Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Paul Stern, Knowledge and Politics in Plato's Theaetetus. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 315. ISBN 9780521884297. $90.00.
Reviewed by Jacques A. Bailly, University of Vermont, Burlington

Table of Contents

In Knowledge and Politics in Plato's Theaetetus, issues are treated as they crop up in the dialogue rather than thematically, which makes summarizing difficult. The book appears to be an expansion of Stern's "The Philosophic Importance of Political Life: On the 'Digression' in Plato's 'Theaetetus'" (The American Political Science Review, June 2002, pp.275-289).

A short introduction is followed by chapters on the prologue, midwifery, the first definition of knowledge, assessment of that definition, the digression, continued assessment of the first definition, false opinion, true opinion and logos, and midwifery and wisdom, which are followed by a bibliography and general index.

Although claiming that political matters are central to the Theaetetus, "Politics" and "political" are never defined. Among things which Stern claims are undeniably political and so make politics central to the Theaetetus are Theaetetus' death and Socrates' trial and death (both debatable claims: ordinary English does not support calling both "political"). Because of the fictional date, there must be a connection between this dialogue and those of Socrates' trial and execution, says Stern. Since they are clearly political, the connection must be between the political and the epistemological. The "digression" at 172c-177c comparing the man of the law-courts with the philosopher, claims Stern, is crucial to the dialogue and essentially political. No one else sees the dialogue as essentially political, which Stern acknowledges but does not sufficiently explain. Stern's ahistorical analysis does not rely on historical justification for his undefined notion of "political." In all, Stern's use of "political" is so broad that the term has limited usefulness (apparently, it encompasses all things ethical, governmental, military, and interpersonal), and so the central claim and promise of the book remains problematic and unfulfilled.

Among key claims are the following. Models of knowledge which offer certainty involve only partial knowledge: they cannot ever include knowledge of complex dynamic wholes, such as human souls, active as knowers and knowns, and hence unstable. Wisdom, phronesis, gives us a way to access the wholeness of things (hence it differs from knowledge). Because knowledge is not an all-or-nothing thing, learning is possible, but human reason has limits, which wisdom alone can address. While sophists and scientists offer to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty, Socrates argues that they are ineliminable. Midwifery offers an alternative to the political life and culture of Athens (70) and is Socrates' means to explain partial knowledge. Youths are Socrates' chosen discussion partners because, given their openness, they offer accessible instances of perplexed human souls to examine. The Knowledge-is-Perception-Protagorean-Heraclitean nexus suggested by Socrates is designed to elicit and respond to Theaetetus' pretheoretical notion of the good (96). All theories of knowledge have pretheoretical notions of the good, and Socraticism's ultimate interest lies in exploring those notions. Socraticism avoids scepticism as well as absolute certainty and examines particular souls and whether they can live according to their own doctrines. Socrates sees the good as controversial, whereas Protagoreans see it as uncontroversial. For them, the human good is manipulable, and reason is a tool granting freedom from necessity. Socrates, however, believes that 'value-free' epistemology is impossible and so our view of the good must be investigated along with knowledge. The conversational form in the digression suggests a connection between epistemology and the "philosophic centrality of the political life" (161). Socrates' project is to explore what humans are, given that they need convention: speech, not just perception, is necessary for convention, and heterogeneous conceptions of the good (and hence beauty, justice, and piety) are the result of our complex nature. The human realm, central to Socratic philosophy, is not, as Sedley claims, a step to Platonic idealism. Philosophers mistakenly look for pure good, when good depends on evil: "evil is neediness of which we are aware, and good is that which we judge might answer to this" (173), but because of our nature all our needs cannot be met, as Socrates' death reminds us (174). The philosophical life is deficient in self-knowledge, which recognizes and investigates humans' needs as reflected in conflicts of political life (165-7) rather than humans as abstract wholes. Because no knowledge could provide freedom from all needs, inquiry should not be for such knowledge: we must pursue knowledge that helps decide which conflicting goods to pursue. Humans universally desire what is truly good (avoidance of self-deception and clarity) and (tacitly) agree that certainty regarding it eludes us: Socraticism brings us closer (180-81). Both for communities and individuals, human souls are not precisely and certainly covered by general principles: laws and their failures remind us of this because they cannot provide for our good completely. The soul cannot itself by itself provide for knowledge, but rather by gathering up perceptions, it strives for knowledge: thus knowledge is partial and "aspirational" (210). Plato is no dogmatic rationalist who holds with comprehensive intelligibility, contra Heidegger (who bases his claim on Tht. 184-187): "Soul makes knowing possible and makes its (knowing's) perfection problematic" (214). Thinking resembles speech: it must be about something and pick out things distinguished from a whole. Thinking entails a divided soul and makes comprehensive self-understanding problematic. Internal dialogue resembles dialogue between people, which resembles or is the dialogue of a community. Even true opinion is false because partial, i.e. the object is always other than what we think it is. In this, the Theaetetus coheres with the Sophist, but also considers the ethical and political aspect, the desirability of partial knowledge. Theaetetus, however, never gives up his all-or-nothing view of knowledge, and Socrates does not force him, because Socrates wants him to learn for himself and see that his motives and passions are what block him from doing so (235). The wax block and the aviary miss the soul's full complexity and do not explain why the soul needs to move beyond the wax block. The knower is not passive, but active, and the knower itself cannot be fully known, because the act of knowing is a source of systematic error (251) as is the knower's character (251). Certainty is impossible and our knowing is "irredeemably individual" (255). Socraticism reveals horizons from which individuals and communities can question convictions and requires shamelessness to recognize the neediness of our partial knowledge. Because community provides our views about the good, Socratic inquiry begins with political life in self-awareness of our limitations. By developing the capacity to see parts via wholes and wholes via parts we become aware of the problematic nature of our knowledge and its significance, while phronesis, of which midwifery is a product, gives us a capacity distinct from knowledge involving "guesswork." (290) Midwifery and politics, relying on other humans, address our needs not filled by nature, but they conflict. Midwifery elicits the pretheoretical and shows that even theorists are gripped by the political. Socraticism must examine the political community's answers because it recognizes that the life of reason itself is not obviously justified. In order to be nondogmatic, it scrutinizes how we search and who we are. Certainty is inversely proportional to how fully our knowledge reflects its object's diversity. Thus Socrates provides in the Theaetetus a reasoned nondogmatic defense of the life of reason (298). But Socraticism does not offer satisfying guidance for political life, because it remains fully cognizant of the problematic nature of all knowledge.

