and imagine that straight away we have Plato's theory of this or that. For we shall be forced to recognize that there is always some ironizing distance, though it may be set at zero, between the views of Plato and those of Socrates or the Stranger. Nor shall we be able to quote a fallacy and say: here is a mistake of Plato. It may be that Plato has nodded, but it may also be that he has given us the fallacy to serve some important philosophical point in the context of the dialogue. (85)
What, then, is the point of philosophizing in a style that is committed to ambiguity, to provoking but never finally satisfying questions about what it means? Halperin's thesis here is subtle and worth considering: by means of the ambiguity produced by the interplay of his often contradictory doctrines and the characters who present them, Plato charms us into a commitment to the activity of carefully interpreting written texts. Yet at the same time he shows us that no final or exhaustive interpretation is possible, and that the activity of interpretation is not simply an end in itself, however pleasant it may be, but an oblique way of discovering the truth about the beings. Is this literature or philosophy? Halperin's Plato is an author who eludes secure placement in one camp or the other, a writer who turns out to be "an extraordinarily skilful and devious double agent" in the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry (128). The essential undecidability of the dialogues is, on this reading, a sign not of underdeveloped theory building but of a careful attempt to open new spaces for reflection on fundamental questions.

The next essay, Mary Whitlock Blundell's "Character and Meaning in Plato's Hippias Minor," provides a detailed and provocative reading of that short dialogue concerning the relative merits of Achilles and Odysseus. Blundell's reading illustrates the interpretive challenge to the analytic philosopher's approach to Plato by articulating and applying the general maxims that 1) Socratic argument is intrinsically ad hominem rather than a preliminary sketch for a universal moral theory; 2) that the dialogues must be situated in their local context (in this case, the Hippias Minor needs to be seen as Plato's response to the educational programs of Homerists and Sophists); and 3) that it is necessary both to consider the possibility that weak Socratic argument is an intrinsic part of the design of the dialogue rather than Plato's oversight, and to recognize that this unavoidable question can never be resolved with absolute certainty.

Cohen and Keyt's "Analysing Plato's Arguments: Plato and Platonism" provides the only explicit defense of the analytic approach found in this volume, and it is an unusual and intriguing defense indeed. Their starting point is the observation that even when we can be sure that a thesis advanced in a dialogue belongs to Plato and not to one of his characters, the thesis is often backed up by arguments in which crucial premises are missing. When confronted with such an enthymeme, the philosophic reader may first try to find the missing premises in the dialogue itself by broadening the context of the argument. But if this fails, it becomes necessary to reconstruct the argument by supplying the missing premises, generally following a "principle of charity" which would lead us to supply the most rational supplements possible. If we do this, however, are we still interpreting Plato, or have we gone beyond the sense of the text? Illustrating their claim by reference to the controversy over the content of the Third Man Argument in the Parmenides, Cohen and Keyt say that charitably assuming that the most rational Plato according to our lights is the real Plato leads to absurd conclusions, such as that all major philosophers are infallible and omniscient and that major philosophers never disagree with one another (177-78). If we are to avoid absurdity, it is necessary to admit, then, that such reconstructive argument is a free act of creation, of building a valid argument on Platonic scaffolding, and not an accurate determination of what Plato himself said or meant -- a prospective rather than a retrospective (or antiquarian) reading of Plato's arguments (195).

Cohen and Keyt argue that there is nothing disturbing about their view that good Plato interpretation attempts to repair rather than explain the text. They do this by comparing the controversy over the Third Man Argument with "the interpretation of a text from the closely related area of the history of mathematics" -- Euclid's Elements (189). Modern mathematicians are not reluctant to recognize that they simply know more and better math than Euclid did, and so can understand Euclid's proofs better than he understood them himself. They are less obsessed than philosophers with the "principle of charity" and readier to bring in the "principle of parsimony" -- applied to Plato, this principle would teach us that "the simplest explanation for an apparent inconsistency in a philosophical work is that the philosopher's thought actually is inconsistent" (188). Cohen and Keyt's defense of the analytic doctrines-and-arguments approach to Plato, then, rests on the power of the analogy they draw between philosophic and mathematical texts. Are present-day professors of philosophy to Plato's writing as present-day mathematicians are to Euclid's?

