Plato’s Philosopher

Donald Davidson

It is a fine question how the aim and method of the philosophical enterprise is to be related to the beliefs we bring to that enterprise. It is bootless to pretend we can start by somehow setting aside the equipment with which we approach philosophy, for then there would be nothing with which to work. We can, however, ask whether the main point of philosophising is to examine, clarify, reconcile, criticise, regroup, or even unearth, the convictions or assumptions with which we began, or whether something more is possible: a search which might lead to knowledge or values that were not in sight at the start, and not necessarily implicit in what we then knew.

Each of these enterprises has its obvious difficulties. No one can object to the attack on confusion, conflict, obscurity, and self-deceit in our everyday beliefs; these defects in our views of ourselves and the world exist in profusion, and if some philosophers can with skill or luck do something about reducing them, those philosophers deserve our respect and support.

But it would be disappointing to suppose this is all philosophy can do, for then philosophy would seem to be relegated to the job of removing inconsistencies while entering no claim to achieve truth. Consistency is, of course, necessary if all our beliefs are to be true. But there is not much comfort in mere consistency. Given that it is almost certainly the case that some of our beliefs are false (though we do not know which), making our beliefs consistent with one another may as easily reduce as increase our store of knowledge.

On the other hand, it is not easy to see how to conduct the search for truths independent of our beliefs. The problem is to recognise such truths as we encounter them, since the only standards we can use are our own. Where the first approach makes no attempt at fixing objective standards, the second can seem to succeed only by illegitimately re-labelling some portion of the subjective as objective.

There is an obvious connection between the two pictures of the method and aim of philosophy and two traditional concepts of the nature of truth: one method goes naturally with coherence theories of truth, the other allies itself with correspondence theories. A coherence theory in its boldest and clearest form declares that all beliefs in a consistent set of beliefs are true; coherence is the only possible test of truth, and so coherence must constitute truth. So stated, a coherence theory of truth can be taken as a defence of a philosophical method which claims only to remove inconsistency: for once inconsistencies have been excised, the coherence theory assures us that what remains will be an unadulterated body of truths.

Correspondence theories, on the other hand, maintain that truth can be explained as a relation between a belief and a reality whose existence and character is for the most part independent of our knowledge and beliefs. Truth of this sort is just what the second approach to philosophy seeks. But unfortunately correspondence theories provide no intelligible answer to the question how we can in general recognise that our beliefs correspond in the required way to reality.

No theme in Plato is more persistent than the emphasis on philosophical method, the search for a systematic way of arriving at important truths, and of ensuring that they are truths. Yet I think it is safe to say that Plato not only did not find a wholly satisfactory method, but did not find a method that satisfied him for long. In the early dialogues, in which Socrates takes charge, the elenctic method dominates, and there is nothing in those dialogues to promote the suspicion that Plato, or Socrates, sees the need to add anything to it. Yet it seems clear that it is a method that at best leads to consistency; if it is supposed to yield truth, the ground of this supposition is not supplied. In the middle and some of the late dialogues Plato suggests a number of ways in which the elenchus might be supplemented or replaced by techniques with loftier aims. But what is striking is that Plato does not settle on any one of these methods as a method guaranteed to achieve objective truth: one by one the new methods are discarded, or downgraded to the status of mere useful devices. Plato often makes it clear that he recognises the inadequacy of his methods for achieving his aims; and the inadequacy can be painfully apparent to the modern reader.

Plato and Aristotle are often held to be paradigms of the contrasting methods. Aristotle insisted, at least in moral philosophy, that views that are widely shared and strongly held within our own community must be taken seriously and treated as generally true. But Plato, we are told, ‘throughout the middle dialogues ... repeatedly argues against the philosophical adequacy of any method that consists in setting down and adjusting our opinions and sayings. It is Plato who most explicitly opposes phainomena, and the cognitive states concerned with them, to truth and genuine understanding. It is also Plato who argues that the paradeigmata that we require for understanding of the most important philosophical and scientific subjects are not to be found in the world of human belief and perception at all.’[1]

This is, indeed, the standard view, and when, as in this passage, it is restricted to the middle dialogues, it is roughly correct. Even with this restriction, though, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Nussbaum gives, as a striking example of the opposition of methods in Plato and Aristotle, their views on akrasia, or weakness of the will. Socrates, as we know, paradoxically maintained that akrasia was impossible; he argued that if an agent knows what is good, he cannot fail to act in accord with that knowledge. Aristotle, on the other hand, held that the common view must be right: despite Socrates’s arguments, there are cases of akrasia.

