BMCR 2007.04.08

Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues

, Interpreting Plato's dialogues. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Las Vegas: Parmenides Pub, 2005. 1 online resource (xii, 137 pages). ISBN 1930972466. $28.00.

Table of Contents

J. Angelo Corlett’s Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues addresses a perennial question of Plato scholarship, namely, what did Plato mean to say in the philosophical works that he authored? The problem of authorial intention is more acute in Plato than with any other philosopher due to the fact that Plato never appears as a character in his own works, never speaks in his own voice, and so provides no commentary on the issues that are discussed therein. As a result, controversy has always surrounded the question of what doctrines and beliefs Plato actually holds. The plethora of rival schools of interpretation in modern times as well as the polemical tone that generally accompanies their disputes shows that such controversy is not likely to abate.

Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues gives an overview of the various sides of the debate and provides a balanced, dispassionate analysis of these positions. The book is primarily an analysis of the arguments for and against differing interpretive stances. It is not an account of the history of the debate, the individuals, or the academic movements that have grown up around it, although the reader will find extensive references to the secondary literature in the footnotes. Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues also defends one approach, what the author calls the Socratic Interpretation, which is closely related to dramatic readings of the dialogues. Yet Corlett claims to defend this approach from within the analytic tradition of Plato interpretation (see xi) and to incorporate the analytic approach’s strengths — mainly, its emphasis on Socrates’ preeminence as an interlocutor (14-15).

Chapter 1 gives an overview of the basic interpretive principles that have been applied to Plato and discusses various lines along which these principles have been developed. Corlett call the two main approaches the “Mouthpiece Interpretation” and the “Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation.” The former is defined broadly as the view of the dialogues that “construe[s] them as conveying what is in Plato’s mind about a variety of concepts and issues” and which holds that “various characters (usually Socrates) in the corpus are said to express Plato’s ideas” (4-5). I will not recount all the sub-variations of this stance, but simply note the array of views that Corlett considers: There are “intentional” and “unintentional” variations (4-5); “theoretical,” “doctrinal,” and “doxastic” variations (5-7); and in addition there is the principle of “developmentalism” that often accompanies the Mouthpiece Interpretation, which may come in “local,” “moderate,” and “global” varieties (7-8).

The second basic approach, the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation, consists in the denial that the teaching of a particular dialogue is to be found in the statements of any particular character (11). It is discerned, if at all, from the whole conversation and the exhibition of philosophical dialogue among all the characters, and thus the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation tends to emphasize the dramatic structure of the work. Furthermore, Corlett states that “for every version of the Mouthpiece Interpretation, there is a corresponding version of it under the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation” (14). Hence, there may be variations of the Anti-Mouthpiece interpretation according to whether it is intentional or unintentional; theoretical, doctrinal, or doxastic; and so forth.

Corlett focuses on two Anti-Mouthpiece views, the “Dramatic Interpretation” and the “Socratic Interpretation,” the latter of which he advocates. These two approaches are closely related: The Dramatic Interpretation emphasizes the literary dramatic form of the dialogues as essential to the meaning of the claims made within them (e.g., 10-11, 14). The Socratic Interpretation does not seem to differ in this central respect, but it emphasizes both the historical Socrates’ influence on Plato and also the preeminence of Socrates as a character in the dialogues (14). These two aspects of the Socratic Interpretation are logically distinct, and the first, the significance of the historical Socrates’ putative influence on Plato, is problematic given Corlett’s own statements about our lack of knowledge about Plato’s beliefs and motivations.

Corlett adds a further qualification to the definition of the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation: “Moreover, what all versions of the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation deny is that Plato’s theories, doctrines, and/or beliefs are able to be deciphered from Plato’s works as we have them.” (11) This qualification leads directly to Corlett’s subsequent inferences concerning the inscrutability of Plato’s thoughts and intentions (see, e.g., 13, 95-97).

