POLITIS, Vasilis. The Structure of Enquiry in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Resenha de: SABRIER, Pauline. Revista Archai, Brasília, n.16, p.361-365, jan., 2016.
Vasilis Politis’ book provides a new insight into Plato’s early dialogues. The purpose of the book is to defend an ‘aporia-based account’ of Plato’s early dialogues against the common ‘de”nition-based account’. Traditionally, the early dialogues are read as ‘de”nitio nal’ in the sense that the ti esti question is seen as the central question motivating the inquiry, and as ‘aporetic’ in the sense that they generally end in the failure of Socrates and his interlocutors to answer the ti esti question. Usually, the failure is attributed to the incapacity o f Socrates’ interlocutor to provide an answer to the ti esti question which meets Socrates’ requirements, which are that the question should be answered by giving a unitary, general and explanatory de”nition of Φ and not by pointing at an example. One problem with this vi ew is that the reason for these requirements is either le unexplained, or it is explained dogmatically, by pu tting forward Plato’s own theory of knowledge, or it leav es room for suspicions of scepticism, the failure of t he dialogue pointing to the impossibility of knowledge. Staring from the diculties raised by the traditional vi ew, Politis develops a radically di$erent approach in w hich the ti esti question is not any more the central ques- tion of the dialogue. Instead, he shows that the inquiry is motivated and structured by questions of the form ‘whether or not Φ is Ψ ’ which turn into aporiai when one or more of the interlocutors, a er having argued on both sides of the question, face a con%ict of re asons and it appears to them that there are equally good rea- sons on both sides. Based on textual evidence, Poli tis’ central claim is that it is in order to “nd a way o ut of the aporia that the ti esti question, understood as the demand for a standard for a thing’s being Φ, is raised in these dialogues, and furthermore, that it is in o rder to unlock the particular case of ‘radical aporiai’, that is aporiai which render every example-and-exemplar questionable, that Socrates requires a unitary, gen eral and explanatory de”nition. It is thus the understan ding of the early dialogues as being primarily aporia-ba sed dialogues which provides the key to the ti esti question.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I is dedicated to the criticism of the ‘de”nition based-account’. Politis’ point is to show, against this view, that the ti esti question stands in need for justi”cation, and consequen tly, that the ti esti question cannot alone be the crux of the dialogue. !ree elements are put forward: “rst, the place of the ti esti question in the inquiry, which, Politis shows, is raised at di$erent places depending o n the dialogue, including at the very end; secondly, Socrates’ requirement to answer the ti esti question by giving a unitary, general and explanatory de”nition, and not by pointing at an example; and, thirdly, the suppos ed bene”ts of answering the ti esti question, which ex- plains why it is seen as an indispensable step by Socrates and is pursued relentlessly. The second point has, in particular, crystallised the attention of critics. On the whole, those who have recognised the need for justication of the requirements for de”nitions have eit her argued against Plato that such a justi”cation is mi ssing (Peter Geach, famously) or that the justi”cation is to be found in Plato’s theory of knowledge. Politis argues for a third way namely, that Plato’s justi”cation is in deed to be found in the dialogues — this is the whole point of Part II — but that it is not to be found in his theory of knowledge. Large sections of Part I are dedicated to the latter issue, which certainly constitutes one of the main strengths of the book.
Part II is the constructive part of the book, where Politis argues that the raising and the pursuing of the ti esti question is in fact motivated by the emergence of an aporia within the dialogue. The “rststep consist s in establishing that the ti esti question is always preceded, or raised together with, one or many questions of t he form ‘whether or not Φ is Ψ ’. This claim is based on the study of a large range of dialogues — Charmenides, Euthyphro, Republic I, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Lach es, Protagoras, Meno, Lysis — which are brought under close examination. In a second step, Politis shows how some of these whether-or-not questions articulate an aporia, that is a conflict of reasons such that ther e appears to one and the same person to be genuinely go od reasons on both sides of the whether-or-not question, and how then it is in order to “nd a way out of the aporia that a ti esti question, that is the question for a standard of a thing’s being Φ, is raised. Again, the argument is carried through the careful study of four dialog ues — Euthyphro, Charmides, Protagoras, Meno. Finally, Politis develops the notion of ‘radical aporia’ to explain that some aporiai are such that they render question- able every example-and-exemplars of a thing’s being Φ, and that this is the reason why Socrates, in this p recise situation, requires that the ti esti question must be an- swered not by pointing at an example but by giving a unitary, general and explanatory de”nition of Φ.
Politis’ book is undeniably of great value for the study of Plato’s early dialogues. Not only does it challenge the traditional view on the ti esti question, but it completely renews the role of aporiai in these dialogues. If a poriai still refer to a state of puzzlement, they are more fundamentally a decisive moment in an inquiry and they show that a further step is required in order to pur sue the original issue. Given that whether-or-not quest ions naturally provide the ground for the emergence of aporiai, and given that, as Politis has shown, Plato in these dialogues takes the raising of whether-or-not quest ions as his starting-point, one could say in that sense t hat Plato is an aporetic thinker. However, this should not be interpreted in any way as implying that Plato is a sceptic. Politis devotes a chapter in Part II to ref ute this claim, which has being considered by Julia Annas an d more recently defended by Michael Forster. Politis argues against this view that if there is indeed a sc eptical dimension in the method of aporia-based inquiries, the raising of the ti esti question shows on the contrary that the moment of the aporia is meant to be overcome. ! e ability of Politis to tackle all these di$erent asp ects of the topic is another major asset of this book. For inst ance, the apparent paradox of Socrates’ ignorance, who on the one side denies that he possesses any knowledge but on the other side defends some strong positions, a paradox which becomes acute in the Gorgias for instance, is also addressed. Finally, the signi”cance of the book goes beyond the early dialogues. As the author himself puts it, the careful study of the raising o f the ti esti question brings us to ‘the roots of Plato’s essent ialism’, and as a result, it is likely that such an im portant change in the understanding of the role of the ti esti question in these dialogues will have consequences for our understanding of the theory of forms. In particu lar, the fact that only radical aporiai require answerin g the ti esti question with a unitary, general and explanatory de”nition could have implications for the question of whether there is a form for each and every thing. But this point goes well beyond the scope of the book, and accordingly, Politis does not deal with it. Nonethe less, this is another element which makes this book so va luable for any student of Plato and, I think, many st udents of philosophical method and enquiry.
Pauline Sabrier – Trinity College Dublin (Ireland), E-mail: [email protected]