Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Still life with Plato


There’s a difference between debate and dialectic. Debate means you are trying to win. Dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true. I am not interested in debate. I am only interested in dialectic, which does mean I listen to you, and you listen to me.
That's Professor Bret Weinstein speaking to students. It didn't work. They weren't interested in listening to him.
We don’t care what terms you want to speak on. This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms—on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one.
They want him fired or even physically assaulted.

One of the more intriguing philosophical puzzles is why nobody has been able to write philosophical dialogues as well as Plato did. The Greeks didn't single-handedly create western civilization but they did raise it to a height that has inspired many people to try to equal or surpass them ever since. As intimidating as the Greeks can be, the task has not proven impossible. Some, albeit a very small number, people have been able to write poetry as good as ancient Greek poetry. Likewise with sculpture and drama. The staggering exception is philosophical dialogues. It is now roughly 2364 years since Plato's death and no one has written a philosophical dialogue that comes close to equalling his.

And Plato was prolific. Not every single dialogue was a masterpiece but he produced at least as many great masterpieces as Shakespeare, Michelangelo or Caravaggio did.

Oddly enough, part of the reason for this may be that his own culture didn't value his written dialogues as much as we do. They admired them but they valued actual dialogue more.

Still lives

Here's a still life selected more or less at random from the Wikipedia page on the subject.

Imagine you lived in a culture where groups of people came together with various elements typically found in a still life—the host brought a vase of flowers, one guest a jug of wine, others bowls of fruit, yet another a musical instrument and perhaps another a dead animal. The host begins the process by placing the flowers on the table. Then the guests each advance in turn and placed their offering. The process is long and drawn out with everyone walking around and looking at the arrangement from different angles and discussing the individual and collective achievement.

Now imagine that some resulting still lives (still lifes?) are so compelling that people record them by sketching, painting or photographing them. Initially, this is done to help remember the moment or perhaps as an aid to teaching people how to do the activity. Over time, however, people begin to notice that the representations themselves are often compelling. Next, it gets meta. We can easily imagine a sort of activity developing where people gather and look at slides of still lives and discuss them. Perhaps they even start producing videos of the process of creating a still life. Eventually, the art of table arrangement is lost or is devalued while still life paintings are regarded as high art.

I don't think that is actually what happened. Yet, the impetus for a long time the painting a still life was an appreciation for the beauty of arrangements of objects. A garden is a sort of still life. A good artist teaches us how to see things.

Plato seems to have written, at least initially, out of admiration for Socrates. Socrates "wins" to use Professor Weinstein's terminology, a significant number of his encounters. He doesn't win them all however and some of his victories are odd ones, drinking poison Hemlock being the most striking of his odd victories. Sometimes Socrates loses or other times, nobody wins—a few of the dialogues are decidedly unresolved.

There is a long-standing theory that the dialogues are really advertisements for Plato's Academy. Roughly forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, one of my professors outlined this for us. He said that the dialogues were intentionally vague with esoteric truths hidden or hinted at within to entice students to come to the Academy and be taught these things directly. I find that unlikely. My guess is that the dialogues were first meant to give readers a notion of what it was like to be part of a discussion with the great Socrates himself and later to give a sense of what it would be like to attend the Academy. The promise was not answers but dialogue. Just as some people believed, and some still do believe, in table arrangement as an end in itself, Plato and his students believed that the activity was valuable even if the results were not, Plato really believed in dialogue as dialectic.


A good argument could be made that the novel is a possible rival to Plato. People come together representing different views and we see how that works out. Philosophers would probably object that no novel, not even a novel of ideas, goes into sufficient technical detail to count as philosophy. On the other hand, very little philosophy is worth reading as art and Plato is.

A while ago I was at a talk called Forgotten Philosophies by William Sweet. Professor Sweet argued that the history of philosophy, as it currently is taught, leaves certain voices out. I think that is a good point but worry that Professor Sweet's real goal is not encouraging the inclusion of many voices so much as promoting scholastic philosophy in particular. What made the talk fascinating for me was that Thrasymachus made an appearance during the question period.

Thrasymachus (not his real name) advanced the postmodern argument that it's all about power. That the people who get included in classes on the history of philosophy are the ones chosen by people with power and that was all there was to be said about it. Professor Sweet explained why he didn't think that was the case. Before another person could ask a question, Thrasymachus repeated his original argument in different words spoken more loudly. Again, Professor Sweet attempted to answer. We don't know if his second attempt was going to be any different or better than the first because Thasymachus cut him off and repeated his original argument even louder still. He spoke as someone who was certain he was right and who couldn't see why Sweet stubbornly refused to concede the point. Sweet looked not afraid but a little intimidated at this aggression, and who wouldn't. The discussion ended when the MC interceded.

What Plato saw, and modern philosophy has tended to forget, is that ideas are connected to character. Anyone who believed what Thrasymachus believes is likely to reflect it in his character. He might be a buffoon. He might also be a defeatist. He might fluctuate between the two depending on whether he thinks he has the upper hand in terms of strength.

We haven't completely lost that sense but we tend to be very binary about it. We demonize Thrasymachus. Plato knew better. Those students who confronted Professor Weinstein are evil demons. They are what all of us would be if we weren't properly educated. We shouldn't even get outraged at the contemporary academic world for the sort of nonsense has long been a fact of university life. Ideally, the students who did this should be expelled and the professors who encourage and support this sort of extremism should be fired. That seems unlikely to happen. All that we have left to us is to rediscover dialectic for ourselves, to conduct ourselves accordingly.

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