[What follows takes extensive artistic license with some of the Platonic conversations, so the quotation marks below are not meant to signal actual quotations from Plato, but the words I am putting into the mouths of the characters in Platonic dialogues. The meaning is intended to be what the character says, but the style is my own, meant to make it interesting to today's students, such as my younger daughter, to whom this was written when she reported her philosophy course was going to read Plato's Republic. (See also "Preparing College Reading Assignments" for more about studying the Republic, and other philosophy reading assignments, in particular and most reading assignments which involve understanding in general.)]Dear Lydia,
Since you hate when I use the Socratic method -- asking you questions which you know are going to lead eventually to a refutation of some belief of yours, without just telling you outright what I think is your mistake -- you won't like it much better when Socrates, the main character/teacher in the Platonic dialogues (and Plato's own teacher) uses it. I hated it when I first read Plato. Most kids hate it in reading Plato because the questions and answers do not seem to be realistic or to give the answers they would. And Socrates really is maddening to read some times for a couple of reasons: he starts way off the track in some cases and takes a while to get back to the point he is headed to, and sometimes there is probably either a language or idiom barrier or it might be there is a different way of viewing some things today from the way they did in Greece 2500 years ago, so in some cases the thread of the arguments will not make sense, or some particular answer will not make sense to us, and is not the answer we would have given to Socrates' question. That then sometimes makes the argument difficult to follow and not particularly interesting or meaningful.
The trick in these cases is to try to formulate the positions in modern terms. Often you can do that. Sometimes perhaps not. I will try to help you with that before you get to the specifics, so you don't get lost in the details as you read. Some of the details are important today because they are the same arguments that could be given today. Some of the details are not as important because the issues or the perspectives or the idioms or ideas just aren't the same now. But there is a lot of important stuff in Plato; you just have to get past reading the dialogue approach which is somewhat slow and frustrating. In teaching people in person (other than you) the Socratic Method is often a great method, but reading someone else's dialogue is not the same interesting educational experience as participating in one. The Socratic teaching dialogue I wrote up about teaching binary numbers to a third grade class at Gwin Elementary School seems to be appreciated by readers but that is because the kids give the same answers adults do, so when adults read it, they go right along with the questions and answers.
In general the Platonic dialogues start out with some, often rich or powerful or famous, person making some sort of statement just in casual conversation, that Socrates finds either curious or mistaken, and so he says something like "explain that to me" or "what do you mean by .... ". Or he takes what the person says literally and then gives a case that refutes it. The person then says something like "Well, Socrates, you nimrod, that is not what I meant. You are twisting my words." (One of the comments generally accepted about Socrates was that he would argue that "up" meant "down" and could pretty much convince you of that if you listened to him long enough and let him screw with your mind. That is pretty much the rap on philosophers and philosophy teachers today too, because philosophers follow logical evidence wherever it leads, and sometimes it leads to ideas that are so counter to conventional views that they seem ridiculous. Yet many of those views will actually turn out to be more reasonable than the conventional views in the end, and to future generations the conventional views of the time will seem to have been ridiculous.)
Socrates then responds "Oh, gosh, I am really sorry. I didn't mean to do that. But you are so smart and I am so foolish, please enlighten me. What is it you really meant?"
Then the guy takes the bait, and gives an explanation, which, of course won't hold up -- but it is the explanation that most people, even today, would likely give. If you take these same issues today and ask people in charge about these things, they will give the same kinds of answers the people in the dialogues do, and if you pursue the logic of their answers, they will answer further and also respond emotionally the exact same way the Athenians did in Plato's day.
Socrates then goes on to show what is problematic with that explanation,
and then the interlocutor (the person being questioned) will do one of
three things each time this happens:
2) say he misspoke or made a mistake in answering one of his questions, and now that he sees he made a mistake, wants to change one of the answers. That will turn out to lead down the path of a different mistake, though maybe a more interesting one.
3) say he is confused or doesn't understand what Socrates is getting at, and ask Socrates to elaborate.
Now Socrates will elaborate about certain kinds of things but not others.