This analogy conflicts directly with Kosman's and Halperin's suggestions about the similarity of Platonic philosophy and poetry. This conflict need not be seen as a clash between incommensurable paradigms, as the editors imply, but could serve as the opening of a debate that might well prove fruitful for adherents of both sides. An excellent move in the direction of establishing the terms of such a debate is provided by Frede's essay, "Plato's Arguments and the Dialogue Form," which states the philosophic case against the analytic approach to Plato and for the inextricability of philosophic teaching and literary form with remarkable sobriety and clarity. This essay could serve as a fine introduction to Plato interpretation for intelligent students at almost any level. Like Kosman and Halperin, but less tensely and in a plainer style, Frede argues for the essential ambiguity and irony of the Platonic text:

It turns out that there are a large number of reasons why Plato may have chosen to write in such a way as to leave open, or to make it very difficult to determine, whether or not he endorses a particular argument... The dialogues are supposed to teach us a philosophical lesson. But they are not pieces of didactic dialectic with Plato appearing in the guise of the questioner. A good part of their lesson does not consist in what gets said or argued, but in what they show, and the best part consists in the fact that they make us think about the arguments they present. For nothing but our own thought gains us knowledge. (219)
If this is the case, of course, Plato is radically unlike Euclid, and his intention is not to supply the strongest possible arguments for the most defensible theses, but to model and to inspire dialectical inquiry.

The final essay in the volume, Kenneth Sayre's "A Maieutic View of Five Late Dialogues," carries the case against an exclusive focus on Platonic doctrines and arguments to a set of dialogues written late in Plato's career (the Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Parmenides, and Philebus) which appear to be (with the possible exception of the Theaetetus) dogmatic rather than aporetic or skeptical. Each of these dialogues asserts a method (of collection and division, and so on) for resolving philosophical questions by confirming or denying the truth of a thesis. But the dramatic plot of each of these dialogues calls these same methods to question in the following way: each mode of inquiry is exhibited through conversation, and yet conversation is not included as an essential element in the description of any of the methods. How to explain this apparent disparity between explicit doctrine and dramatic practice? Sayre considers and rejects several explanations (that the dialogues are meant to be acted out and so must have dialogue, or that they are "proto-essays" and so are bound to be sketchy) and using language from the Seventh Letter and the Phaedrus suggests an interesting and plausible hypothesis that maintains the integrity of the dialogues as written texts in a way that clarifies Frede's view of what the texts expect from us as readers. According to Sayre, the primary goal of Platonic philosophizing is not the discovery of true propositions and valid arguments, but the development of "capacities of mental discernment" (233). To support his view that, for Plato, "the goal of philosophy is not argument, but mental discernment" (242), he calls on us to reflect on our experiences as readers of Plato, reminding us of the discontinuous development of argument within each dialogue and of the way repeated readings develop the capacity for asking more questions of the text.

Sayre's discussion provides a nice response to Klagge's rhetorical puzzlement in his prologue about the standards that apply to what Klagge calls "creative literary interpretations." A question that needs asking here concerns the costs and benefits of a reading of Plato that erases, however provisionally, the difference between a written philosophical dialogue and a mathematical proof -- and I think the essays in this volume show that it is crucial and reasonable for all readers to acknowledge that there are both costs and benefits.

Nicholas D. Smith's "Afterword," however, returns us to the orientation and level of sophistication of co-editor Klagge's prologue. Why, he asks, do we continue to work on Plato after all these years? Why are there "scholars"? (Smith interestingly and consistently characterizes the practice of interpretation as "scholarship" rather than "reading.") The alternatives he poses are in effect Hegel versus Descartes, philosophy as the expression of the Zeitgeist versus philosophy as modern progressive science: either each generation must read Plato in its own terms (which Smith calls "the easy answer" and rejects) or we scholars are continually and progressively coming to understand more and more about the ancients and their texts (which he calls "the progressivist answer" and accepts, though with standard doubts about the kind of realism implicit in this position and about scholarly objectivity). That for Plato philosophy may be a project quite distinct from philosophy as understood, in their different ways, by Descartes and by Hegel -- the view so vigorously expounded by Frede, Halperin, Kosman, and Sayre -- vanishes in Smith's approach to the problem of interpretation. The fundamental questions they raise are avoided or not perceived here, and challenges to the analytic approach to Plato are written off in an oddly sniffy way (signaling ironic distance?) as new-fangled "fads":

This century alone has seen Marxist interpretations of almost everything, Freudian interpretations, structuralist, deconstructionist, Straussian, and all manner of other (to my mind) misguided novelties. The texts themselves are never so tortured as they are by someone coming at them with an 'ism' for an instrument. (252)
Apparently, Smith believes that the approach to Plato based on the questions and methods of 20th century analytic philosophy is not an "ism," or even a definite mode of philosophizing that must stand open to critique, but simply the latest chapter in the age-old progressive narrative of the philosophical sciences. Happily, the exhilarating papers in this volume will, if read, make this conversation-stopping illusion more difficult to sustain.


  • [1] Hannah Arendt, another student of Heidegger's, gives this description of his Plato classes at Marburg in the 1920's: "It was technically decisive that, for instance, Plato was not talked about and his theory of Ideas expounded; rather for an entire semester a single dialogue was pursued and subjected to question step by step, until the time-honored doctrine had disappeared to make room for a set of problems of immediate and urgent relevance. Today this sounds quite familiar, because nowadays so many proceed in this way; but no one did so before Heidegger." "Martin Heidegger at Eighty," in Michael Murray, ed., Heidegger and Modern Philosophy: Critical Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 295.