Stern's central claim is that the Theaetetus shows that philosophical study of politics should be central to philosophy as a whole and that "only through this (i.e. political) study can Socrates attain the self-knowledge that both justifies philosophic inquiry and guides it toward knowledge properly understood." (p. 5, supported by citation of Leo Strauss). When theoretical discussions reach aporia, Stern turns to the action, although Stern's formulation of a logos out of the action is often underdetermined by the actions. Actions "speak" loudly, but not necessarily in reliably and detailedly specifiable ways. What this interpretation lacks in tight analytical logic and unambiguous evidence it makes up for in rich suggestiveness, but one worries about 'hineinlesung': what one person reads "clearly between the lines" may be written there by one's own mind not the author.

Stern's mode of interpretation is close attention to often overlooked details (framework, drama, juxtaposition, or mere stylistic coloring: not interpretation of explicit argument). For example, the placement of allusions to Theaetetus' death and Socrates' trial and death at the beginning and end of the dialogue, respectively, 'force' the reader to confront political issues at beginning and end as well as in the centrally positioned digression. The argument from spatial placement is backed up by a claim that Plato was free to choose what to put at the beginning of the dialogue in a way he was not elsewhere.

Stern takes his interpretation of seemingly innocuous banter in the prologue to be more significant philosophically than explicit logical argument or a character's own explicitly stated position. For instance, Theodorus' few words don't obviously convey an epistemology that rejects experience or sees geometry as a complete, sufficient model for knowledge of everything, including human souls. Theodorus explicitly says he is unaccustomed to and does not feel competent in the areas Socrates investigates (146b, 162a-b, 165a: after 169c ff., Theodorus' more active role still does not offer substantive argument, just agreement). And yet by 144d, before any logical argument has taken place, Stern says that "Socrates' conversation ... has revealed the geometer as one who believes technical knowledge to be the form of knowledge, willfully oblivious to its limitations" (47). By 146, "Theodorus balks when asked to join this conversation. His refusal is most significant. It betokens a more general reluctance to engage in conversation at all as a means of inquiry (146b3-4). Such reluctance means that he does not see, or does not wish to see, the existence of inherently controversial issues such as ... the views of justice and rule associated with the meaning of knowledge. ... Theodorus' silence in this Socrates-engineered context must be deafening to his students" (55). None of that is clearly true. While Theodorus is wary of Socrates and of embarrassment, his words do not justify Stern's attributing to Theodorus an ethical stance and a theoretical construction of a view of knowledge. When a geometer defers to a philosopher with reservations on questions of ethical theory, that is no rejection of philosophy and no specific statement about the epistemological status of geometry vis-à-vis philosophy. In this way, at times, Stern's arguments seem to be a house of cards, shaky but not impossible readings built on top of each other.

