Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 17.

David Wolfsdorf, Trials of Reason: Plato and the Crafting of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. x + 281. ISBN 978-0-19-532732-8. UK£41.00.

Jenny Bryan,
Homerton College, Cambridge, England, U.K.

At the end of his introductory methodological chapter (‘Interpretation’, pp. 3-28) Wolfsdorf makes explicit his ambition for Trials of Reason: ‘I seek Platonic views’ (p. 28). These ‘Platonic views’ are, as the headings of his remaining four chapters testify, those regarding the specific topics of ‘Desire’, ‘Knowledge’, ‘Method’ and ‘Aporia’ as can be reconstructed from a group of fourteen dialogues that Wolfsdorf suggests ‘are widely believed to constitute Plato’s early writings’ (p. 3). Wolfsdorf argues that we can and should identify within this selection of texts a shared thematic concern with defending the Platonic conception of philosophy as ‘the desire for and pursuit of ethical knowledge, which is conceived as political knowledge, the knowledge that befits a political leader’ (pp. 12f.). Fundamental to this apologetic project is, Wolfsdorf contends, an opposition between philosophy and ‘antiphilosophy’ (the latter is glossed as ‘encompass[ing] all that is antithetical to philosophy and includes much that is conventionally and traditionally valued in Greek culture’ (p. 14) along with ‘sophistry and pseudo- philosophy’). For Wolfsdorf, these dialogues have a ‘philosophical-pedagogical’ purpose in so far as they encourage readers to engage with a critique of their own conventional ‘antiphilosophical’ views before leading them, via the dramatic structure of the text, to philosophical, unconventional, Platonic beliefs.

Wolfsdorf presents his approach as an antidote to the (developmentalist?) assumption that Socrates acts as a mouthpiece for Plato, i.e. that all the views Socrates expresses are Platonic. Wolfsdorf’s Socrates, in contrast, quite frequently adopts conventional, ‘antiphilosophical’ and non-Platonic positions in order to address his audience’s ‘doxastic position’, setting it up for investigation and refutation before replacing it with an unconventional Platonic view. Accepting that Socrates does not always speak for Plato allows us, Wolfsdorf argues, to avoid the ‘naive’ exegetical contortions necessitated by trying to render consistent everything that Socrates (and thereby Plato) says in every early dialogue. For this Socrates is not attempting to develop a consistent position (whether Platonic or not) across the dialogues. In fact, ‘it is necessary to relinquish the view that the Socrates of a given early dialogue is in a strong sense identical to the Socrates of another early dialogue’ (p. 24). Socrates sometimes develops Platonic positions and sometimes puts forward conventional beliefs as ‘dialectical expedients, employed in conformity with the doxastic base of the text’ to help us reach those Platonic positions for ourselves. One might wonder how we can tell which of the contrary views Socrates expresses are supposed to be Platonic and, for this, Wolfsdorf has a set of criteria worked out, focusing in the main on whether they are ‘unconventional’ and repeated in more than one dialogue.

In his second chapter, ‘Desire’ (pp. 29-85), Wolfsdorf defends a subjectivist interpretation of the principle that everyone desires the good. He takes the Meno as evidence that the Platonic position is that ‘all people desire objects as a result of fallibly evaluating them as good’ (p. 51). He then considers passages from the other dialogues in which Socrates adopts a view apparently at odds with this subjectivism. In the Gorgias, for example, Socrates seems to think that desiderata are in fact objectively good. Wolfsdorf suggests that, whilst Socrates is perfectly sincere in promoting this objectivist outlook, ‘the contradiction between the two interpretations is, however, perfectly innocuous; it does not compromise the Platonic subjectivist view of desire, for in the Gorgias the premise [that everyone desires what really is good] is used as a dialectical expedient’ (p. 49). We are, he argues, justified in downgrading the objectivism of the Gorgias to the level of dialectical expedient because (i) Socrates argues against the objective goodness of health and wealth in the Meno and the Euthydemus and (ii) because this position provides no challenge to conventional conceptions of what is good, i.e. it is not being used to develop the unconventional Platonic view. Likewise, the distinction between boulēsis and epithumia in the Charmides is also a ‘dialectical expedient’.

Wolfsdorf’s third chapter, ‘Knowledge’ (pp. 86-145), attempts to winkle out the details of Plato’s ‘epistemic conception of excellence’. First, he proposes that Socrates’ talk of the partition of excellence in, for example, the Meno and Euthydemus should be regarded as a ‘dialectical expedient’ and thus no bar to establishing as Platonic the view that excellence is an epistemic unity. He next argues that Socrates’ assertion in Republic 1 that all technai are beneficial is a conventional view not shared by Plato, who rather holds that ethical technai alone can be relied upon to produce benefit. Wolfsdorf offers the Gorgias as evidence that the ‘Platonic conception of goodness within the early dialogues . . . reflects a broad metaphysical vision’ (p. 117) continuous with the metaphysics of middle dialogues and ‘informed by reflection on technē’ (p. 118). The early dialogues, Wolfsdorf suggests, imply a Platonic conception of excellence as eidos. After surveying the evidence in favour of classifying the principle of the epistemological priority of definitional knowledge as Platonic, Wolfsdorf moves on to consider why Socrates, despite disavowing such definitional knowledge, does seem on occasion to help himself to claims of nondefinitional ethical knowledge. Wolfsdorf contends that, whilst Socrates is indeed being inconsistent, this inconsistency is hermeneutically innocuous. For Plato is untroubled by having his Socrates express conventional positions that are at odds with the Platonic view of knowledge. Bearing this in mind, it is misguided to attempt to establish a unified Socratic position from the dialogues. For, ‘[g]iven that almost all of the discussions in the early dialogues focus on ethical topics and that Plato uses Socrates in various ways, some inconsistency among Socrates’ avowals and disavowals of ethical knowledge is to be expected’ (p. 138).

