Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.12

Gareth B. Matthews, Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999.  Pp. 137.  ISBN 0-19-823828-2.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Iakovos Vasiliou, Department of Philosophy, Georgia State University
Word count: 2818 words

The Socratic dialogues induce intellectual anxiety in their readers. Socrates is an apparently wise philosopher and moral exemplum who seems to believe that virtue is knowledge, and yet disavows having the very knowledge in question. He himself claims to be at a loss, in a state of aporia, and he causes aporia as well in many of his interlocutors. Although he sometimes explicitly denies it (e.g. Eu 11d), it can often seem as though Socrates' aim is simply to cause aporia. As the history of reaction to the Platonic Socrates attests, the readers of the early dialogues have in turn been in aporia about what exactly Socrates is up to, whether he is really serious, and about what philosophical and/or ethical value there is, if any, in his aporia-inducing conversations. In Aristotle, by contrast, the central role that aporia occupies in dialogues like the Euthyphro and Laches is absent and there appears in its place a radically transformed and domesticated descendent. Aristotle uses the cognate aporema, and the plural aporiai, not to indicate a state of cognitive helplessness, where one cannot put into words what one has in mind (e.g. Eu 11b, La 194a-b), but to refer to the set of puzzles or problems regarding some topic that needs to be resolved on the way to discovering how things really are.

Professor Matthews' book examines the nature of aporia and its transformations from the early dialogues through the rest of Plato and into the works of Aristotle. According to Matthews Aristotle claims that philosophy began with perplexity about the nature of the universe (17, 19, 21, 29). By contrast, Socrates' perplexity (referring throughout to the Platonic character, not the historical figure) originates from puzzles about the virtues. Matthews emphasizes that the perplexity that Socrates induces in himself and others is not to be dismissed but is central to the early dialogues, particularly the Laches and the Euthyphro, as well as the Meno (until Meno's Paradox [80d]), and perhaps to the nature of philosophy itself (an issue he develops in the final chapter). Beginning with the response to Meno's Paradox, and continuing on into the Phaedo and Republic, perplexity begins to function differently. In these dialogues, Plato's Socrates believes that while aporia has instrumental importance, it is also something to be overcome in the end by a philosophical account (e.g. the Theory of Forms). This second way of thinking about perplexity is itself left behind in the Parmenides, Theaetetus, and Sophist. In the Parmenides Matthews claims that we find what he calls "second-order" perplexity, "perplexity about a philosophical theory conceived in response to first-order perplexity" (84), in the puzzles raised about the Forms in the first half. The Theaetetus marks yet a new step in the depiction of Socrates and perplexity. The famous image of Socrates as midwife indicates a special role for a philosopher who helps simply to induce philosophical theories and analyses, but does not himself produce such theories. This enables "Socratic perplexity [to] be given full honours without suggesting either that it is all there is to philosophy, or that it is something that we all must aim at getting over, or getting beyond" (93). In the discussion of false belief in the second part of the Theaetetus, and in the Sophist, Matthews argues that perplexity itself becomes the focus of the investigation. It is here that we see the transition to the role perplexity plays in most of Aristotle. Matthews had already pointed out (29-30), following Liddell-Scott-Jones, that 'aporia' shifts meaning from early Plato, where it refers to the state of being at a loss, or confused, to Aristotle, where it comes to refer to the question or puzzle for discussion. While Socratic perplexity, exemplified in the image of the numbing power of the torpedo fish (Meno 80ab), can appear largely absent in Aristotle, in Chapter 11 Matthews argues that we can nevertheless find it on at least two occasions: his discussion of time (Phys IV.10-14) and of honey bees (GA II.10) (114-6).

Matthews concludes that perplexity reveals something deep about the nature of philosophy: philosophy deals with "inherently problematic concepts" (126). The author is more vague than might be hoped about what this means, but he offers the following gloss: "... we are not now able, nor are we likely to be able in the near future, to give accounts of these [philosophical] concepts that will stand unchallenged for all later time" (126). As examples of such concepts, Matthews lists knowledge, virtue, time, causality, life, and mind. But the fact that these concepts are inherently problematic does not stop us from wanting to turn our perplexity about them first into puzzles, and then to provide solutions "if not for all time, at least for our own time" (129).

I am not sure whether such a strong demand helps us to understand what is distinctive about philosophical problems and the perplexity they cause. Even in the sciences, for example, is it likely that a physicist's current account of his concepts will "stand unchallenged for all later time"? Matthews is perhaps correct that philosophical problems are distinctive in some way, but specifying how they are distinctive is itself a philosophical problem to which many answers have been given (including that philosophical problems are not distinctive at all, but in fact pseudo-problems). Socratic perplexity does not consider any of these answers and simply to call philosophical problems "inherently problematic" does not offer much insight into the "nature of philosophy".

