Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Socrates' Arguments

Cross posted with the SLU philosophy blog.

I had a minor revelation teaching The Euthyphro in class today that I thought I'd share.

There is an old disagreement in Plato scholarship about how to treat the arguments Socrates gives in the dialogues. There are many scholars out there who painstakingly map them out, identifying premises and conclusions, pointing out fallacies, etc. There are peer reviewed articles out there devoted to trying to figure out just what the heck Socrates was saying in the passage in The Euthyphro where he compares being "god-loved" to being a "carried thing" (10d-11c).

There are other Plato scholars who think this is a boring waste of time. The arguments aren't very good, and they aren't really what Plato, as a literary artist was interested in. Plato scholarship should be more concerned with Socrates as a character, the dramatic ironies of the dialogues, etc. (I'd give examples of these two interpretive camps, but I don't think blogging demands that level of scholarship.)

The second camp has one major piece of evidence on its side: many of the arguments Socrates gives aren't very good. The Euthyphro argument in 10d-11c is an example of that. Moreover, there are ways that Plato indicates that he knows these arguments aren't very good. In The Phaedo, Socrates presents a sequence of arguments for the immortality of the soul of increasing quality and complexity. This pattern in the dialogue indicates that he knows well that the first arguments are poor.

So in class today I'm giving my interpretation of Eu 10d-11c, and simultaneously trying to explain some basic terms of informal logic (reductio ad absurdum, valid, sound, etc.) and I have a revelation: this is why Plato put this poor argument here. He does want us to analyze it, even though he knows it isn't very good. The arguments are exercises for his students. Everyone agrees that the dialogues are exoteric literature: they are made to bring the general populace to philosophy. In trying to figure out why Plato makes choices, you should figure out what the choice means for his students. In the case of Socrates’ arguments, the complexity is there to make them challenging; the oddity and fallaciousness is there to make them entertaining.

Well, I’m sure someone in the 2500 years of Plato scholarship has noted this before, but it was my little breakthrough for the day.

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