Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2011.12.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.54

Sandra Peterson, Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xvi, 293.  ISBN 9780521190619.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by J. Angelo Corlett and Kimberly Unger, San Diego State University (;


This 9-chapter book addresses the putative puzzle of why Plato’s Socrates seems to differ from dialogue to dialogue. Why does Socrates at times profess ignorance and at other times seem to strongly assert claims? While the dominant tradition holds both that the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is Plato’s instrument for expressing Plato’s own views and that Plato’s views develop throughout the dialogues (a position Peterson refers to as “Plato-centric”), Peterson offers an “interlocutor-centered hypothesis” according to which Socrates, who says he knows nothing great, is consistently examining the views of interlocutors throughout most of the dialogues of Plato,1 and argues that there is inadequate evidence to suggest that Socrates, as depicted by Plato, ever held the views, doctrines or theories so often ascribed to him by the dominant tradition of Plato scholarship (xvi). Many scholars of Plato seem to have too hastily concluded that the differences between the philosophical examination in some dialogues (such as the Apology) and that in others (such as the Phaedo and the Republic) reflects the development of “Plato’s thought” between those dialogues.

Peterson argues that despite differences in Socratic philosophical style among Plato’s works “the Socrates in any of Plato’s dialogues is examining his interlocutor and so engaging in the central component of the complex activity, philosophizing”(4). She assumes with Gregory Vlastos and other mouthpiece interpreters that Plato’s Socrates has a special status as the best available clue to whatever Plato’s own views happen to be (5), and approvingly cites Vlastos’s view that Plato’s “overriding concern is always the philosophy” (15). She also assumes that Plato had philosophical views and that the character Socrates does indeed convey convictions of Plato’s (233). But Peterson does not think that such doctrines are “big” or substantive. Peterson also observes that the dialectic of the aporetic dialogues fails to reveal a Socrates who sets forth his own views. Moreover, Plato is a capable reasoner and is thus unlikely to hold positions that are refuted in the dialogues (11). Based on these observations, she is skeptical of the mouthpiece interpretation’s attempt to ascribe to Plato all manner of doctrines or theories that can be found in the mouth of Socrates. Instead, she argues, what we find in the mouth of Socrates are not his own (or Plato’s) convictions, but rather the views of the interlocutors Socrates is examining (15).

Peterson’s take on the philosophical commitments of Plato’s Socrates “reduce to few”: Socrates’ claim to ignorance; his abhorrence of philosophical arrogance, which is so great that when he is called “wise” he takes this as slanderous, (19-24) as it implies that Socrates makes the worst error possible of not being thoughtful and is hence in a position to do the worst possible harm to others (33-36); and his “method” of philosophical examination (15, 233). The Socrates of Apology 23b is cognizant that he is not wise (42), and this includes the understanding that he “knows nothing big” (43). Peterson refers to this as Socrates’ general agnosticism about substantive matters (53). To be sure, whatever Socrates seems to know is something “small,” nonsubstantive (55), or rather general: for instance, that we ought to care about how to live our lives well and that we ought to continue to examine ourselves (57, 261) as the unexamined life, says Plato’s Socrates, is not worth living. While “Socrates knows a few things, ... his knowing them is consistent with his not knowing anything big” (58).

Peterson devotes Chapter 3 to the concern that the Socrates of the corpus of Plato’s dialogues is significantly different than the Socrates presented in the Apology. Her answer to this concern is that Socrates is the same throughout all of Plato’s dialogues, thereby rebutting Gilbert Ryle’s famous statement to the contrary. Ryle made the comment that the digression in the Theaetetus is “quite pointless.”2. While there is plenty of informative analysis and argument throughout the Theaetetus’ discussion of the nature of human knowledge,3 in Ryle’s view the digression lacks such qualities altogether. Peterson, however, is convinced that the digression fails to demonstrate that there is enough change in Socrates throughout Plato’s dialogues to justify a developmentalist thesis.

Nor does the strangeness of various views articulated by Socrates in the Republic imply that there is a development of Socrates’ views throughout Plato’s dialogues. Peterson devotes Chapters 4-5 to this problem, arguing that what we find on the lips of Socrates are not his own views, but those of others. What is clear to the non- question-begging interpreter of Plato’s works is that in such passages we find the same Socrates as we find in the Apology, one who examines others and finds that their professed wisdom is nowhere to be found.

Another piece of alleged evidence in favor of the received (mouthpiece) interpretation of Plato’s dialogues is Socrates’ discussion and apparent embracing of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo. Peterson devotes Chapter 6 to showing that Socrates does not straightforwardly subscribe to the words placed in his mouth, arguing that the fact that Socrates discusses a topic fails to show that he embraces what he says about it. The Socrates of the Apology, Peterson states, is still alive in the other dialogues such as the Phaedo. It is Socrates who examines others for the sake of making himself and others better for the rest of their lives (16). Socrates begins where his interlocutors are, philosophically. He then leads them through a critical examination of what they believe, allowing the honest among them to eventually grasp for themselves what is problematic regarding their positions, positions that affect their lives in such important ways (195).

Peterson continues the same theme in Chapter 7, wherein she argues that various interlocutors’ conceptions of the nature and function of philosophy belong to those interlocutors, not to Socrates. Here the focus is on Plato’s Euthydemus, the Rival Lovers, and the Sophist. All in all, she reasons that there is no evidence to show that the Socrates presented in these dialogues on the topic of the nature and function of philosophy would dissuade the reasonable person from seeing that Socrates is the same in these contexts as he is in the Apology (215).