Matthews spends half of the opening chapter on perplexity (four pages), and half on explaining that he is not concerned about the historical Socrates. In reading the first four pages one might think that one will find an analysis and discussion of kinds of perplexity, with focus on a distinctive kind of perplexity, namely, Socratic and/or philosophical. The book opens by claiming that it is hard to imagine that any good philosopher is not "thoroughly familiar" with the experience of being perplexed and that philosophers as a group are more perplexed than most. Matthews says that it is the feeling of "cognitive helplessness" that is characteristic of philosophical perplexity. So far, then, perplexity is described as a subjective state, a feeling or experience. He then introduces a six-year-old character "Tim" (from an earlier book of Matthews') who asks his father how we may be sure that everything is not a dream. Matthews compares Tim's question with the question raised in the Theaetetus (158b-c) about whether there is adequate evidence that we are now awake. Noting the difference between these questions, Matthews asks, "is Tim's question nevertheless an expression of Socratic perplexity?" (3, his emphasis). He then claims that this question is susceptible to four interpretations (two of which are simply the identical questions repeated about the historical Socrates rather than the Platonic character "Socrates", so I will skip them): (A) Is Tim's question ever raised by Socrates in the Platonic dialogues? and (B) Does Tim's question express perplexity of the sort that the figure of Socrates in one or more of the Socrates dialogues expresses? (4). Matthews says, rightly, that the answer to (A) is simply 'no'. He then declares that he is interested in questions like (B). But Matthews does not tell us enough about the particular nature of Tim's perplexity. He tells us that he takes Tim's question to be "paradigmatically philosophical" and "paradigmatically perplexing" (2) but other than an appeal to the reader's own sense of what it feels like to be perplexed, there is no discussion of the nature of perplexity itself. Matthews writes, "My topic, then, is Socratic perplexity as it is represented in the dialogues of Plato, early, middle, and late. I want to discuss the perplexity that the figure of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato both displays in himself and induces in others, and in some surprising cases, induces in others but fails to display himself!" (6). One might well conclude from this passage, especially given the opening discussion of the relationship between Tim's perplexity and Socrates', that the book will go on to describe particular types of perplexity that one might get into. For example, what is Socrates' distinctive perplexity? How does philosophical perplexity differ from, say, perplexity in mathematics or physics? Is perplexity about, say, what Aristotle means in a certain passage of the Metaphysics the same as perplexity about whether there is an external world? Is one type better considered "philosophical" than another? What Matthews primarily does, however, is to proceed to trace the changing role of aporia in Plato's dialogues, as I summarized above.

Socratic Perplexity is itself a perplexing book in many ways. Lacking any formal introduction, Matthews never explicitly indicates who he intends his readers to be. Judging from a parenthetical remark about turning off undergraduates (44), one slowly gathers that his audience is "all of us who teach philosophy" (68, 129) and "all of us with professional training and experience in philosophy" (92, also 130). But neither the content nor the style of the book suggests such an audience. There are twelve chapters (roughly 10-12 pages each), ten of which cover numerous texts in a large number of dialogues from all periods, and two of which are devoted to Aristotle. Socratic Perplexity frequently spends only a page or two on quite complex arguments, and often does not deal substantially with the most challenging interpretations in the secondary literature. The overall thesis about the change in the role of aporia throughout the dialogues, and the evolution of its meaning will not be news to any professional ancient philosopher or classicist. It follows the basic format of the traditional division of the dialogues into early, middle, and late, and the standard account that goes with it: the early dialogues are aporetic, the middle dialogues put forward substantive philosophical theories, and the late dialogues raise criticisms of the views presented in the middle dialogues. Perhaps, then, it is written for the general professional philosopher, rather than the specialist in ancient. But this does not seem very plausible, since both the writing style and the remarks about philosophy suggest a much less specialized audience (e.g. 53, 119,126). The hypothesis that Matthews intends his book for an undergraduate reader does not fare much better, despite the fact that the tone of the writing often seems to suggest such an audience. Besides the explicit references to us professional philosophers, the term "elenchus" (27) is used and reference is made to the Theory of Forms (47-48; 73) without any explanation, and presumed as part of the reader's background knowledge.

Some of Matthews' more particular claims are also open to serious doubt. I'll mention three examples.

