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The Oracle at Delphi was renowned since before the time of Socrates for her divine connection to the god Apollo who was, among other things, the god of prophecy. It is for this reason, that when she was asked if there lived a man wiser than Socrates, and she replied no, people took notice (Apology). Unfortunately, today there exist no works written by Socrates–he was likely illiterate anyway–so what we know about him comes from the writings of his protege, Plato.
The Republic is one of Plato’s so called “Six Great Dialogues,” which include The Crito, The Phaedo, The Apology, The Symposium, and, of course, The Republic. In her work, Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein gives a spirited defense of Philosophy incorporating the dialogue style of Plato. The book is a series of dialogues between Plato and various figures in a variety of contexts. While it succeeds in conveying the idea that Philosophy is more relevant than ever, it also succeeds in conveying the fundamental flaw with Plato’s writing style: the dialogue itself.
In The Crito, and The Phaedo, Plato depicts such lively debate between Socrates and his inner circle, especially Crito and Phaedo respectively. The debates in those works, while obviously simplified, are believable, and therefore don’t detract much from the overall message of the ideas being conveyed–though they do detract a little. In The Symposium, and The Republic, which, by tradition contain ideas unique to Plato, this element of Plato. Rather than using the character of Socrates to explore ideas, he employs a crude caricature of Socrates to shove ideas down the throats of his unsuspecting public.
Goldstein illustrates this perfectly, ironically, I suspect, because the funniest line of her book I think was unintentionally so: “Well, I guess it stands to reason you’d agree with me, since I just realized that I got it from you! Everytime I think I have an original thought I think a little more and realize that I’ve gotten it from someone else, more often than not from you” (Goldstein 172).
The irony there is that when Plato writes, all of his characters get their ideas from him, which is problematic when he writes arguments. The very people that dispute his ideas get their dialogue from him, and it shows. The problem is not one of disagreement, but rather one of agreement. To quote Plato, “that follows” (Republic 212). Or, in other words, “True,” or “Yes,” or maybe “Agreed” (213). “True,” “That is so,” “Yes,” “Precisely,” “That follows,” and the list goes on and on (215). In fact, on any given page of any of his dialogues, it’s hard not to find a chorus of Socrates’ so called opponents agreeing with him at every turn. Of course, one could argue that this shouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that so often in his works it just doesn’t follow. Even then, Goldstein says in the book jacket of her work, Plato, “got as much wrong as one would expect from a thinker who lived 2,400 years ago,” but that’s not what matters to her, what matters is the process itself. Goldstein says of the dialogue style, that Plato was “lavishing great care on idiosyncratic features of his dialogue characters… and showing us how their entire personalities are brought to bear on their philosophical positions and the way they argue for them” (Goldstein 39).
The problem is, if that’s the case, where are all of the stubborn people? Why is it that in Plato’s dialogues everyone must ultimately concede that Socrates is right? Where are the people that hold to their illogical positions no matter what? Everyone has experienced an argument like that–these people are everywhere and not a new innovation, after all, Socrates was ostensibly killed by these people. Surely someone should occasionally walk away from Socrates with Socrates wrong and his opponent right, or at least they should walk away believing that, yet this is absent in Plato’s works.
At least, that’s what I believed, until Goldstein pointed out that this is almost exactly what happened in the Parmenides. I was forced to concede that I had only read six of Plato’s most famous works, which doesn’t come close to understanding his entire corpus. Be that as it may, there is still something undeniably wrong with the dialogue style. Afterall, Plato himself says that if he were visited by “someone who has the skill to transform himself into all sorts of characters and represent all sorts of things… [he would] send him elsewhere” (Republic 98). Plato argues against the exact sort of behaviour that is integral to the writing of his dialogues. Maybe this is a sort of intentional dramatic irony, after all, Goldstein says that “Plato keeps mum as to what conclusion he means his readers to draw,” so maybe this line was simply intended to provoke further thought (Goldstein 42).
