Let’s Read a Platonic Dialogue Together — Socrates and a Lit Theorist duking it out in ancient Athens…

Okay folks, here’s what we’ll do. I propose that we read together Plato’s early dialogue named Ion. (I’ve been working on this little gem for years.) Every literary theorist in the world and most philosophers know this witty and amusing drama, because in it Socrates teaches a teacher of literature that he doesn’t really know anything at all. (At least, ostensibly, this is what Socrates does. Watch out for that wicked, wicked, wicked Platonic irony…)

Anyhow, Socrates proceeds to deflate Ion’s pretentions as a literateur by explaining (and acting out quite hilariously) what it means to possess an actual expertise in any genuine art or science.

In doing so, Plato was setting the stage for bringing into existence, right there in Athens, and only 10-15 years after the citizens of Athens had put Socrates to death, the very first Western academies for the liberal arts. (Founded by himself and later by his own best student Aristotle, in the decades following his writing of this dialogue.)

Therefore, Socrates in this dialogue will show us the original theory of rigorous thinking and knowing (dialectic) in the West. It was this theory of knowing that undergirded the idea of “the liberal arts and sciences” for 2000 years, even to founding the great medieval universities and fostering the Copernican revolution and the Renaissance.

We will see Socrates explaining the specific features that must be present for any discipline to call itself a genuine way of knowing. Then Socrates will hold Ion’s claims to possessing real knowledge up to these standards — and find him hopelessly wanting. Still, in my humble opinion, this dialogue is finally not the put-down of the poets that it is often taken to be. But it IS without doubt a theoretically cogent and compelling putdown of sham and pretension in the liberal arts (and Socrates gives us a universal Bull-Sham Detecting Machine for identifying it!).

I will present each consecutive section of the dialogue, at the very beginning of each post. I won’t leave anything out — it’s all great stuff! I’ll explain words and other items and make some points, and then you can tackle it and raise all the questions you wish to. I’ll feature these Socrates enstallments on my front page, though I hope we can continue other comment-threads that are going here and here and here and also here.

I’m confident that we can produce two results by doing this. 1) We can work out some fresh new vocabulary for specifying the great strengths of science (along with its limitations) in contrast to the strengths of the semiotic/cultural studies fields (along with their limitations), without denigrating either. Socrates presents a strong view for the pluralism of the liberal arts!

And 2), I’ll be able to explain what Derrida’s “deconstruction” was about, and specify precisely how it was akin to Kurt Godel’s accomplishments for mathematics, and yet perhaps goes further in some ways. (Who knows, other oft-maligned PoMo thinkers may come into view as well.)

But first, we’ll have to go all the way through the dialogue’s arguments to the very end, to establish what features of thinking constitute any genuine discipline, and why the disciplines must nonetheless turn out to be quite significantly different, even in the ways they think. (Kinda paradoxical.)

Then we can step back and reconsider the dialogue as a whole. That’s when it can function for us as a kind of “model” for theory (in the mathematical sense Pseudonym specifies) and for the interplay of different kinds of theories.

That’s when I can really show you what Plato’s Ion is bringing into focus for us, on a meta-level (if you’ll allow me that word), and we’ll have a precise model for talking together about what both Godel and Derrida were doing — and all of those fascinating new issues thus brought into our collective ken….

(Did Plato anticipate Godel and Derrida? Did he, perhaps, enact some enduring formal realities that underly what Godel and Derrida did? Well, you know, most philosophers don’t think Alfred North Whitehead was overstating the case, when he said that all subsequent Western thought has been nothing but “footnotes to Plato.”)

I want to thank the scientists who have said recently (in the comment-threads at right) that they have felt, on occasion, when talking with humanists, that the humanists were trying to say something important, even though they couldn’t grasp what it was. This is the most encouraging thing I’ve heard in ages, because it is so honest. And it is equally baffling to humanists, I think, when scientists react to us as though we are attacking or even “abusing” science, when we are so enthusiastic about the precise and rigorous constructions involved in all theories and facts. It’s hard for us to see 1) why you don’t get it, and especially 2) why you are so offended and hurt. We didn’t mean it the way that it obviously must sound to you, but why does it sound that way to you…

This is not an easy conversation, in part because scientists tend to be more the kinds of persons who go from point A to point B and want clear nuggetlike results. [Rereading this today, geesh, this sound patronizing. If so, I retract it! There is some difference in what we’re trained to focus on in a given situation — that’s what I mean. I loved the joke about the difference between mathematicians and physicists! jlb] We humanists are the kinds of persons who “tell all the truth/ But tell it slant — / Success in circuit lies….” as Emily Dickinson put it so aptly. We like to go the long way around. To tarry with the process and ponder its implications. We go for the wavy and elusive “probability structures” that end up doing things that simply blow your mind.

