Sunday, November 7, 2010

Story and philosophy: the Meno, part 1

Steve Wagner draws below an important distinction between Plato’s literary metaphors or stories which are also philosophical and “noble” lies. The latter, for instance, the Phoenician tale told in Republic, book 3 (414b-d) justifying inequality, are a fundamental component of reactionary Platonisms (Heidegger here, Strauss). When for example Leo Strauss says that Socrates is merely an atheist, debunking the images at the end of the Apology of death being but the best sleep, a dreamless one, one ever had – a doubtful thought on the face of it – or an aethereal continuing of his philosophical questioning of Homer or Herakles or Rhadamathus – desirable especially because “they do not kill you for it there” – he captures an aspect of Plato and Socrates. Skeptical about prevailing stories, Socrates does not know. And yet there is something trivializing in Strauss’s formulation, as if authoritarian imperialists like William Kristol or Harvey Mansfield, hypnotically repeating Strauss’s mantras, really know something and have “a key” to reading the dialogues. Strauss misses Socrates’ wonder at and strangeness about death. Perhaps Socrates means deeply: I do not know. What are taken by wooden readers to be noble lies turn out, upon examination, to be something different and resonant.

But philosophical fictions, what Eva Brann refes to as images in Socrates, are resonant precisely because one cannot “unpack the meanings” (there are too many meanings, the meanings over time shift…). One must be careful, as she rightly says, of context. Some images are Socrates’s own; some of the most resonant – the ring of Gyges, the ring of power in Lord of the Rings here – are offered by a challenging interlocutor; some as in the Phoenician tale are told by others because they are doubtful, some such as the Myth of Er, by others, because there are glimmering truths in it (i.e. as in the Athenian Mystery Religions of which we know little – see here - the soul is neither masculine nor feminine nor animal nor human), some whole dialogues, for instance the Phaedo, are the reports of others. There are, as it were, a register of stories and the meaning of each context has to be assessed in its own right. In the Philebus, Socrates describes thinking for a long time – a solitary, internal dialogue - and then an image “writes itself in the soul” of the person who does this, paints a picture there.

Socrates: “But if someone is alone when he has this thought, he sometimes carries it about in his mind for a long time.
Protarchus: “Undoubtedly…”
Socrates: “I think the soul at such a time is like a book.”
Protarchus: “How is that?”
Socrates: “Memory unites with the senses. And they and the feelings which are connected to them seem to me to write words in our souls; and when the feeling in question writes the truth, true opinions and true statements are produced in us; but when the writer within us writes falsehoods, the resulting statements and opinions are the opposite of true.”
Protarchus: “That is my view completely and I accept it as stated.”
Socrates: “Then accept also the presence of another workmen in our souls at such a time.”
Protarchus: “What workmen?”
Socrates: “A painter, who paints in our souls pictures to illustrate the words which the writer has written.” (38e-39b)

Although apt on context, Brann thinks mistakenly that a Socratic or Platonic image merely illustrates the argument that precedes it (The Music of the Republic, pp, 154-55). But consider the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. That, for example, the soul is not masculine or feminine is a much sharper judgment and a more troubling image among Athenians than the argument offered in book 5 that some women can become guardians. That Odysseus gives up war is both a Homeric judgment (the end of the Odyssey), challenging the preceding censorship of Homer in the Republic, and a resonant image of getting off the wheel or cycle of reincarnation – new lives chosen by most according to habit, shaped narrowly by one’s past life (Orpheus, torn apart by Maenads, chooses the shape of a swan, Atalanta, the great female racer who dies in childbirth, of a male athlete). Odysseus’s choice of a private life is perhaps an analogy to being a philosopher, perhaps being the one under a wall in a storm, perhaps not becoming a philosopher-tyrant, perhaps even standing for democracy against tyranny…

The writing or painting in the soul, which is conjured by Socrates in the Philebus, illuminates often in dazzling, unexpected ways a foregoing argument. It is not the same as the argument, but a glittering emblem of it. It has a more multifaceted and elusive quality than argument; something comes up in it, for instance the sunlike idea of the good in Book 7 of the Republic, which is somehow to the noetic universe as the physical sun is to the actual universe, which goes beyond what any argument says. A whole course of debate about the many dialogues, coupled with the rest of the Academy’s study (what Aristotle spent 20 years on) might be needed to get a glimmer of what the good is.** Alternatively as Steve suggests, metaphor and argument coexist in a complex dialectic, metaphor, as it were, lighting potential paths to knowledge or science, difficulties in argument sometimes engendering metaphors which have large future consequences (that what is discovered to be DNA is, as Rosalind Franklin, saw a double helix).

