Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

5. The problem of writing

It might seem strange that an original philosopher of Plato’s power and stature should be content, outside the Letters if some of them are by him, never to talk directly to the reader, but only through the medium of narrative or dramatic fiction, even granted the pleasure he plainly takes in exhibiting his mastery of that medium. This will become less mysterious if we reflect further on Socrates and Socratic questioning. At any rate by the time of the Meno, Plato was wanting to suggest that the elenchus presupposes that understanding is not something one person can transmit in any straightforward way to another, but something which has to be worked out for oneself and recovered from within by recollection. The suggestion is made by means of an example from mathematics, where it is transparently true that seeing the answer to a problem is something that nobody else can do for us, even if Socrates’ questions can prompt us to it. The moral we are to draw is that in pressing his interlocutors on what they say they believe, Socrates is merely an intellectual midwife assisting them to articulate for themselves a more coherent and deeply considered set of views, which will ideally constitute the truth.

The Platonic dialogue can be interpreted as an attempt to create a relationship between author and reader analogous to that between Socrates and his interlocutors. Given that that relationship is to be construed in the way indicated in Meno, the point of a dialogue will be like that of the elenchus: not to teach readers the truth (it is strictly speaking unteachable), but to provoke and guide them into working at discovering it for themselves. Most of the dialogues of Campbell’s late sextet are admittedly more didactic than one would expect on this view of the dialogue, and it is significant that except in Philebus Socrates is no longer the main speaker. Yet even here use of the dialogue form can be taken as symbolizing that responsibility for an active philosophical engagement with what Plato has written rests with the reader, as the difficulty and in some cases the methodological preoccupations of most of these works confirms.

In a much discussed passage at the end of Phaedrus (275–8), Socrates is made to speak of the limitations of the written word. It can answer no questions, it cannot choose its readers, it gets misunderstood with no means of correcting misunderstanding. Its one worthwhile function is to remind those who know of what they know. By contrast with this dead discourse live speech can defend itself, and will be uttered or not as appropriate to the potential audience. The only serious use of words is achieved when speech, not writing, is employed by dialecticians to sow seeds of knowledge in the soul of the learner. If they commit their thoughts to writing they do so as play (paidia). The Seventh Letter (341–2) makes related remarks about the writing of philosophy; and at various points in, for example, Republic, Timaeus and Laws, the discussions in which the interlocutors are engaged are described as play, not to be taken seriously.

Interpreters have often taken these written remarks about writing with the utmost seriousness. In particular the Tübingen school of Platonic scholarship has connected them with references, especially in Aristotle, to unwritten doctrines of Plato. They have proposed that the fundamental principles of his philosophy are not worked out in the dialogues at all, but were reserved for oral discussions in the Academy, and have to be reconstructed by us from evidence about the unwritten doctrines. But this evidence is suspect where voluble and elusive when apparently more reliable. There are two star exhibits. First, according to the fourth century bc music theorist Aristoxenus, Aristotle used to tell of how when Plato lectured on the good he surprised and disappointed his listeners by talking mostly about mathematics (Harmonics II, 30.16–31.3). Second, at one point in the Physics (209b13–6) Aristotle refers to Plato’s ‘so-called unwritten teachings’; and the Aristotelian commentators report that Aristotle and other members of the Academy elsewhere wrote more about them. Plato’s key idea was taken to be the postulation of the One and the great and the small, or ‘indefinite dyad’, as principles of all things, including Forms. In his Metaphysics (I.6) Aristotle seems to imply that in this theory the Forms were construed in some sense as numbers. It remains obscure and a subject of inconclusive scholarly debate how far the theory was worked out, and what weight we should attach to it in comparison to the metaphysical explorations of the dialogues of Plato’s middle and late periods (see for example Ross 1951, Gaiser 1968, Guthrie 1978, Gaiser 1980, Burnyeat 1987, Szlezák 1993).

The general issue of how far we can ascribe to Plato things said by interlocutors (principally Socrates) in his dialogues is something which exercises many readers. The position taken in this entry will be that no single or simple view of the matter is tenable: sometimes, for example, Plato uses the dialogue form to work through a problem which is vexing him; sometimes to recommend a set of ideas to us; sometimes to play teasingly with ideas or positions or methodologies without implying much in the way of commitment; and frequently to suggest to us ways we should or should not ourselves try to philosophize. As for the Tübingen school, we may agree with them that when it introduces the Form of the Good the Republic itself indicates that readers are being offered only conjectures and images, not the thorough dialectical discussion necessary for proper understanding. But the notions of seriousness and play are less straightforward than they allow. Playing with ideas – that is, trying them out and developing them to see what might work and what will not – is the way new insights in philosophy and science are often discovered. When we meet it in Plato’s dialogues it usually seems fun without being frivolous. Nor should we forget that the Platonic dialogue represents itself as a spoken conversation. It seems hard to resist the thought that we are thereby invited to treat his dialogues not as writing so much as an attempt to transcend the limitations of writing. Perhaps the idea is that they can achieve the success of living speech if treated not as texts to be interpreted (despite Plato’s irresistible urge to produce texts devised precisely to elicit attempts at interpretation), but as stimuli to questions we must put principally to ourselves, or as seeds which may one day grow into philosophy in our souls.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. The problem of writing. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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