I intend to write seriously about Plato. It seems as though I am about to do battle with Plato, but I have no such intentions. Rather, I have the audacity to think that I can write seriously about Plato and that I can be sympathetic to Plato at the same time.
The problem of my writing seriously in defense of Plato derives from Phaedrus. In it, Plato writes:
However, this project that I have set out on is not novel. Others have defended my thesis. What is novel is that I think that resolving the paradox of writing also entails the claim that serious philosophy requires something like writing. That is, I think that solving the Platonic dilemma will also solve the dilemma I have in claiming to write seriously about Plato. Although, it seems that the opposite would be true. If I were to defend Plato successfully in his argument that writing should not be done seriously by the man who knows what is noble, just, and good, then I would seem to undermine my surprising introduction. Nevertheless, I shall make the surprising argument that Plato is right about writing and that I am right to write seriously about Plato. More surprising than that even, I believe that Plato would approve of the way that I write seriously about him.
So, I intend to write seriously in defense of Plato’s critique of writing in Phaedrus, in defense of the proposition that serious philosophy requires something like writing, and finally that Plato would find my solution satisfactory. To make the case, I plan on exploring Phaedrus, with help from the Platonic canon, especially other Middle Dialogues, notably Republic, Meno, and Symposium. I shall also be using Sophist and hints from other dialogues. In making my serious case, I will consider but eventually toss aside Derrida’s critique, but will also toss aside interpretations, even if somewhat sympathetic, by Graeme Nicholson and by John Fisher.
Let us ask so that we can see just exactly what the criticism is that Plato makes about writing in Phaedrus. But, for what are we looking when we are looking for a "just exactly"? At this point, it is impossible to say. No single word, no single phrase, no single proposition will yield a just exactly just now. It simply lays there open for all sorts of interpretation, lifeless and blind, unable to answer our questions except superficially, except through assumptions we give it. And, of course, this is just exactly what Plato says about writing, and so it seems. This is what the text says:
Of course, to do this, we must look at more writings, more images, and this should not be at all surprising. In fact, our first clue that Plato may have been quite aware of this paradox comes from much earlier in Phaedrus. As Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the myth of Boreas, where Orithuia was abducted by Boreas along the banks of the river where Socrates and Phaedrus are walking, Socrates claims that he could reject the story much as the intellectuals of his day do.5 However, Socrates says he has no time to do such things because he must first know himself; therefore, he accepts what is generally believed.6 Some may take this to mean that because Socrates has to spend all his time first understanding himself that he has no time for trivial scholarship. However, his attitude is more flippant and playful. Socrates would be no less bothered to worry about whether he was writing, giving speeches, or talking so long as he was looking at himself. If in the course of looking at himself he may happen to be re-explaining a myth, much as he finds himself doing in Republic in chastising the sayings of Homer and other poets who wrote on the gods and so long as he is not so worried about the technical ability to decipher texts and stories as he was at understanding himself. More telling than this singular example in Phaedrus, we find the elaborate construction of Symposium. In this work, we hear the tale from one man who heard it from another who was remembering speeches given at a party long ago checked against the memories of other men.7 In fact, the speech given by Socrates was actually one given by Diotima that Socrates was reciting from memory. The construction of images upon images, imitations upon imitations, is so elaborate that we should not be surprised that Plato thinks he can express to us some notion of understanding even if it is conveyed in images. Most striking of all is Republic’s use of an image in The Theory of the Line, where Socrates first tells Glaucon and Adeimantus that he will not be explaining to them the Good itself but its "offspring,"8 and then says the relationship between the visible and the intelligible realm "is like a line" (emphasis added).9 So, we have an image, the likeness of the offspring, which is the image of The Good. Thus, even one of the most telling discussions of understanding in Plato comes to us as an image. So, we should not be surprised that Plato gives us an image of that which is supposed to go beyond images.