Chapters 2 and 3 contain more extensive analyses of the Mouthpiece and Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretations, respectively. As stated above, Corlett rejects the Mouthpiece Interpretation, which he criticizes for begging the question as to what constitutes a unified and developed philosophical doctrine (26-27) and for relying on historical evidence, especially Aristotle’s testimony, whose significance is dubious (28-30). I will not attempt to recapitulate Corlett’s arguments, but simply note that they trace out and collect together in a clear and concise way various criticisms that have been directed at the Mouthpiece Interpretation over the years. Any reader of the Platonic dialogues will find these passages to be a helpful resource in understanding this aspect of the debate. Perhaps Corlett’s most crucial claim in Chapter 2 can be stated as follows: The assumption that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece for advancing philosophical doctrines is at odds with the assumption that the dialogue form is philosophically significant (29, 35). As Corlett shows, the Mouthpiece Interpretation offers no argument against the latter possibility but in effect ignores it.

In Chapter 3, Corlett discusses the Socratic Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation, and he acknowledges a strong affinity between this approach and other dramatic readings of the dialogues. His most explicit statement about the relation between his view and the dramatic approach is:

All in all, while the Socratic Interpretation concurs wholeheartedly with the Dramatic Interpretation that no character in Plato’s corpus speaks for Plato, it does not follow that the analytic method of doing philosophy, which I take to be the Socratic “method” … is not a legitimate way of doing philosophy in the style of Socrates, and that argument and analysis is not in large part what is to be learned from Socrates as he is depicted in Plato’s works. (43)

Thus, Corlett eschews the search for “Plato’s meaning” or “intention” while also seeking to avoid an aporetic or skeptical interpretation of Plato’s works. That is, Socrates’ words and deeds represent a substantive view of philosophy, which cannot be identified with Plato’s thoughts or beliefs. Since the distinction between Plato and Socrates is so fundamental to Corlett’s position, I would like to mention two points that would bear further defense: First, Corlett repeatedly denies that we readers have access to Plato’s thoughts and intentions in writing the dialogues. Nevertheless, he characterizes his own position as one that recognizes and incorporates the historical Socrates’ fundamental influence on Plato. But it is not clear why should we can have access to this basic motivation of Plato’s philosophical outlook while others are denied to us. Indeed, on Corlett’s own principles, why wouldn’t Socrates’ influence on Plato imply that Plato held views the same as or similar to those that Socrates voices? Second, it is far from clear that dramatic readings as such deny that one can ever discern the author’s intention. Corlett does not explain why there cannot be a variation of the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation that holds that Plato’s meaning can be known. A safer general characterization of the Dramatic Interpretation would be that it emphasizes both the necessity and difficulty in discerning Plato’s meaning through the interplay of characters and the overall dramatic context in which the discussions take place.

Corlett offers Chapter 4 as an instance of the Socratic Interpretation in practice, specifically with regard to the concept of mimesis in the Platonic works. In discussions of Plato interpretation and the dialogue form of writing, it is natural to turn for clues to those passages that explicitly concern the art of writing and art in general, e.g., Phaedrus and Republic, Book X. Since the dialogues are imitations of the spoken word, Socrates’ criticisms of writing and art can be applied to the dialogues in general. Indeed, given Socrates’ condemnations of art, Plato’s decision to write philosophical works at all might be viewed as a contradiction — they might be, that is, if Plato’s and Socrates’ views on art coincide or if the dialogue form of writing does not somehow circumvent these criticisms.

Corlett approaches the question of mimesis by examining the uses of this word and cognates throughout the Platonic corpus, and he argues that it is susceptible to a range of meanings both among and within the various dialogues. As a result, he concludes:

Since a theory of art as mimesis is dependent on a definition or fixed understanding of the term ‘ mimesis,’ there seem to be no adequate grounds for the claim that the dialogue contains a theory of mimetic art. Or if one wants to make the claim that there is a mimetic theory of art in the dialogue [i.e. in the Republic ], it is incumbent on one to show — in the face of such various renderings of the term — how such a theory is possible. (77)