1. Chapter two discusses Aristotle's account of the role of perplexity in philosophy's beginnings. Matthews appears to maintain that Aristotle believes that philosophy began not simply from puzzlement, but puzzlement specifically over problems about the universe: "Suppose Aristotle is right about how philosophy got started in the Greek world. Suppose philosophy did arise, historically, from astonishment over how difficult it is to deal with basic puzzles about the universe" (19; see also 21). As evidence Matthews partially quotes the famous passage in the Metaphysics where Aristotle attributes the birth of philosophy to wonder (thaumazein), and chooses two particular puzzles in Aristotle, one "somewhat hidden away" in De Caelo (294-297) and one in GC (318aff) as illustrations of this thesis. But the Met. does not say that puzzles about the universe in particular are what give rise to philosophy: "For human beings originally began philosophy, as they do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered at the strange things in front of them, and later because, advancing little by little, they found greater things puzzling -- what happens to the moon, the sun and the stars, how the universe comes to be (982b12-16) ... For, as we said, everyone begins from wonder that something is the way it is, as they wonder at automata, or the turnings of the sun, or the incommensurability of the diagonal (for people who have not yet studied the cause are filled with wonder that there is something that is not measured by the smallest length)" (983a14-17; Irwin/Fine trans.). Aristotle does not restrict himself here to puzzles about the universe, but includes puzzles about things right in front of us, about geometry, and indeed quite generally about the fact "that something is the way it is". Now interpretation of Aristotle is not Matthews' central concern, but there is a real concern again about the nature of perplexity. One might well think that wonder about whether reality is simply a dream is quite different from the perplexity Aristotle is talking about. Aristotle seems to have in mind coming to understand the world and the causes of things quite generally. Is there any difference among the perplexities involved in wondering why it rains, or why the sky is blue, and wondering about the incommensurability of the diagonal, or whether life is a dream? Matthews apparently senses a potential problem here. He considers the possibility that someone might object to the example he cites from Aristotle as an illustration of philosophical perplexity by claiming that it is simply bad physics (14). He replies that he thinks the problem is "both genuine philosophy and bad physics!" I found his argument for this rather obscure, but even if he is right about this puzzle, the examples of puzzles from the Metaphysics do not easily fall under a clear category, "genuine philosophy", as opposed to genuine geometry, or genuine physics. We are back to the puzzle about the nature of philosophical problems, and thus about the nature of philosophical perplexity. Later in the volume (68-9) Matthews interestingly highlights a difference between being qualified to teach a course in geometry and a course in aesthetics. He points out that being perplexed about what makes something a work of art does not disqualify one for the latter position, but being perplexed about the geometrical problem of the Meno does disqualify one for teaching geometry. He concludes that "[this] fact tells us something very important about both philosophy and geometry" (68-9). Disappointingly, however, Matthews never tells us what this important thing is. How do these cases differ? And if Matthews thinks they are importantly different, doesn't that show that he has a concept of perplexity that is quite different from Plato's and Aristotle's? For, after all, they bring up perplexity about geometrical problems as examples of perfectly good cases of perplexity.

2. When discussing his own numbness at Socrates' questioning, Meno famously complains that he cannot say what virtue is, although he has given speeches on it thousands of times (80a-b). A little later, once Socrates has reduced the slave-boy to aporia concerning the geometrical example, he transparently teases Meno by referring to the slave-boy's question thus far as showing that he is now at a loss about the problem, whereas before he might have thought he could have given speeches to many people on the subject. Matthews comments, "[the questioning of the slave-boy] makes fun of Meno's avowal of perplexity and, in this way, signals a certain impatience and dissatisfaction with aporetic dialogues" (71). I don't see how what is being made fun of is Meno's avowal of perplexity. Quite the contrary, what is made fun of, here as always, is the interlocutor's (in this case Meno's) conceit of knowledge. What is ludicrous to Socrates is that someone would give a speech about a subject of which he is ignorant. It would be bizarre if Socrates were making fun of the avowal of perplexity itself, since he works so hard to induce it not only in Meno, but in the slave boy. Surely Plato is not impatient with the Socratic aporetic dialogues; rather, he seems to argue, particularly in this passage from the Meno, that aporia constitutes a necessary first step to moving beyond them.

3. I would also take issue with Matthews' comments about perplexity in the Apology: "From the Apology alone, however, one could hardly get the idea that perplexity is important to philosophy, or even that it is important for Socrates ... perplexity is not displayed or talked about in the Apology." (89). In the Apology, however, Socrates' philosophical life is depicted as having started with his hearing the statement of the Oracle that no one is wiser than he. In response, Socrates clearly expresses utter perplexity: "whatever (ti pote) does the god mean?" (21b3). He even uses a cognate of aporia: "for a long time I was in aporia (êporoun) about whatever he [the god] means" (21b7). Perplexity, then, is not only mentioned in the Apology, it is indeed what begins Socrates' philosophizing.

I have focused, typically, on the disagreements and problems I had with Socratic perplexity. But it also contains many insightful remarks, particularly for someone with some familiarity with Plato, both about the dialogues and about philosophy as it is practiced today.

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