In Chapters 8 and 9, Peterson presents a more general argument for the claim that Socrates remains the same throughout Plato’s corpus of writings: “The totality of the dialogues featuring Socrates show that Plato thought that philosophizing as Socrates claims it in the Apology was the best practice in which to spend one’s life” (250). That is, Peterson’s cautious view is “at least as likely as the alternative hypothesis that Socrates speaks doctrine of a developing Plato” (216). This view of Peterson’s has important implications for the views that the adherents of the mouthpiece interpretation continually attribute to Plato. For it is a denial that their interpretive method is justified by not only the very dialogical form in which Plato composed almost all of his works, but a denial that the very content of the Platonic corpus justifies the ascriptions of a theory of forms, a theory of mimetic art, a doctrine of the immortality of the soul, etc. to Plato as if he were writing treatises.

According to Peterson, throughout Plato’s corpus of writings we find a consistent method of Socratic philosophizing: Socrates discloses to his interlocutors what they believe or allows them to reveal their beliefs, and critically examines their beliefs. What we have, argues Peterson, is not Vlastos’ and other mouthpiece interpreters’ Plato-centric writings, but rather interlocutor-centered ones. For “certain views commonly taken to be doctrines of Plato’s we have only reason to believe that they attach to Socrates’ interlocutors. We do not have reason to attach the views to Socrates” (217). Thus the apparently doctrinal or theoretical Socrates, states Peterson, turns out to be the examining Socrates (218-9). So it is simply false that there is a development of doctrines within Plato’s writings such that he or even Socrates matures from the early to the middle to the late dialogues, as developmentalist mouthpiece interpreters so often assert.

As if her exegesis of various passages of many of Plato’s dialogues were not sufficient to prove her thesis, Peterson points to a stark unappealing general implication in the approach of Vlastos, Charles Kahn and many others, namely, that it denies that in composing his later dialogues Plato took seriously the message of the Delphic oracle of which Socrates speaks so passionately in the Apology, namely, "that no human being was wiser than Socrates" (221). And while Kahn resorts to rather imaginative questioning of why Plato might have abandoned the Socratic mission (222), Peterson provides plausible answers to the making of such alleged “creativity,” (223) including the explanation that “It would be worthy of Plato’s creativity for him to spend his writing career depicting discussions of widely different kinds with widely various kinds of people to further subject to examination Socrates’ minimal but central conviction of the Apology that he failed to know the greatest things” (223-4).

Peterson also asks of mouthpiece interpreters why Plato wrote dialogues in which he is never a character (230). That Plato wanted to avoid self-promotion is not an adequate answer to this important question. More than avoiding self- promotion, Plato wanted to disappear from his writings (“As Socrates disappears into his conversations with his interlocutors Plato disappears into his writing” (235)). They were for the most part about Socrates and his method of critically examining the views of others (231, 234).

Peterson’s marvelous book has provided much valuable insight concerning various passages about some of the alleged doctrines of Plato, and about Socrates’ purpose in doing philosophy. And her argument addresses very well a central underlying matter in studying Plato: the Platonic Question. While most mouthpiece interpreters seemingly want to disregard this problem or end up providing poor reasons for their own methodological approach to Plato’s corpus,4 Peterson has shed plausible new light on the issue. She might have been more direct in discussing the implications of her arguments for the Platonic Question, as there appear to be some passages in her otherwise fine book wherein her words belie a possible confusion. One example is where Peterson believes "that Plato had philosophical views" and that the character Socrates conveys "convictions of Plato's" (233). On the other hand, she seems to hold that ascribing this or that theory or doctrine to Plato is misplaced (see her statement about the alleged Theory of Forms on p. 254). It is unclear whether her assumption that Socrates was Plato’s mouthpiece is meant to distance her from mouthpiece interpreters who typically do more than assume such, or whether she considers herself to be a mouthpiece interpreter of sorts. Evidence against the latter interpretation of her words is found in her stark rejection of the “Plato says” fallacy that is rampant in the writings of mouthpiece interpreters: “Most strictly speaking the phrase ‘what Plato says…’ must amount to ‘what Socrates and others say…’” (255); a point also made by unequivocal anti-mouthpiece interpreters of Plato.5 Some clarity along these lines could have improved an already excellent study of Socrates and Plato. In the end, Peterson’s work provides important additional internal textual evidence in favor of the anti-mouthpiece interpretation of Plato’s oeuvre, an approach to Plato that has been expressed and defended without apology in recent years.6


1.   Sandra Peterson, Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. xv.
2.   Gilbert Ryle, Plato's Progress (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 158.
3.   In fact, some have seen the remainder of the dialogue as the strong precursor of what has later become known as the “Gettier problem,” even though it is questionable that E. Gettier added anything new and philosophically interesting to what ought to be known as the “Socratic problem of knowledge.” For Gettier's statement of the "Gettier problem," see E. Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis 23 (1963): 121-3.
4.   J. Angelo Corlett, Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues (Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2005), Chapter 2.
5.   John M. Cooper, “Introduction” in John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Editors, Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), pp. xviii-xxv; Corlett, Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues, pp. 84-85, 90, 93, and 97; J. J. Mulhern, “Two Interpretive Fallacies,” Systematics, 9 (1971), 168-172.
6.   See Cooper, “Introduction,” pp. xviii-xxv; Corlett, Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues, Chapter 3.

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