Plato's Antipaideia: Perplexity for the Guided
ABSTRACT: Paideia connotes the handing down and preservation of tradition and culture, even civilization, through education. Platos education of philosophers in the Academy is inimical to such an essentially conservative notion. His dialectical method is inherently dynamic and open-ended: not only are such conclusions as are reached in the dialogues subject to further criticism, so are the assumptions on which those conclusions are based. In these and other ways explored in this paper, Plato demonstrates that paideia has no harbor within philosophy.
Jaeger declares in his massive Paideia that civilization, culture, tradition, literature, and education are all merely aspects of what the Greeks meant by their term `paideia', and that these five "cannot take in the same field as the Greek concept unless we employ them all together." I will argue, pace Jaeger, that Plato's unique contribution was no perfection of sophistic humanism, no "reincarnation of the religious spirit of earlier Greek education, from Homer to the tragedians," but with its philosophical context properly restored an utter rejection of the authority of those institutions at the basis of what Greeks understood paideia to be. Without resorting to skepticism, Plato problematized the ordinary; without straining logic, he declared every premise and every conclusion radically open to further discussion and refutation and all this not only without dogmatism, but against dogma.
For Plato, education was more fundamental than tradition or literature or civilization or culture, for education determined how all the others were to be acquired, appreciated, and criticized. Indeed, education and philosophy were, as they are now, intimately linked. The practice of philosophy in Plato's time as in ours, the business of philosophy, was teaching far more than it was system-building. In fact, if Plato was the author of a system of philosophy, by which we are to understand a coherent set of interrelated axioms and their mutual implications, then Plato was a profoundly unsuccessful philosopher. For Plato makes such a variety of different and incompatible statements about so many topics that more than two thousand years of scholarship has thus far failed to produce anything like the consensus about his so-called system that one finds among Aristotelians, for example, or even Marxists.
It is for this reason that I shall turn from the content of the dialogues to the method or methods exhibited there. In those, I will argue, we have a better model for the contemporary conduct of philosophy than is usually suspected. I will first describe what I take to have been behind Plato's philosophical educational mission, then the principal aspects of the dialectical method itself, following with a description of some of the ways in which Plato's philosophical methodological desiderata continue to inform the best philosophical practice to this day, and concluding with a return to paideia.
Since Jaeger mentions specifically the dependence of early Greek education on religion, to which he says Plato returns, we might note in passing that the dialogues are unequivocal in opposing the sorts of myths about the gods and heroes one finds in early Greek religion. Plato's opposition is grounded in the claim that what is divine must be good, ruling out arbitrary and contradictory behavior by the gods. Yet even the "good gods" that remain are never in the dialogues represented as the sorts of authorities from which one can hope to gain knowledge or power or honor: when Plato's Socrates prays to Pan at the end of the Phaedrus, he asks simply to become a better person. More than against the old religion, Plato was reacting against the educational practices of the rhetoricians and the sophists of his own time. Neither the power to make fine speeches, nor the ability to outargue an opponent were objectives of Platonic educational practice, so far as we know. But it was of course the rhetoricians and sophists who headed the schools that were the Academy's most immediate competition. And while Jaeger refers to such doctrines as man-is-the-measure as forms of humanism, Plato far from perfecting them demonstrates their incoherence. None of this is particularly controversial anymore, and none of it is very important compared to the sense in which Plato was also reacting to some aspects of the oral conduct of philosophy as practiced by Socrates, so it is only this last point that I will elaborate.
The tragedy of the Socratic method is that there were failures. There were notorious failures, Alcibiades given an unforgettable encomium to Socrates in the Symposium having been the most tragic and most notorious of all. But Critias, Charmides, and Aristoteles were in real life members of the Council of Thirty; and the dialogues rather often depict Socrates as having no immediately perceptible beneficial effect on his respondents, especially adult respondents. Why might that have been the case?
Naturally, some people are beyond the reach of any benefactor, even Socrates. A few of his associates were probably stupid, and some already preoccupied with other things in life than wisdom. Since Socrates could not know in advance who was susceptible to the good influence of the dialectic, he spoke with any and all who would join him in serious conversation. But we have no way of knowing whether there was ever any correlation or negative correlation for that matter between the amount of time spent in Socrates's company and the tenor of any particular respondent's psyche. To take the argument in another direction for a moment, perhaps there were some who would have benefited greatly if only their proud Athenian fathers had not so disapproved of that strange character Socrates. But, leaving aside the predispositions and personalities of Socrates's interlocutors, there were more substantial reasons for failures of the dialectic.
For one thing, Socrates is depicted as engaging his respondents when and where he finds them, despite whatever distractions might attend such conversations. There was no guarantee of a respondent's minimal background on a subject, much less a background shared by all those present on a particular occasion. Questions that were old and stale to some would be refreshingly new to others in the very same group. Equally important, in conversations snatched from an afternoon at the gymnasium, or a morning in the agora, there was no time to follow through in the various promising directions that an argument might lead. If one's entire higher education depended on Socrates, one would need to follow him around a great deal, and there is not much indication that many did so. It was not possible, under such circumstances, for Socrates to present a systematic body of information for the critical consumption of all who happened to attend; he was obliged rather to start from scratch repeatedly. With the makeup of the group shifting constantly, what may well never have presented itself was the opportunity to improve on or even address a shared critical understanding of the well-argued position of someone else. Philosophy could not advance.