Consider metaphors like the 18th century notion that phlogiston, an element with negative weight, is involved in combustion, and the later insight that a novel element, oxygen, is involved, The vision of an element is right; the notions of its qualities – “dephlogisticated air” or “fire air” (Priestley, Scheele), subtracting itself, as opposed to oxygen (Lavoisier) – is mistaken.** All of modern chemistry comes from discoveries whose groping imagining moved from this metaphor. No metaphor, no discovery. Science, of course, goes beyond metaphor. But as Steve insists, it does not, cannot yet, or often perhaps cannot do so without residue, without a dialectic with stories.

Or consider in my work on Marx the criticism of the economic determinist metaphor, thinking about some of Marx’s abstract statements, that modes of production shift only with the growth of new productive forces and that democracy or communism must be proceeded by a long process of capitalist development. Metaphor: only the economy moves, is alive; everything else is irrelevant, an epiphenomenon. This is a picture of base and superstructure. The good side of this metaphor is encouraging hope. Engels once wrote to Fritz Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, that he and Marx were the only two radicals on the European continent in the democratic revolution of 1848 who believed in unions. To organize, it is useful to have a vision of the future, of ways capitalism digs its own grave. Now we are few, but we will be many…Thus, international union solidarity became the basis of the International Workingmen’s Association, an organization of some hundreds of thousands of workers in Europe, America and Chile (a bigger movement emerged there in the Second International); unions were also an essential part of the Social Democratic parties; the movement for the 8 hour day, in the United States, culminating in the Haymarket police massacre and trials of 8 radical union leaders in 1886, generated the international celebration of May Day in 1890.

Nonetheless, capitalism, one might say, has enough help in undermining humanity without advocacy by radical democrats. The idea that revolution can only occur with advanced capitalism - and hence one must advocate waiting for the right time elsewhere or extraordinary concessions to capitalist practices even under what was called "socialism," deserves a serious defense. In contrast, in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels thought a proletarian revolution could occur in "backward" Germany in 1848 – whose population was then 80% peasant. The last sentence reads: the democratic revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution. So it appears that Marx’s historical analysis and political strategies in particular international settings differ from this abstract metaphor about the way the development of productive forces and the supposedly uniform (in each particular country) emergence of capitalism as the dominant way of producing must constrain movements from below and democratic possibilities.

My book Marx’s Politics sought to explain this tension, to remove the harmful, unimaginative aspect of the broad metaphor. Once a democratic revolution starts, Marx discovered, the artisans and peasants may ask the question: why should we limit ourselves to a revolution in which the rich man and the poor man have an equal right to sleep under the bridge? We are armed. Why should not we demand at least a minimum of social resources to survive, or perhaps even a cooperative or communist form of organization? The Levellers and Diggers in the Puritan Revolution, the sans-culottes and Babeuf in the French illustrated this dialectic. Communism integrally emerges from the demand for democracy; hence the subtitle of my book: Communists and Citizens. A dialectic of political insight with economics plays the critical role. Nonetheless, an economic determinist metaphor which dominates some of Marx’s own later thinking and much later radicalism affects a priori to rule out this possibility. Dick Boyd, a brilliant student and colleague of Hilary Putnam’s with whom I worked for a year at Cornell, has a fine long essay on the role of metaphor in science from the 1980s called “What is metaphor a metaphor for?” in Andrew Ortony, ed., Metaphor and Thought.

