Thursday, March 17, 2016


Hugh H. Benson, Clitophon's Challenge: Dialectic in Plato's 'Meno', 'Phaedo', and 'Republic'. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 318. ISBN 9780199324835. $65.00.

Reviewed by Georgia Sermamoglou-Soulmaidi, Greek Studies On Site (

Version at BMCR home site


In the Clitophon, Clitophon suggests that Socrates' lifelong project of exhortation to virtue ultimately fails to prove useful to the man already convinced of its value. For such a man immediately faces a pressing question, on which Socrates has little to offer: how should one proceed to acquire the knowledge relevant for virtue? Clitophon voices a concern familiar to readers of Plato: exactly how is this virtue-relevant knowledge to be pursued? This is the central question of Benson's book, and it goes to the heart of Plato's philosophical project. A careful reading of relevant passages in the Meno, Phaedo, and Republic, combined with detailed discussion of earlier scholarly interpretations of them, allows Benson to identify such a method of inquiry and to outline its stages.

The introductory chapter lays out his theoretical assumptions. He grants the developmental character of Plato's works but is less interested in determining whether this results from the author's changing views or his pedagogical method of gradual presentation of them. He also addresses the potential conflict between Socrates' pursuit of robust knowledge relating to virtue and the view often ascribed to him that such knowledge is restricted to the gods. For Benson, it is at least more likely that Socrates does not consider this kind of knowledge to be beyond human reach.

Chapter 2 argues that, in the elenctic dialogues, the recommended method of knowledge acquisition takes the form of learning from those who already know, although traditional methods of learning, involving memorization and intellectual submission to authority, are abandoned. Benson acknowledges the irony often involved in Socrates' wish to learn from this group of interlocutors but holds that a serious point underlines it, i.e., the wish to learn from potential teachers. Yet these teachers consistently fail to provide satisfactory answers.

In place of learning from others, independent de novo inquiry becomes the preferred method in the Meno, to which Benson turns in Chapter 3. But Meno's famous paradox poses new problems. If beginning the inquiry and also ending it by determining that one has successfully identified what one set out to discover are impossible, a response to Clitophon's challenge cannot get off the ground. Benson argues that Meno's paradox is a philosophically serious problem, but that Socrates takes it to be resolved by means of the theory of recollection. Precisely how it is resolved is a thorny issue, and Benson does not presume to have new suggestions to offer. But it suffices for his purposes to show that independent de novo inquiry is at least taken by Socrates to be possible.

In Chapter 4 Benson suggests that, just as the theory of recollection makes independent learning possible, the method of hypothesis shows how this kind of learning is to be carried out. He argues convincingly that this method should not be taken, as it often has been, as a mere second best in comparison to some other supposedly preferred method of inquiry.

Chapter 5 discusses descriptions of the method of hypothesis in the Meno and Phaedo. Meno 86e6-87b2 suggests a way in which one may go about answering the question whether virtue is teachable "from a hypothesis," similarly to the way geometers address questions with which they are concerned. When seeking the answer to a given question, they reduce it to a second one, and answering the second question helps them answer the first one as well.

Phaedo 100a3-8 provides another description, which Benson uses to answer some of the questions left open in the Meno. For example, the Phaedo clarifies that what is termed "hypothesis" is the most compelling answer to the reduced question. It also indicates that the hypothesis is treated as provisional: it is simply an answer one takes to be most compelling.

Benson turns to a second passage on hypothesis in the Phaedo (101d1-e3). The passage suggests the need to examine whether the hormêthenta of a given hypothesis disagree with each other, although the precise nature of these hormêthenta remains unclear for the moment. For, as Benson notes, if they are taken to be the logical consequences of the hypothesis, it is unclear why they might turn out to be inconsistent with each other. Moreover, this passage adds that one may reduce the second question to a third one and suggests a "higher" hypothesis to answer it.

These three descriptions allow Benson to draw a preliminary sketch of the method of hypothesis. In what he terms the "proof" stage, the inquirer identifies a second question, which he uses to respond to the initial one. In the "confirmation" stage, he further explores the truth of the hypothesis by testing its hormêthenta and also by performing the proof stage on the hypothesis, i.e., by identifying a third question to help him respond to the second one. Both stages involve an "upward" path of identifying the hypotheses and also a "downward" path: in the proof stage, this consists in showing how one proceeds from the hypothesis to the answer to the initial question; in the confirmation stage, it consists in testing the hormêthenta.

