On Philosophy

December 15, 2007

Three Ways Of Reading The Republic

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

If you just read the Republic it seems simple enough, but when you try to pick it apart to see how exactly it is supposed to work as philosophy things aren’t so clear. Often there appear to be large jumps in reasoning, and sometimes complicated claims are simply asserted, as if no one could doubt them once they were put forward. And when you spend enough time thinking about it the direction of the argument itself is no longer clear; sometimes it seems as if the conclusions precede the premises. Obviously these are defects in the Republic, but I think that they are partly responsible for its popularity. What makes a philosophical work popular is rarely its careful development of theories from grounds that ensure their truth, or a rigorous testing of theories tentatively put forward. That sort of work bores people, what they want are grand ideas that resonate with what they already believe; whether those assertions are likely to be true doesn’t even factor into their considerations. By simply skipping many of the steps that would have reigned in his wild speculation Plato is able to develop grand theories, which make the Republic popular, but they also make it extremely opaque.

Still, we can try to connect the dots as best as we are able, to tie the Republic together into some kind of coherent investigation of one sort or another. Because the Republic is so full of gaps, as I have mentioned, there are three ways of doing this (at least). Of course it is unlikely that any of them actually reflect what Plato thought, because they all treat the Republic as if it must fit into a rigid metaphilosophical framework, such that deviations from that structure would constitute flaws. And that is far too systematic an approach to philosophical problems to attribute to Plato, or any philosopher of his time. Philosophy at that time is characterized best as a kind of patchwork enterprise, where whatever reasoning strategies and principles seemed convenient are used to arrive at conclusions. But our goal here is not to get inside Plato’s mind, and uncover what he really thought. First of all Plato is dead, so doing that is impossible in principle, there will always be ambiguity about what Plato really thought. Secondly Plato was just a man, and a relatively uneducated one by today’s standards. Thus Plato almost assuredly made mistakes, and so our goal is not to imitate Plato but to surpass him. And to that end considering these three different ways of interpreting Plato’s argument is worthwhile in its own right because, first of all, it makes us sensitive in a critical way to philosophical method. And, secondly, it gives us a concrete example with which to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each way of pursuing the argument, to see what they could possibly accomplish.

Let’s consider first the most natural interpretation of the course of the Republic, as a deductive enterprise where the claims established previously, as well as some additional premises, entail the subsequent conclusions. I call this the most natural interpretation simply because this is how we are used to reading philosophical arguments: the author puts forward some premises, which are supposed to seem beyond doubt, and then conclusions are drawn from them, further conclusions from those, and so on until the author has established what they set out to. If we were going to read the Republic in this way we would probably have to begin the argument with Plato’s functional theory of virtue, the claim that a virtue helps something perform its function, and that the function of a city is to serve our needs. Then Plato deduces from those premises that the city that he describes in great detail, which I will refer to as the ideal city, is best, because it best satisfies our needs (indeed it is developed by always considering what would make the city better at doing that), and thus best performs its function. And, given that city, and the definition of virtue, we could deduce what the virtues of this city are by seeing what aids it in serving our needs. But here things get complicated for the deductive interpretation, because, given what we have established so far, all that we could conclude would be something like: the division of labor is a virtue of the city. We couldn’t say what particular virtue was, as we usually name them. Plato proceeds at this point by simply asserting that if the city is good that it has four specific virtues, but this assertion apparently comes out of nowhere. If this investigation is proceeding deductively that claim must, therefore, be an additional premise. But that doesn’t solve all of our difficulties. It is also hard to see how these virtues are to be identified with particular aspects of the city that help it function well. When we look at what Plato actually does it looks like he just fumbles around until he finds an identification that might be intuitively acceptable. But clearly that is not sufficient when it comes to a deduction from premises, deduction proceeds only by logical steps, not by intuitive leaps. Thus the identification of virtues with the things that help the city function well must be additional premises. Together those additional premises establish what justice is in the context of the city, but not what the just person is like. To do that Plato returns to a way of arguing that is easier to interpret as deductive; he begins with a principle about how to identify when something has distinct parts, another premise, and together with facts about human nature deduces that the soul has three parts. But to draw conclusions about just people he must lean on yet another premise, that just people are like just cities in their organization, which allows him to transfer his results from his investigations concerning the city onto individuals. Of course that is not the end of the Republic, Plato goes on to make more assertions, but let us set those aside for the moment. So that is the deductive interpretation. Obviously there are significant problems with it, not because we can’t cram the Republic into it, but because it has such large gaps, specifically in the premises that a good city possesses four particular virtues (and no more or less), that the virtues are to be identified with the aspects of the city that Plato claims, and that the just city is structurally similar to the just person. These premises are simply too “large” to be part of a proper philosophical deduction. The whole point of deducing our conclusions from premises is that our certainty concerning the premises carries over to the conclusions, such that we become sure of them in virtue of the argument (or at least consider them more likely). But the three premises listed are highly questionable, and so, because the argument relies on them in an essential way, such that if any one of them were to be disputed the conclusion could not be established, the deduction doesn’t really support the conclusion. It may be valid, but it falls far short of being sound, and thus is a failure as an argument.