If we consider understanding, now within the image of The Line, we find something very surprising about the top section of the line, where the dialectic of the philosopher is supposed to reside. What is surprising is that Plato seems immediately to contradict himself. He says:
Plato seems to be in a terrible predicament. Not only has he condemned writing while seemingly needing some sort of writing to condemn it, the charge he makes against writing, that it pretends to understand, now comes off as wholly unintelligible. Naturally, I am only using a small bit of the Platonic canon to make this case, but so what? The trouble apparently remains. We still cannot find out just exactly what Plato is saying. What’s more, the case against Plato gets worse.
Jacques Derrida, as I have mentioned, attempted to deconstruct Plato by noting the dependence of Plato on the very things he wants to eradicate. Derrida argues that Plato takes writing to be a drug, a pharmakon, which though it seems to heal us, its dead nature—its separation from its father who can defend it—makes it a lifeless imitation of the truth. This creates dichotomies. Writing is bad while discourse is good. What remains tied to one’s father is good while what goes off by itself is bad. What is living and internal is good while what is dead and external is bad. What can reproduce itself is good while what is sterile—like writing—is bad. What is is good, and what is not is bad. The problem of dichotomies leads to a riddle. How does one eradicate what is bad while enclosed within the realm of the good? How does one eradicate the stale imitation of writing without in some way engaging it, acknowledging it, attacking it? Writing is at the same time dead and at the same time ambiguous, open to many interpretations, many life-like interpretations. After all, writing cannot be much of a pretense to understanding unless it shares something the same with understanding. The dichotomies begin to deconstruct into more and more confusion.
Derrida acknowledges that Plato recognizes the need to consider non-Being, to consider the other in overcoming what one must, but this recognition only gives fuel to his deconstruction of Plato. We find the engaging of the other most principally in Sophist. In this work, Theaetetus and an Eleatic Visitor seek to find the nature of the sophist. The problem becomes nearly impossible when they note that it is extremely difficult to say how it is to find a being who peddles in what is not while treating the subject as if it is:
Never shall this force itself on us, that that which is not may be;
While you search, keep your thought far away from this path.12
That is, the Eleatic Visitor must kill his father, who taught him the dichotomy that Being and non-being are completely different and never shall cross paths. They must "insist by brute force both that that which is not somehow is and then again that that which is somehow is not."13 The dichotomy is further shattered when they decide to "take it as a definition that those which are amount to nothing other than capacity,"14 and then they go on to say that "both that which changes and also change have to be admitted as being."15 Finally, after long analysis, the Eleatic Visitor concludes, "Nobody can say that this that which is not, which we’ve made to appear and now dare to say is, is the contrary of that which is."16 To Derrida, the only thing that is clear is that Plato has completed his own mess of things:
So, the argument is powerful against any understanding of our question on just exactly what Plato was saying of writing when he said that it spoke as if it had understanding when actually having none. If Plato is correct, seemingly, his own writing on the matter should not be taken seriously. However, even if we reject that, we are forced to seek out what understanding is, at least for Plato, but we do so only to discover that he takes understanding to proceed from hypotheses which are not images but are instead Forms. If this was not unintelligible enough, Derrida thinks he shows us that Plato’s patricide of Parmenides makes Plato’s project impossible. The paradoxes, the antinomies, are too great.
However, Derrida was either lazy or unimaginative, and he should not have stopped right when he could have found a resolution.18 My criticism of Derrida echoes the one given by Hegel of Kant for not resolving his antinomies. Consider this:
However, not everyone that aspires to higher regions will get there. That is, not every means will get us to the higher region. It may be one thing to note that whatever our solution is, it must somehow cut across dichotomies, much as eros is said by Plato to do in Symposium, but it is quite another to find it. To say that the problem is with the dichotomies is not enough to solve the problem. So, in order to fly, let us consider what is not yet flying. Briefly, I want to consider poor alternatives offered recently by Graeme Nicholson and a little less recently by John Fisher. By closing these doors, we shall tighten our focus on the door which leads to a defense of Plato.
