Friday, November 7, 2014


A. K. Cotton, Platonic Dialogue and the Education of the Reader. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 330. ISBN 9780199684052. $125.00.

Reviewed by Georgia Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi, Foundation of the Hellenic World (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is divided into two parts. In Part I, which consists of three chapters, Cotton outlines the main views for which she intends to argue; she then argues for them in detail in Part II, which takes up the subsequent five chapters.

In Chapter 1 Cotton states her aim, which is to discuss the experience of the reader of Plato's dialogues as in certain ways parallel to that of the interlocutors depicted in them: both engage in a process of learning. Now the dialogues themselves, qua written texts, cannot properly convey knowledge, in accordance with the familiar critique of writing in the Phaedrus; but, as Cotton aims to show, they do promote the reader's acquisition of the skills necessary for independent learning.

Chapter 2 specifies what this learning experience consists in. Cotton stresses that the dialogues elicit both a cognitive and an affective response: Socrates' interlocutors do not simply engage in learning in a purely intellectual way, but also experience emotions such as discomfort, anger, or frustration; the same is true of the reader, who must put in her own intellectual effort to construct meaning, but must also engage with the text in an affective way. But if an affective response is intended, why do we find in Plato an attack on poetry precisely for its appeal to the emotions? Cotton proposes to address this question in Part II by showing how Plato's literary technique differs from that of the objectionable genres: the dialogues elicit both cognitive and affective responses, but in ways that are different from these other genres.

In Chapter 3 Cotton proposes an interesting way of accounting for the changes in the presentation of interlocutors between dialogues typically considered as 'early', 'middle', and 'late.' Leaving aside the question of chronology, she sees the three 'types' of works as intended for different stages in the process of educating the reader. In the 'early' dialogues interlocutors experience aporia, confusion, anger, embarrassment and disbelief; but all of these responses lead to the recognition of one's ignorance, which is a crucial prerequisite for learning. In the 'middle' dialogues aporia and disbelief are still present, but they do not bring the discussion to a halt. By the 'late' dialogues, the unreflective reactions of earlier interlocutors give way to more constructive responses of individuals better prepared for discussion. The Platonic reader too undergoes similar experiences. She initially experiences discomfort, but further reading makes her grow in what Cotton terms "dialectical virtue." So the 'early' dialogues should be not be seen as simply destructive, but as the first stage in a learning process; similarly the 'middle' and 'late' dialogues may usefully be seen not as new approaches, but as subsequent stages in a single, ongoing process.

With Chapter 4 we turn to an exploration of the more specific ways in which Cotton argues that Plato's literary technique differs from that of other genres, in order to promote his goal, as laid out in Part I, of engaging the reader in a cognitive-affective learning experience which parallels that of the interlocutors. Chapter 4 itself studies character depiction. Cotton argues against Blondell's1 interpretation of the function of Platonic characters as either models or counter-models for the reader, and also against her view that we are invited to develop "emotional affinity" with these characters (p. 109): this approach is condemned in Plato's critique of poetry, and there are in fact no "straightforwardly positive or negative role models" to be found in the corpus (p. 111). Instead, Cotton suggests that the dialogues typically present "problematic" characters, such as Euthyphro, who are not simply good or bad, or even Socrates, whose character remains largely elusive – e.g. by means of his extensive use of irony, which often withholds definitive meaning. Moreover, characters are not depicted in full, but in a fragmentary fashion: so the reader is invited to undertake the work of interpretation, thus leaving little room for any simple adoption of role models. The kind of characterization we find in the dialogues encourages the reader to reflect, and this Cotton calls "the dialogues' functional handling of character" (p. 132). The diminished characterization of the 'late' works serves a similar purpose: the reader is now advanced in dialectical virtue, and so needs fewer dramatic stimuli to draw her into the texts; moreover, her lack of insight into these 'late' interlocutors makes interpretation an even more intellectually demanding task.

Cotton's view that the changes in character depiction in the dialogues correspond to changing stages in the reader's learning process seems very attractive; convincing too is her view that the dialogues offer no straightforward models or counter-models for the reader. But she also argues (esp. pp. 111–112) that Plato uses character in a way that is rather different from other writers, and that this serves the purpose of stimulating reflection in the reader. Yet it remains unclear how Plato's presentation of ambiguous, "problematic" characters differs from character depiction in, say, tragedy. There too characters are not straightforwardly good or bad, but rather "problematic," thereby inviting reflection on the issues at hand. Think of the depiction of Agamemnon or even Orestes in the Oresteia, or of Dionysus in the Bacchae. Plato seems to me to be directly borrowing from, rather than substantially changing, familiar literary tactics. And if this is so, i.e. if tragedy too invites reflection on the part of the reader, then Plato's literary technique is not all that different from that of genres condemned in his critique of poetry. So the problem that Cotton set out to address seems to me to remain.

