BMCR 2007.10.24

Response: Renzi on Singpurwalla on Roslyn Weiss, The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies

Response to 2007.09.26

Response by

In her recent review of The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies, Rachel Singpurwalla rightly draws attention to the innovative nature of Roslyn Weiss’s interpretation of Plato, which seeks to reconsider the tradition that derives so-called Socratic ethical intellectualism from his dialogues. Despite praise for Weiss’s individual readings of the dialogues she treats, Singpurwalla remains unconvinced by the book’s overall approach. Her review does not attempt to situate Weiss’s work in the currents of new research on “literary approaches” to the Socratic writers and on the so-called Socratic problem or Socratic question, namely the issue of what we can really ever know about the historical Socrates. This is unfortunate, because for two decades now there has been a growing understanding of the need to exercise care in the interpretation of the Socratic writings. Without appreciating the methodological questions raised in this recent scholarship, Singpurwalla brings arguments against Weiss that cannot be sustained.

As Weiss notes (page 1, note 2), she is concerned only to study the character of Socrates in the works of Plato. For her part, Singpurwalla apparently maintains the retrograde idea that the historical Socrates can be recovered unproblematically from the works of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, for she adduces against Weiss’s project Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 1145b, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia 3.9.4 and 4.6.6. as evidence of “Socrates'” commitment to ethical intellectualism. Weiss has already recognized (page 10, note 28) that there are real problems with the use of Aristotle as a witness to the history of philosophy. In the case of Xenophon, in these passages and elsewhere he seems rather to treat a brand of ethical intellectualism different from that discussed by Plato.1

Following on this failure to see the work under review as a methodologically sophisticated contribution to the study of a particular Socratic writer, Singpurwalla then complains that Weiss often highlights the implausibility of ethical intellectualism and that she does not engage the philosophical tradition concerned with it. This is not quite true,2 and it misses the point, for Weiss’s primary purpose in her work is clearly not (contra Singpurwalla) to prove that ethical intellectualism is incoherent but rather to undermine the suggestion that it is an authentic doctrine of (n.b.) Plato. We may still want to argue that on further analysis ethical intellectualism is, indeed, coherent and that people can and should follow it. This, however, is not Weiss’s purpose; and surely no one can object that such coherence and advisability is obvious. About that Weiss is certainly right.

Roslyn Weiss has written an important work on Plato. In addition to making excellent sense of the dialogues she studies, she ably argues for a new understanding of Plato’s purpose, which is not to be understood as the promulgation of ethical intellectualism as a doctrine; rather, Weiss examines the ways in which such a position can be deployed as a rhetorical and pedagogical or protreptic strategy. It is a work deserving positive notice and careful attention.


1. See, e.g., Louis-André Dorion, “Akrasia et enkrateia dans les Mémorables de Xénophon.” Canadian Philosophical Review 42 (4, Fall 2003): 645-673.

2. Singpurwalla seems particularly to miss engagement with the work of Donald Davidson, but note that his 1980 essay “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?” appears in Weiss’s bibliography and is referenced by her at her page 168, note 1. This occurrence is, however, missing from the index. In an admittedly quick perusal, I noted another omission from the index, a second mention of Xenophon, at page 136, note 30. Also, note 94 on page 116, which includes a quote from Nietzsche, omits the title of the work from which it is drawn: Beyond Good and Evil.