In Chapter 6, Benson uses the rough outline of the method derived from the descriptive passages to identify other passages in which the method is applied, starting with the Meno. In the argument for the teachability of virtue, the question whether virtue is teachable is reduced to the question whether virtue is knowledge. This reduction is achieved by identifying a given property of virtue (its being knowledge) that would suffice to guarantee its possession of the property relevant for the initial question (its teachability). Further, the question whether virtue is knowledge is reduced to the question whether virtue is good. This is an attempt to confirm the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge, which Benson identifies as the upward path of the confirmation stage: it leads from the "lower" hypothesis that virtue is knowledge to the "higher" one that virtue is good. The process continues until one reaches an answer deemed "adequate." The view that the above argument is an application of the method of hypothesis has been maintained before. Benson adds that the argument against teachability (Meno 89c5 ff.) too is an application of the same method. Socrates now seeks to confirm the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge by testing whether its hormêthenta agree with each other. If virtue is knowledge, it should be teachable, and so it is at least plausible to maintain that there should be teachers and learners of it. But experience suggests the opposite; no such teachers are to be found. So the hormêthenta of the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge apparently disagree with each other. Further, Socrates' appeal to empirical observations helps address a question earlier left open: the hormêthenta include not only the logical consequences of a hypothesis but also empirical facts which at least raise doubts about its truth.

This interpretation seems difficult to accept. First, filling in a gap in our understanding of the hormêthenta in the descriptive passages by means of a potential application of the method makes Benson's argument circular: the argument against teachability was identified as an application of the method on the grounds that it matched the description, and so it seems risky to employ it to shed light on the description itself, when it is no longer clear whether the application still matches it. Moreover, it is hard to see both the things that do follow from the hypothesis (i.e., the view that virtue is teachable) and the facts that contradict them (i.e., the empirical observation that no teachers of virtue are to be found) as things of the same nature, both identified as hormêthenta of the hypothesis.

Chapter 7 looks at applications of the method of hypothesis in the Phaedo. Benson notes that things are not as straightforward here as in the Meno, because Socrates is defending views rather than engaging in inquiry. Yet he provides reasons why Phaedo 100a7-9 ff. is usefully seen as an application of the method. The initial question concerns the aitia of generation and destruction. The hypothesis, i.e., the most compelling answer to this question, is the Forms. Socrates then notes the need to confirm the Form hypothesis, which points to the confirmation stage, despite the fact that this is not pursued here. Benson suggests that the present application enriches our understanding of the method by showing, for example, that an inquirer need not go through all stages of the method every time he applies it.

In Chapter 8 Benson argues that, in Plato's Republic, Socrates employs the method of hypothesis to respond to the question whether Kallipolis is possible. In the proof stage, the initial question is reduced to the question whether philosophy and political power coincide. Then, in the upward path of the confirmation stage, the higher hypothesis that philosophy is knowledge of Forms is introduced, from which Socrates concludes that philosophers possess the knowledge required for ruling: knowledge acquired through philosophy allows them to establish and preserve rules based on what is good. Finally, in the downward path of the confirmation stage, the hormêthenta of the hypothesis are examined. If philosophy and politics coincide, philosophers must be useful and virtuous, but in fact Adeimantus points out that they are useless and vicious. Socrates provides reasons why the hormêthenta are only apparently in disagreement, and the hypothesis is confirmed.

Benson's argument is truly attractive, but I have ultimately found it unconvincing. The initial question is whether the ideal state can be established, and Socrates suggests that, for this to happen, philosophers should rule. Confirming this "hypothesis," as Benson would have it, is hard, because the idea that philosophy and politics should coincide cannot be tested for truth or falsity. It is a requirement for the creation of a just state, but neither true nor false. This is different from the Meno, where the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge can indeed be true or false.

Benson then treats Adeimantus' comment that contemporary philosophers are useless and bad as an empirical observation that contradicts the hormêthen of the hypothesis that philosophy and politics coincide. What I see as a problem is that he infers the conflicting hormêthen that philosophers will be useful and good, instead of useless and bad. Adeimantus never draws the inference, and it doesn't seem necessary that what we get here is a discussion of conflicting hormêthenta.

Chapter 9 discusses the image of the Line in Republic 6. Benson focuses on the two subsections of the Line corresponding to dianoia and noêsis and on the methods of attaining these cognitive states, dianoetic and dialectic respectively. Both methods investigate from hypotheses, which makes a connection between them and the method of hypothesis initially plausible. Benson suggests that dianoetic is an incorrect way of employing the method of hypothesis, and dialectic the correct one, on the grounds that dianoetic is presented as inferior, and on the assumption that both dianoetic and dialectic refer to the same method. But, while both methods start from hypotheses, I see no other textual evidence that would support, or indeed disprove, his claim. The further suggestion that Rep. 7.534b8-d1, according to which a proper account of the Form of the Good must be able to survive all refutation, indicates a reference to the confirmation stage of the method of hypothesis also seems weak, since there is no mention of hormêthenta or anything of the sort in the text.

Benson's book grapples with an important question, is tightly knit together into a single bold argument, and is written in a remarkably lucid way. There is thoughtful critical discussion of previous interpretations at every step. The footnotes provide excellent guidance on all sorts of major questions, even when these questions are only marginally related to the issues at hand. I have found certain parts of the argument more convincing than others, but the book is intellectually stimulating throughout.

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