Maybe if we can talk to each other, we can solve the wave-particle duality!

Anyway, the best preparation for this grand adventure would be to click here and read (if you haven’t already) Rick’s suggestion that I “tell a story” about Derrida. And then my response, the one where I go on and on (“the squid disappearing into a cloud of ink?”) about how one might use Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorums as a kind of model to characterize Derrida’s project, in a preliminary kind of way.

At least that response starts to make more precise the point that Derrida’s real philosophical contribution is no more “negative” and “destructive” than Godel’s mathematical contributions were. They both represent an attempt to come to terms with a real state of affairs, one that puts an end in some ways to some kinds of hopes, but also carries our knowing forward in profound ways.

So, stay tuned for the next post, “Socrates Deflates the First Literary Theorist (# 1).”



“Janet, you said: “We postmodernists are always complaining about the Cartesian paradigm, but to very little effect, it seems.”

I hope thus does not come across as too blunt, but I would think that dense theory is never going to win anybody over. What you need is a story, a “myth” if you will. A story that will capture in a narrative the meaning of your post-modernism.

We have discovered a planet orbiting the star HD 209458.

What is the post-modern story of this discovery? I assume it in not “a bunch of influential guys found it in their interest to invent a planet around another star”, which, is seems, is the “post-modernist” story as it is being actually told to us science types.

Or, more simply (at least in my physics background sort of way), is there, according to post -modernist understanding, a planet around HD 209458? Is there in fact, in reality, in an actual physical made-of-atoms sort of way, a planet around HD 209458? A planet that was there before we discovered it?

Janet Says:
June 17th, 2007 at 9:00 pm I think you are absolutely right that I need a story, a “myth,” a narrative to explain what Derridean deconstruction is about! And I’ve just been writing one, just today, in fact. (Now I have three posts in the works! This is just great — at least it is great for me! Thanks to everyone!)

However, Rick, your suggestion is still somewhat ironic! That’s because you say “this dense theory” won’t ever cut it, for explaining Derrida. So try a story… Now coming from a scientist, that is pretty wonderfully funny! Isn’t it? Even though it is apt.

But what about your own “dense theory”? Quantum mechanics. I think QM is a good analogy (up to a point) to OUR dense theory, and the range of interpretations that are involved in it, after the “turn” from structuralism to post-structuralism. That formal turn (1960s in France) should be compared to the formal shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian worldviews in physics. In the sense that the one prepared for the other….(more)

7 thoughts on “Let’s Read a Platonic Dialogue Together — Socrates and a Lit Theorist duking it out in ancient Athens…

  1. Pseudonym

    I don’t think it’s especially ironic, though I guess I can see why you think that. :-)

    Scientists use stories all the time, like the “butter gun” story for explaining the inverse square law, or John Bell’s famous paper with the wonderful title Bertlmann’s socks and the nature of reality.

    Sometimes we call these stories “models”. This whole “wave”/”particle” thing is a story, too. Quanta are what they are, and “wave” and “particle” just happen to be two convenient models that we find it easier to understand.

  2. Rick

    One other thought along these lines. You suggest it is ironic that a scientist would call for stories. As noted, physics uses stories all the time; butter guns to illustrate the inverse square relationship, whistles on a train going by to illustrate dopper shift, ice skaters pulling their arms in as they are spinning around to illustrate angular momentum. Perhaps it is ironic that science routinely uses these stories and literary theory seems short of them.

  3. Janet

    Well, Rick, you will see why this is if you stick with Plato’s Ion. It’s because THEORY of literature is about the construction of the story and the relationship of that construction of story to reality for those who understand the language of the story. But any language, for its own language-community, refers to everything, everything, that is, as that language constructs it for its speakers and as they reconstruct it using language. We’ve got constructions of constructions of constructions. It’s all a kind of Russell’s paradox, as I’ll show. But we can theorize it precisely.
    And anyway, I did tell some stories up above. And you guys comment on one little remark that is nuggetlike. See what I mean. We think differently. Oh well, viva la difference! (Or viva la differANCE.)