In Chapter 5 Cotton argues against the commonly held view that the 'late' dialogues adopt a more didactic kind of dialectic: she provides a list, drawn from Aristotle's Topics, of techniques common in dialectical, rather than didactic, discourse, and shows that these techniques are amply attested not only in the 'early' dialogues but throughout the corpus. Despite the interlocutors' less obvious contribution to the discussion in 'middle' and 'late' works, the reconstruction of the arguments themselves is now much more demanding. A lot more independent thinking is required, which marks not a decline but a later stage of development in the process of the education of the reader.

Cotton seems right in arguing that the 'late' dialogues mark a shift to a new way of challenging the reader. Yet her analogy between the interlocutor and the reader seems to break down: how is the interlocutor shown to be challenged in the 'late' works? On p. 185 she suggests that "in 'later' dialogues, the input of interlocutors seems to diminish, but in fact, as I have argued, it must increase. Their intellectual contributions must be deeper and more searching, and their affective contribution, though less overt, need be no less personal: in being more internalized, it is also deeper and more enduring." It seems problematic to assume such an "internalized, deeper and more enduring" response in the interlocutors when there is no evidence of it in the text. Cotton appears to be aware of the difficulty, because soon thereafter (p. 186) she admits "an increasing divergence between the response and activity of interlocutors, as presented in the dialogues, and that of readers."

Chapter 6 discusses the structure and unity of the dialogues. Cotton points out that dead-ends in a discussion, pauses, sudden changes in subject, as well as other structural patterns common in the dialogues, aim to create confusion and uncertainty in the reader. They elicit an affective response, and at the same time urge her to re-read and engage in self-directed exploration: unity needs to be created by the reader. So, Cotton interestingly suggests, notoriously problematic works such as the Phaedrus may be understood as extreme instances of a general tendency of the dialogues toward disunity. This tendency is part of the process of educating the reader.

In Chapter 7 Cotton begins by arguing convincingly against Lowe2 that the dramatic elements (including the setting of a dialogue and the life-stories of the various characters) matter in Plato just as much as arguments do, and that this is a characteristic the dialogues share with the "classical plot". What, then, is it that strikes us as different? This is the question Cotton sets out to answer. She argues that, much like the tendency toward disunity in Platonic structure, there is also a tendency toward irresolution in Platonic plots: many things are left uncertain regarding a character's earlier or later life-story, which are instead treated in an episodic fashion; a number of stories are evoked but not drawn together. In her own words (p. 235), "[T]he larger story patterns are still present, but they are treated in a tangential, marginal, and indirect way, and are given less sustained and structured treatment than we might expect." Finally, the 'late' works show much less interest in evoking life-stories altogether, since readers have by now been trained to approach works in a more abstract way.

But it seems that the particular way in which Cotton understands irresolution in Plato, i.e. as a fragmentary treatment of multiple life-stories evoked but left incomplete, is very much present in the classical plot as well. Think of the Oresteia: there too a number of stories are evoked but not treated in full; we do not hear of Electra's subsequent life, for example; Clytemnestra's long-standing relationship with Aegisthus is not fully developed either; and even though Orestes is absolved, we gain no insight into his subsequent life. So it remains unclear how Plato's literary technique differs in this respect from other genres; in fact Lowe's view (p. 228) that resolution in Plato comes through the interplay of arguments rather than dramatic action seems more to the point.

Chapter 8 sums up the book's main theses, and then argues, in my view inconclusively, that the development of dialectical virtue in the reader serves the further purpose of cultivating civic virtue: for perseverance, self-motivation and other qualities developed through the reading of the dialogues are also useful in the public sphere. The final section of the chapter discusses the role of myth in Plato: this too, it is argued, invites both a cognitive and an affective response in the reader. Cotton takes the Phaedo myth as an example, suggesting that, despite its literary style, its complexity inhibits emotional 'immersion.'

On the whole, this is a good book. It is clearly structured, lucidly written, and, for the most part, convincingly argued. It should stimulate discussion even among those inclined to disagree with some of its points. Cotton traces her theoretical background in reader-response criticism and narratology. She situates herself within larger debates, usefully surveying earlier views, and making clear how her position differs from them. Extensive footnotes provide bibliography on a whole range of topics, though it seems surprising that only a very few items on her list of works cited are written in a language other than English.

Here are a few more general questions I was left with. One of Cotton's main aims was to show that the dialogues elicit a response in the reader that is at the same time both cognitive and affective, but her systematic analysis of techniques intended to disorient the reader ultimately stresses the cognitive aspect. How is the affective response elicited, especially in the 'late' dialogues? And if "a valuable response needs to be at once affective and cognitive" (p. 37), why should this no longer be necessary for the advanced reader? Further, the scope of the work is large: it discusses many techniques, and traces their development throughout the corpus. But their treatment is necessarily selective, which makes the arguments potentially unconvincing. For example, does the analysis of the Phaedo myth in Chapter 8 suffice to prove conclusively that myth in Plato in general aims to elicit a cognitive-affective response in the reader? I think it does not; but Cotton opens up many interesting new paths for further exploration.


1.   Blondell, R. (2002), The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues. Cambridge.
2.   Lowe, N. J. (2000), The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative. Cambridge.

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