So perhaps it would be better to find some other way to capture the method of the Republic. Thus we come to our second interpretation, what I am tempted to describe as a kind of ordinary language philosophy. Under this interpretation what we are to understand Plato as doing is not as engaging in a rationalist-esque project, where certainty trickles down from a certain starting point. Rather we are to see Plato as thinking that we already “know”, in some confused sense, what justice is. Thus he is trying to develop that knowledge, captured in our intuitions and the structure of our language, into a precise theory. And if this seems too modern let me assure you that it isn’t; the idea that we only need to remember truths is in the air, which supports taking Plato in this way. If that is what Plato is doing we should start in the middle, with the claim that the city, if good, possess four particular virtues. The virtues Plato lists are the accepted virtues (minus piety), and so that list can easily be construed as a statement of something that we should intuitively just know. And Plato’s subsequent identification of the virtues with particular aspects of the city also can be understood as justified by a kind of ordinary language thinking, because in each of those identifications he explicitly invokes the idea that what he will identify a particular virtue with is why we describe the city as possessing that virtue; he is relying on the way we ordinarily use language to confirm his identifications. That being established it lends support to the claim that the ideal city described earlier actually is ideal, because now we can see that it has all the virtues. And to establish the nature of the just man Plato again leans heavily on the assumption that in some way the ordinary use of language can be depended on, as he justifies the claim that the just man is similar to the just city by explicitly stating that since they are both called just that they must have something in common. Furthermore when he is done describing what the just man is like he states that his theory can be shown to be correct because someone he describes as just will act in the ways that we commonly attribute to just people, again evidence of Plato leaning on the assumption that we already have a pretty good idea of what the just individual is like. So the merits of this interpretation is that it doesn’t suffer from large gaps like the deductive interpretation did and that it has significant textual support. But it also suffers from a serious defect: Plato wants to make some extremely unintuitive claims about how we should organize our cities. If we can lean on our intuitions then we are perfectly warranted in rejecting Plato’s theory the moment it starts being unintuitive. Just because it has some intuitive support doesn’t meant that it can legitimately overthrow our other intuitions, because who is to say that those aren’t the better ones and that the ones Plato uses to support his claims are defective? This is a problem that any philosophy that attempts to ground itself in intuitions and ordinary language suffers from.

Finally we have the dialectical interpretation. Since I have written at length about this interpretation in other places, although about a more limited part of the Republic, I will say just a few words about it. Under the dialectical interpretation we can take Plato to be engaged in a dialectical ascent from his description of the ideal city to the claim that the good city possesses those four particular virtues. And we can take his conclusions about the just man and his soul to be a hybrid of deduction and dialectical descent (and possibly the method of hypothesis as well), since Plato himself admits that he doesn’t perfectly follow the dialectic. Instances in this process where it seems that Plato is appealing to intuition or ordinary language can be construed instead as cases where Plato is testing his conclusions against background beliefs (as part of the method of hypothesis). The dialectical interpretation has the virtue of taking Plato at his word about how the Republic should work, but it too is problematic. Most pressingly it is simply not clear how the dialectical ascent is supposed to work or why we should have any faith in it. Even as Plato describes it, it is not the sort of thing that can separate correct from incorrect claims, rather, as it would be actually used, it would just validate whatever beliefs we began with. And if that’s not a problem for a philosophical method than I don’t know what would constitute a problem, since surely the point of philosophy is not just to reinforce what we already believe to be the case.

So none of these interpretations work as an interpretation of the Republic (in the sense of making the argument work, not necessarily in the sense of being faithful to the text), but we didn’t really expect them to. A better question to ask is whether any of them could work, whether we could productively do philosophy under them, or some repaired version of them. That is obviously an open question, but certain aspects of the dialectic remind me of some metaphilosophical ideas of my own, so I am tempted to assert that the dialectic, as wacky as it is, might be turned into an adequate method for philosophy, although obviously our repairs would require revising a majority of it.

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