Steve rightly suggests a dialectic of scientific or reasoned argument, which runs up against difficulties (he discusses the grand metaphor of the unity of science) and literary images. Some scientific unities are revelatory (the light cast on Darwin’s theory by Mendelian genetics, for example). Given how difficult the prospect is for thoroughgoing unity of knowledge, it is perhaps inevitable that such a dialectic will be a deep one, become deeper on both sides as Steve suggests of some Plato’s later dialogues.***

In this post and the next one, I want to explore four images from the Meno. These images are particularly valuable because they center around philosophizing and what it is that one learns, or can learn. I would go so far as to say that the Straussian image – that stories are for the masses, philosophers only see argument – does not work at all. It does not work, most obviously, as I have insisted elsewhere (here), because Leo is so bad at argument. He is a great scholar, but with regard to thinking about the arguments he considers, he starts and finishes dogmatically as an uninventive follower of Heidegger (see here and here); he does not articulate problems or push through.

Put another way, his own notion of the “art of writing” - the surface argument is always wrong, it is the uncommon variant or hidden meaning that the author really believes - is a one trick pony. For Strauss embraces the hidden meaning even when it contradicts a powerful surface argument – the suggestion in the Republic that a tyrant will become a philosopher-king despite Plato’s stunning indictment of tyranny. The Republic seems, technically, self-refuting (see my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?"). But amusingly, at least in this case, Plato wanted his students to do the opposite, to see that the hidden meaning, the one they were tempted by, is un-argued for, and with regard to preserving a decent democracy and philosophy against tyranny foolish. See here, here and here. That Strauss was not good at argument was clear to me early on. But that his discoveries about hidden meaning – exoteric writing – also turn out, in a decisive respect, to be exactly the mistake, a hunger to become tyrant, which Plato worked at weaning his aristocratic students from took a lot more time to see.

Turning to the dialogues, the first metaphor I want to discuss is Meno’s conjuring of Socrates as a “sting ray.” I know how to speak, Meno says, I am trained by Gorgias, crowds listen to me talk about virtue, and you – he says lethally – have reduced me to silence. In case one doesn’t notice the lethality here, Meno, a visitor from Thessaly, is staying with Anytus, one of Socrates’ 3 accusors, who confronts Socrates angrily toward the end of the dialogue, and with whom Socrates says, perhaps we will talk another day (the trial).

Meno is a beautiful boy. He coquets with Socrates, and turns the argument from what is virtue? to can virtue be taught? The two conclude, unsatisfactorily that virtue cannot be taught. But the argument is pretty clearly badly stated, the ducking of the first question determinative of the result. Meno even offers the paltry thought that one cannot seek for what one does not know so why bother? But Socrates urges asking questions about important matters that are widely accepted, of probing beneath the surface and fashioning new arguments every day, of learning.

An Athenian audience would have known that this beautiful Thessalian aristocrat with fine words taught by sophists would soon enlist as a mercenary with the emperor of Persia, and displeasing the emperor, be impaled at the age of 24. His views are connected with his abrupt, not self-awaredly chosen and thus bad end. Socrates, too, is dead, but he goes to his death defending philosophy. He follows his own path, reveals, startlingly, who he is. Though all are distraught around him, Socrates drinks the hemlock wide-eyed, with wonder, making sure not to inconvenience his guard who needs to go home at sunset (and also weeps). Socrates dies a considered death, a good death if ever a human has found one, even though, externally and legendarily, an unjust one. Perhaps all of us, to one extent or another like Meno, need stinging. Two trajectories of mortality are on display in the dialogue.

Meno’s harsh and familiar image – the sting ray - is the one held by many interlocutors like Thrasymachus in book 1 of the Republic, the one Socrates notes in the Apology in his difficult calling to test the saying of the Pythia at Delphi that no one was wiser than he. To counter the image of numbing and consequent anger at the questioner, Socrates asks Meno to bring him any of his slaves (so long as the slave speaks Greek). He then draws a square on the ground and asks the slave what would produce an object of twice the area. By Socrates’ asking questions which direct the slave’s attention but do not provide answers, the slave is satisfied by a first result which is mistaken. On further questioning, he sees the mistake for himself, and then through following out further questions, discerns that the diagonal of this square provides the side of a square which is twice as large.