On the other hand, further elements of what we have come to call the Socratic method are quintessential of successful philosophical education. For example, oral conversation. It is supremely adaptable by comparison to a speech or a written text to the particularities of one's respondent: her level of knowledge, her interests, her needs. So long as the conversation is being modified by the skilled dialectician, the respondent remains keenly involved in the subject, intellectually alert, and voluntarily engaged in the dialectical process. Genuine confusions can be worked out as they occur, preventing a trajectory of greater and still greater confusion; and yet perplexities of the sort that peak curiosity can be exploited to the maximum. The stuff of everyday life, the names of one's friends, shared experiences, and the opportunity for palpable illustration: all these are able to heighten the effect of the Socratic method.
In a word, Socrates's method was personal. He tailored his method to fit the personalities and abilities of his respondents, which remains an aspiration for almost anyone who would conduct philosophy effectively with others. And it is far removed from classes by television, or video, or even Internet. Whether Socrates was defining a term, elaborating a virtue, or pursuing some other ostensibly terminal goal, what he was always doing most immediately was examining someone's beliefs preferably beliefs sincerely held. There is little that makes a student, then or now, more attentive and serious than to have her own beliefs subjected to close inspection and critique. Vivisection. Even if one is off the hook temporarily in such a conversation, one dares not blink for fear of becoming again the nominated provider of beliefs for the group's inquiry. Yet, despite the fear or discomfort, a particularly satisfying aspect of this sort of examination is that one's own answers determine the course of the argument. Socrates effected no turns in the discussion except in response to a reply by a respondent. "While the questioner bears responsibility for keeping the discussion within the very broad parameters set by the issue under discussion and a few general principles of logic, the particular course of any given conversation is unknown except as it unfolds in the dialectical activity itself." It should not be difficult to see that one's own personal experience whether in reaching a state of perplexed longing to understand, or in reaching the pleasure of understanding itself, drawing an inference, aha! is likely to be more profound than hearing or reading about someone else's experience.
A related component of the success of the Socratic oral method is that a respondent's conclusions can be more firmly defended with argument than if they were learned in more conventional ways; after all, the conclusions will have been reached after a grueling trial including a number of dead ends and returns to the start. One's own labors will have been spent in the gaining of knowledge. But it is not only conclusions that are important in the Socratic method, for what is communicated by the practice itself, modeled, is a set of techniques about how to examine philosophical problems effectively. The method is intrinsically as well as extrinsically valuable; life is worth living only so long as one is examining it. Rarely is this more obvious than when discussions in Socratic dialogues end in aporia, implicitly promising a new beginning some other time.
III. The Genius of Plato
Without relinquishing what was successful about the Socratic educational program, Plato's founding of the Academy enabled him to overcome some of the oral method's faults. A formal institution of higher learning could expel or refuse admission to those who were intellectually unsuited or insincere, and could attract young men whose fathers might have objected to Socrates's less formal style and manner. Living and studying together in an academic community, these like-minded and earnest students and researchers of philosophy would have far greater opportunities to pursue issues to their natural conclusions. Moreover, Plato's writing of dialogues that could be discussed in that rarified atmosphere enabled the students to learn systematic bodies of earlier philosophy, to approach them critically, and thus to develop philosophy further.
More than all this, however, I would emphasize a systematic and deliberate feature of Plato's dialogues that I call `double openendedness', a feature that enabled Plato to avoid the authoritative author's voice, thereby preventing anyone from slavishly adhering to what they might otherwise have taken to be doctrines of the master. Some features of double openendedness are familiar, some so unfamiliar as to be controversial, but all share the characteristic of tentativeness, provisionality: there is no premise, no conclusion, no technique in all the corpus that is insulated from challenge. Nothing whatsoever is treated as so certain that it cannot be, indeed that it ought not be, rethought and revised repeatedly.
