Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.29

Thomas D. Eisele, Bitter Knowledge: Learning Socratic Lessons of Disillusion and Renewal.   Notre Dame, Indiana:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.  Pp. xviii, 346.  ISBN 9780268027742.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Zaborowski, University of Warmia and Mazury (

The book under review is composed of a preface, five chapters, an epilogue, notes, bibliography, and index. In his preface, Eisele describes his work as “an extended reading of three Platonic dialogues (with a fourth glanced at in the closing chapter)” (p. xiii), Protagoras, Meno, and Theaetetus, representative because, as he says, they are among the best dialogues written by Plato, and from three different periods in Plato’s work, and the Apology. Eisele’s attempt is to reformulate in a new way two partly false claims: (1) that “Socrates’ method of inquiry reaches only negative lessons” and (2) that “(especially in earlier dialogues) Socrates’ inquiries fail to reach any conclusions” (p. xiii). Eisele suggests that “while Socrates’ elenctic refutations may be negative in the sense they are meant to disillusion us, they are not intended to end there”, because “Socratic refutation is meant to lead us to renewal” (pp. xiii-xiv) and, secondly, that Plato’s dialogues “reach conclusiveness in the sense that they carry their readers through a complete cycle” (p. xiv).

The readership is not clearly defined. Given that to a large extent it originates from Eisele’s experience of “entering the classroom and what we do in this defined space” (see p. xvi), and more particularly of “how [he] proceed[s] in law school” (p. 106, n. 26), it should be taken as addressed to teachers and students of law with interest in Plato (from p. 348 we learn the Eisele is a professor of law). However, this is not explicit enough. Eisele’s ambition is to contribute to “the general discussion for the voice of a teacher who comes to Plato’s dialogues from the disciplines of law and philosophy, who has a sense of the reality of the classroom, and who wishes to say something responsive to the challenge that Socrates poses to any teacher” (p. ix). Specifically, he attacks two claims that “are commonly made about Socrates’ performances in Plato’s dialogues” (p. xiii).

The book is written for a Greekless reader and by a Greekless writer. But, again, this is not made explicit. From the Acknowledgments we learn that Eisele was helped by his research assistant Vasilios Spyridakis “with the original Greek texts and terms” (but the nature of the help is not specified, see p. 51, n. 30: “My research assistant, Vasilios Spyridakis, informs me that the Greek here is simpler and more straightforward than Jowett’s rendering...”). What is characteristic is that several arguments hinge upon subtle difference of the English translations of Plato’s works (see e.g. p. 42, n. 22: “Other translations support the idea that the Greek text implies that Socrates’ companion thinks the answer to his question is 'obvious.'”; see also p. 44, n. 27, pp. 49-50, p. 68, n. 38, p. 82, n. 2, etc., pp. 184-185, etc.). The book’s reliability for an original Platonic research is, therefore, questionable.

In his introductory chapter (“Participating in Disillusion and Renewal”, pp. 1-32), Eisele gives an account of his own recollections from school, examinations and teaching, and a section on The Figure of Socrates, where he tries to develop Gregory Vlastos’s observations, especially that “what is wanted during the course of Socrates’ engagement with others is a sample of “common sense and common speech,” not some specialized knowledge or technical expertise” (p. 8) and explains what he understands by the “twin lessons of Socrates”, of which the first is negative (“You don’t know what you think you know”), but the second one is positive (“You know more [or other] than what you think [you know]”). These two steps lead to disillusion and renewal (or, alternatively, recollection).

The second chapter (“Who Can Teach Us? And What Can They Teach Us? Socrates Recounts His Conversations in the Protagoras”, pp. 33-82) is devoted to the Protagoras and especially to the dynamics of the dialogue between Socrates and Protagoras, the philosophical significance of dialogue in general, dialectical therapy (“to break the spell cast by a speech”, p. 74), education, and—this is Eisele’s main theme (from p. xiii onwards) —Socratic conversational inquiry. As the notion is not explicated by Eisele (it is not listed in the index either) it is to be understood as an inquiry by dint of conversation (e.g. “Socrates insists in the Protagoras that the education of young people in matters of civic virtue would be better served if it were based not upon their reciting poems or giving speeches, but rather upon their sharing the responsibility for engaging in conversational inquiry”, p. 71). The reader also encounters multiple references to Michael Frede, Vlastos and Stanley Cavell—I would say as numerous as to the Protagoras itself. Eisele concludes the chapter saying that “Disillusion need not end in skepticism or cynicism” (p. 82).

