Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What to make of Critias?

Keane's comment about Critias representing a different side of Plato's attitude toward the arts (in this case what scholars call literary-historical imagery, though the history part certainly needs scare-quotes) is intriguing. There is plenty of precedent for it, however, throughout the middle and later parts of Plato's corpus. In Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic, and other dialogues -- including Meno, where Socrates makes a point of explaining what he's up to in appealing to Meno's love of specacle -- there is a marked pattern of myth-spinning, tending to occur at a predictable point in the conversation when the younger participants have reached their limit of reasoned discourse. How exactly this pedagogical method (which I take it to be) relates to the drier, dialogic methods (such as collection and division) evident in several of the later dialogues is an open and interesting question.

What else of philosophical interest might we find here? We see echos of many themes from Republic and Statesman in the divine intellect and character of the Atlantean kings, as well as in their degeneration into greed and aggression which led to the catastrophic war with the noble, ancient Athenians, and we see proportion, measure, and geometry (not to mention peace, fertility, a class-blind adherence to law) as potent symbols of a healthy culture and divine favor. I trust you will have other thoughts this evening.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Plato's Critique of Law

In an extended discussion of law (nomos) in Statesman, Young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger give it a fairly scathing critique. Not only might the best constitution, surprisingly, function without laws according to the judgment of an expert ruler (293c), but even if such a ruler employs them, laws can never “accurately embrace what is best and most just for all at the same time,” since law is general and persons and actions particular (294b). Law “resembles some self-willed and ignorant person” who dogmatically rejects question or challenge, even when the questioner has a better idea, and so is too simple to be useful for human life, which is never simple (294c). Law may be pragmatically necessary when dealing with people in “herds,” but it only gives rough prescriptions “as suits the majority of cases and a large number of people” (294e). Once established (whether written or proclaimed) laws tend to resist change, which puts them at odds with necessary improvements or better laws from elsewhere, but it is destructive if such improvements are crudely imposed by force without effective persuasion or expertise (296b-c), so even the correction of a system of law requires the art of the Statesman.

In short, in the presence of an expert ruler laws are optional and not particularly beneficial, and in the absence of such a ruler they quickly become rigid and dangerous. We might infer here a scathing indictment of both Hobbesian-style legalism and rigid Borkian notions of “original intent” in constitutional interpretation.

I find this vigorous critique of law compelling, though also curious in light of two other discussions of law in Plato’s work. First, of course, there is the deep commitment Socrates evinces for the laws of the Athenians in Apology and Crito. Though he stops just short of an absolute commitment to law (he makes clear that he will disobey and accept the consequences if the law forces him to choose between it and a matter of conscientious principle) he is nonetheless prepared to accept death from a duly constituted court proceeding, even when its decision is manifestly unjust.

Second, Plato’s postumous and final dialogue Laws appears to be a detailed working out of what in Statesman he calls a “second-best” constitution, if the enlightened rule by genuine experts is unattainable. The result is about as unappealing in most respects as the critique of law in Statesman anticipates it would be, but along with Crito it shows just how much sustained attention Plato thought the rule of law deserves, its deep flaws notwithstanding. Bad as it is, the rule of law may at least constitute a bulwark against tyranny, given the frailty of human nature in the presence of power – a necessary evil?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Liberal Arts on the Job

I was speaking today with the head of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, who mentioned a widely perceived tension between the liberal arts (as traditionally conceived) and the professional training that MCLA offers in many of its programs. I vigorously reject the notion that these are in tension, reasoning in the following way:

By the liberal arts we mean, in the words of the Visitor in Plato’s Sophist, the habits, skills, and knowledge of free people. For people without trust funds who hope to remain free, such knowledge surely includes knowing how to make a living. Thus dispositions, skills, habits, and understanding useful for earning one’s keep, and for doing so with integrity, flexibility, imagination, and active concern for others, is wholly consistent with liberal learning properly understood, and in no way conflicts with serious scholarship or the love of learning for its own sake.

To take this one step further, it seems to me not only requisite that a public college of the liberal arts should engage students in conversation about earning their livings, but equally mandatory that it do so in the fullest possible context of history, economics, morality, literature, aesthetics, and other realms of discourse implicated in the struggle to live well – for how we make our livings is never wholly separate from what we make of our lives.

So we need to be bold, I think, in the ongoing re-visioning of our mission at MCLA. Instead of defensively coupling the traditional liberal arts with professional programs as though the two were uneasy bedfellows, we can imagine our role as helping every student discover a calling, and begin developing that calling into a creative and fulfilling life and career.

Expertise in Governance

As in Republic, Plato's characters in the latter part of Statesman champion leadership as a very particular kind of expertise or technical knowledge, and as in Republic (though in less detail) the conversation explains why such specialized skill is never available to large groups of people, but only to a small minority or individual.