  4. Janet

    You’ll see what I mean in the end, I think. We all (that is every discipline, too) use stories to represent something else. (But literature IS story and representation to begin with.)

    Then, lit theory “escapes” the story and thinks about it as a whole, somewhat as Godel shows us how to escape an axiom-driven system and talk about it on a meta-level: to say, here, this is what this system can and cannot do (encompass many true theorums but not all of them), and here is what we can and cannot know about the system (its consistency).

    In this way, the system is relativized, relative to the interpreter, who is now on a meta-level. If Hofstadler is on the right track, this very act of turning around and relativizing the systems we usemay be what establishes the self (the “I”) more and more as the counterweight to those systems.

    In semiotics, things are what they are by what they contrast against most often. (Think of the paradigm of personal pronouns: the meaning of I emerges most directly out of its identity with the other personal pronouns (as contrasted with everythhing else in the language) and it’s immediate contrast with the plural we and the 2nd and 3rd person forms. (In a language with a different system of pronouns, a dual number for “two of us” for instance, then the “I” means something subtly incommensurate with the “I” in other language systems….)

    The “I” of the one who speaks the language establishes itself by using language and thereby becoming a location outside the language (while still within it, because “I” is a position within the language system). See how dense this is getting? It’s hard to tell a story about this.

    But I think I can do it with Plato’s Ion, once we’ve all reached the point of having Ion in our minds with a collective sense of what it’s constructed out of. But in semiotic systems, nothing is ultimately distinct from anything else, the way it has been in science typically (until recently perhaps). Each part is constituted by the other parts. (Is this the case because we are dealing with the perceptions of an observer? That is, for a member of a language community, elements of that language are mutually and reciprocally constituted by constrast, and identity, with one another, as I gave a very quick overview in Section # 3 of the lit theory course day one under pages on the right.)

    In lit theory courses, we will study the materials in that overview for weeks, months, years. That’s what Saussurean structuralism in Europe did for decades before it morphed into poststructuralism…. Sorry, no simple steaks and salads here. But don’t hate me and don’t leave me, okay? I can’t HELP it.

  5. Pseudonym

    I’m going to embellish this story a bit, because I think it really needs it.

    One of the under-appreciated parts of science is what we refer to as Mad Science. Most of the interesting thought experiments are carried out by scientists who study Mad Science, and this one is no different.

    One particular Mad scientist developed a new way to butter toast, called the “butter gun”. A fixed amount of butter is loaded into the gun, the trigger is pulled, and a jet of vaporised butter (with a square cross section, of course!) shoots from the barrel. If you place your piece of toast at a distance of 1 metre from the gun, the toast is exactly covered with delicious hot melted butter perfectly evenly. (Cleaning the gun is a bit tricky, but you can’t have everything.)

    The Mad scientist, of course, needs to do some field testing, so a PhD student (all scientists, mad or not, get their PhD students to do all the hard work, right?) takes it to a diner, where they butter a LOT of toast. Unfortunately, it turns out that the butter is too thick.

    The Mad scientist reasons that redesigning the gun would be a bit tricky, so why not just place the toast further away from the gun? Let’s say, 2 metres.

    Of course, the gun shoots the same amount of butter, so what’s going to happen at 2 metres is that some butter gets wasted. Until the PhD student gets a brainwave (all PhD students have the brightest ideas, right?): Butter more than one piece of toast at once!

    But how many pieces?

    Well, the cross-section of the butter jet is square. If it’s one toast-length by one toast-length in area at 1 metre, at 2 metres, it’s going to be two toast-lengths by two toast-lengths, or four pieces of toast will fit. Because the butter flux is constant, the butter will be 1/4 the thickness at 2 metres.

    And at 3 metres? The jet will be three toast-lengths by three toast-lengths, nine pieces of toast will fit in the jet, and the butter will be 1/9 the thickness.

    And that’s why butter jets obey an inverse square law.

    Oh, last I heard, the Mad scientist was aiming the butter gun at a double slit to see what happens.

  6. I forget to remark that this is just wonderful! Great teaching device. (Light spreads out this way but doesn’t get more diffuse…)

    “Oh, last I heard, the Mad scientist was aiming the butter gun at a double slit to see what happens.”

    Or we could try a beam splitter on the butter-wave and butter toast in one of two different cafes in NYC or LA.

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