Monday, April 27, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Gary Alan Scott (ed.), Philosophy in Dialogue: Plato's Many Devices. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007. Pp. xxxii, 264. ISBN 978-0-8101-2356-4. $59.95. 24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Rebecca Bensen Cain, Oklahoma State University

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

There are ten essays in this volume and each one puts forward a substantive thesis related to Plato as a philosophical writer who develops his own brand of imagery, uses literary devices to sustain complex levels of meaning, and experiments with methodological techniques. The book opens with an extensive introduction by the editor, and ends with an appendix of dramatic dates, a section of works cited , an index, and notes on the contributors. The editor's introductory essay plays a major role in three ways. It offers guidance to the hypothetical "new reader" (ix-xx), sets out the main purpose of the anthology (xx-xxii), and reviews the subject matter of the essays in the volume (xxiv-xxix). The book aims to reexamine how the dialogues "work" in light of Plato's literary devices (xx). I recommend the book as a rich resource of scholarly interpretations which take account of Plato's creative imagery and develop all manner of interconnections between the poetic and philosophical elements in Plato's dialogues.

The editor explicitly endorses the hermeneutical approach of reading the dialogues as dramas, grasping the arguments within their situational contexts, and taking the character portrayals as relevant to the dialogues' philosophical themes. This approach provides the new reader with the means to understand Plato's authorial intentions. It explores the reasons why Plato would so frequently rely upon visual images and metaphorical language to communicate his thoughts to his audience. Unfortunately, the editor does not offer much in the way of a preliminary account of what is meant by Plato's "myriad devices" (xx). While the distinctive nature of Plato's devices and their frequent occurrences in the dialogues may be understandable to scholars who already favor the hermeneutical approach to the interdisciplinary Plato, these aspects of Plato's dialogues are probably not easily accessible to the new reader. The central motivation for the anthology is put into the context of the need for an expanded sense of the term methodos which apparently includes within it the emphasis that will be given to Plato's literary and dramatic devices in the volume. Methodos also involves the "tools and practices" of Socrates and Plato's other characters as well as the "interpretive methods" that Plato might expect his audience to employ (xx). Undoubtedly, the editor is right to suggest that Plato deserves to be appreciated and admired as a philosophical writer who is skilled in his deployment of techniques that include narrative framing, dramatic irony, metaphor, parody, punning, personification, analogy, literary allusion, and visual imagery. In keeping with the expanded emphasis, the book needs a clear overview of the range and meanings of the literary devices and explicit guidance from an experienced reader about how to recognize Plato's complex use of them in the dialogues. There is intermittent discussion of the use of dramatic devices and their effects on the reader, taking the Phaedo as an example (xvii). However, given the importance placed on reading the dialogues from the literary perspective, more could have been said to explain the basic meanings of the key concepts: images and devices. The clearest example of what is meant by "images" is provided in Jill Gordon's paper (136, n.1).

I will offer a brief account of each paper in an effort to provide a preliminary idea of what a reader can expect from the book as a whole.

Both the opening paper, by Nicholas Smith, and the closing paper, by Jill Gordon, concern the role of images in Platonic texts. The problem that besets most commentators is how to account for Plato's disparaging remarks on imitative poetry in Republic Books 3 and 10 while at the same time recognizing that Plato is the image-maker par excellence. On Smith's account, the proper way to interpret Plato's use of imagery is to associate it with the mathematical level of thinking as situated on the divided line in Republic Book 6. Mathematicians recognize the ontological status of images in relation to the reality that they copy. They make proper use of images as images for the purpose of grasping what is beyond their reach (12). Gordon surveys a wider range of texts in her discussion of the "philosophical importance of Plato's image-making" (213). She offers a positive account of Plato's use of images that requires a reexamination of the traditional approach to his metaphysics in light of the value that he places on visual imagery.

In connection with Plato's creative use of images and how to interpret them, Bernard Freydberg's paper explains how Plato adopts Homer's language to create new meaning and thereby forms a kind of intellectually fruitful partnership, e.g. Platonic-Homeric imagery. In the context of an expanded meaning of methodos, Freydberg develops the idea suggested by a passage in Plato that there is a hyponoetic or "underlying sense" to poetic speech that must be distinguished from its literal meaning (Rep. 378d3-8). The distinction turns out to be crucial in showing how to split apart two possible interpretations of Homer's discourse.

Three papers concern the dialogical presentation of ideas and Plato's methodological strategies. Phil Hopkins draws a convincing set of comparisons between Plato and Thucydides. The two thinkers share both theoretical and practical concerns about how antilogical thinking and oppositional positioning fueled the political antagonisms of the Peloponnesian war. Hopkins notes that readers would be puzzled by the disparity between Thucydides' accounts of the events, as he narrates them, and the content and manner of the speeches he presents. In a similar way, Plato's readers may experience a cognitive dissonance between what takes place in the drama of a dialogue and the meanings they gather from it. In his paper, Christopher Long focuses on what he calls the "erotic madness" of Plato's method. Long describes three textual strategies that Plato devises to achieve the desired effects of critical distance, historical grounding and playfulness. Anne-Marie Bowery's paper gives a detailed examination of Plato's artful technique of Socratic narration in five of the dialogues. She argues that Socrates' character is given intimacy and psychological depth when he is understood in light of his narrative function.