Of course, my problem isn’t that Plato explores ideas I dislike, or even that he writes from the perspectives of different characters; my problem is that this is an ineffective way to probe philosophical questions. It actually countermands philosophical inquiry. Though I can no longer stand by my criticism of Plato’s style or accusations of him being one-sided, I can still stand by my position that his methods are lacking. The Socratic Method has been considered a precursor for pedagogical constructivism (Murphy 3). This stands in contrast to instructivism. In constructionism, the student is led, through questioning, to discover some truth or concept for himself. It is generally believed that this process reinforces learning, and simultaneously fosters creative thinking skills.
In instructivist education, a student is essentially lectured, told the facts, and expected to accept and remember them. At first glance, this is exactly what Plato does. He uses probing questions to lead his reader to some conclusion, but upon further inspection, this is almost the exact opposite of what Plato does. Plato manages to combine all of the disadvantages of instructivism with all of the disadvantages of constructivism with none of the advantages of neither. In the dialogue, Plato asks the question, but then he answers it. Not only that, but he furnishes any followup questions and counterarguments as well. The result is not quite constructivist nor is it instructivist. Instead what remains is some sort of Frakensteinesque amalgam of pedagogy that really serves no purpose well. The reader is not encouraged to think critically and arrive at answers for himself, because Plato gives the answer up voluntarily–a necessity of the dialogue writing style, and completely unavoidable. The reader also is not encouraged to come up with his own questions to ponder the topic, because such an endeavour would ultimately end only in frustration.
After all, were the reader able to come up with an original question, Plato would be unable to answer it–also an unavoidable facet of writing in dialogues. The result is that the reader perhaps has a less “lively impression of the truth” (to borrow some verbage from John Stuart Mill) than he would if he was taught from a constructivist approach, but he’s unaware of it. The reality is, because Plato simulates the Socratic Method so well, one can easily be deceived into thinking they experienced the real thing just from reading his works. The end result is this caricature of Socrates, and this caricature of his method leave students of Plato both lacking in critical subject knowledge, but also lacking in accurate knowledge of how much knowledge they actually have. If Socrates was wise for knowing how little he knew, then after reading Plato I became more foolish, because I not only knew little, but I gained the false impression that I knew more.
Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Surely the method of instruction cannot have such a great impact on someone’s very thought. Goldstein would disagree, offering that “the spirit of dialogue… is nothing less … than the spirit of thinking itself” (Goldstein 173). In fact, her book is just as much a defense of Philosophy as it is a defense of the dialogue itself, arguing that, “the medium is at least part of the message” (45). While I agree with the overall notion that Philosophy should be “violent” and a sort of “drama,” I disagree that Plato’s dialogues is the best way to achieve that (45). Ultimately, Plato was limited by the media available in his time. A written dialogue or drama was the best he could possibly muster at the time at achieving what Goldstein was talking about. That being said, we don’t live 2,500 years ago, and the dialogue is no longer the best medium for Philosophy. Philosophy should be a live process; it should be animated, and I think Goldstein acknowledged this at least in part by having her Plato so obsessed with the internet.
YouTube, reddit, and Facebook are all wonderful media for lively and dramatic Philosophical discourse. While I used to think that Plato intentionally misled his readers using the dialogue, reading Plato at the Googleplex has really given me the impression of a man constrained by the technology of his time. Goldstein began her book with an impassioned plea for the relevance of Philosophy. She explained that while Aristotle, Democritus, and others who were pioneers in the so-called natural philosophies would have catching up to do today, Plato would still be right at home in modern Philosophy, and probably still leading the discussions using his same methods. I agree that Philosophy is still important and that the overall purpose of the field is unchanged, however, reading Goldstein also gave me an impression as to why so many feel that it’s a relic of the past. Goldstein simultaneously argues that Philosophy is not part of the past, while reviving the old spectre of Plato’s period appropriate writing style from 2,500 years ago.
There is a clear romanticization of the past in her work, and I think it’s prevalent among Philosophers today. I agree: Philosophy is not going away, but the old ways of teaching it have to die. The future of Philosophy is YouTube channels and podcasts, written dialogues are its past. To put it in Platonistic terms, the written dialogue is the shadow cast on the wall of the cave by people arguing lively and passionately. Modern technology can help us see the actual arguments and leave the cave. Any Philosopher still bent on the old ways of the dialogue is as the prisoner who refuses to leave the cave, and will never glimpse the world of ideas. Philosophy is alive, but the dialogue has to die, and I think Plato would agree with me.
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