Socrates was once told by the oracle that he was the wisest man in Athens
(or Greece or in the universe, I forget which), and that puzzled him because
he felt he didn't know diddly squat about anything. He couldn't build
stuff, he couldn't navigate ships, grow crops, write poetry, do art, design
architecture, run a business, etc. So how could he be the wisest
man. Well, he went around talking to other folks, and he finally
figured out that while others might know certain factual information, they
were all pretty ignorant about the "bigger" issues of life -- what is
What Socrates was really good at though was knowing what was wrong with bad answers, even though he often was not sure of what the right answer would be. So as he listened to these guys, he showed them their answers were no good, and he didn't mind elaborating on that -- showing why a bad answer would not stand scrutiny. But he almost never would try to give his own answer to a question, though he sort of does at the end. But at least in the beginning or the middle, he would always say he doesn't know, if you asked him what he thought was the right answer to the original question. He essentially would say "I don't know, so I am really interested in what you have to say because you seem to know."
Since these were often rich and powerful, highly successful, frequently pompous and arrogant people, they were not pleased with this process and the result. Socrates often, they felt, humiliated them publicly. Actually, he just helped them humiliate themselves publicly because they were pompous and thought they knew all they needed know -- at least for all practical purposes. Worse, lots of kids who hung out with Socrates started emulating this with their elders at home, and that really angered people -- to have their kids coming home and questioning their most basic beliefs in ways they could not reasonably answer. And, of course, the kids delighted in showing up their parents and showing them how ignorant they were, so that really ticked off their parents and grandparents, or teachers, etc. Finally, a sufficient number of powerful people were angered enough that they charged Socrates with the capital crimes of corrupting the youth and of denying the gods. They convicted him and sentenced him either to die or to leave Athens. He would not abandon Athens or the pursuit of knowledge, or act as though there were something wrong or evil about his passion for philosophy and truth, and took the death sentence. (Aristotle, when given the same choice years later is said to have said "Let Athens not sin twice against philosophy" and went elsewhere.)
Now frequently (or maybe even always) the first answer the person gives to some question like "what is justice?" (which is the question of the Republic) is an example or two or three of just acts. Then Socrates points out it is not examples he wants but the criteria for distinguishing which things fit the concept and which things do not -- so that all just acts can be known and so that we can distinguish all just acts from all unjust acts.
That will turn out to be difficult in many cases, often far more difficult than distinguishing which things fit the concept and which do not. For example, if you had to verbally describe what the color red meant, without using any color terms, that would be almost impossible. At best, this is a difficult kind of enterprise, and that is why I do the "headache case" the first thing when I teach intro philosophy -- to show how difficult it is with even a simple concept to accurately and precisely capture our ordinary intuitive ideas of something we think we know. A headache is not just a pain in the head, as most people would think initially if asked, but is a pain in a certain part of the head (e.g., above the eyes in front, to the temples and above on the side part in front of the ears, to above the ears, to above the base of the skull in the back). This keeps toothaches and earaches, etc. from being called headaches. But you also have to add some sort of provision that the pain, in some sense, arises internally and is not the (immediate) result of being whacked on the noggin with a brick or having your hair pulled or your scalp burned or scraped or cut, or some such. Then, finally you have to explain that "sinus" headaches may or may not be included (I think they are not included and is why we call them "sinus headaches" instead of just headaches that hurt around the sinus areas -- but I can understand if some people think they should be included -- you have to amend the "above the eyes" part of the above area then) and you have to explain whether or not to include "ice cream headaches" (also called "brain freezes" by some people) as being headaches.
Anyway, Socrates quest then becomes quite difficult, and in some cases may not even be necessary, for it may be that a list of all the cases will actually do, and do better than trying to find some general description. It also will usually turn out that there are lots of different aspects of things that we call by the same name, and trying to find something common to all those things will be impossible. In the squirrel question I raise in class, the question is whether the man who is circling a tree trying to see a squirrel (that also circles the tree to keep the tree between him and the man) is going around the squirrel or not. The man is about five or ten feet from the tree trunk and the squirrel is on the trunk, about five feet up from the ground. It turns out that the phrase "going around" has lots of different meanings or we use it in lots of different kinds of cases intuitively, but if you examine those cases, they won't necessarily have anything in common. Normally when we go around something in one sense we are also going around it in the other senses, but the squirrel case gives a situation where the aspects actually conflict with each other, and when we try to answer intuitively by choosing one kind of case to compare it with, it will never work no matter which way you answer. (E.g., some people say the man is going around the squirrel because his circle is bigger than the squirrel's circle, but if you say that then you also have to hold that when a couple walks around the block together holding hands, that the person on the outside is also walking around his/her mate, or that if two race cars are driving, say, next to each other around a race track, that the outside car is "going around" the inside car, even if he is always beside it, or slightly behind it, or even being lapped by the inside car).