The dense chapter on ‘Method’ (pp. 146-196), focuses not only on elenchus but also on hupothesis. Wolfsdorf agitates against the reading of the early dialogues that takes Socrates’ elenctic project to be one of testing and refuting the sincerely held beliefs of his interlocutors in favour of understanding it as a collaborative search for truth. Turning to the Meno’s method ex hupothesēos, Wolfsdorf proposes that here we have not, as is commonly understood, a method involving hypotheticality. Rather, reasoning from hupotheseis is reasoning from postulates or ‘cognitively secure propositions’. Having set out a detailed treatment of the geometrical example of ex hupotheseōs reasoning in the Meno, Wolfsdorf endorses the view that Platonic huphotheseis are informed by the method of geometrical analysis, whereby one problem is reduced to another. In so far as he holds that elenchus is not refutative and the method ex hupotheseōs is reductive rather than constructive, Wolfsdorf contends that ‘the momentousness of the introduction of the method in Meno has certainly been misconceived and also overblown’ (p. 179). The rest of the chapter returns to the issue of definitional knowledge and suggests that propositions that are ‘cognitively secure’ rather than known, if they are available to Socrates, might provide a suitable starting point for the pursuit of definitions and thus avoid the Socratic fallacy. Wolfsdorf concludes that such security is, at best, available in those early dialogues that are explicitly metaphysical (Meno, Euthyphro and Hippias Major) and that, nonetheless, ‘it is doubtful that these texts offer a cogent method by which definitional knowledge can be pursued’ (p. 196).

The final chapter on ‘Aporia’ (pp. 197-239), is, for my money, the most intriguing. Here Wolfsdorf draws a distinction between ‘epistemological aporia’ and ‘dramatic aporia’. A dialogue ends in dramatic aporia when ‘[no] positive Platonic thesis regarding the central problem of the drama clearly emerges from the text’ (p. 198). Wolfsdorf then draws a further distinction between those early dialogues dealing with ethical practice and those dealing with ethical theory. Dramatic aporia is found only in the latter group, where it emphasizes the importance and difficulty of pursuing theoretical ethical questions. Whilst those in the former group may reach epistemological aporia, they quite deliberately do not end in dramatic aporia, because Plato wishes to demonstrate that ‘the failure to achieve ethical knowledge does not and should not paralyze agents’ (p. 201). Wolfsdorf teases out this notion of dramatic aporia to argue against the suggestion that it represents any kind of Platonic perplexity. Rather, Plato deliberately imposes dramatic aporiai on Socrates and his interlocutors in order to demonstrate that such perplexity is the result of the conflict between philosophy and the antiphilosophy of ‘conventional’ culture.

I hope that the above summary goes some way towards indicating the admirable scope and ambition of this volume. I want, in conclusion, tentatively to express two scruples about its success. The first is with regard to Wolfsdorf’s accusation that those who search for a consistent Socrates within the early dialogues are naive. This accusation is developed in greater detail in his appendix on ‘The Irony of Socrates’ (pp. 242-60). Wolfsdorf wants to argue that we have no good reason to think that the ‘Socrates’ of the early dialogues is an intertextual unity. Indeed, he avers, the inconsistencies of Socrates’ utterances are at odds with such a reading. Now, in his introduction, Wolfsdorf emphasizes his intention to offer a treatment that incorporates both the philosophical and the dramatic elements of the early dialogues. I can’t help but wonder whether Wolfsdorf’s reading might not, in fact, be neglecting one of the most fundamental dramatic aspects of these dialogues. For one might think that the simple fact that the protagonist in each is called ‘Socrates’ suggests more strongly than Wolfsdorf allows that he is a unified character. Or, at least, that the reader is justified in expecting consistency. Further, his verbal inconsistencies notwithstanding, this ‘Socrates’ is clearly characterized in a unified way. I find Wolfsdorf’s suggestion hugely intriguing, but I’m left wondering why, on his interpretation, Plato needs a character called ‘Socrates’ at all.

My second concern is with regard to the more prosaic issue of Wolfsdorf’s intended audience. In the introduction to his bibliography, he explains that he has attempted to avoid large-scale engagement with the huge pool of secondary literature on the early dialogues in order to increase the accessibility of the book. I confess that I am not convinced of its general accessibility. Throughout the work, Wolfsdorf engages with hugely intricate and notoriously controversial issues and it seems to me most unlikely that anyone not already familiar with the secondary literature will be able to follow his exegesis. This is, I feel, a work for specialists and, that being the case, it is a shame that Wolfsdorf does not offer more extensive engagement with the scholarship. In aiming to reach the broadest audience, this book seems to fall between two stools.

Trials of Reason is a provocative and original book. It is not an easy read, but its complexity is a testament to its author’s admirable ambition.