Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Szlezak on Plato's "unwritten teaching"

Comment on a review by Lloyd P. Gerson in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Posted on 26 August 2008.

I wish to comment, not on Professor Gerson’s review, but on Professor Slezak’s position alluded to in the third paragraph of the review. It is true that I have not read Slezak’s contribution to the book under review, yet I have read his Reading Plato which, I suppose, represents adequately his fundamental standpoint.

Against Slezak I would argue that Plato’s objection to putting any profound philosophical insight in a written text applies with equal force to conveying any such insight in any fixed oral formulation. Plato’s opposition to putting serious philosophical reflection in a written text was not esoteric in intent. He did not abstain from writing serious philosophical dissertations because he wanted to confine the wisdom disclosed to a select few, but because he believed that any determinate formulation of a philosophical point of view is necessarily inherently defective. Hence he insists that philosophical insight can only be attained in the live give and take of a dialectic that destroys (transcends, if you will) its own presuppositions. The Lecture on the Good, I would imagine, would not be a pontifical pronouncement of doctrine, but a hornet’s nest of challenges and perturbing questionings.

Plato’s profound and rich philosophical insights are not to be sought in what his writings say, nor to be vainly chased in the phantom world of unwritten and, for us, unspoken, dogmata, but are to be garnered by creatively engaging with his writings as prophetic enigma’s.

That dialectic should form “a central part of the unwritten teaching” calls for no argument, for dialectic is the soul of philosophy for Plato: indeed dialegesthai and philosophein are interchangeable in Plato’s writings. This in no way supports the view that the ‘unwritten teaching’ was esoteric or that it incorporated a fixed body of doctrine. The ‘unwritten teaching’ – what Plato put through to his students in the Academy – could have nothing in the way of pure philosophy (that is, leaving aside mathematics and other specialized disciplines) over and above what we can derive – and what Plato, I believe, meant his readers to derive – from an imaginative reading of the dialogues.

If there had been a “doctrine of first principles contined in the unwritten teaching” that would have been just the thing Aristotle would have most firmly grasped, the thing most congenial to Aristotle’s special genius. Yet, for myself, I cannot find in what Aristotle ascribes to Plato anything worthy of being seen as the crème de la crème of any thinker worth his salt, let alone a Plato – barring the supposition that Plato had excluded Aristotle from the innermost circle of his students.