Socrates then says to Meno that the slave must have had this knowledge from eternity. He could recover (more aptly, discover) it by questioning (hence the importance of questioning). But this, though an aside in the dialogue, is perhaps the most important political argument in ancient philosophical literature. It is a radically egalitarian argument. It suggests that each of us can, by questioning, arrive at knowledge which we have forgetten – truth is aletheia, without Lethe, crossing the river of forgetfulness in Hades by questioning to recover knowledge, unforgetting. See here. But then all arguments for natural slavery like Aristotle’s fail. Even Aristotle says in book 1 of the Politics that nature rarely succeeds in making the appropriate distinction between minds in some and bodies in others to justify the rule of "the minds" as a common good. Socrates rightly suggests that there is no such distinction. Now Aristotle also says that Greeks should not enslave other Greeks. Hence the colloquial upshot might be: enslave barbarians. But in book 2, Carthage, a barbarian city, turns out to be one of the three best existing cities. So Aristotle is also very skeptical of the common Greek justifications of slavery.

Socrates' argument is true, hence hard to resist. Note that in the hierarchical city in speech in Plato’s Republic, there are artisans but no slaves; even the Phoenician tale of the metals is a noble lie. Are any other images in Socrates or Plato examples simply of Steve’s first category – metaphors to gull the masses, about which “philosophers” are supposed to be “knowing.” As I noted in the first paragraph of this post, Strauss thinks the two images of what happens to each of us after death offered by Socrates at the end of the Apology are dull food for the masses, and prove Socrates’ philosophical atheism; this is, I suggested, a misleadingly reductionist view.

Meno ultimately agrees with Socrates’s argument about learning through questioning. So the metaphor and the dialogue with the slave convince him about reasoning. Yet the metaphor here gets away even from Plato. For the argument was triggered by Socrates’ rejoinder to Meno: I only perplex you because I am perplexed. This seems to be illustrated by the slave learning that his first answer was wrong. But Socrates says to Meno:

“Do you see, Meno, that I am teaching him nothing but am asking him all these things? And now he thinks he knows the length of the side from which the eight-foot figure will be generated. Do you agree?

Meno: I do.

Soc. Well does he know?

Meno: Of course not.” (82e).

Neither Socrates nor Meno is perplexed about the moves in geometry (in addition, Socrates knows something, i.e. how to prove geometrical theorems, even if about other matters, say the idea of the good, or beauty or justice or dying, the case is more complex; given what he knows, say examples of just action, the sense in which Socrates does not know about the idea of justice needs to be specified carefully). The perplexity at best approximates perhaps the initial questioning in figuring out the theorem, what the slave goes through then – and Socrates and Meno went through once – but not any current perplexity. Perhaps Plato also means his students to see that Socrates is in fact a sting ray, and that questioning in public may also lead to enemies and ultimately lynching…Still, the metaphor exceeds the argument even for Plato, even where the argument is a good one against Meno’s laziness and a deep one against slavery...

“The marriage of philosophy and semblance
Steve Wagner

There's a difference between
(a) "Noble" fictions deployed, by those claiming knowledge, to direct the thoughts of supposedly less rational and informed parties.
(b) Genuine philosophical fictions (imitations, images, semblances), such as the myth of Er or the proliferating metaphors of the later dialogues.
The former are in a sense trivial (although their execution can of course require technical and imaginative skill). The latter raise a deep problem.

Call the latter philosophical fictions. –Plato’s thinking will apply primarily to the artistic forms he himself may use: dramatic and prose fiction, and poetry, including such elements within an analytical study. (E.g., the sophist as hunter, memory as an aviary, the soul as a chariot pulled by a white and a black horse, lovers as the mutually longing halves of a violently bisected creature, Socrates as maiutes. Etc.) Plausibly also forms of painting etc., but not so much music (as known to Plato; could Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, Mahler, be another story?), architecture, dance, ...

Exercise for the reader: countenance broader applications.
Philosophical fictions can exist in a dialectic with discursive reason (dianoia). Dianoia will again and again run into limits, diverse and various quandaries, gaps, paradoxes. This is demonstrated throughout the later dialogues (Theaet. being only the most dramatic case). Of course it's not new, in light of Socratic ignorance in the earlier dialogues, the inconclusiveness of the Meno, the emphasis on elenchus, etc., but it's integrated differently and persists even as Plato produces, un-Socratically, elaborate accounts.

