Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.40

Samuel Scolnicov, Euthydemus: Ethics and Language. Lecturae Platonis, 8.   Sankt Augustin:  Academia Verlag, 2013.  Pp. 179.  ISBN 9783896655905.  €26.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by William H. F. Altman, Florianópolis, Brazil (whfaltman@gmail.com)

Table of Contents

This is a very odd little book. After a two-page foreword by Harold Tarrant that extols its virtues (“if there is one short volume that I must recommend ahead of the present one it is of course the Euthydemus itself”) but without giving the reader any sense of what that short volume is going to turn out to be, comes an introduction (13-16) to five brief lectures by Scolnicov, the circumstances of which—where and when they were delivered, for instance, and to whom —are never explained. These lectures (17-83) are then followed by responses by Maurizio Migliori (87-100), editor of the Lecturae Platonis series of which this is the eighth, Lucia Palpacelli (101-29), author of a 2009 commentary in Italian on the Euthydemus with which Scolnicov is in dialogue (24 n.26, 42 n.66, and 67 n.108), and Dennys Garcia Xavier (131-9). The volume concludes with Scolnicov’s responses to “friend Migliori” (143), “Dr. Palpacelli” (155), and finally, in the volume’s last two pages (165-6), to Xavier, who is curiously called neither “friend”, “Dr.”, nor even “Xavier”. The reader imagines that Scolnicov was invited to Italy at the behest of Migliori, but one is given no sense of whether or not the three responses were originally presented orally or in English, or whether Scolnicov responded, whether in English or Italian, to those responses at the time. There is no mention of any translators, and no “Notes on Contributors”.

What makes this lack of context so remarkable is that Scolnicov’s central point about the Platonic dialogue in general is that it is always rooted in “pragmatic context” (34, 36). As the best-known scholar of Plato’s educational theory (155), Scolnicov emphasizes that a contextualized Socrates always addresses himself to an equally contextualized interlocutor for an ethical and pedagogical purpose. The responses of the latter, in accordance with a “triadic model of language” (45) that shatters the binary but strictly ideal equivalence between word and thing (39-43), are always only a specific character’s “utterances,” not binary “propositions” (32). The latter are merely decontextualized abstractions, antithetical in principle not only to “Plato’s antiformalism” (70), but also to the ethical aims of Socratic pedagogy. On all this depends the link between “ethics” and “language” in the book’s title (56, 68).

The Euthydemus is of particular concern to Scolnicov because the eristic brothers, themselves interchangeable, ignore Socrates’ “logic of utterances” (54). Instead, the brothers treat utterances as nothing more than deracinated propositions, stripped of context and fully atomized, thereby making them immune to the revelation of self- contradiction that is the heart and soul of Socratic education (56-7 and 67-8). Plato is an anti-formalist with respect to language and indeed Socrates is a kind of Protagorean (32, 66) because it is the awareness that every utterance is the utterance of some particular person in a particular situated context—an awareness emphasized and indeed celebrated by the dialogue form itself (“true dialogue is always situational”, 30) — that furnishes the dramatic substrate of Socratic pedagogy’s ethical aim, i.e. to surely but always slowly (81) turn that soul to a “formative event” of “moral intuition” (82). And thanks to the idealizing implications of this intuition (82-3), Scolnicov’s emphasis on context ultimately proves to be compatible—despite his provocative remarks about Socratic protagoreanism in “a non-ideal context” (41) — with traditional Platonism: he even refers to the situated individual as “the incarnate soul” (62).

Despite the dialogic element incorporated in the three responses and then his responses to them, it is really Scolnicov’s book alone, and therefore additional attention must be given to each of the five lectures that constitute its core. To begin with, he introduces an interesting term in the introduction (14): “Euthydemus is a ‘parasitical’ dialogue, that is to say: a dialogue that presupposes some knowledge of preceding platonic dialogues.” Other useful insights, including a typology of Plato’s dialogues presented in the form of a table (25), arise in the first lecture called “Dialogue” (17-30); it is here that Scolnicov makes the emblematic remark (30): “true dialogue is always situational.” The second lecture, “Orthoepeia (31-43), contains his reflections on language, in particular the contrast between utterance and proposition. The third lecture is entitled “Contradiction” (45-58) and Scolnicov’s observations about the Parmenidean basis of “the Principle of Non-contradiction” (47-52) are fascinating, growing, as they do, out of his detailed work on Plato’s Parmenides. But the fourth lecture, entitled “The soul” (59-63) is vintage Scolnicov: it is here that his lifelong concern with the theme of education comes to the fore. After this highpoint, the fifth and final lecture (“The serious and the not-serious”, 71-83) was anticlimactic; in particular, I found Scolnicov’s explanation of “Crito’s interruption” (80-1; see also 146-7)—the true litmus test (155) of any reading of Plato’s Euthydemus— disappointing. Despite the primary importance he attaches from the start to “the concrete situation” (32), he never mentions the fact that Ctesippus is in love with Clinias.

Nor is Scolnicov at his best in his responses to Migliori, Palpacelli, and Xavier; indeed one is gradually forced to wonder whether he even wrote them in English (see in particular 158-9). Grammatical and orthographical errors aside—and the book gives precious little evidence that anyone took the time to proofread it, least of all the Greek—this is not really Scolnicov’s fault: none of the three responders in fact responds to his core argument, and indeed his brusque treatment of Xavier in particular is justified by the fact that the latter’s pursuit of Plato’s “philosophical lexicon” is truly antithetical to the book’s fundamental notion of language as dialogic utterance. Palpacelli demonstrates polemical skill in her justifiable rejection of the link Scolnicov makes between Socrates and Protagoras (112-15), as well as considerable erudition in her identification of Isocrates as the anonymous frontiersman of the dialogue’s closing pages (106-12); neither the one nor the other touches the core of Scolnicov’s claims. But the dialogue with Migliori is indeed fascinating to read, especially because the latter’s nuanced embrace of the Tübingen school (91) offers a plausible alternative to Scolnicov’s somewhat self-contradictory claim that “meanings cannot be transmitted” (69), while Scolnicov’s defense of “moral intuition” against Migliori’s suggestion that he has succumbed to “irrationalism” (89), turns into the most interesting passage in the book (145-7). Nevertheless, my personal favorite will remain Scolnicov’s perfect definition of shame just a few pages later (150): “the last residue of nous at the level of thumos.”

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