BMCR 1996.08.01

1996.8.1, Nails, Agora, Academy, and the Conduct of Philosophy

, Agora, academy, and the conduct of philosophy. Philosophical studies series ; v. 63. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995. xix, 264 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780792335436. $130.00.

A “Preface” to Debra Nails’ monograph, by Nicholas D. Smith, begins by asking (xi), “How should we read the Platonic dialogues …?” The author’s “Acknowledgements” begins, “This is a book about the conduct of philosophy” (xv). The book that follows operates in the tensions between questions of interpretive methods and principles and those of philosophical truth. It speaks therefore to two somewhat different audiences and may be expected to have a differential impact.

It is notorious that interpreters of Plato’s dialogues seem always to be arguing about how to interpret them. Nevertheless, several assumption have been widespread for quite a long time. The most widespread has long been the assumption that the dialogues contain Plato’s philosophical doctrines; this can be called dogmatism. But discovering these doctrines proves difficult since, looked at for their doctrinal content, the dialogues are characterized not only by vagueness, ambiguity, and faulty argumentation, but also by differences and outright contradictions among doctrines apparently espoused in different dialogues.

In the roughly two hundred years since Tennemann and Schleiermacher, the solution to these problems has been the ‘developmental hypothesis’ that Plato’s doctrines changed during his writing career from more Socratic views earlier on to more independent views later. Since Campbell and Lutoslawski in the late nineteenth century, this Platonic chronology has been based largely on stylometric analysis, which is supposed both to avoid the danger of circularity in content-based chronologies and to be more objective because mathematical.

Although some powerful and influential scholars, such as Shorey and Cherniss, have not shared the view, it is almost impossible to over-estimate the pervasiveness of the developmental and chronological approach. It is reported as fact in histories of philosophy and of Greek literature, as well as in numerous reference works; it underlies a multitude of titles such as ‘the development of Plato’s concept of X,’ ‘Plato’s early (or middle or late) doctrine of Y.’

The Anglo-American analytical philosophical tradition of Plato interpretation has joined the developmental approach to an interest in the logical analysis of arguments that emphasizes the quest for philosophical truth but has been largely interested in questions of philology and historical context. Within this group of philosophic interpreters, there is a further distinction to be noted between those who look to the dialogues for Plato’s doctrines and those whole look for the doctrines of Socrates, i.e., the ‘Socratic philosophy’ movement most closely associated with the late Gregory Vlastos, his students and associates. They believe that we can solve the Socratic problem, i.e., discover Socrates’ philosophical doctrines, by looking at the views propounded in Plato’s “early” dialogues, which are supposed to be “Socratic.” We can identify these “early Socratic” dialogues by arranging the Platonic corpus in chronological order; and we can discover this “Platonic chronology” by a stylometric analysis of traits of Plato’s literary style or by analysis of the dialogues’ doctrinal content or by a combination of the two.

For those who read Plato dogmatically, chronologically, or ahistorically, the present volume ought to be a wake-up call. N(ails) writes as a dissenter in the Church of Socratic Philosophy. Like them, her ultimate interest is in philosophical truth, but unlike them she recognizes that an acceptable answer must be consistent not only with logical possibility, but also with the philological and contextual evidence. She is interested in solving The Socratic Problem (Ch. 2); but she does so in this book by rejecting chronology (by means of undermining its crucial support, stylometry) and with it the dogmatic approach to Plato’s dialogues.

Part II thoroughly undermines the developmental approach to Plato’s dialogues by showing first that the often mentioned ‘consensus’ about a division into early, middle, and late dialogues doesn’t exist once one begins looking at specific chronologies proposed (Ch. 4) and then that the chronologies based on content are circular, in particular the influential chronology of Vlastos (Ch. 5). Looking at the most recent work on stylometry, the other main support of Platonic chronologies and developmental interpretations of Plato, N. argues (Ch. 6) that it doesn’t really support the chronologies it is supposed to support, in part because of “the hidden premise … that order of composition can be derived directly from affinity of style … a claim for which we have precious little independent evidence” (113). Ch. 7, which presents Thesleff’s alternative theory for arriving at a Platonic chronology, is important, in part, for bringing attention to a largely neglected classic of recent Plato scholarship.

Part III investigates an alternative proposal: if the Socratic problem can’t be solved by segregating “early” dialogues and reading off the “Socratic” doctrine in them, perhaps it could be solved along the lines of Havelock’s orality-literacy thesis, by making Socrates an oral philosopher, as distinguished from Plato the literate philosopher (Ch. 8). But that solution is undermined by recent research both into the orality-literacy transition in ancient Greece and into oralism in non-Greek contexts. The former disconfirms Havelock’s notion that Socrates was illiterate because literacy only became widespread in the fourth century (Ch.9); the latter disconfirms his idea that an ‘oral state of mind’ prevents the achievement of certain cognitive skills (Ch. 10).

Thus in Part IV, N. can offer her own “hypothesis” (197): that Socrates was neither the dogmatist of mainstream Socratic philosophy nor the illiterate oralist of Havelock, but rather a deliberately and methodologically oral philosopher (Ch. 11). Philosophy for Socrates doesn’t consist in propounding doctrines, but in carrying on philosophical conversations. The oral conduct of philosophy has numerous advantages; it is personal and experiential, tentative and non-dogmatic—doubly-openended in that not only conclusions tentatively reached but also the premises from which those conclusions were reached always remain open to further inquiry, criticism, rejection, or revision. From the educational standpoint of continuing personal intellectual and spiritual growth, a better method could hardly be imagined.

But the Socratic approach carries no guarantee of success with any individual and there were notorious failures. Moreover there was no possibility of advanced education. Plato’s Academy and his dialogues (Ch. 12), however, remedy at least some of the defects of Socratic oral philosophy. “Plato’s dialogues systematically compensate for the deficiencies of the Socratic oral method” (215) because they manage in writing what Socrates maintained in conversation, “the double openendedness of the dialectic” (218).

Taken as a whole, the volume constitutes a powerful critique of the “Socratic philosophy” discussion among academic philosophers. At the same time, that is perhaps the volume’s principal limitation. Those who are not philosophers and those philosophers who do not follow the Anglo-American analytic approach may not feel that they have learned much from the detailed critiques of arguments by Vlastos, Brickhouse, Smith, Kraut, and others.

Nevertheless, and despite its outrageous price, this is an important book that all research libraries must buy and all who specialize in Plato and ancient Greek philosophy ought to read. In the narrower scope that is N.’s main concern, for the community of analytic Plato scholars and the Socratic philosophy movement, she provides both a powerful critique of existing practices and assumptions and an alternative set of starting points with which the analytic philosophical approach can better meets its own goals and fulfill its own creative potential. It should be difficult for them to carry on with business as usual henceforth, and it will be interesting to see, in the coming years, to what extent they do.

In the wider world that encompasses nearly all interpretation of Plato’s dialogues for the more than two hundred years since Tennemann, however, this book is even more important. For N. shows—carefully, at length, and in detail—that the developmental approach to interpreting Plato is unacceptable because the Platonic chronology on which it necessarily depends cannot be settled. It will be impossible henceforth for books and articles to be written within the Platonic developmentalist paradigm without responding to N.’s critique. And N.’s notion of double-openendedness should be richly consequential both for the interpretation of Plato’s dialogues and for the practice of philosophy.