How clear is the contrast here between Plato (really Socrates) and Aristotle? In the early dialogues we meet with the most emphatic cases of conclusions that plainly contradict common conviction: yet nothing is said to show that the elenctic method is capable of more than revealing inconsistencies. In the middle dialogues there are the strong representations just mentioned that philosophy can arrive at truths not dreamed of by ordinary men, and not to be tested by experience: yet in these same dialogues much less is made of the paradoxical character of the doctrines that emerge. In particular, the Socratic denial of the possibility of akrasia is explicitly dropped. To make our own small paradox: you might say in the early dialogues dogmatic claims are based on a method that cannot support them; in the middle dialogues rather tamer results flow from methods which are advertised as leading to absolute and objective truth.

I think that in the end Plato lost faith in the ability of these methods to produce certified eternal truths that owed nothing to the serious goals and convictions of most people, but came to have a renewed confidence in the elenchus, supplemented and refined in various ways, to arrive at truth by way of consistency: in other words, he returned to something like the Socratic method and its approach to the philosophic enterprise.

The line of thought I am pursuing was inspired by a brilliant and provocative paper by Gregory Vlastos called ‘the Socratic Elenchus’.[2] Viewed logically, the elenchus is simply a method for demonstrating that a set of propositions is inconsistent. In practice, the elenctic method is employed by Socrates, or some other interrogator, to show that an interlocutor has said things which cannot all be true (since they are inconsistent). If this were the whole story, the function of the elenchus would be no more than to reveal inconsistencies; such a revelation should, of course, be interesting to anyone tempted to believe all the propositions in the inconsistent set.

There is no obvious reason why a philosopher – or anyone else – should be concerned with inconsistent sets of propositions only when they happen to be believed: after all, one can prove a proposition true, and hence worthy of belief, by showing its negation inconsistent. This is no help in establishing substantive, or moral, truths as opposed to logical truths. Nevertheless, it is often helpful, when trying to decide where the truth lies, to appreciate the inconsistency of a set of propositions to which one is not yet committed

It is therefore surprising, and instructive, that in the Socratic dialogues, Socrates usually insists that the interlocutor be seriously committed to the propositions being tested. It is one of the merits of Vlastos’s article that he notices this striking feature of Socrates’s method, and appreciates how important it is. Vlastos quotes from the dialogues: ‘By the god of friendship, Callicles! Don’t think that you can play games with me and answer whatever comes into your head, contrary to your real opinion’ (Gorgias, 500b). ‘My good man, don’t answer contrary to your real opinion, so we may get somewhere’ (Republic I, 346a). And when Protagoras says in answer to a question of Socrates, ‘But what does it matter? Let it be so for us, if you wish,’ Socrates angrily replies: ‘I won’t have this. For it isn’t this “if you wish” and “if you think so” that I want to be refuted, but you and me. I say “you and me” for I think that the thesis is best refuted if you take the “if” out of it’ (Protagoras, 331c).

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[1] ‘Saving Aristotle’s Appearances’ by Martha Nussbaum: Language and Logos, ed. by M. Schofield and M. Nussbaum (Cambridge, 1982).

[2] Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (Clarendon, 1983).

[3] See Vlastos’s ‘Afterthoughts on the Socratic Elenchus’. Ibid.

[4] J.C.B. Gosling’s translation in Plato: Philebus (Oxford, 1975).

[5] For an authoritative discussion of the dating of the dialogue see R.E. Allen’s Introduction to the first volume of his new translation of the dialogues.