At any rate, what Socrates is seeking -- the description or criteria "common and peculiar" to some concept -- is not always easy to come up with; and it is particularly not easy if you are not willing to go beneath the surface of the conventional or typically socially accepted ideas.
(Just as a personal story about you in this regard that was so cool.
I had bought a math software program for your sister when she was in second
grade; it was a pac-man like game where you had to find all the right addition
or subtraction or multiplication or division answers on a grid before you
got caught and eaten by things that were chasing you. You were in
kindergarten, and one day I come home and you were playing this game on
the computer, and you were playing the "prime number" option on the game
-- where you have to find prime numbers before you get eaten. I was
amused because I knew this would be pretty hopeless for you. And
sure enough you get eaten fairly quickly as I watch the game end, but when
your score comes up, it is 11,500. What the hell! How could that
be! You have all the previously high scores too. And I ask whether
those are really your scores. "Yes, they are."
I go upstairs, thinking about this, and finally I decide I need to ask
you some questions to see how you did this. So when you came upstairs,
I asked who taught you about prime numbers.
As to the Republic, they start out by talking about whether old age is ok or not, and the old geezer says it is great cuz he no longer is gripped by all these passions that used to plague him. [He would not be happy with the push today for old guy's to take Viagra or male hormone replacement therapy; he was happy to be done with sexual obsessions.] Socrates says maybe his old age is great just because he is rich. And the old guy says no it is because he has been just all his life and has no fears about dying, etc. Socrates then asks what it means to be just, and then they are off and running.
The old guy says it means paying your debts and telling the truth.
Socrates then comes up with a case where paying your debts or telling the truth would be the wrong thing to do (e.g., returning weapons someone has loaned you when he is clearly so angry at someone that he will likely kill them in his rage and then regret it later). So the old guy says he has to attend to something and his son will take over the argument for him. Adios.
Then the son tries, and he amends it, but it still won't work.
Well, one of the people in the gathering, Thrasymachus, feels Socrates is taking advantage of the old guy's and his son's lack of conceptual skills and lack of prior reflection on this and says essentially, "Hell, Socrates, you know damned well what justice is! -- it is following the laws and rules made by people in power, rules they make on behalf of their own selfish interests." (Pretty much the "special interests" argument of today, combined with the power of Congress to keep their seats by pandering to their constituents, and combined with the sort of "rich people win Congressional seats, and rich people in general rule" argument, only passing laws to their own advantage, while throwing crumbs to the rest of the people -- just enough crumbs so they won't revolt or vote them out of office.)
Thrasymachus gives a pretty powerful speech about this, and he is clearly passionate about it. And Socrates just calmly says something like, "Well, that is pretty stong; would you mind if we examine it?" And the guy doesn't really want to because he says he has said it about as well as he could say it. But Socrates says he understands that, but he doesn't think it is right, and instead of just giving a rebuttal, which would then require a judge (he thinks, but I don't) he thinks they could be better served by just examining the issue in more detail. "Lots of people are here and we would love to have you teach us all this stuff you know...." So Thrasymachus says "ok" and then the particulars begin.
Socrates will try to show that being unjust is not really in anyone's self-interest, and is not really a good thing to be. And he will try to show that following the rules is not always just and that the rules themselves are not always just and not even always in the best interest of the people who make them up, even when they intend them to be.
If any of the particulars of that argument give you trouble as they go through it, let me know. I can make sense out of most of it, but there are some places where the argument is so strange that it must involve some notion that was peculiar to their language or culture that I cannot quite see. But for the most part, they talk in ways that are universal --if you can put it in modern vernacular-- which is what makes it still worth studying.
William James, the philosopher/psychiatrist said
that "going around" could mean going, say, from the north of something
to its west, to its south, to its east, and then again back to the north.
Or it can mean going from the front of something to, say, its left side,
to its back side to its right side, and then to its front again.
In the squirrel case, the man is going around the squirrel in the
former sense of "going around" but not in the latter sense. It turns
out there are other, usually unconscious, factors involved in our normal
concept of going around also, such as relative distances from the center,
relative revolution speeds, etc. but James' explanation demonstrates the
point. (Return to text.)