The later dialogues are not overtly optimistic about a grand, unified human knowledge—unlike perhaps (n.b.) the Republic. Yet that remains the quest, and it runs ever into problems, each requiring painstaking work. So, sometimes (or often) when dianoia—explicit theory—reaches a limit, fiction can suggest something: suggest, hint, allude, sketch, offer without proof, stumble, enlighten, redirect, fruitfully puzzle, … On a given issue our study may overcome this, yet the need for fiction can arise elsewhere or return here. Thus a perduring dialectic. Although we aspire to comprehensive and unified theory, we cannot now claim that our intelligence will ever escape this pattern.

Elaboration: Consider the early pages of the Sophist. We find half a dozen different characterizations of the sophist—hunter, athlete, etc. In Plato’s hands each of these is illuminating. Yet equally they can seem arbitrary. One feels that with a little ingenuity one could as well represent the sophist as a certain kind of fry cook or flute player. ‘With a little ingenuity’—in a way that’s the point. A good enough artist might make almost any arbitrarily selected metaphor work. Relatedly, the metaphors can stand next to each other, they don’t cancel, each may add something valid and illuminating—yet they’re not conjoinable. (Good metaphors can sometimes be conjoined. But this is not a requirement, and conjunction can easily be comically inept.) Thus an essential difference, we like to think, with mature scientific theory. One might describe the difference in terms of aggregates vs. wholes. —This can skip right to the 20th century: “postulates of the unity of science”, or my [1993a] representation of WVQ [Willard Van Orman Quine] vs., say, Nancy Cartwright concerning (relatively) ultimate empirical theories. Conjoining pieces of science is not nearly as simple as we once thought, sometimes it’s not even harmless. Nonetheless, there is something to the idea, as in WVQ[/SW]. Whereas we like to think of any given (successful) artwork (at least across a large range of cases) as being one whole, complete; of putting several together as—barring, in most cases, a miracle—mere aggregation. So part of the story of the Sophist is the quest for dialectical rather than figurative knowledge of the sophist. End elaboration.

This view is still “rationalist” and “platonic” in that it ultimately subordinates fiction to dianoia in its goals. Yet for human beings fiction is not foreseeably eliminable, nor even ancillary (n.b.—at least, ancillary or secondary status would require a further argument not provided). Hardly incidentally, its pleasures may be great, lasting, legitimate.

Barbara Sattler: query S.W.’s judgment that philosophical fictions gain in importance in the later dialogues (maybe starting around the erotic couple, Symposium and Phaedrus.). —SW: this isn’t required. I still perceive this, but that may be a matter of subjective impact, and nothing in the argument needs it. (Nor would I quickly dispute the point with Barbara!)
B.S.: are you denying or downplaying the analytical character and concerns of the later dialogues? —SW: no sane philosopher would. In fact, I find these, too, more pronounced and developed, deeper in late Plato. —BS, agreed, of course. —SW: Which is highly compatible with my interpretation above: the efforts of our intelligence are becoming more intensive on both sides of the dialectic!

Appendix

Basho’s haiku on his deathbed

Sick, on a journey—
dreams still wander
over withered fields

SW’s response, with humble apology

In their parched diaspora—
calling to the poet’s dreams”

*Alternately, one can think of some Buddhist-like Pythagoreanism, a mystical formulation, about enlightenment after long effort perhaps centered on numbers, or alternatively, as I have suggested, the asking of questions, the daily fashioning of arguments, sometimes with better external interlocutors, often with better internal questions, moving toward an idea…

**The metaphor is from Engels’ introduction to the second volume, discussed in the 1960s by Louis Althusser in Lire Le Capital [Reading Capital]. Amusingly, as a political science graduate student of some naivete and perhaps choutzpah who had attended some of Althusser’s seminars in the winter and early spring of 1966, I talked about this metaphor and scientific change one day over lunch in the then Harvard Restaurant in 1968 with Hilary Putnam, whom I had recently met while protesting the Vietnam war, and his companion, John Rawls.

***Sometimes we can tell when the dialogues are set historically, because of Plato’s dating – the Phaedo follows the Crito which follows the Apology which follows the Euthyphro and Meno, for example. But the evidence of their sequence is not yet evidence of when Plato imagined or wrote them. There are arguments to be given here, but one needs to proceed with some care.

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