To this extent, Corlett argues as a proponent of the Dramatic Interpretation might, that is, he emphasizes the particular contexts upon which the meanings of Plato’s words are dependent and denies an overall theoretical position. But does the Socratic Interpretation, which Corlett advocates, allow for a more positive interpretation of Socrates’ construal of art as mimesis ? Corlett states:

I have argued that the main task of the passages containing art as mimesis in the Republic is to help persons to philosophize about art for themselves and to liberate their intellects from the shackles of social or ideological custom and belief. Part of the task of the dialogue is to aid people in their discovery about what art was, what art is, what it ought to be, and what philosophical difficulties must be considered by all those who seek to pursue the issues philosophically. Thus, part of the goal of the Republic is to help those who are imprisoned in the cave of aesthetic unknowing to liberate themselves from that cave, to make the ascent into a world where they become philosophers (in the Socratic sense) of art, into a world where they are enlightened by truth. The Republic is an exercise in the Socratic Method that does not terminate in the establishing of fixed definition, or in the demonstration of a theory, or in the resolution of aporia. Its main purpose appears to be the exposure of inconsistencies or inadequate views … (92)

So, although it may not provide a theory of art as mimesis, the Republic and the other dialogues in which Socrates is the principal interlocutor are themselves mimetic in that they are portrayals, exhibitions, or enactments of the conduct and manner in which one ought to philosophize.

In the spirit of admiration for Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues, I would like to conclude with three criticisms, which might be leveled at Corlett’s position: First, to construe Socrates’ remarks on poetry in the Republic merely as a way of raising and explicating philosophical aporiai seems to fail to capture the substantial and bold claim that art is mimetic. Indeed, a poet might defend his art by claiming it shares the same goal as philosophy, namely, to discover and to describe reality, and he need not accept Socrates’ criticism that he merely produces second-order copies of what truly exists. Thus, holding that all poesis is mimesis seems to commit Socrates to more than a general mode of investigating the question of art, but rather to a substantive view about art, the truth of which is not immediately evident.

Second, if the dialogues are aporetic in the sense of ‘raising questions without giving answers’, as Corlett holds, it is not clear that the Socratic Interpretation avoids an ultimately skeptical reading of Plato. This difficulty is apparent in Corlett’s initial presentation of the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation where he states that “without further evidence beyond what we now possess in the dialogues themselves,” it is impossible to discern what “theories, doctrines, and/or beliefs” Plato may have held (13). This implies, however, that the overall import and significance of the dialogues, which is not to be identified with Socrates’ statements, are simply beyond our reach. In other words, “Plato’s meaning” is a way of referring to the overall unity and purpose of the individual dialogues, which is what we as readers wish to understand and what we are invited to discover. If Plato’s philosophical views are inaccessible in principle, one might well conclude Plato holds that no such beliefs are rationally possible.

Third, the denial that Socrates (or Plato) presents “theories” or “doctrines” conflicts with Socrates’ own claims about the nature of philosophical speech that aims for a complete account of things and their causes, i.e., that aims for wisdom. The point is not whether Socrates ever succeeds in producing such an account or whether his discussions embody the powerful claims he sometimes makes on behalf of dialectic. Even a superficial reading of the dialogues shows that this is not the case. Nor is it to assert that Socrates aimed to formulate a general philosophical system and was straining for a rigorous method to achieve it. Yet in the midst of very subtle dialectical exchanges that are evidently tailored to the character and interests of his interlocutors, Socrates occasionally makes substantive claims about the nature of things. Dramatic interpretations of the Platonic works are right to insist on close textual readings that include attention to the dramatic as well as the argumentative context, since this can enhance the reader’s understanding of the matter at hand. However, dramatic readings often run the risk of emphasizing the formal characteristics of the dialogues at the expensive of their content.

In sum, Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues is a thorough, sober, and refreshingly non-polemical analysis of the main positions adopted by Plato scholars. It is a fine resource for students of Plato at all levels who wish to attain a more detailed and broad comprehension of the interpretive problems that Plato has woven into his philosophical works.