Graeme Nicholson’s work, Plato’s Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love, takes the stance that Plato’s criticism of writing was serious. Nicholson dismisses interpretations offered by Ronna Burger and Charles Griswold Jr. for not taking Plato’s rebuke of writing seriously enough. They each argue that Plato, by being aware of the limits of writing’s clarity, is in a position to overcome the reproach against it. However, Nicholson contends that the critique of writing is categorical and encompasses all writing.21 To what extent Nicholson is right in saying that the critique against writing is categorical and the extent to which Burger and Griswold are correct is something that I will take up later.
Nicholson also dismisses Derrida, although the argument against Derrida is in fact nothing more than dismissive. While Derrida, as we have seen, takes Plato’s criticism seriously, Nicholson says that the long, tangential road that Derrida takes sheds little light on Phaedrus itself. However, in the end, Nicholson accepts Derrida’s claim that Plato is stuck in ambivalence:
After Derrida, Nicholson attacks the Tübingen School. Instead of trying to find a textual solution to the critique on writing in writing, this school of thought argues that there is an unwritten school of Plato. Thus, they spend a lot of time in historical reconstruction trying to compose the secret teachings of Plato. However, as Nicholson points out, borrowing from Hans-Georg Gadamer, even if one could get access to the unwritten teachings of Plato, how would we bring this doctrine into expression ourselves?23 We would find ourselves trying to express what Plato, by this understanding of him, thought inexpressible.
The solution that Nicholson ends up endorsing is one given by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendroff. Here I quote Nicholson quoting Wilamowitz:
That Nicholson does not comment on the solution is the very first, if not the most important sign, that he must have no grasp on the problem. He lets the words of Wilamowitz sit there, to speak for themselves. But, more than that, the picture we have of Plato is one much like Albert Camus. We see Sisyphus moving his rock, rebellious, even though he knows ultimately that he will never reach his goal. He is driven but not unaware of his predicament. However, if the very ground upon which Plato writes his critique of writing is itself absurd, as Nicholson seems ready to concede to Derrida, what permits us from drawing any conclusion whatsoever about what Plato was doing or not doing? That is, if this reading is true, there is no truth of Plato, there is no truth of being driven, there is no truth of existential madness. One can as easily say, "Plato writes because the cow jumped over the moon." It makes anything that Plato ever wrote empty and dead in the most profound way, up to and including Plato’s own critique of writing. Rather than resolving the paradox, Nicholson’s solution is pretentious. It gives us the trappings of Phaedrus, the important place of eros, embracing play, an inviting flux, but it puts all of these things into Derrida’s ontological vacuum. It kills itself, and it takes us no further from Derrida than a fake smile exhibits friendliness. The analysis by Nicholson, in the end, has not given us a more positive approach at all—only bleak contradiction with a smile.
John Fisher takes a different approach in his 1966 paper entitled, "Plato on Writing and Doing Philosophy." Fisher makes much of Plato’s use in Phaedrus of "winged words," tracing the usage to Plato’s familiarity with Homer. The article makes the point that there is a distinction between "winged words" which signify response and action with ordinary kinds of words. Whatever merits such a vague metaphor might offer, Fisher takes it in a particularly unsatisfactory direction. He argues that Plato’s use of writing is justified by the higher end of philosophy, which is presumably the Forms. Fisher writes:
What do we gather from the inadequate attempts to rise to the truth from the deconstructed confusion? From Nicholson, we see that whatever our solution to the problem is, it must not undermine the truth. We will never resolve the paradox if we concede to Derrida that the whole project of writing is absurd. From Fisher, we see that we will never reach the lofty heights of truth when we do not give an account of the possibility of using writing for such means. So, we learn two very important lessons that will guide us to my own solution. My solution must not itself begin with absurdity, or contradiction, and it must express itself in a way that shows why it is not absurd. That is, any solution must not be contradictory, and it must be able to give an account as to why it is not contradictory. And, why must this sort of solution be a solution? That is the question we will need to explore, and it will be enveloped by the solution to the larger problems facing me.
