June 01, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation IV

Republic is the second-longest single text on my list, the longest being Kant's first Critique. With Republic finished yesterday, the plan involves me reading several different relatively short texts each day. Today I finished up Plato with several different dialogues.


Nominally about the possibility of learning or teaching virtue, Meno is best well-known for Plato's doctrine that learning is recollection: our souls are immortal, and when humans learn, we're really just recalling things our souls learned when they were free of our bodies and part of the intelligible realm. Prima facie, one is tempted to read these two (immortality and recollection) as straight-up metaphysical theses, accompanying the metaphysics of the Forms. But none of the arguments for immortality and recollection are very strong (not that any of Plato's arguments are all that great), and are accompanied with bizarre mythological accounts of the afterlife and heaven (see the end of Republic, penultimate section of Phaedo, Diotima's story in Symposium, and more or less the entirety of the reading in Phaedrus). This suggests it's more appropriate to read these doctrines as literary devices.

In particular, these theses are an expression of Plato's rationalism. In contemporary jargon, Plato distrusts the evidence of our senses, and believes only a priori arguments and reflection lead to true knowledge -- specifically, lead us to contemplation of the eternal Forms. While Aristotle will prefer an abstractionist account, we might suspect that Plato finds this to be still 'too empirical'; a mythology where a priori knowledge is literally recalled from a previous life in the realm of the Forms is 'more pure' and absolutely certain. Similarly, the aspect of the self that carries out philosophical inquiry -- the rational soul -- is deliberately likened to the Forms which it studies: in its purest state, it is immortal, eternal, and perfectly reliable in all respects.

Meno is also known for a passage in which Socrates 'helps' one of Meno's slaves 'recall' a certain mathematical proof. It's hard to see how this is supposed to be even remotely convincing of recollection as a serious epistemology, though -- like the other dialogues featuring Socrates, the 'conversation' is completely one-sided, and the slave never does anything more than add a few numbers and say 'Yes, Socrates' whenever the philosopher pauses for a breath. Socrates might as well just give the slave a lecture in Egyptian for the same effect.


This dialogue is an account of the last few hours of Socrates' life, and a long meditation on the nature of the soul and the philosophical lifestyle. Several aspects of the metaphysics of Forms are also expressed, including their simplicity and unchangability and the role they play in 'causation', ie, a particular individual being what it is. For example, a desk is a desk because it 'shares in' the Form of Desk.

Throughout the dialogue, Socrates comforts his friends, telling them that a philosopher should celebrate a timely and dignified death as liberation from the prison of the body and the chance of the soul to return to the realm of pure contemplation. Following the less metaphysical interpretation, this entire dialogue can be read as a call for us to celebrate the short time we have to enjoy the pleasures of this life (philosophic contemplation being the highest of these) rather than bemoan the inevitable. And in contemplating the eternal, True, and Good, we can get a glimpse of that more beautiful, higher realm we may or may not end up in someday.

Symposium 201d-212c; Phaedrus 244a-257b

These selections are two speeches Socrates gives (the former in the voice of 'Diotima') on love, and especially the superiority of the philosopher's (literally, 'lover of wisdom') love for the True and the Good (to sexual love. Phaedrus is notable for a long mythological passage describing the soul's encounter with the Forms in the afterlife and the insanity of passion. This relates back to the Allegory of the Cave from Republic: the philosopher's love for the divine and metaphysical is considered insane by less enlightened mortals.

Parmenides 126a-135d

This passage is a purely metaphysical discussion of the theory of Forms, in the context of the famous work of Parmenides and his student Zeno. Here Socrates is portrayed as an ambitious and aggressive young metaphysician (in contrast with the far more casual ethical thinker of the so-called 'Socratic' dialogues), who still needs to refine his ideas. Several interesting criticisms of the metaphysics of Forms are discussed here, the most famous of which may be the third man argument. It's actually hard to see why this objection is so famous, since it trades on a simple confusion between Forms and the individuals that fall under them: the Form of Horse is not itself a horse; the Form of Bigness is not itself big; and so on. Perhaps it is simply related to the sort of self-reference puzzles that early Analytic philosophers were so fascinated by.

NB In Phaedo, Plato does say explicitly that, eg, the Form of Beauty is itself Beautiful (100c3-7). Recall that Plato considers the Form itself to be paradigmatic, the particular that 'partakes' in the Form is a copy of it, etc.

Total pages read: 363

Interesting philosophical link: musings on the ethics of (vegan) prosyletization (sp, I'm lazy) by a grad student at Bowling Green.


Kryssa said...

I think if I ever take another philosophy course, I'm going to come back and reread all of these.

MosBen said...

I really wish I knew more HTML so we could put links on the sidebar to series of posts like this. It'd be nice to, say, collect all the oosts containing links to funny videos in one easy to search list, or have a section of the site where a person could search Noumena's philsophical posts.

Noumena said...

What's Drew up to these days? You could poke him with a stick until he decided to do some web design for us.