As I mentioned, the underlying theme of the anthology is the expanded conception of method needed to capture the versatility of Plato's practice of philosophy and dialectical thinking. Both Freyberg and Long began their essays with a discussion of the term methodos. In her paper, Martha Woodruff refers to the root meaning of "method" as "being on or along a road or pathway" (153). Her insights on the reflexive style of the Philebus (following Gadamer), "it does what it says", are valuable. She notes that the way language is used, exemplified, and referred to in this dialogue contrasts with the Parmenides. The Philebus shows a distinct awareness of itself, as if it were personified and learning from itself, or at least, according to the author, learning from the failures of the methods used in the Parmenides. Gerard Kuperus, in his paper, moves away from the traditional model of Socratic method and the linear direction of progress that is associated with arriving at true conclusions. He suggests that Plato's philosophical metaphors of navigating through deep waters and finding one's way through a maze or labyrinth are dramatically demonstrated in the methods used in the Protagoras and the Phaedo. These dramatizations are more apt descriptions of what genuinely takes place in the dialectical thinking of Socrates and his interlocutors.

Both Benjamin Grazzini and Mark Moes have written papers that explore the possible analogies between the medical arts, Socratic dialectic, and Plato's philosophical methods. Grazzini's paper is the catalyst for a renewed interest in Socrates' account of himself as a practitioner of psychic midwifery in the Theaetetus. He shows how Plato uses this intriguing image of Socrates in connection with the views of knowledge being proposed in the dialogue and with Socrates' relationship of bondage with Theaetetus. Moes's paper is, by far, the longest and most ambitious; it is forty pages in length including twelve pages of exasperating endnotes. The average length of papers in the anthology is twenty-five pages including four to five pages of endnotes.

Moes's thesis is based on the familiar and plausible idea that Socrates works with his interlocutors as a skilled physician would do with his patients. He describes Socratic dialectic as a kind of medical practice, e.g. testing of symptoms, giving a diagnosis, and offering therapeutic care. He draws out the implications of this model and considers objections to it. Moes then applies the thesis to Socrates' discussions with Glaucon in the Republic: he has been diagnosed as sick like the feverish city that Socrates urges him to envision. As part of this discussion, Moes argues for a diagnostic reading of four proposals put forth by Socrates and Glaucon in Book 3 of the Republic. Finally, Moes puts together the medical model that he has attributed to Socrates with an appeal to Thucydides' application of Hippocratic medical practices, to suggest that Plato may conceive of his own methods as medically oriented. I found the paper to be convoluted, overworked, and unwieldy. I was surprised to find that there was quite a bit of overlapping in content (and in language) between this paper and two of Moes' previously published articles. Both articles were cited in the endnotes of this paper.

I found that the editor's introduction contained several verbatim summaries of papers that were drawn from the papers themselves without due acknowledgement. Also, contrary to the editor's remark that the volume is a "collection of original essays" (xxiii), Jill Gordon's paper is taken directly from chapter 6 of her book, as she mentions (234, n.1).

The anthology will no doubt engage the reader who is looking for new ways to read Plato's dialogues and would like to learn more about the Greek literary tradition that influenced Plato's dramatic style and methods of communicating with the audience. The authors who contributed to this volume are vibrant and engaging scholars. Their work will encourage an eye-opening reconsideration of Plato's philosophical thoughts and his talent for putting them in writing.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Gary Alan Scott (ix-xxxii)
1. "Plato's Book of Images", Nicholas D. Smith (3-14)
2. "'To Say What is Most Necessary'; Expositional and Philosophical Practice in Thucydides and Plato", Phil Hopkins (15-40)
3. "Medicine, Philosophy, and Socrates' Proposals to Glaucon About Gymnastike in Republic 403c-412b", Mark Moes (41-81)
4. "Know Thyself: Socrates as Storyteller", Anne-Marie Bowery (82-110)
5. "Homeric Methodos in Plato's Socratic Dialogues", Bernard Freydberg (111-129)
6. "Of Psychic Maieutics and Dialogical Bondage in Plato's Theaetetus", Benjamin J. Grazzini (130-151)
7. "Plato's Different Device: Reconciling the One and the Many in the Philebus", Martha Kendal Woodruff (152-173)
8. "Is There Method in This Madness? Context, Play, and Laughter in Plato's Symposium and Republic", Christopher P. Long (174-192)
9. "Traveling with Socrates: Dialectic in the Phaedo and Protagoras", Gerard Kuperus (193-211)
10. "In Plato's Image", Jill Gordon (212-237)

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