As disturbing as this is to one conception of democracy, it is undeniably true in our own time that a tremendous amount of intelligence, expert knowledge (or the ability and judgment to tap into others' expert knowledge), and character -- what Plato would have called virtue -- is required for effective leadership. The administration just past had intelligence and technical skill in abundance at its command , and (after 9/11) a tremendous amount of public support, not to mention a legislative branch dominated by the administration's party, but it seemed to lack not only virtue, but even an interest in the task of leadership, except in the sense of conducting a permanent, self-perpetuating political campaign.

We might infer from this that genuine leadership, what Young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger seek to understand in Statesman, demands all of these elements: expert knowledge, the ability to garner popular support, character (accomplished human excellence), and with this the steadfast will to use its power on behalf of the ruled, rather than in some narrower interest. The current officeholder has many of these qualities in evident abundance; it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Friday, April 10, 2009


I wrote the following in response to an online discussion about critiques of E.O. Wilson as reductionistic. The question that someone posed was "What's wrong with reductionism?"

Scientific reduction is a matter of modeling and simplification -- precisely the potent and limiting characteristics of law (nomos) in Statesman -- it is a set of purpose-built tools for specific phases of the intellectual process that is science (or any systematic search for knowledge). Reduction is probably indispensable (one is tempted to say irreducible!) for any such inquiry. To critique something (such as Wilson’s Sociobiology, or Consilience) as reductionistic is to level the charge that it has in one way or another misused the tool; it need not, and had better not be, to reject wholesale the tool as such.

By analogy, one really does need a hammer to build a house, but we would rightly reject as egregious “hammerism” any attempt to use the hammer as a paintbrush, to clean the windows with it, or generally to imagine that once the hammer’s work was done the house was complete.

One of the reasons reductionism, on the model of hammerism, is a fair criticism of some attempts to extend scientific findings into socio-cultural or moral principles is that the reduction model used for the (generally analytic) objects of scientific study ignores the emergence of properties in complex systems that are neither predictable from nor reducible to the properties of the components of those systems. Life emerges from combinations of water and minerals, obviously, and studying those components is vital, but an organism is more (because of its self-replicating organization of them, for example) than the sum of its component elements. The concept of irreducibly emergent properties is not unrelated to Marx’s employment of Hegel’s notion of dialectic.

Reductionism remains a permanent trap for intellectual pursuits, precisely because we need the tool of reduction to understand things, and so always risk imbuing its more striking conclusions (such as Wilson’s) with more weight than they can bear, and applying them unmodified to a level of complexity within a system for which they are ill-suited.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dialogue in Sophist and Statesman

Because the Young Socrates in Statesman plays a largely passive role, as did Theatetus in Sophist, some interpreters and translators have been inclined to dismiss the dialogic element, in these late books especially, as unimportant. It is true that these dialogues are not as dynamic and literary as some of the earlier ones, where the interlocutors play a larger role in the discussion, contributing challenges, counter-arguments, and specific personal interests. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Plato’s seriousness of purpose in choosing to write these books dialogically, notwithstanding the rather different way he uses the form here.

In these two dialogues, Theatetus and the Young Socrates are bright and alert but largely unformed youths, in contrast to the Eleatic Stranger (or “Visitor,” one of only two unnamed major characters in Plato’s corpus), who is evidently a mature and accomplished philosopher (in the sense of someone in possession of “the knowledge that free people have” and “a pure and just love of wisdom” – Sophist 253c-e). Both dialogues illustrate, heuristically and substantively, the method of “collection and division” introduced in Phaedrus, and both take on rather complex and technical issues. These considerations alone might be enough to explain Plato’s choice to simplify the dialogue form, and place almost all the substance in the mouth of one speaker.

Plato does not seem to me, however, to have merely trivial reasons for declining to abandon dialogue altogether in this context. He seems robustly committed, even here, to the Socratic principle of friendly agreement and its pedagogical power, as when the young Socrates attempts to defer to the visitor at 258c:

Visitor: So in what direction will one discover the path that leads to the statesman? For we must discover it, and after having separated it from the rest we must impress one character on it; and having stamped a single different form on the other turnings we must make our minds think all sort of knowledge there are as falling into two classes.

Young Socrates: That, I think, is actually for you to do, visitor, not for me.

Visitor: But, Socrates, it must also be a matter for you, when it becomes clear what it is.

And likewise at 260b:

Visitor: So if we divided off two parts of theoretical knowledge as a whole, referring to one as directive and the other as making judgments, would we say that it had been divided suitably?

Young Socrates: Yes, at least according to my view.

Visitor: But if people are doing something together, it is enough if they agree with one another.

Young Socrates: Quite.

Visitor: So for as long as we are sharing in the present task, we should say good-bye to what everybody else may think.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Language and cognition

Nick raised a point not long ago about the relationship between language and thought. Psychologists and ethnographers have understood for almost a century that a language is not merely an arbitrary code, but structurally shapes how we perceive and respond to the world in various ways. This NPR report gives a lighthearted illustration of that finding, having to do with the gender of nouns: