On Philosophy

April 17, 2007

The Shame Of Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Of course you know that Plato’s Republic is still taught in introductory philosophy courses (and some advanced ones as well). And I assume that you are also aware that the book is over 2300 years old. Together those two facts are an embarrassment. No other respectable discipline relies in texts that are so old. The ancient Greeks wrote about math and science and logic as well, but their writings in these areas are not presented to beginners as valuable instruction; students of those disciplines often learn about them only later when learning about the history of their discipline; and they are often referenced directly only by historians of the field. The only other field I can think of that relies directly on books of such age is religion/theology, and that is not good company to be in, given that we expect philosophy to a) explain the world and b) have rational foundations.

So why do we still teach and read The Republic, outside of the context of understanding the history of the field, or an understanding of ancient Greek literature? Let me investigate a few possibilities (from least likely to most likely).

I. The Republic is perfect
If The Republic is completely free from error then it would make sense that we would still reference it directly. Since it couldn’t be improved on why bother writing new books on the same issues? I find this explanation unlikely, since nothing else the Greeks did was completely free from error (it is rare that anybody is completely free from error). Thus it is reasonable to conclude that The Republic contains some mistakes, and could be improved on.

II. The Republic cannot be improved upon because we are bad at philosophy
Another possibility is that while The Republic contains errors no one has been able to write anything better on the same issues because we are just that bad at doing philosophy. It is hard to refute this claim, since philosophy often seems to get off track, to wander in circles, and to spawn groups of philosophers who produce nothing of value. But despite this I remain an optimist; even though there are many philosophers who didn’t accomplish anything of value it seems equally obvious that there are many who did. Although they may not have given us all the answers it seems possible to point to many of them as improving our knowledge on certain topics, including those discussed in The Republic, at least somewhat (for example, Rawls on justice).

III. The Republic cannot be improved upon because there are no philosophical truths
A possibility, similar to the previous one, is that we can’t improve upon The Republic because there are no truths about things like justice and the optimal structure of society, and that all philosophy is simply giving different opinions or different viewpoints. But even if this were the case it doesn’t explain why we still teach with The Republic. Especially if it were the case it would seem better to write a new book about justice and society that says that there is no truths about these matters, and then goes on to present the major viewpoints put forward on the issue, including those presented in The Republic. Since we don’t use such a book instead, or feel that it would be an acceptable substitute, I reject this possibility as a suitable explanation.

1V. Respect for tradition
It could be that philosophers simply have a very high regard for tradition, and so feel the need to keep the traditional texts alive, even if they have been surpassed by more recent works. To me this seems partly true, but it doesn’t explain everything. If this was the whole explanation we would expect The Republic to be taught only in a few upper division classes covering the history of philosophy. And that is not the case, not only is The Republic found in a number of other classes, but ancient philosophy tends to be one of the introductory courses, not an upper division class. Additionally, other disciplines have a respect for their traditions too (demonstrated by the fact that they teach history of … classes), but never use the primary texts themselves, but rather rely on commentaries and summaries of them.

V. Philosophers are idiots
Another possibility is that there are certain schools of philosophy (schools of thought, not universities) that are made up of idiots, or have idiotic ideas. By idiots in this context I mean that they misunderstand the purpose of philosophy, or think that arguments from authority are a good way to advance philosophy, or who think that there are no philosophical truths, or who think The Republic is perfect. Or, in other words, that there are people who seriously buy into one of the reasons to keep The Republic around that I discarded above. Certainly I believe that such people exist, but we should hope that the effort required to get a doctorate would filter out most of them. Still, it probably contributes somewhat to the problem; those pesky relativists are like roaches, you can never completely stamp them out.

VI. The questions are still relevant
A more optimistic possibility is that the questions raised by The Republic are still relevant, even though the answers aren’t. Certainly this is true, we still wrestle with the problems that Plato did his best to address. But even so we would expect that these questions would be turned into their own book, with perhaps a survey of attempted answers, and that this book would be the basis of the relevant introductory class. But see VIIb.

VII. Philosophy lacks an official method
The last possibility is that we still use The Republic since philosophy lacks an agreed upon method. And that because of this we simply expose students to the works of philosophy that have proven themselves to be important and hope that they will pick up the method of philosophy by exposure. Without an agreement upon how a philosophical investigation should be conducted no one can write a book that distills that method into form suitable for teaching and learning by itself. I think that this is the primary reason that we still teach The Republic in introductory courses, although I am sure some of the above factors contribute as well. To drive the point home let me compare logic to philosophy. If we taught students logic like we taught them philosophy they would be made to read the works of the great logicians, starting with Aristotle and working their way up to modern authors. No one would definitively tell them which authors were right and which were wrong, nor would they be taught how to construct and validate proofs, standard symbolic notation, ect. Instead we would expect them to just pick these things up by reading Aristotle, Hilbert, Tarski, Frege, Russell, ect. Not only would this confuse students, but it would create poor logicians as well. Instead of there being agreement as to how to structure a proof and as to which claims were right and which were wrong there would be widespread disagreement, and logic would progress slowly if at all. And this is exactly the problem we face in philosophy today. No one can agree on which arguments are right and which are wrong, and no questions stay answered for long. There isn’t even a standard way of approaching philosophical problems. The lack of a unified method for doing philosophy is a problem that underlies all the problems facing philosophy, one sign of which is that we still teach The Republic in introductory philosophy classes instead of in ancient Greek literature classes.

VIIb. Lack of replacement books
So the reason then that we still teach The Republic is that we have no replacement for it. Not because we haven’t been able to surpass Plato, but because there is no agreement upon what is right and what is wrong about The Republic in terms of its method. So, while we can give students commentaries summarizing its claims and the questions it addresses, we can’t give them a guide to the lessons about what philosophy is that they are supposed to take away from it. And so we keep making them read it.



  1. VIII. The Republic is an open text. The reader isn’t supposed to use it as a source of knowledge but as a source of prompts for thought, which the reader then follows through him/herself. Accordingly, it cannot go out of date, since its purpose is stimulating thought rather than providing answers.

    Comment by Carl — April 17, 2007 @ 1:04 am

  2. Carl’s VIII is good. I’d add a couple others:

    IX: The Republic (and other great works in the history of philosophy) help to situate current philosophy. Much as physics majors still learn about Newton (even if they don’t read the Principia), because science, regardless of its epistemic status, is the result of a historical process, philosophers read Plato because the beginnings of philosophy (with Plato as the first philosopher whose work survived in tact) have an impact on its future directions, including those of today. This is true regardless of philosophy’s epistemic status as well.

    X: Regardless of whether there are universal philosophical truths, philosophy is not science. Its truths (whatever their status) are necessarily dependent on language in a way that those of science, at least in its ideal form, are not. That’s why philosophy has always been more literary than science, and why understanding the origins of philosophical words and problems is important.

    I can’t imagine any reasonable reason for believing that the continued reading of The Republic or any other historical text in philosophy is an embarrassment to philosophy. One could argue that scientists suffer from a lack of historical knowledge, and that’s an embarrassment for science. But the larger point is that philosophy isn’t empirical science, nor should it be, and therefore comparing the two like this is highly problematic. On the one hand, if philosophical truths are supposed to be universal, and Plato had some insight into them, regardless of whether we’ve gained further insight into them in the intervening 2400 years, his work would still be relevant. On the other, since philosophy has always been about a struggle to understand human life in the world, and the Greeks were humans with their own perspective on that struggle, reading the Greeks will always provide valuable knowledge to anyone participating in that struggle, regardless of how much our empirical knowledge advances.

    Comment by Chris — April 17, 2007 @ 5:42 am

  3. VIII: so, restating VI

    IX: students of physics don’t read Newton himself though

    X: again, not a reason to read Plato, but a reason to read about Plato

    Chris, you seem to buy into III, that makes me sad.

    Comment by Peter — April 17, 2007 @ 8:56 am

  4. One of the major functions of an Intro to Philosophy class is to jump-start critical thinking in people who have had it beaten out of them.

    When I had my Intro to Philosophy class (long ago) I came in with two bias: 1) that non-christian writers’ sole purpose was to indoctrinate me, and 2) that writers from “a long time ago” were monkey people such that you could probably read them and “find” meaning but that your interpretation would be suspect and probably arbitrary. I simply would not have believed someone who merely told me what Plato said; I needed to read it myself. When I did, I was shocked to find that someone “before Jesus” had something intelligent to say that was not for the purpose of “leading me away from Christ.” Furthermore, I couldn’t continue to believe that I was being indoctrinated when the very next reading was “against” Plato.

    Comment by Bruce — April 17, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  5. Peter, I think they should read Newton, and Kepler, and so on. I think science would benefit from it (I know psychology, for example, benefits from reading people like James or Helmholtz… and even Kepler). It has less to do with whether science deals with truths than with the fact that science is a fundamentally human enterprise, and knowing where it’s going requires knowing where it came from. The same goes for Plato. Since philosophy doesn’t work the same way science does, nor should it, I just don’t see anything wrong with relying heavily on philosophy’s past. Nor do I find that sad.

    Comment by Chris — April 17, 2007 @ 1:20 pm

  6. I freely admit that teaching Plato has some practical value. But I think that we could get most of those benefits from reading more modern books, even if those books focused on giving a history of the development philosophical positions. The problem is not that we teach about Plato, that makes sense to me. The problem is that we still rely on Plato. Modern philosophers are still addressing Plato, working with Plato, responding to Plato, ect. How can these really old books still have such a central role in philsophy? That is the aspect question I am primarily concerned with; and I see the teaching of Plato through Plato himself as a reflection of the problem. Why not teach Plato through a book about ancient philosophy written by a clearer and more modern author, who can do a better job of showing how Plato fits into the history of philsophy?

    Comment by Peter — April 17, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  7. 8 and 6 are different. If 6 were the case then, as you say, the Republic could be replaced with an updated list of questions and possible solutions to the questions. However, the Republic isn’t meant to be a list of questions either. It is meant to transform the reader into the sort of person who can do philosophy independently. This is a very different task from merely reading a list of questions and memorizing its possible solutions. This goes back to Socrates’ love of dialectic and his fear that a book couldn’t replace an interlocutor. The Republic is supposed to create a virtual interlocutor in your head for use in future philosophical endeavors.

    Comment by Carl — April 17, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

  8. Again, this is a poor excuse (and seemingly a varient of VII then), because the same could be said about logic. Why don’t we use Aristotle to transform students into the kind of person who can do logic indepedantly? Well because we know how to do logic, and so we simply teach them, through a modern textbook, the procedures they need. Why not teach philosophy in the same way? Well because we don’t know what the method is, we don’t know how to tell students how to construct their own virtual interlocutor from scratch. So instead we throw The Republic at them, hoping that they will just figure it out as they go along. And that certainly seems like a weekness to me, because without some standard everyone’s virtual interlocutor will be different, making it impossible to get agreement as to what is right and wrong about any philsophical work, and thus making progress infinitely more difficult.

    Comment by Peter — April 17, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

  9. All,
    Other than establishing credibility or context for intro classes, I think that the lack of a widely accepted methodology (VII) is the primary reason that the ancients are still debated. Almost no position that has even been put forward has been refuted so soundly that no-one ever espouses it again. Those that have been positively decided have been re-categorized as science. For example, I have seen students argue that “in some ways”, Thales was correct. This probably contributes to the over-acceptance of pomo. Progress is made for those inside the analytic tradition but that tradition is not ubiquitous enough to relegate the other schools to the “history pile.”

    The question is, what would it take to make analytic philosophy so compelling that all the other schools either became history or became analytic. I believe (and I am probably not alone here) that the answer lies in combining philosophy with concepts from computer science. Suppose philosophical questions were given as story problems and the student was expected to code the correct simulation to represent the problem which could then be executed to show, once again, why a standard answer is the standard answer.

    Question 5: (50 points)
    Through out history, humans have reported the feeling of having free will. Use Brain-SIM to model all the configurations under which a conscious being might report such a feeling. Which of the reasons would justify attributing responsibility to individuals? To groups? Answers in appendix A.

    Comment by Bruce — April 17, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  10. I personally think that the most promising possibility lies in developing guidelines for how to conduct a philosophical investigation that are strict, in the sense that it is clear when the author deviates them, and that such devitation should give us grounds for rejecting the proposal. The ability to reject something is key, and I have in mind both mathematical proof and scientific inquiry when I say this, as both of these disciplines have clear cut ways for a proposal to be wrong, and because of this are able to make rapid progress. I’ll probably lay out an outline of what such a method might consist of in the days to come, simply to get working on the problem.

    Comment by Peter — April 17, 2007 @ 10:25 pm

  11. Peter, have you read Heidegger’s Essay on Truth? When I think of going back to Plato as a serious philosophical enterprise, I think of what Heidegger does in those lectures. I’m not quite sure where it fits into your list, though.

    Comment by Chris — April 18, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  12. Don’t get me started on Heidegger

    Comment by Peter — April 18, 2007 @ 11:08 pm

  13. Eh, I just wondered if you’d read it, because it’s a good example of what I was getting at.

    Comment by Chris — April 19, 2007 @ 12:27 am

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