So, still we are faced with the problem of writing. Plato charged it with seeming to present us with understanding while being unable to give us understanding. Therefore, Plato argued that people who "know what is just, noble, and good" will not be serious about sowing the seeds of this knowledge into ink. Instead, he urges on us dialectic, "discourse accompanied by knowledge."28 However, as we questioned the text to see just exactly what Plato says, we were faced by many more paradoxes, dichotomies, and confusions. We seemed to be driven right back into the image. We have no way out. We cannot reach out for something to pull us out of the abyss. It seems as though those "in particular who spend their time studying contradiction" who "believe themselves to have become very wise and that they alone have understood that there is no soundness or reliability in any object or in any argument" have carried the day.29
However, when one reaches the point where one now believes that everything is utter chaos and confusion, it is just at the point where one must look at the question. We wished to ask Plato just exactly what he means, and we said at that time it was impossible to say. I suspected that fruit would bear if we looked at what understanding was, but it was apparently barren. However, understanding is about to come. Let us see how.
When we ask of Plato what he means, should we be very surprised that he is unable to answer us? What I am suggesting is that we have loaded the question. If we take it for granted that the question is itself rested on some sort of legitimacy, we are asking for some sort of answer when we have presupposed doubt. That is, we have built doubt into the entire formula of the problematic. We have assumed a problematic. And, of course, it is problematic, from a matter of speaking. We do wonder what will solve paradoxes, what will allow Plato seriously to mean in writing that one should not write seriously. However, we have assumed that we can ask such questions, have such doubts, under a species of absolute doubt. However, is this coherent? We seem so sure of what we are asking and revel that it can never be answered.
So, let us turn the paradox inside out. If when we doubt and question, we do not know what we are asking, then what are we challenging? We have said nothing. However, if we do know what we are asking, then our very question is already grounded in something known. Before we decide we can follow Derrida and believe that all is mired in ambiguity, we are faced with one further ambiguity. Ambiguity itself must either not be asking anything or must spring from non-ambiguous grounds. From that, it seems now that we are faced with the most enormous of all paradoxes. If we ask a question, we presuppose knowledge, but if we presuppose knowledge, what on earth was there to question? The problem is merely a reformulation of the problem of Meno:
So, I would like to draw a distinction. If it is possible to ask questions, and if it is possible to both know and not know, then what is being asked and what is it that is known? When I ask, "How are you?" I already know something about you. I know for one thing that you are a being that can be "doing well" or "doing so-so" or "doing rather poorly." What I do not know is your actual condition, but I know that you must have one, the possibilities of which I already understand. However, let us not stop short. What we know is a capacity, what we do not know is an actual condition.
The capacity, what Plato actually called Being in Sophist, must itself include what is actual. When I ask you how you are, you are already actually something. However, from the point of view of the person who questions, this is as of yet indeterminate. So, the distinction that I am drawing is that knowledge of a person’s actual condition requires that it be approached from a perspective which is actually indeterminate. However, what is indeterminate itself requires that something actually be true. Thus, knowledge requires a determinate, actual object approached in light of a perspective which filters that object as indeterminate.
Fancy talk, but what do I mean? What I mean is that what we have found is that questions presuppose knowledge, but we have also found from Derrida and Plato himself that knowledge requires us to engage the other. So, if this is what we find, Being must be both, but not in the same way. Much like the top in Republic that is moving and staying in place because it moves in respect to its axis while its axis stays in place in respect to the table, knowledge as well is that which moves and stays the same in different respects, is open to doubt and certainty, determinacy and indeterminacy.