In the next chapter (“The Poverty of Socratic Questioning. Asking and Answering in the Meno”, pp. 83-128), starting with a long quotation from Cavell, the stress is put on different types of student and the different positions and strategies Socrates takes in the face of each type. Eisele continues to list lessons of disillusion and to show how disillusion results in renewal (p. 109: “But the Socratic positions for the initiation of inquiry is not only one of not knowing, but also one of wanting to know”). And again, one finds a long excursus in which Eisele refers to Vlastos and Cavell. Later on one comes across a comparison of Socrates’ and Wittgenstein’s remarks on common knowledge, but this point is left undeveloped.

Chapter four (“The Labour of Socratic Inquiry. Learning in the Theaetetus to Give an Account of Oneself”, pp. 129-194) turns to the Theaetetus, whose action is defined by Eisele as “discussions and digressions”. In the Theaetetus, to a larger extent than in two previous dialogues, we are shown what Eisele calls “the positive lesson involved in the Socratic method: namely, that we know more (or other) than we think we know.” (p. 141). At this stage the reader is given another of Eisele’s general premises, notably “[e]verything that I do in this book is based on the thought that the educational activities that are portrayed between Socrates and his interlocutors influence the apparent arguments of the Protagoras, the Meno, and the Theaetetus.” (p. 142, n. 13). There are several passages pertaining to the technique of self-knowledge, but again, they remain, in my view, undeveloped (e.g. p. 193: “If we test our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs by way of a Socratic examination, they are apt to become better formulated or articulated.”)

Chapter five (“Learning to Find Ourselves at a Loss. How Does Philosophy Begin?”, pp. 195-236), opening with two quotes from Cavell, concentrates on the Apology. This turn from a later dialogue to an earlier one is undertaken in order to “complete [Eisele’s] account of Socrates’ method of conversational inquiry”. (p. 196). Eisele claims that the "Apology is Plato’s representation of Socrates’ account of his life.” (p. 197). A paraphrase of this account follows. Then Eisele passes on to the relationship between corruption and teaching, and alludes to, for example, the metapropositional level of Socratic conversation (see p. 223: “We have seen throughout this book that Socratic conversational inquiry involves learning not only about propositions but also about people.”) The chapter also includes a short comparison of the Protagoras, the Meno and the Theaetetus in view of “conversational companions in the dialogues” (see p. 230).

The last chapter (“Epilogue. Realities of the Classroom”, pp. 237-260) is explicitly addressed to law teachers, since it is about how much of Socratic conversational inquiry can be used in law school classes. This chapter is, too, the most personal (one section is called “How I Teach in Law School”) and "teacher" in this chapter would be best understood as "law teacher" (see p. 240, n. 7: “Some law teachers may find my description inapplicable to their own preparatory process.”)

As it is put by Eisele the book is about Socratic conversational inquiry. According to his own words, he has “been describing the progress of [his] rereading of some of Plato’s dialogues, and how this reengagement with those texts left [him] placed” (p. 12). This is to say that the book is written in a personal voice. But, given the ubiquity of Cavell, it would be probably more appropriate to consider this book as an analysis of Socratic conversational inquiry as interpreted by Eisele in the light of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy and which can be summarized in the statement: “if philosophy exists, it is only in discovering and practicing it”.

It is hard to establish exactly what is new in Eisele’s book. He tries to broaden the perspective (not only a negative but also a positive role for Socratic dialogue, dealing not only with propositions but also with persons) but, if I am not mistaken, they are scarcely new discoveries. For instance, Vasilis Politis underscored that in the earlier Platonic dialogues aporia “is not only a stimulus towards taking up the search for knowledge [but] is part of particular searches”.1 There are also many redundancies (including repeated quotations from other authors), awkward claims (e.g. what to do with a claim that Protagoras, Menon, and Theaetetus “are among the five or ten best dialogues written by Plato” (p. xiv)?), synopses of Plato’s dialogues and arguments built on the unargued positions of different authorities.


1.   V. Politis, "Aporia and Searching in the Early Plato", in: L. Judson, V. Karasmanis (eds), Remembering Socrates. Philosophical Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 89.

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