To some degree, the rug is pulled out from under Stern's arguments if we take seriously the Socratic idea that death is nothing (bad) to a philosopher. Then the "lamentable results" (5) and the "cost of such neglect" and "this ultimate price" (23) of philosophy is neither lamentable nor costly in comparison to the gains which result from not taking death into account as a decisive or important consideration. Stern assumes that death is bad. Socrates does not.

In order for the dialogue to accomplish its work, we must be "active readers" who see faulty arguments, aporetic conclusions, and scepticism as provocations to construct answers from clues in the dialogue (P. 8). For Stern, the dramatic details point the way. In particular, we must pay close attention to the beginnings of any enquiry to avoid later distortion.

A good example of what "active" reading of such a "beginning" looks like is Stern's analysis of the prologue. Stern claims that, because it is not part of the argumentative sections, the prologue is all the more Plato's choice and hence all the more significant. Plato includes the Megarians Terpsion and Euclides (which he uses to justify bringing in the largely elusive Megarian philosophy, which hangs like a shadow over the whole dialogue), modification of the dialogue from indirect to direct discourse (a Megarian-style denial of particularity and temporal setting), the mortally wounded Theaetetus (a political contrast with Socrates - killed by, not for, the state: but Socrates campaigned himself, and many voted to acquit Socrates, so the contrast is not sharp), and Socrates' avowed interest in preserving this conversation, a stamp of Socratic approval. This sort of analysis by looking everywhere but at the explicit argument and then situating one's results as part of and a comment on the explicit argument suggestively identifies neglected aspects of Platonic dialogues, especially why the dramatic elements are so intellectually pleasing. Absent more careful and explicit explication of its own interpretive principles, it does not produce arguments that are able to be assessed. Stern's own prose lays out what he teases out by "active" reading, but without answering the question, "Why didn't Plato explicitly discuss these issues?" In this way, Stern's position seems to identify more possible implications and assumptions of the Theaetetus than the dialogue actually accomplishes.

Are Stern's ideas appropriate interpretations of the Theaetetus? Taking easily overlooked and often ambiguous hints, ironies, inconcinnities, etc. as intentional, extending images and metaphors beyond what is explicitly said, claiming that the (mostly absent) presence of Megarians justifies a "Megarian" lens, and making claims like "this capacity, alluded to by Socrates' very neglect of it, becomes more prominent in the action that follows," (242, italics added), and claiming that all of the preceding points towards a hidden "Socraticism" for the active reader to puzzle out is risky. Stern does not examine and justify his own procedures sufficiently to justify the claim that his conclusions are what Plato or Socrates intended, nor does he adduce other scholars who do that work for him. The status of Stern's conclusions is that of possible ways to pursue ideas treated in the text, interesting in their own right, but not necessarily supported in a way that makes them viable as Platonism or Socraticism. Occasional general situating of his own conclusions in relation to Sedley's, Fine's, or others in footnotes does not do enough by way of careful engagement with alternative views.

In all, the book offers a very interesting tour through the Theaetetus with many astute observations, but readers who want careful attention to argumentative and historical detail and justification of interpretive principles will be disappointed.

Production errors noticed:

1) mistaken cross-references (e.g. on p. 34 n. 4, "p. 11 and n25" should be p. 10 and n. 27; on p. 57 n. 47 the cross-reference is mistaken; on p. 221 the cross-reference in note 8 is mistaken);

2) imprecise Platonic references (on p. 49, "145c3" should be 145a3; on p. 89, "150c2-3" should be 152c2-3; on p. 156 "171e4-5" should be 171e7-8 and "171a5-b2" should be 172a5-b2; on p. 159 172c3 contains nothing corresponding to Stern's claim; on p. 162, "172e2" should be 172c2, and "d8" refers to nothing relevant; on p. 231, 190c4 is not previous to 190b6, c1); on p. 161 "172c1" should be "172b9-c1;

3) unacknowledged dubious status of works (e.g. Theages cited on p. 77 n. 92);

4) proof-reading errors ("and but" on p. 81; "Socrates'" should be "Socrates" on p. 116; "in to" should be a single word on p. 163; "in any whatever" in the quotation on p. 190; "if we are not to" on p. 205 should probably be "if we are to"; on p. 283, the brackets in "[j]ust" are inappropriate);

5) items important to Stern's interpretation are omitted from the index: Leo Strauss cited on p. 5 n. 10, "Atomists," "oaths," many specific Greek gods, "myth," and "muses," for instance, receive no entry in the index although all receive important attention in the book;

6) incomplete index entries: e.g. references to "Protagoras and art of speech" should include p. 131;

7) occasional important references omitted: where does Plotinus say that attributing justice, piety, and phronesis to a god is absurd? (177n.21);

8) "Hesiod Theogony" (?) 773 cited p. 25 n. 41 is a mistaken and irrelevant citation.

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