elenchos: objections and replies

by metalogike

Three objections from a helpful colleague and  preliminary replies in advance of this talk – https://metalogike.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/what-is-socrates-question-abstract/

Objection 1. [T]here are several aspects of the argument that I’m not sure about (especially regarding the claim that the two questions conjoin only by negation, rather than being complementary. I’m sure you have your reasons, but it’s hard to see in such a short text!).

Reply. Well, it’s more that there are two kinds of complementarity. 1) There’s what we might call the minor complementarity of contraries, which exclude each other but fit together to make a whole that they, in fact, presuppose: Red and nonred in color add up to color, but really that’s just because that red and color both posited make a definite negation out of nonred-color. So there’s no interesting discovery in the making-a-whole of Aristotelian contraries. (They’re just built that way, and the fruitful place to challenge them is rather at whether the constructed definite negation really corresponds to the Other/s of the marked concept.) 2) More interesting because nontrivial are what I’d call major complementarities or dualities proper, which can’t be totalized without contradiction and which represent the form of real discoveries – e.g. of Cantor, Goedel, Heisenberg, etc. These are not dualities within a first-order theory but dualities affecting such a theory. Note that contrariety is a local relation, contradiction a global one. I want to show that the duality I claim to uncover in the elenchos is of this second type: the conditions that make one desideratum satisfiable make the other desideratum unsatisfiable, while reflexive structures, including the self and its care, are daimonic in the sense of being placed irresolvably between these two.

Objection 2.  As I mentioned before, be prepared to deal with questions that resist not only the reduction to one question, but even the logicization or patterning to two questions. This can come from literary or political interpretations, and there will be several readers of Plato who deny the early/middle/late scholarly distinctions, so a late aporetic dialogue such as the Theaetetus or the Sophist could be just as much treated in terms of elenchos as the ones we tend to treat as “early.” (I’m not agreeing with this, but be be prepared with an argument that differentiates what you mean by elenchos that does not simply rely on the authority of established literature).

Reply. Yes, certainly.  There are two different objections here, and I’ll treat them in two different ways. 1) I’ll discuss head-on the refusal to undertake mathematical / logical / systematic experiments with the dialogues by literary purists, and why I think Plato’s Socrates would be entirely dissatisfied with such misology. 2) On extensions of the elenchos to the arguments of the later dialogues, I have no problem with this and in fact make use of it. I’d just suggest that practically-speaking one can’t understand what the more complex arguments have in common with the shorter ones without first identifying this structure even in the simplest elenchoi. (At least I wasn’t smart enough to get it before tracking it down to the simplest cases.)

Objection 3.  One thing your abstract got me thinking about, though, was whether the ti esti question, in its usual “what is virtue?” or “what is knowledge?” etc… is not really subordinated in the end to “who am I?” That is, perhaps the ti esti and peri tinos are usually means to the end of understanding who I am and who this person I’m talking to is. I agree entirely with you that self-knowledge will eventually lead to the problems of reflection and reflexivity that you are interested in, but I wonder whether getting there through the short-circuit of the two questions or getting there directly through a desire to know oneself are not very different, with different repercussions.

Reply.  They are indeed very different. My view is that trying to take on the existential/ethical level of reflexivity directly is precisely how one learns to appreciate the logical problems and to treat them as, in a way, prior. (But only in one way – formally prior.) Much needs to be said here; nevertheless, you can appreciate the gambit that places Platonic dualism (not substance dualism but the thought of a duality in the above sense) and the Socratic care of the self into such direct relation that the former becomes the means by which the latter is possible, on the condition that even the latter be divided by the former.