Such a claim is uncontroversial with respect to (i) the conclusions of dialogues called `Socratic' in the literature; it is typical of them to end in aporia, an impasse at which the characters express their dissatisfaction at not having reached a firm conclusion or answer. I would add that it is not only the brief Socratic pieces such as Charmides, Laches, and Lysis for which this is the case; it occurs also in Cratylus, the first book of the Republic, and the Theaetetus. Openended in exactly the same sense, subject to revision, are (ii) the initial assumptions with which Socratic inquiry begins. In fact, it is routine in the dialogues, when inquiry falters in some way, for Socrates to suggest to his respondent that he go back, take a different starting point, and thus correct his course. In the entire corpus, the only thing ever said to be free of assumptions is the good itself, and that brings me to a related sense of Plato's openendedness: (iii) in the corpus taken as a whole, even the seemingly most cherished assumptions the nature of goodness, for example are subjected to criticism. In the first and second books of the Republic, Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, and Glaucon make headway against the good; Callicles does likewise in the Gorgias. Thrasymachus and Callicles at least, though they are both browbeaten by Socrates into yes-man roles, never come close to conceding the fundamentality of the good, maintaining relativistic positions instead. Plato goes further to insure openendedness at the level of the whole corpus by assigning incompatible views to the same character, usually Socrates, in different dialogues: e.g. the dispute over courage in the Protagoras and Laches; the dispute over hedonism in the Gorgias and Protagoras; and the variety of accounts of the nature of Platonic forms, especially in the Parmenides.
Plato's (iv) dialectical method itself is openended too. This is a difficult point to make clear in a short time, but what I mean is this. The assumptions of the method, as well as its procedures and its results, are as unprotected from criticism and revision as the content of the dialogues. Plato achieves this openendedness in part by isolating and suspending particular aspects of his method (hypothesis, say, or a logical rule) while subjecting them to implicit critique, and partly by addressing directly the strengths and weaknesses of particular techniques.
Finally, and I return now to something less controversial than my last point, (v) the dialogue form itself preserves Plato's openendedness and thereby preserves much of what was successful about the Socratic oral method. Unlike the presocratics who, despite a range of literary forms from treatise to poetry, presented a body of doctrine, Plato's dialogues both illustrate and instantiate a variety of doctrines and methods, creating what I described earlier as a lack of consensus in the literature about what Plato himself believed. Another consequence of Plato's writing dialogues, a consequence that secures something of the personal aspect of Socrates's practice, is that the dialogues portray philosophy in its social embeddedness: positions advocated by interlocutors derive from their experiences in life. Who were their teachers? What were their ambitions? their economic and social status? Those who read the dialogues in the Academy could identify appropriately with the characters presented in them. Insofar as Plato may have used Academic arguments in dialogues, of course, Academicians would literally see themselves there. What is most important in Plato's use of the dialogue form is that there could be no truckling to a master, no intellectual laziness that so often leads a would-be philosopher to hitch his wagon to someone else's grand scheme, in hopes of working out some of the neglected details. It is incumbent upon each reader to labor to whatever conclusions are possible, providing such defenses and critiques as are necessary along the way. This makes Plato's work not a jot less relevant or powerful now than twenty-four hundred years ago.
The Socratic oral method, I should add, is and was further preserved by what we may take to have been the Platonic Academy's ability to combine the oral and the written into one overall attitude toward philosophical inquiry. What was best about Socrates's questioning could still go on, with what was worst corrected by the written dialogues. Insofar as paideia acknowledged the authority of and conserved culture, civilization, tradition, literature, and religious education, Plato's conduct of philosophy was antipaideic, requiring constant reevaluation of the bases of all of these. In fact, if something of Plato's advice about philosophical investigation were formulated as a set of guidelines for would-be philosophers to observe, the following six rules, derived from the Platonic corpus, and setting philosophical conversation apart from the conduct exhibited by debaters (sophists) and rhetoricians, might be included.
First: Observe the principle of charity. "Don't question unfairly," suggests Socrates in the Theaetetus, "it is most unreasonable for a person who claims to care about moral virtue to be always unfair in discussion, by which I mean failure to distinguish between scoring points in a debate and having a dialectical conversation. In the former, one's allowed to play with an opponent and throw him over any way one can, but in dialectic one must be serious and help a colleague to his feet again, pointing out to him only the false steps that are his own, or a result of the company he used to keep." In a real dialectical conversation, to defeat one's opponent is to defeat oneself, for the dialectic itself cannot then occur. Second: Avoid straw men. Before declaring aporia, Socrates is at pains to develop the strongest version he can of his respondent's position. Third: Expose your flank, or draw fire to what is weakest in your own position in the hope of having it improved by others. Even when all present are willing to grant Socrates whatever conclusions he has reached, it is he who often calls attention to the weaknesses in his own arguments that others have overlooked. A merely apparent victory is no victory at all. Fourth: Be sincere. Although Socrates is sometimes guilty in the dialogues of causing others to break this rule, he nevertheless emphasizes on a number of occasions that one ought to test through the dialectic those beliefs that one actually holds, not mere hypotheses in which one has no stake. And this fits well the notion that the most successful dialectical conversations are those that are personal. Fifth: Observe the interlocutor requirement. Deriving from the oral conduct of philosophy, this rule applies to the written word as well: one must make an effort to ensure that one's partner in a dialectical conversation is following every step and every nuance of the argument. Sixth: Challenge authority. Neither the Platonic corpus, nor anything in that corpus, is above critique. The only appropriate basis for drawing conclusions in a dialectical conversation is persuasion by argument, evidence, sound reasons. And that again suggests the antipathy between Jaeger's essentially conservative paideia, and Plato's essentially dynamic dialectic.