Saturday, July 12, 2008
Johnson, David M. "Review of David Wolfsdorf's TRIALS OF REASON." BMCR (July 2008).
Wolfsdorf, David. Trials of Reason: Plato and the Crafting of Philosophy. Oxford: OUP, 2008. Wolfsdorf's book is part of the recent welcome trend to combine the literary and analytical approaches to Plato's early dialogues. While Wolfsdorf positions himself early on as a critic of the analytical approach (associated above all with the late Gregory Vlastos and his students), his main debts clearly lie in that direction. Wolfsdorf's central contribution is a new method to resolve inconsistencies between statements made by Socrates within a single dialogue or within several early dialogues. The resolution of such inconsistencies is one of the greatest problems we face in unraveling the philosophy of the early dialogues, and Wolfsdorf's solution to this problem is clearly and forcefully presented. He argues that the attempt to find a consistent Socrates, whether he be the historical Socrates or a psychologically realistic character largely of Plato's creation, is fundamentally misguided. Socrates is a tool, a puppet used by Plato in different ways at different times, usually to advance Plato's own ideas but sometimes to mouth more conventional ones. By abandoning the search for a consistent Socrates, Wolfsdorf is able to find a consistent Platonic doctrine in the early dialogues. But the dialogues are not only treatises in disguise. Rather, Plato uses the dialogue form to illustrate the conflict between philosophy and what Wolfsdorf calls "anti-philosophy", whence the trials of reason of his title. Wolfsdorf addresses literary issues head-on in a way most unusual in the analytical tradition. But he does not very clearly develop what he means by "anti-philosophy". And by robbing Socrates of his integrity as a psychologically realistic character and therefore of much of his value as an exemplar of the philosophical life, Wolfsdorf effectively disarms philosophy in its battle with its rivals. Plato's Socrates, whether he is historical or not, has certainly led more readers to philosophy than has any other individual in the western tradition, and he has done so as much by the force of his personality and by his deeds as by the philosophical doctrines he advances. If Wolfsdorf is right, such readers have been misled. . . . Read the rest here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2008/2008-07-23.html.