The respects are what I call the two modes of Being. When I say, "Being has two modes," I speak in two ways about Being. First, I express an eternal truth about Being, a determinate necessity about its nature. However, when I say, "Being has two modes," I confine Being within the image of a sentence. I pick out one instance of Being, one of many indeterminate ways of expressing it and pick that out. However, the image of Being is already understood, if we understand Being as being two modes, as exemplifying a necessary expression of Being, that it must be modified into a particular image. So, when we think we have Being pegged down as an image of Being, we are already presupposing the necessity of Being. We are saying, "Being must be made into an image." Thus, in the very necessity of Being made into an image, we are already beyond the image. We are saying something necessary and eternal about being that is evident in considering the very nature of the image. But, if we then go on to say that Being is that which is completely beyond image, we have already contradicted ourselves by making an absolute image of Being. Thus, Being is neither reducible to the image nor found without it. Rather, Being is not reducible to a single mode. To deny this is to make Being one or the other, and then we will be taken down the disastrous road of dichotomies. When we see Being from the standpoint of determinacy, we must see it in light of an image. When we see it as an image, we are obligated to express the necessity of its being and hence discover a necessity above and beyond the image, an image that is necessarily exemplified as image.
Talk about Being is thick, and there is no drug which can make it less thick, make its comprehension simple. As Socrates says in Symposium:
Thus, we are ready to solve the riddle from Republic. When dialectic begins from hypotheses which are not images but are Forms, we must be careful what is meant here by "image." The image is the lifeless artifact that pretends to give an account. The hypothesis of dialectic has no such pretense. The hypothesis opens itself up to its father, to what gives it birth. Whereas arguments from images, in the Platonic sense, are not understood as a species of necessity while arguments from Forms are. Rather, arguments of this sort take the Father, in this case the image, to be a lifeless sort of figure, a slave to its skin. However, if the Form is that which is open to individual expression, life, difference, differentiation, then an argument from a Form is necessary in so far as it recognizes that and does not mistake the mode of its expression for the mode of its birth. Therefore, it is without contradiction that understanding proceeds from hypotheses, which are Forms. For, being hypothetical is one mode of Being, whereas being necessary is another mode. To deny this is to lead us down the road of contradiction, contradictions reveled in by Derrida.
But, why should we accept this as possible? It may be contradictory to deny that the highest integer is either even or odd, but why should we suppose that there is such a thing? We should accept my solution as possible because this is the very nature of what it is to be without contradiction. That is, the law of noncontradiction itself exemplifies these two modes of Being. The law says, "It is impossible for a thing to be and not be at the same time and at the same respect." Consider it. The expression of the law depends upon a distinction between being and not being and its relationship with the necessity that ties this distinction together. It depends upon a distinction between what something is and its other being tied to a notion of necessity (its being impossible to be otherwise.) If both these ideas are tied, then we have in the very law of noncontradiction a distinction between being as determinate and being as indeterminate and distinctive. Therefore, we should accept what I am proposing as possible because what it means to be possible is precisely to be without contradiction. The notion of the highest integer being odd or even fails the test because the notion of a highest integer is itself contradictory. It is not possible, but my solution, like any possible solution, exemplifies the law of noncontradiction.
However, why should we accept the grounds for my solution at all? Why should we confuse the necessity of thinking a certain way about Being for its solution? At this point, I would be at a loss to know what the interlocutor is talking about. If by Being, they mean something other than what is within the grasp of our conceptual necessity, then they must not be conceiving of anything. If that is the case, then they have no way of communicating their complaint without presupposing the truth of that which they are trying to deny. Therefore, one cannot meaningfully deny either my solution or the grounds for it.
Derrida is cast aside because he like so many others failed to keep modal distinctions straight. We can write against writing because we may not be writing against writing in respect to its proper mode. When Plato writes against writing, he is writing against it in respect to its pretentiousness and against the idea that knowledge can be sown into words with a pen, as if knowledge was some sort of drug that can be given. However, in which mode is his critique of writing being written? The person who claims in writing that his writing gives knowledge is the person that Plato is categorically rejecting. He is rejecting, without equivocation, writing as that which can harness knowledge as a commodity into letters and words, which can if it touches you right, give you all sorts of wisdom. He is rejecting the person who confuses the necessity that may or may not be expressed in writing with the expression of the writing itself. The writing of which Plato addresses takes the mode of determinate necessity to be the same as that of the mode of indeterminate expression and thinks that it can bottle the one up into the other. Look closely. This is just exactly what Plato says. After saying that the seeds of the man who knows what just, noble, and good should not be sown in ink, the solution in Phaedrus is "discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others."32 Of course, discourse makes use of its own images, its own indeterminacy, but the difference is this: the words in dialectic move and reproduce expression from which discourse grows. How does it do that? It does that through the activity of dialectic which proceeds from hypotheses which are Forms. That is, it sows its seeds not by putting them into words but by considering its questions as a living, erotic force proceeding from necessity and drawing us into intercourse with the new expression that this movement gives us.
It works like this. I consider a point. By itself the point proves ambiguous and unable to satisfy us. So, we question our activity and see that our "considering the point" occurs under some notion of knowledge. We have moved from what in one mode was an indeterminate beginning to the determinate grounds of that mode. When we do that, our conclusions take the form of a new point, a new beginning, and we start again, especially as life brings us new experiences and new things to wonder at.
Therefore, Plato was fully justified to criticize writing, and so long as we keep in mind the way, or the mode, in which he criticizes writing, we are fine. For, Plato’s writing has no pretense of giving us knowledge. Knowledge cannot be bundled up into little atomic bits, swallowed, and digested. Plato’s writing is indeed dialectic, in that though it is expressed in writing, full of questions, grounded in a kind of ambiguity from one point of view, it takes us to that which grounds the ambiguity and another starting point. It helps us bear fruit between the paths of opposites without itself becoming contradiction.
For the same reason, I can claim to write seriously in defense of Plato. For, I have not claimed to give you facts, little bundles of knowledge, little bits of evidence to show why my view of Plato is the truth of the matter. I wrote dialectically, not sowing my knowledge into my words, but considering my words as the created offspring of the Form. The central critique against writing is not that the one who writes cannot be serious but that knowledge cannot seriously be sown into the written word. The critique is more a critique of a view of knowledge. Knowledge is not that which is a gift. Even if it announces itself as such, this is mere sophistry. It sits there in its texts, by itself, only able to be memorized, unable to answer for itself. The scholar who takes himself too seriously looking for this just exactly and thinking he will find it merely by considering the written text is wasting his time having a kind of verbal sex with the wrong sorts of things. However, the scholar who sees the text, plays and toys with it, in order, to go beyond the text as text, seeing the text as exhibiting necessity from its point of view as the grounds for it, is serious. The person who writes not to write, not to convey some knowledge from on high, but with the understanding of dialectic, who is without pretense of passing knowledge, is a serious writer whose writing is not a trifling thing. And, while it is certainly true that this written text or any other written text may be distorted, misinterpreted, turned into a mere memento for reminding, that says only something about poor reading. The issue of serious writing is only concerned with the Form.
Since my writing is serious precisely because it seeks the Form, it is just exactly what Plato would want. We only arrive at the Form by proceeding from hypothesis, which we said really implicated an image. That is, the interesting thing is that philosophy must engage in something like writing. Of course, Socrates was a philosopher and did not write, but he too was engaged in something like it. Philosophy must begin from questions, ambiguity, the Cave, if you will. It is historically true that we begin here. We start with this life force, we play with it like children, as things get more intense we have a kind of foreplay where we consider it on its grounds, and as one thing leads to another, we are fully engaged in intercourse with it, the orgasm coming when we see that the whole process of our play, our discussion, our shaky beginnings, actually is another mode of the very questions from which we started. The just exactly that was impossible at first turns out to have been there all along but only able to be brought to light by philosophy, the only truly erotic discipline, finding its path by the method of dialectic and recollection. Since my writing moves dialectically, I would be hard-pressed to see how Plato could disapprove of my claim to seriousness or the way I have argued for it.
Seriously, then, I am finished with this discussion. We are in fact past the climax. I have written seriously, defended Plato from those who would attack his attack on writing, argued that philosophy requires something like writing, and solved it in a way that Plato would approve. This conclusion is a bit succinct, but after so much moving around, we are ready for a little bit of rest from all this play.
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